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Authorities in the coastal province of KwaZulu Natal (KZN) in South Africa have confirmed that there is an outbreak of Brucellosis, a bacterial zoonotic disease which causes miscarriages and infertility in livestock and people, in the province. There are currently over 400 confirmed cases. 

The KZN Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) has advised farmers that if an animal tests positive for the bacteria, they should be taken to an abattoir as “it cannot be healed.” It also said that it would conduct blood tests of the cattle to check whether they are safe for human consumption. 

What is Happening?

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Dr Alicia Cloete, a state veterinarian at the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, says, “Currently, the risk of [this] disease is high due to very few heifers being vaccinated, very few herds being adequately tested, and a lack of movement control of potentially diseased and diseased livestock. If you do not protect your herd from this disease, you are risking the health of your animals, the health of your family and farmworkers, and the health of your business’s profitability and growth,” she said.

In September, at least 3 200 people in the northwestern province of Gansu, China, contracted Brucellosis, in an outbreak caused by a leak at a biopharmaceutical company late last year.


Rhino poaching in South Africa fell by 53% in the half of 2020, owing partly to COVID-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns in the country that have hindered poachers and international smuggling rings. 

According to Barbara Creecy, the minister of environment, forestry and fisheries, during the first six months of the year, 166 rhinos were poached in South Africa, compared with 316 in the same period of 2019. Creecy says, “We have been able to arrest the escalation of rhino losses.”

The ministry owes its success to slowing the rate of poaching to a decade of strategies and supply chain disruptions stemming from travel restrictions during the country’s national lockdown from COVID-19. However, the ministry warns that as lockdown restrictions have been gradually eased and game parks reopened, so too has rhino poaching slowly increased. 

From when a lockdown was implemented on March 27 until the end of June, 46 rhinos were killed across the country, according to the ministry. 

South Africa has for years battled rhino poaching. In 2019, poachers killed 594 rhinos and in 2018, 769 rhinos were poached. There is still high demand for their horns in Asia, mostly coming from China and Vietnam, where the horn is used in traditional medicine, an aphrodisiac or a status symbol. It is normally sold in powdered form and is touted as a cure for cancer and other diseases, despite being made of the same substance- keratin- as in human fingernails and hair. 

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The trade of rhino horns may be curbed in Vietnam as the country recently banned the import and trade of wildlife as well as wildlife products, and announced a crackdown on illegal wildlife markets. The country is hoping the ban will reduce the risk of future pandemics such as COVID-19. China also banned the consumption and trade of wildlife in February, however animal parts may still be used in medicine. 

Scraping sounds fill the nights at Mapungubwe, a national park at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, where the borders of Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa meet. Families of elephants relentlessly tear the bark off ancient baobab trees, scraping their tusks on the trees and digging deep into their cores to extract the fibrous, moisture-rich interior.

How many baobab trees are left?

A drive through the national park reveals that dozens of these giant trees have been severely damaged, many left with gaping holes in their trunks. Biotechnician Stephen Khosa of South African National Parks (SANParks) recently completed a survey on baobab (Adansonia digitata) mortality. Of the 501 trees surveyed between 2005 and 2020, he writes in an email, 6% have died. According to a study in the African Journal of Ecology, the typical mortality rate for baobab populations is between 1.1 and 3.7%.

The baobab deaths in Mapungubwe are attributed to elephant damage and other related factors, such as a multi-year drought that started in 2015 and, possibly, groundwater abstraction from mining in the direct vicinity of the park.

However, the true mortality rate could be much higher. There is considerable uncertainty in the survey’s results: Khosa confirmed in an email that “there was a significant monitoring gap in this project between 2009 & 2020.”

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baobab trees
Elephants digging into a baobab tree in Mapungubwe National Park, South Africa. Image by Nathalie Bertrams for Mongabay.

A. digitata are resilient trees: the mature baobabs here in the northern parts of Limpopo have an average age of between 300 and 500 years; the oldest specimen in Africa has been dated to 2,500 years. Jens Gebauer, at Germany’s Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences, calls it “one of the most impressive plants in coping with drought due to its great ability to store water in its enormous trunks. This allows the baobab to grow in very dry regions and cope with drought and heat.”

The trees can absorb up to 80% of their volume in water, with large trees storing as much as 140,000 liters (37,000 gallons).

Mapungubwe is no ordinary national park. In addition to an abundance of wildlife, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a vital archaeological resource, home of the only known San rock art painting of a rhino and one of the best-known pieces of pre-colonial African art, a golden rhino statue. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe (900 to 1300 C.E.) was part of a trade network that stretched all the way to India and China. Ivory and gold from here were traded for porcelain and glass.

