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Africa's Wildlife Threatened With Extinction As Natural Landscapes Wither


Let's zoom in now on one part of the world where species are going extinct really quickly. Africa has many developing countries, and the continent's human population is expected to double by the year 2050. And the U.N. report says both of those factors can have a big impact on biodiversity. The problem is even worse because on some parts of the continent, temperatures are rising twice as fast as the rest of the world. Emma Archer led an earlier assessment of African biodiversity, and she joins us now from South Africa. Welcome.

EMMA ARCHER: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Let's start by talking about what's happened over the past several decades. How much of Africa's biodiversity is already gone?

ARCHER: Well, so, you know, what we know is that we're already seeing significant losses in terms of loss of habitat for migratory and other species and also loss of endemic species. But I think what's really important to know is that we're also seeing loss of biodiversity in terms of how it affects human well-being on the African continent.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about one species in particular where you find this especially alarming.

ARCHER: Sure. So my favorite example is rooibos tea. We export it around the world. It's actually really critical for a number of different types of farmers, both large-scale and emerging. And what's critical to rooibos tea is genetic diversity. Where we see more genetic diversity and different kinds of types of rooibos tea, we see more resilience to drought and high temperatures and more resilience to things like pests and pathogens.

But we find that due to things like overharvesting and habitat conversion and also climate change, that there is an erosion in that genetic diversity. And that has significantly impacted on the agricultural sector in that area specifically.

SHAPIRO: It's so interesting because I think many people, when they imagine African biodiversity, they picture the animals you'd see on safari - elephants, giraffes, lions.


SHAPIRO: And while those are being affected, you're giving an example of something that somebody may have had in their morning cup today.

ARCHER: Absolutely. (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: What are the trend lines like for the next few decades, looking forward?

ARCHER: So it's the same direction. Just the magnitude changes. So under all what we call plausible futures for the African continent, we see an increase in key drivers, things like climate change and habitat conversion. That's important because that tells us that whatever options we choose, we're going to see some level of loss.

SHAPIRO: As you know, there are African leaders who will look at Western countries and say it is hypocritical of Europe and the United States to say that these countries should not expand their agriculture, their mining, their energy production because that's what these Western, highly developed countries did centuries ago. So is there an argument that these African countries should be entitled to make economic progress, even if that means the loss of habitat and biodiversity?

ARCHER: Well, I would say the reverse. I would say that on the African continent, we're actually in a unique and amazing strategic position where we still have an opportunity to make sure that the best scientific evidence can inform the kind of trade-offs that we have to make in terms of, you know, where we want to go developmentally.

SHAPIRO: Is there a reason that humans thousands of miles away - say, in the United States - should care about biodiversity loss on a continent like Africa?

ARCHER: Well, you know, if we look at the global assessment, we know that nature's contributions to people is not just deteriorating in Africa. It's deteriorating worldwide. And we know now, of course, that biodiversity is not merely an academic topic, but it's absolutely fundamental to the health of the planet.

That affects all of us, not simply people on the continent of Africa. And I think it's something that we can see, not just as something to be concerned about in a kind of a humanitarian sense, but also something that really compromises the basis for the health of our planet in the future.

SHAPIRO: Emma Archer teaches environmental studies at the University of Pretoria. Thank you for joining us today.

ARCHER: It's a great pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, and thank you to your listeners. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.