Blue Planet: Richard Leakey On Climate
by Dan Whipple
Caretakers and supporters of the world's wildlife parks are beginning to see the connection between climate change and the health of the planet's wild places. Famed paleontologist and conservationist Richard Leakey is one.
Leakey, along with other scientists and policy-makers, will gather next week at an environment conference at Stony Brook University in New York as experts discuss how to protect biodiversity in the parks.
As a start, Leakey is hoping governments, companies and international agencies will establish a $100 million fund to help those efforts.
"Where I'm coming from, I have spent quite a bit of my time looking at conservation in Africa. Climate change is upon us, and I'm not sure that anyone is giving any thought to maintaining the national parks systems," Leakey told UPI's Blue Planet.
"Will the systems within the parks survive a 3 degree (Celsius) change at the poles, a different pattern of monsoons? We should be rethinking the boundaries to give the parks a better chance in the future."
Leakey came to fame as he excavated the eastern shore of Kenya's Lake Turkana to find, as he called it, "a veritable treasure trove of ancient hominid fossils."
He and his team eventually recovered more than 200 fossils from the site, the most famous of which was a Homo erectus dubbed "Turkana Boy," roughly 1.6 million years old and still one of the most complete fossils ever found.
Leakey's interests later turned to wildlife conservation. Between 1968 and 1989, he was director of the National Museums of Kenya.
Then from 1989 to 1994, he served as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, where he spearheaded efforts to end elephant poaching. He resigned after surviving a serious plane crash.
Leakey admitted he is no climate expert, but said: "There is an inherent complacency in governments around the world that this is a natural system. So, you let it alone, it takes care of itself, but it is not natural. You are really looking at a series of islands of biodiversity. We've cut off the natural opportunities for coping with a changing climate."
In the past, Leakey said, animals could respond to changing climatic conditions by expanding or contracting their ranges. This option frequently is not available, having been cut off by human settlement and activity.
In his book "The Sixth Extinction," Leakey wrote migration "illustrates the need of species to move when climate changes, if they can. Sometimes the climate change is too extensive for species to be able to respond; and geographical barriers such as rivers and mountains can block the only route available. When this happens, extinction is the most likely outcome."
Leakey said the signs of warming are discernible in Africa.
"It's obvious in the loss of the ice caps in the high mountains. Kilimanjaro has lost its glaciers," he said.
"The glaciers on Mount Kenya have lessened over the last decade. The permanent ice has been there for more than 10,000 years."
The effects of such changes probably will not be immediate.
"I don't think you'll see the elephants peel off and die," Leakey said, "but what impact will it have on the food chain, the sources of water? Huge numbers of creatures will have no water, then what do you do?"
There are some very big issues at hand, he said, and they are beyond any particular country's ability to correct.
"Global warming is having an enormous impact on climates and a related impact on all sorts of habitats," Leakey continued.
"Together, these are creating a crisis for humanity. Natural disasters cause a crisis for economies - economies in crisis cause a crisis on the land; crises on the land cause crisis in soil and water conservation."
What it comes down to, he added, is "change climate dramatically and conservation, in any context, is adversely affected ... We are in another period of great extinction."
In particular, Leakey said, no one is doing enough in the tropics.
"There is a general feeling that tropical areas are more resilient than non-tropical areas," he said, "but I don't think we know the size of the alarm. What (the upcoming conference at) Stony Brook is doing ... is being a whistle blower. There is no point in putting it off."
Blue Planet is a weekly series examining the relationship of humans to the natural world, by environmental reporter Dan Whipple.
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