Africa’s Antelopes Face Extinction as Climate Change Squeezes Habitat

Many of the continent’s 72 species live in restricted ranges that could soon become inhospitable.
A critically endangered African addax grazes on a private preserve in Texas. (Photo: Wild Horizons/UIG via Getty Images)
Apr 28, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Africa’s antelope species are in need of immediate help if they’re going to survive the threat of climate change, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

The study finds that 82 percent of the continent’s 72 antelope species will see their habitats shrink by as much as half by 2080 as climate change makes their ranges inhospitable. At least four species—the addax, the hirola, the Nile lechwe, and the Aders’ duiker—are predicted to go extinct in the wild as a result of habitat loss.

Lead researcher Jakob Bro-Jørgensen, a biologist at the University of Liverpool in England, called the addax “a magnificent and unique creature” and the most desert-adapted of antelopes and related species. “This majestic spiral-horned antelope can be seen wandering over long distances in a sea of sand dunes,” he said. Illegal hunting is responsible for the addax’s decline, which has pushed the species to an all-time low of 200 individuals. Bro-Jørgensen said protecting the animals from poachers should be a priority but added, “Our study points out the need to also carefully monitor changes in the environment in the few pockets where [the addax] still exists and be prepared to set additional areas aside for conservation if the habitat deteriorates as forecast.”

Like the addax, the antelope species predicted to be hit hardest by climate change will be those with limited ranges and that are dependent on narrow types of habitat. Species that prefer cooler and drier climates or those that live outside current protected habitat, such as the Speke’s gazelle and the silver duiker, will face the greatest range restrictions, according to the study.

Bro-Jørgensen said this matters “not only because these are fascinating animals in their own right” but also because of their importance in their native ecosystems. For one thing, antelopes are important prey species for larger carnivores such as lions, which face food shortages throughout much of their range.

Antelopes also disperse seeds in their droppings, allowing plants to take root and grow, and help to shape the nature of their habitat through their migrations. Bro-Jørgensen pointed to the wildebeest, which has a dramatic impact on plants, water, and other wildlife throughout the entire Serengeti ecosystem during its months-long annual migration.

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Antelopes also play an important cultural role in many parts of Africa, something that helps to protect them in some regions. “Conservation projects on the mountain bongo in Kenya have linked antelope conservation to cultural benefits,” Bro-Jørgensen said.

For instance, the Bongo Surveillance Project enlisted several teams of Kenyan students to form community wildlife clubs that monitor bongo populations in the wild. Not only has this engaged the community, but the funding helps support schools, water conservation, farming, and local economies.

The authors of the paper hope it will inspire other researchers to look at additional species groups to see how climate change will affect them. Coauthor Benjamin Luke Payne, a biologist at the University of Liverpool, has started a project to study global warming’s impact on marine biodiversity. Bro-Jørgensen, meanwhile, continues his research on antelopes. “I am keen to find out how solutions to tackling the threat from climate change can be integrated with the need to address other urgent threats to antelope conservation, in particular from overhunting and land-use changes that preclude wildlife,” he said.

He added that action must be taken to protect antelopes before it becomes too late. “What we need now is stronger monitoring of environmental change on the ground, especially where our models show a high probability of climate change having a severe effect, and on this basis we need to be ready to act.”