The baobabs of Mapungubwe have helped to record the kingdom’s rise and fall. A 1,000-year climatic record of the area was developed by analyzing the carbon isotope values of baobab trees. From this, we know that around 1300, a severe drought destroyed the kingdom’s agricultural base. Mapungubwe was abandoned, and its remarkable civilization shifted north to what is today Zimbabwe.

While that 14th-century drought was due to a natural fluctuation of rainfall patterns, the present drought is linked to climate change from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and overuse of water resources. Southern Africa has been enduring a severe drought since 2015, heavily affecting its people and wildlife.

A 2018 analysis of the drought, led by Friederike Otto of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, concluded that “the likelihood of an event like the observed 2015–2017 drought has increased by a factor of 3.3 (1.4-6.4). Unlike for other drought analyses in other parts of Africa, this is a very clear result with anthropogenic climate change having significantly increased the likelihood of such a drought to occur.”

Corli Wigley-Coetsee, an ecologist at SANParks’ Savanna and Arid Research Unit, says the Limpopo River’s water resources are overallocated and underprotected: next to diamond mining operations and open-cast and underground coal mining, at least 23 prospecting licenses for coal mining have been granted near the national park, some in the buffer zone, exacerbating water scarcity in the park.

She also points out that in the ecological system of the proposed Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area, borders like the Limpopo River are no longer a barrier to elephants: the river often dries up.

Elephant populations in Botswana and Zimbabwe are under significant pressure from drought, overpopulation and poaching, and are on the move as a result. Botswana alone hosts 130,000 elephants. Many find a safe haven in Mapungubwe National Park.

With their water-rich interiors, baobab trees are part of the park’s attraction to elephants. The natural process of elephants digging into these trees doesn’t usually cause lasting damage. Baobabs have a unique ability among trees to recover their bark and tissue, says David Baum from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied the trees for more than 30 years. “Baobabs have coexisted with elephants for millions of years, which probably explains why they have evolved such a remarkable ability for regrowth,” he says.

Baobab trees have evolved to tolerate occasional elephant damage and benefit from elephants eating their fruit and dispersing the seed, Baum says. But at times of severe water shortage, when elephants exploit the trees too heavily, a baobab will eventually collapse. Some simply re-sprout. But if the structural damage is too severe, the tree can die.

According to South African baobab ecologist Diana Mayne, research suggests that lack of precipitation, climate extremes and weather fluctuations most negatively affect baobabs even when they’re not being hollowed out by elephants. “Baobabs are vulnerable to drought-induced embolism, similar to an embolism from a thrombosis or heart attack in humans,” she says.

Elephants are complex, sentient, intelligent and emotional beings responding to human-induced changes in their environment. Hennie Lötter, from the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Philosophy, an expert in the ethics of elephant conservation, says humans have a distinct moral obligation to guarantee their flourishing. In a recent paper, he writes, “We have conquered about 90% of elephant habitats and in the process we have reduced their numbers tremendously compared to the large numbers of elephants alive merely 200 years ago.”

Temperatures in Southern Africa could rise by 5-6°C (9-10.8°F) by the end of the century due to global greenhouse emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Severe droughts will be a regular part of the region’s future, affecting both baobabs and elephants.

Elephants no longer have room to maneuver: they are trapped between climate change, habitat destruction and poaching. For Lötter, safeguarding the space for them to flourish is bound up in the health of the wider ecosystems of Southern Africa and beyond. “We can safeguard elephant flourishing only if we simultaneously guarantee the well-being of the other members of the global biosphere,” he says, “and the healthy functioning of the global biosphere itself.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Tristen Taylor and Nathalie Bertram, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 


In honour of Shark Awareness Day on July 14, Earth.Org is looking at the disappearance of Great White Sharks off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, a city known as the ‘great white capital of the world’. Many theories attempt to explain the dwindling populations of great white sharks, from orcas driving them away to unregulated fisheries, but the fact remains that the disappearance of great white sharks has ramifications beyond biodiversity loss: it threatens the ecotourism industry in the country, putting hundreds of jobs and billions of dollars at risk.

In 2017, cage-diving operators started reporting a sudden decline in sightings of great white sharks around False Bay and Gansbaai. From 2010 to 2016, great white sharks were sighted in False Bay an average of 205 times per year, according to conversation and research organisation Shark Spotters. In 2018, the sharks were spotted 50 times; in 2019, nothing. In January 2020, the first great white shark in 20 months was seen in False Bay. 

