Africa is filled with stories of extinction and survival; tales of near misses and close calls that depict her fragile yet resilient nature. In this section I discuss some of the stories that have shaped the African environment into what it is today.
During the days of the colonial expansion in Africa the wilderness, and in particular the wildlife, came under severe pressure from agricultural practices. Vast tracts of land were cleared of bush and game to make way for stock and crop farming. Game was wiped out without much hesitation, because of the dangers predators posed to domestic stock and further concerns over diseases such as anthrax and rinderpest,
The clearing would have been complete was it not for two small insects, the mosquito and the tsetse fly. The mosquito carried malaria to humans and the tsetse fly carried sleeping sickness to humans, and the nagana disease to cattle. There was no cure for either disease at the time, in the areas where they occurred. The insects couldn’t be eradicated and so they were left undisturbed. Attempts were made to clear out the wildlife and burn the bush in these areas but this proved to be much too great a task.
The white rhino was saved by the occurrence of malaria and sleeping sickness in Zululand, South Africa. The population had been hunted to around 40 individuals, and they would have been wiped out had it not been for the occurrence of malaria and sleeping sickness in their last stronghold. Conservation measures were put in place to protect the remaining individuals and the whole white rhino population in Africa today owes its existence to this conservation.
Many areas in Africa owe their continued existence as wilderness areas to the mosquito and the tsetse fly. The Okavango Delta in Botswana is one such area. In a country where cattle ranching is big business, the floodplains of the Okavango were looked upon as prime grazing land, but with the twin dangers of malaria and sleeping sickness the cattle were kept out. An attempt was made to clear the area of tsetse fly but the value as a tourist destination had already been realized and the Okavango Delta was saved.
In the 1950s the great physician, Albert Schweitzer stated that by the year 2000 malaria would be part of history. Not only have the incidents of malaria increased but the virus has mutated, adapting to all medicines used to control it. Malaria is still the biggest killer in Africa each year with more than two million succumbing to the virus annually. Sleeping sickness has been brought under control in most areas except for some very remote regions and war-torn areas where aid cannot get through.
The African wilderness, and its big game, truly owes its continued existence to two small insects!