Category Archives: Nature

Saving the Chiquibul: What Will It Take?

Unless delimited by a river or mountain range, human boundaries rarely map to the habitats of non-human species. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face today in the field of conservation. For every political space entails its own unique set of policies, or lack thereof, that concern the management of ecological terrains vital to both human and non-human populations living in their precincts. And sometimes policy conditions of adjacent jurisdictions deeply conflict. Take, for instance, starkly diverging land management regimes of Belize and Guatemala.

In the Google Earth image below, one sees that the Chiquibul forest of Belize (on the right) remains largely intact. Conversely, neighboring lands on the Guatemalan side have been swallowed up by massive cattle ranches and expanding settlement—land-use inequities resulting from decades of state-sponsored genocide and social disarray. Thousands of local farmers have since been displaced from their lands and forced into Belize. While it would appear that the border follows the tree line visible from aerial view; it in fact lies a few kilometers to the west. Agricultural incursions have since moved across binational lines, posing a serious question for Belize: how is the country to keep Guatemalans from consuming its national forests?

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This question has taken up much of my thinking over the last two years. For I believe it gets to the heart of contemporary studies in politics and social theory on the environment. In context of Belize, one finds that the crux of the issue currently lies in a historic dispute over the legitimacy of the border itself. To this day, Belizeans are enraged by their neighbor’s claim over the southern half of their national territory. And the growing frequency of incursions into Belize’s forests only seems to suggest the onset of a surreptitious takeover. The political nature of these forests in turn have politicized nature conservation on the ground. Consequently, millions in public funds have been funneled to local NGOs working to curb encroachment.  

In a peculiar way, nationalist fervor kept alive by territorial anxiety thus directly benefits biodiversity on the ground. The scenario, however, is not merely one in which Belizean eco-nationalists link arms in opposition to a Guatemalan threat that looms from the west. Such could perhaps be said of the Belizean Territorial Volunteers, a group well known for their confrontational border protests and conservation background. But for other organizations such as Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), while territorial concerns have indeed helped it to raise programme funding—the disputed border serves less as a rallying point than as a roadblock to progress.

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While the BTV conduct protests provoking Guatemalan military forces, FCD forms allegiances with Guatemalan counterparts to target the ecological crisis at its root. From the perspective of FCD—whose mestizo heritage was forged at a time when Spanish-speaking peoples of Belize and Petén mingled while working in colonial forest product industries—ecological concerns in Belize are seen as directly linked to a growing insecurity of livelihoods across the border. And unsettled tensions at higher diplomatic levels only serve to disrupt the confidence it needs to work cooperatively with NGO and community partners in Petén essential to addressing this social crisis.

Is the poor Guatemalan campesino to be lumped into the same political category as a distant state aggressor? How is this complex demographic to navigate the double bind in which conditions of poverty due to landlessness compel involvement in more criminal avenues such as the illicit extraction of xate palm, gold, timber and scarlet macaw from Belizean forests? And how are conservation groups such as FCD to effectively address the transboundary effects of social inequity in Petén when the neighboring government has no legal incentive to take up the issue? 

Grappling with these questions exposes the challenges that Belizean conservationists must face while working to protect their western forests. Of course, there are no ready-made, clear-cut solutions. But there are certain policy pathways that perhaps bear greater long-term benefits than others. In this case, it would appear that the transcendence of historical divisions at the border affords greater comprehension of a truly multifaceted problem, and likely a more balanced approach to tackling it. Meanwhile, the macaws, jaguars and collared peccaries await patiently for what lies in store for the deeply troubled binational political ecology that confines them.

Will Evans is currently a postgraduate student in the School of Geography and the Environment.

Love Christmas. Hate Climate Change. Will Climate Change corrupt Christmas?

Alas! The season to be jolly Fa la la, la la la, la la is coming to an end. It is time to pack away our fantastically gaudy Christmas jumpers adorned with outlandish images of happy snowmen and dancing polar bears, our glittery reindeer antlers and eccentric penguin socks.  

The tackier the better!!
The tackier the better!!

 

But will there always be good cheer and great tidings? Climate change is now jeopardizing many of the iconic symbols of our December celebration. (Please note, this is no way is related to the birth of baby Jesus, no religious connotations here!)

