The Surprising Reason Africa Has So Much Wildlife

We think of Africa as teaming with wildlife, but the reason it looks like that might surprise you. When we see footage of the Serengeti, we're not looking at an ancient wild savanna. We're looking at something that has only come about in the last 130 years.

The story begins in 1887, when a small group of Italian soldiers landed on the shore of what is now Eritrea. They had cattle with them so they would have fresh meat, and the cattle carried a virus from Asia called rinderpest.

The Italian force didn't get very far, but the virus established itself and started wiping out cattle all over the African continent. Cattle were the nutritional foundation of most of the societies and kingdoms of Africa at the time. Cows were food, of course, and oxen (which also got the virus) were used for plowing and powering irrigation systems. So the livelihood of most of Africa was wiped out and millions of people starved to death. Still more died of diseases because malnutrition made them vulnerable. A third of the population of Ethiopia died, for example. Two thirds of the Masai died. The same happened all over the continent.

The cattle plague so devastated the African population, Europeans were able to colonize vast areas of Africa.

And there were other consequences. Until they were wiped out, cattle had been keeping the grass short and eating tree seedlings, which had created an open landscape. The tsetse fly had always been relatively isolated in the tropical lowland bush, mostly in the Congo rain forest. The fly's larvae needs dense foliage and doesn't survive in open grazing areas. Tsetse flies carry a parasite, deadly to both cattle and humans, and when the cattle died out, bushes and trees began filling in the open savannas, which allowed the tsetse fly larvae to spread to more areas.

So even when Africans tried to recover their way of life, cattle could no longer survive in many areas of the continent because of the tsetse fly. And because the parasite kills humans too, they couldn't live in those places either, even without cattle.

This one pandemic completely changed Africa. Now large areas of Africa are without much human presence or agriculture. Because wildlife are less affected by the tsetse fly's parasite, the spread of the fly created, in effect, "protected" areas where wildlife has flourished.

And then conservationists convinced governments to ban cattle from these now "wild" places in order to preserve them as wild places. And that's why Africa has so much wildlife today.

There are many other places that we now consider wild, like the Amazon rain forest, that up until fairly recently, were settled and farmed. There were vast cities in the Amazon basin before Europeans arrived. The diseases Europeans brought with them killed most of the indigenous people, and the jungle grew back. Now we look at it and think it's a pristine natural forest. But when the Amazonians ruled, they profoundly changed it, removing some trees and encouraging others, for example. Even now, it's not what it was before humans.

This was a kind of "agriculture" practiced all over the Americas. The Native Americans burned forests to create grassland, or they cut down trees they didn't want and planted trees that produced food. After hundreds of years of this, what looked like natural forests were in reality man-made food forests.

The same could be said for what is now the Central American jungle — at the time of the European arrival, it was a huge Mayan civilization.

You can read more about this in the book, The New Wild, by Fred Pearce.

I also did a podcast about this subject (why Africa has so much wildlife) listen here.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Reliance, Translated, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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