Wildebeest and Climate Change

Noodling around the growing literature on carbon cycling by animals, I recently came across a startling fact. More than half a century of wildebeest recovery in Africa’s Serengeti has resulted in the sequestration of enough carbon each year to offset all of East Africa’s fossil fuel emissions. Think about that for a minute. More wildebeest means less climate warming. It’s a connection worth….ahem….ruminating upon.

The mechanism for the wildebeest’s climate contribution is explained in a paper by Oswald Schmitz and co-authors titled “Animating the Carbon Cycle.” As the title indicates, carbon is not just moved through the ecosystem by rain, photosynthesis, and decomposition. It responds to the gyrations of millions of horned and hoofed critters. Wildebeest, through their grazing of savannah grasses, have a profound impact on the fires which torch the Serengeti during the dry season.

When wildebeest are absent, the grasses grow higher, creating walls of flammable vegetation which burn intensely in summer. These fires turn nascent trees and shrubs to ash. At the wildebeest’s low point, eighty percent of the savannah burned annually.

When wildebeest are present, the grass is kept shorter. The fires are smaller and less extensive. The giant herds of horned grazers keep the Serengeti nicely mown, tamping down the fires and allowing shrubs to grow and soils to build.

The recovery of wildebeest after anti-poaching and disease prevention measures in the 1960s has tipped the ecosystem back towards health. You can put numbers on it. For every additional 100,000 wildebeest, fires decrease by ten percent. This comes with a significant climate benefit. The returning wildebeest in the Serengeti have converted the extensive grasslands from a net carbon source back into a carbon sink. “Without this sink,” Schmitz writes, “carbon released from the Serengeti would equal East Africa’s current annual fossil fuel carbon emissions.” 

You might be tempted to make sense of this using the language of ‘ecosystem services.’ The wildebeest provide the service of carbon capture to the Serengeti.  After careful modeling and some fancy math, the service can be quantified in terms of teragrams of carbon captured, dollars saved, and health outcomes altered. Ask a scientist or economist to make the case for the importance of wildebeest and they will almost certainly produce some version of this language.

When you look at it from an ethical point of view, I think you can do better. It is quite clear the idiom of wildebeest serving the ecosystem or serving human interests is inadequate. They are simply being wildebeest. They are eating, pooping, avoiding lions, and migrating across the savannah in ways evolution has fine-tuned them to do. The fact they also do something helpful for climate change is a rollicking piece of good fortune. To say they serve us or the ecosystem seems unnecessarily demeaning. It fails to consider wildebeest on their own terms.

What if we looked at the wildebeest not as devices that provide services to the system but as highly-evolved, intelligent lifeforms who happen to be on the same side of the climate struggle as us? We can think of them in Darwinian terms as kin who need many of the same things we do: food, shelter, a place to give birth, and a stable climate. Wildebeest and humans have similar interests when it comes to climate change. We might go so far as to call them ‘partners.’

This idea of animals as partners resonates with how indigenous cultures thought about them for millennia. They are not adversaries but relatives. On occasion, they need our help. If we do favors for them, they do them back. This account binds humans and wildlife in a much more personal relationship than the language of ecosystem services.

So my call to you is this. Let’s take what science tells us about wildebeest and the carbon cycle as an opportunity to think differently. Let’s look at animal recoveries as a chance to recommit to a more equal relationship with our fellow travelers on earth. As the mention of indigenous thought makes clear, this new attitude is a very old one. And in a time of climate crisis, it looks like an extremely good one to recover. 

It’s a chance to recognize we are in this together.

Image credit: Christy Lang via Flickr

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