On Christmas Eve 2015 (somewhat fittingly), the IUCN changed the Rangifer tarandus – aka Dasher, Dancer, Prancer etc. –  conservation status from “least concern” to “vulnerable”, skipping over the “near threatened” category. A 40% plummet in their population over 25 years was primarily due to warmer climates bringing in more rain than snow.  This rain freezes on the ground creating an ice sheet up to 5 cm thick. Rudolph often cannot penetrate this ice-crust to reach his diet of grasses and herbs underneath and expels large amounts of energy attempting to; contributing towards reduced survival rates of Santa’s sleigh pulling ungulates.

“Vixen! Comet! Let’s trick Father Christmas and pretend to be Christmas trees” "Ok, Blitzen"
“Vixen! Comet! Let’s trick Father Christmas and pretend to be Christmas trees” “Ok, Blitzen”

 

Not only does climate change melt dreams of a white Christmas, research published in the journal of Forest Ecology and Management reveals that our Christmas trees could suffer too (dependant on tree origin). The iconic Norwegian Spruce will become increasingly vulnerable due to reduced snowpacks to the Boreal forests during winter, which can limit shoot growth in the following spring.

Could this get any worse?!

Yes

A generous dollop of cranberry sauce completes the Christmas lunch.  However, cranberries are not compatible with extreme weathers brought about by climate change; heat waves and frosts & floods cause rotting and yield cuts respectfully. In 2012 in Massachusetts an early spring coupled with extreme heat, resulted in a drop of 23 million pounds in cranberry production; enough to leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

“All I want for Christmas is yo-… FOOOOD!!!”
“All I want for Christmas is yo-… FOOOOD!!!”

What’s more, polar bears have long been the face of the climate change movement.  Listed as a threatened species since 2008, there are only 20,000 to 25,000 estimated to be living in the wild.  Scientists warn that rising temperatures in the Arctic could reduce the polar bear population by a third over the next few decades. Of course, the loss of ice also threatens our other favourite charismatic species often pictured on our Christmas cards; penguins, artic fox and seals.

Christmas cards for one and all!
Christmas cards to all those relatives we didn’t even know existed!

And finally, the great man himself. Father Christmas.  Earth’s northern pole is drifting rapidly eastward, and scientists blame climate change. The rate of shift of the magnetic pole is on the increase and it seemed that in the past decade it had moved a distance close to the distance it moved in the past century.  With the wandering magnetic pole and ice sheet melting, our fantasies of him reading our Christmas letters by the fire in a log cabin on the North Pole, could be lost within the century.

“Penny, Martin, Dana – Good list! Paul, however is on the naughty list!”
“Penny, Martin, Dana – Good list! Paul, however is on the naughty list!”

Whilst discussing such a sombre topic you may have noticed the images of this blog maintain humour and positivity; there’s no shocking pictures of reindeers starving nor graphs to map the extent of sea ice loss in the arctic. Partly because it is the season of good cheer, but also this is done to engage with our emotions.  Sometimes, it is much easier to feel compelled to act upon something which we see and know and hold fondness towards, rather than see the negative images shown in the news.   This blog will not discuss how we as individuals can mitigate the effects of climate change- there are plenty of articles which do that, rather this blog hopes for people to understand that we cannot take everyday happenings (or in this case, annual celebrations) for granted.

Do we ourselves bear some responsibility for climate change affecting Christmas? Maintaining our traditional usage of inordinate amounts of sellotape, ribbons and associated paraphernalia, we contribute directly, to non-degradable pollution in our terrestrial and marine environments. Maybe we need to re-think our traditions and stop creating an annual slap in the face for our planet.

And to President elect Trump and his army of climate change sceptics, it’s not only Christmas that is affected – our summer’s day fish and chips take away is in jeopardy too.

 

Sophie is an MSc student in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Management. She is particularly enticed by arts & the environment, science communication and conservation governance, and often likes to tweet about these things @sophierpierce

 

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The Cost of Biodiversity and Conservation: Can the Anthropocene Truly Not Afford to pay it?

Whilst the topic of wildlife trade is vastly discussed in scientific papers and news reports highlighting on the charismatic and flagship species like sea turtles, tiger, and elephants across the global, there has been a rapid growth of research interest on the online wildlife trade reflecting the internet provides more opportunities for trading wildlife on e-commence websites with unregulated and loosen enforcement. Until a report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) focusing on online wildlife trade in global recently, it indicates that China is the foremost country trading the majority wildlife online while earning the profit of $2.7 million. The statistical is also striking that approximately 544 items traded in 2008 were illegal wildlife species which are listed under CITES Appendices. In short, online wildlife trade is very likely not only posing the wildlife in peril. Meanwhile, it also triggers the challenges on protecting wildlife conservation via the internet.

