What Could the Massacre of 40,000 Elephants Possibly Teach Us?
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In the TED Talk above, ecologist Allan Savory explains how we’re currently encouraging desertification, and how to not only stop it, but reverse it, by dramatically increasing the number of grazing livestock.
According to Savory, rising population, land turning into desert at a steady clip (known as desertification), converge to create a “perfect storm” that threatens life on earth. Most people think technology is required to solve the problem.
Not so, he says. While we do need novel technology to replace fossil fuels, desertification cannot be reversed with technology. For that, we need to revert backward, and start mimicking nature and the way things were in the past.
How Grazing Livestock Impacts Our Land and Water
According to Savory, we not only can, but indeed MUST, use grazing livestock to address desertification. In his talk, he explains how we can work with nature, at very low cost, to reverse both of these problems.
By some estimates, grazing large herds of livestock on half of the world’s barren or semi-barren grasslands could take enough carbon from the atmosphere to bring us back to preindustrial levels.
“Nothing offers more hope,” he says.
Desertification happens when we create too much bare ground. In areas where a high level of humidity is guaranteed, desertification cannot occur. Ground cover allows for trapping of water, preventing the water from evaporating. At present, a staggering two-thirds of the landmass on earth is desertifying. As explained by Savory, water and carbon are tied to organic matter.
When you damage the soil, allowing it to turn into desert, it gives off carbon. We’ve been repeatedly told that desertification occurs only in arid or semi-arid areas, and that tall grasslands in areas of high rain fall are of no consequence. But this is not true, Savory says, because if you inspect the ground in tall grasslands, it is bare and encrusted with algae, which leads to runoff and evaporation.
“That is the cancer of desertification that we do not recognize ‘til its terminal form,” he says.
Desertification has long been thought to be caused by livestock, such as sheep and cattle overgrazing and giving off methane. However, to quote Savory on the veracity of these claims:
“We were once just as certain world was flat. We were wrong then, and we’re wrong again.”
Lessons Learned from the Unnecessary Massacre of 40,000 Elephants
As a young biologist, Savory was involved in setting aside large swaths of African land as future national parks. This involved removing native tribes from the land to protect animals. Interestingly, as soon as the natives were removed, the land began to deteriorate.
At that point, he became convinced that there were too many elephants, and a team of experts agreed with his theory, which required the removal of elephants to a number they thought the land could sustain. As a result, 40,000 elephants were slaughtered in an effort to stop the damage to the national parks.
Yet the land destruction got worse rather than better... Savory calls the decision “the greatest blunder” of his life. Fortunately, the utter failure cemented his determination to dedicate his life to finding solutions. And that, he has.
Areas of US national parks are now desertifying as badly as areas in Africa, and studies have shown that whenever cattle are removed from an area to protect it from desertification, the opposite results — it gets worse. According to Savory, we have completely misunderstood the causes of desertification. We’ve also failed to understand how it affects our global climate. He explains that barren earth is much cooler at dawn and much hotter at midday. When land is left barren, it changes the microclimate on that swath of land.
“Once you’ve done that to more than half of land mass on planet, you’re changing macroclimate,” he says.
We’ve failed to realize that in seasonal humidity environments, the soil and vegetation developed with very large numbers of grazing animals meandering through. Along with these herds came ferocious pack hunting predators. The primary defense against these predators was the herd size. The larger the herd, the safer the individual animal within the herd. These large herds deposited dung and urine all over the grasses (their food), and so they would keep moving from one area to the next.
This constant movement of large herds naturally prevented overgrazing of plants, while periodic trampling ensured protective covering of the soil. As explained by Savory, grasses must degrade biologically before the next growing season. This easily occurs if the grass is trampled into the ground. If it does not decay biologically, it shifts into oxidation — a very slow process that results in bare soil, which then ends up releasing carbon. To prevent this scenario, we’ve traditionally used fire. But burning the ground also leaves soil bare to release carbon.
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