The high fever of habitat loss

The high fever of habitat loss

The SANY bulldozer, in all its yellow splendor, charges at your house like a furious rhino. The rugged black teeth of the bulldozer’s massive bucket tear into your weak concrete walls. As the walls crumble into a rubble of helpless concrete smithereens, the bulldozer’s black teeth reminded you of the unstoppable ruthlessness of a lion’s large canine teeth. Your crumbling house could feel the haplessness of a gazelle whose agile neck has just been cracked open by a ferocious lioness. When you finally made it home after frantic calls from neighbors, you came face to face with a small mountain of concrete rubble. Your house had been razed to the ground.

In March 2019, this scene played out in real life, in Nairobi’s Chokaa Estate. The Kenya Power company demolished houses that had allegedly been built on its land. As a result, over 2,000 residents of the estate were rendered homeless.

Thousands of priceless wild animals have experienced this scenario above countless times over the last few decades. Among them are the chubby gorillas and cheeky chimpanzees that swing, sing and sleep in the dense, musky forest of Central Africa and West Africa. Because these trees are indigenous and endowed with lucrative hardwood, logging companies often salivate after them. Those that get logging concessions send in their trucks, to ferry away massive logs of hardwood. Not to be outdone, villagers from adjacent villages sometimes venture into the forests in search of the same hardwood and firewood. Such industrial and artisanal logging has razed down large parts of the forest and left some wild animals without a roof over their heads.

Also guilty of gulping timber resources from these forests are millions of kitchens across Central Africa and West Africa. Ninety percent of people in this region use fuelwood to cook. In this regard, innocent fireplaces are symbolically burning down forest habitats of wildlife.

In a strange twist, human beings – the perpetrators of wildlife habitat loss – are also becoming victims of their own actions.

Whenever human-induced habitat loss pushes a wild animal to the brink of extinction, the animal’s body ends up with double the number of disease-causing viruses as other similar species whose extinction threat stems from other reasons. Such an animal becomes a walking time bomb. 

Unfortunately, this time bomb can easily explode in farmlands that have encroached into forest lands. A recent study by Stanford University revealed how farmlands adjacent to Uganda’s Kibale National Park had become unwitting enablers of wildlife-to-humans diseases.

Chimpanzees, gorillas and many other animals live in Kibale forest, which was gazzetted in 1948. Previously, these animals had the entire park and its environs to themselves. But now, they have to share the Park’s environs with an increasing number smallholder farmers that live on the forest’s margins. Consequently, the hoots and howls of monkeys fuse with bleats of goats and mow of cows to form the symphony of animal noises.

The Stanford study uncovered these disturbing interactions between humans and monkeys: a woman who stumbled on a dead vervet monkey in her maize farm and dragged it away; a black-and-white colobus monkey bit a boy who was tilling his family’s shamba; A dog that was with its owner in the forest leapt at a l’Hoest’s monkey and clutched it in its jaws until its owner freed the monkey. All these are dangerous encounters that could easily transmit lethal viruses that can birth another pandemic.

Indeed, nearly three-quarters of Africa’s recent forest loss is attributable to agriculture.

We have to stop this bulldozer-like encroachment into the natural homes of wild animals. If we don’t, we risk ending up with even more high fever, coughs and a myriad of symptoms from numerous diseases.

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