Gregg Oelofse, head of coastal management for Cape Town, says that the disappearance of great white sharks could be the most dramatic environmental change he has seen in 20 years as a conservation biologist in the area, and adds that the loss of these sharks would be ‘massive’ for the city. “They are such a big part of the environment, of our sense of place and identity here, it would be a tragedy if they never came back,” he says.

As well as providing vital ocean ecosystem services, great white sharks are important for the tourism industry in South Africa. Along with Cape Town’s vineyards, game reserves and Table Mountain, the shark industry brings in USD$2.5bn a year for the country and employs hundreds of people. Tour companies take visitors out in boats to view the sharks, or lower them in cages into the sea, but the lack of sightings is a challenge to what is known as a successful ecotourism industry.

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What is Causing this Decline?

It’s unclear how many white sharks there are around South Africa- estimates have ranged from 500 to 900. The reason for this decline in great white sharks is not exactly clear. Some have suggested that the arrival in 2015 of orcas, another apex predator that attacks sharks, forced them to find other waters. Carcasses of great whites have been found with evidence that they were killed by orcas. There is also a lack of reliable data around how many great white sharks there are in the world.

Until 2019, it was believed that there were only two orcas thought to be having an impact on the great white shark population. Then, at the end of that year, a totally different pod came into Mossel Bay. Overnight, the Bay went from having seven to 10 different white sharks to having nothing. 

Research shows that great whites are not genetically diverse enough to cope with new threats, which include pollution- such as heavy metals entering the food chain- and the impact of longline fishing boats that have taken vast numbers of fish from False Bay in recent years. Research has shown the sharks to be a single population, moving from site to site and breeding with each other. In a study from 2009 to 2011, it was estimated that there were around 300 breeders in the population, but the minimum to avoid inbreeding is around 500. 

While great white sharks have been protected since 1991 in South Africa, other shark species that provide them with much of their diet are not. Chris Fallows, a shark expert and guide based in Cape Town, agrees that longline fishing is responsible for their disappearance, saying that the populations of the two species that provide much of the food of the great whites had collapsed. 

“If you stopped the demersal shark longlining then there is every chance they will come back, but not in a hurry. The marine ecosystem has been intact for millions of years and in the space of five we have laid it to waste,” he says.

Further, sharks are very slow to reproduce which, when combined with these other factors, place further strain on their populations. 

Who is Regulating the Problem?

South Africa’s fisheries are largely regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), which gathers data on fish catches and populations and grants fishing rights to individuals and companies that conform to certain requirements. DAFF scientists analyse data to make catch size recommendations for different species, but DAFF managers (many of whom are not scientists) determine who gets fishing permits, the considerations of which are often political. The government encourages poorly regulated fisheries and has granted license to politically connected boat owners, whose catch is often sold to Australia, where it ends up as fish ‘n chips. 

Since 2013, about three to six demersal longliners- fishing boats that set lines with up to 2 000 baited hooks on or near the sea floor- have been working hundreds of kilometres off the southern coast of South Africa. These boats have intensified their efforts in recent years, which may have starved juvenile great whites and driven others elsewhere. 

In 2014, the government launched Operation Phakisa, in an effort to ‘grow the ocean economy’ and reduce unemployment in the country. The department has been mired with allegations of corruption for years- a 2014 investigation found that at least three participants in the demersal shark longline fishery had obtained fishing rights without having the correct shark-fishing boats. 

The longline fisheries target small sharks that are important prey for juvenile white sharks. There are currently no limits in place to prevent the overfishing of these sharks, including soupfins and common smooth-hounds. The monitoring of South Africa’s coastlines is weak and some boats still fish in no-take zones of marine protected areas.

Shark nets and drumlines (baited hooks specifically targeting sharks) are also threatening sharks; the province of KwaZulu Natal uses these hooks to cull white sharks to prevent them from swimming close to the shore; between 2013 and 2017, nearly 17 white sharks died on these drumlines each year. 

The DAFF has appointed an expert panel to ‘recommend actions needed to properly manage and conserve all shark species found along the country’s coasts, and to guide their long-term sustainable use’. 

Uncertainties Amid COVID-19

With tourism in the country- even domestic- at a halt as a result of strict lockdown measures, there will be a gap in data about white sharks, since researchers are currently not allowed out to sea. Further, NGOs working to conserve sharks rely heavily on funding from tourism.

Researchers warn that this gap will mean incomplete and faulty data about great whites in the region, which may affect conservation efforts. 

