May 3, 2016, by Tim Radford
A third of all antelope species are now on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.
Image: Jakob Bro-Jørgensen/University of Liverpool
Researchers warn that many of Africa’s antelope species are at greater risk of extinction as climate change adds to the survival challenges they already face.
LONDON, 3 May, 2016 – Climate change is bringing slow but inexorable danger to some of Africa’s most fleet-footed survivors. Of the continent’s 72 species of antelope, one in four is likely to see its range halved, and the options open to it severely reduced.
And researchers warn that the threat status of at least 10 species will become significantly worse because of what they call “double jeopardy”.
Wild things everywhere are face hazards because of human population growth, habitat destruction and hunting.
But the scientists at the University of Liverpool, UK, report in Current Biology journal that they considered all the scenarios for climate change, and the specific challenges that one group of animals might face, and factors such as range size, body mass, diet diversity, precipitation and temperature and habitat type.
They concluded that climate change brought no obvious benefits to any of the antelope species, and that more than four out of five types of antelope might face a decline in suitable habitat by 2100.
The label antelope is a rag-bag term used to describe any Old World member of the Bovidae family that is not buffalo, bison, cattle, sheep nor goat. The term embraces a huge range of animal, from gnu to gazelle.
But what characterises the group is its capacity for speed − fast enough to evade a hunting lion, or even a cheetah. Some exist in great numbers when conditions are good, and can migrate to make the most of the available food. Others are adapted to small ranges with precise habitat preferences, and these are the most at risk.
“The study clearly shows that several antelope species are in urgent need of conservation action
to avoid extinction”
Extinction is part of evolution’s machinery, but right now – because of competition with human demands – an increasing number of species in all continents have been listed as under threat.
In the last few years, biologists have increasingly recognised that climate change is likely to make things worse for many already at risk.
It alters the breeding conditions that might have favoured birds and reptiles and – even in those countries with long-established conservation policies – puts iconic species in danger. The trees that provide food and cover for wild animals are also likely to be diminished by global warming and climate change.
The Liverpool researchers found that those antelope species that prefer cooler and drier climates are most likely to feel the impact of climate change most severely.
And the research established another predictor: if the antelope was already severely threatened, then climate change maximised the threat. If the potential range is already small, the animals have nowhere else to go.
“The study clearly shows that several antelope species are in urgent need of conservation action to avoid extinction,” says Dr Jakob Bro-Jørgensen, lecturer in mammalian behaviour and evolution at Liverpool.
“Our study shows that climate change is likely to hit wildlife even harder than we thought because the species already threatened stand to lose a higher proportion of their range.”
But action can be taken, he says. “If we switch to more conservation-friendly land use, the threatened species with small ranges stand to benefit the most, having the greatest potential to expand their ranges.
“A major priority is to target the increasing fragmentation of wilderness areas, which prevents wildlife from tracking shifts in their environment.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.