Moving forward, the South African government should increase monitoring activities of shark populations. A sensitive wildlife monitoring technique would be applicable. It utilises dynamic robotics equipped with sensors and wireless communication software. These robots can communicate and relay population size and density through sonar sensors, remotely and in real time. With such technology, onshore handlers can regularly update fishing boats on where to fish without the risk of extensive damage. Additionally, monitors can relay the timely locations of denser great white populations to tourism companies, allowing for a more efficient tourism sector. Lastly, a well-implemented monitoring system can facilitate introduction and reintroduction efforts for conservationists, by being able to non invasively monitor population health and size.

Featured image by: Hermanus Backpackers

Across Africa, increased motor vehicle use, industrial growth and dust storms coupled with wood-fired cooking stoves is resulting in air pollution that is choking the continent’s inhabitants.

While air pollution in India, China, and other emerging economies has become a major area of concern for scientists and policymakers, it has gained little traction in Africa where it is taking a serious toll on the economy and human health. Toxic air has been causing more premature deaths than unsafe water or childhood malnutrition on the continent while significantly contributing to the climate crisis.

Air Pollution in Africa: Facts

A report by UNICEF notes that deaths from outdoor air pollution in Africa have increased by 57% in less than three decades, from 164,000 in 1990 to 258,000 in 2017, resulting in a GDP loss of over $215bn annually. The pollution has also cut short the lives of children by 24 months.

A recent study from NASA states that pollution from industrial sources and motor vehicles cause high mortality rates in Nigeria and South Africa while emissions from burning biomass and poor air quality due to dust storms increase the number of premature deaths in West and Central Africa.

“Africa holds the world’s largest source of desert dust emissions and produces approximately a third of the Earth’s biomass burning aerosol particles,” the study says. “Sub‐Saharan biomass burning is driven by agricultural practices, such as burning fields and bushes in the post-harvest season for fertilisation, land management, and pest control.”

Causes of Air Pollution in Africa

Analysis of satellite imagery by Greenpeace reveals that the world’s deadliest air pollution spot on the planet is in South Africa, with its eastern province Mpumalanga being the largest single area infected by deadly nitrogen dioxide. The province is home to a dozen coal-fired power stations, processing plants, and factories, which release the gas into the atmosphere.  

Emissions such as sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and mercury have been causing more than  2,000 deaths from respiratory disease, strokes, and heart attacks in many places in South Africa, including Johannesburg.

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Africa’s most populous country — Nigeria — suffers from air pollution worse than any other country on the continent. The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists four cities of Nigeria among the world’s worst-ranked cities for air quality. Onitsha — one of the country’s economic hubs — tops the list of worst-ranked cities globally with a record of 30 times more particulate matter (PM2.5) concentration in the air than the WHO’s recommended levels.

A world air quality report from Greenpeace ranks Nigeria as the 10th most polluted country in the world, with an estimated average PM2.5 concentration of 44.8 micrograms per cubic meter air (μg/m3). More than 64,000 people died from household air pollution in the country in 2017, mainly from the burning of solid fuels such as charcoal and wood for cooking in open fires and leaky stoves.

Senegal is also struggling with highly toxic air. Its capital Dakar scored an average PM2.5 level of 30 μg/m3 and a PM10 level of 146 μg/m3; that is seven times higher than WHO recommended threshold. During the dry season, dust-storm from the Sahara — harmattan — and pollution from industry and motor vehicles coalesce in a hovering toxic cloud.

Kenya’s predicament mirrors that of its neighbours, with particle concentrations that are twice the WHO health safety standards. Over 18,000 premature deaths in the country have been linked to air pollution, while respiratory diseases climbed to be Kenya’s number one killer, surpassing malaria.

The true scale of the problem is likely to be underestimated, as only seven of Africa’s 54 countries have installed functioning real-time air pollution monitors to collect the data. Population growth and rapid urbanisation are expected to further worsen conditions. With an additional 1.3 billion people set to occupy the continent by 2050, industrial, agricultural, and anthropogenic activities are likely to lower air quality. Costs associated with pollution might explode if bold policy changes are not urgently initiated by African nations.

The leaders of African nations need to resist the temptation of fossil fuel corporations seeking to exploit a country’s resources or enter their market. As urbanisation and industrialisation ramps up across Africa, policies must be put in place that prioritise renewable energy and use green technologies in urban construction. As the number of companies researching and developing such innovations continues to grow, the cost of engaging such companies and implementing new technologies falls. Policymakers should focus on partnerships and agreements with other countries to build sustainably. An international agreement that holds governments accountable for their country’s emission rates, while also involving the support of transnational agencies such as environmental NGOs and UN development agencies, can be a strong framework for industrialising African nations to follow. 

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