Continue reading The Cost of Biodiversity and Conservation: Can the Anthropocene Truly Not Afford to pay it?

Embracing Change

I was fortunate to know from a relatively early age where I wanted my life to go. I had a vision and crafted a path to get there and all in all (and after a lot of work!) things came together rather well. Of course through the years as I learned more the vision matured and developed but it always existed in the realm of wildlife conservation. Immediately after graduating with my undergraduate degree, I moved my life to Namibia to start my ‘dream’ job.

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Working on the ground in ‘front-line’ conservation for a very well respected organisation was everything I had hoped… and more. The once-in-a-lifetime experiences, professional (and personal) skills gained, and knowledge acquired were so worth the years of work invested to get to this point.

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Photo: Bobby Bradley

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I was working first-hand with my favourite species in one of the most beautiful places on Earth doing things that very few people in this world have ever done. So, I get the question all the time ‘Why did you leave?’, and its answer is something I have to remind myself of frequently.

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Planet Earth is the most unique and precious thing that exists in our wide wide universe (if you haven’t seen BBCs ‘Planet Earth II’ do yourself a favour and go check it out), but everything that makes it such an incredible place to call home is under immense threat. AND, as ironic as it would seem, we humans are to blame. There are those who have committed themselves to fighting these threats, and victories have been won here and there. My organisation for example had done an incredible job at addressing the threats to this species in Namibia, and is currently working very hard at expanding its programmes throughout Africa. However, on a global scale we are failing.

This being said, we gain more and more ground every year and I know that we can win this fight if enough of us are (actually) willing to get up and do something about it; I can’t let myself believe anything else. I loved my job and loved the work I was doing, but I felt that there was so much more that I could do (and needed to do) and that is why I left to continue with my studies.

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This is not at all to say that what I was doing before was not meaningful, or that the work of my organisation was not good enough. It’s just that I felt for me there was more to do and I knew I needed to go and find what that was. Though life in Oxford is not particularly for me, I’ve joined a community of people committed to the same goal (or set of goals at least – check out the other awesome entries on the blog!) and though I’d probably rather be back in the bush, I know that this experience is a necessary step to achieve my vision.

That childhood vision is alive and well, but I now realize that there is not necessarily one place it leads to. Just like in conservation science, as I continue to learn and experience more in this messy world, my vision for the future will continue to shift and grow… I (and we) just have to be willing to embrace whatever change that may bring to our thinking and our reality.

all photos by Eli Walker unless stated otherwise

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Saving Spoonie: The spirit of China’s youth

On watching the documentary “China: Between Clouds and Dreams’ I was introduced to the spoon-billed sandpiper. These charismatic migratory birds have been reduced to as few as 100 breeding pairs making them one of the most endangered birds on the planet. As well as facing threats from subsistence hunting, in China large-scale reclamation projects are draining the intertidal areas that provide important mudflat habitat along the Yellow Sea. These mudflats are also polluted and so the marine invertebrates the birds use to refuel for their journey ahead are sparse.

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Spoon-billed sandpiper (Source: ken, Flickr)

The five-part documentary, that recently aired on Channel 4, looks into China’s private relationship with nature and the environment amid increasing industrialisation. Amongst the stories told was that of 4 young children embarking on an investigative journalism exercise for their school newspaper. After learning from their school teacher about the plight of the spoon-billed sandpiper they were instantly inspired to “Save Spoonie”. With vigour and urgency they interviewed trawlers working on the mudflats, factory owners and local communities revealing the tensions and conflicts underpinning many of China’s environmental problems.

Despite a bleak picture being painted for the viewer one thing that remained constant was the resolve of the children that if they shared the story of Spoonie far enough they could save the bird that had captured their imagination from extinction. Watching their youthful optimism made me think about the power of people and public perceptions. In a country such as China, ever growing and ever polluting, can people make a change?  Continue reading Saving Spoonie: The spirit of China’s youth

Bring the kids back to the woods!

Someone told me a while ago that a surprisingly large number of inner-city kids today are not aware that milk comes from a cow. That is, they have not considered where the milk was before it ended up in the carton that they then pick up from the supermarket. I laughed and shook my head at the time, but the statement has come back to bother me lately.

Back in the day, if you wanted to have a glass of milk, you would first have to find the cow in a pasture somewhere, make sure it had some milk to give (i.e. that it had a calf) and then convince it to stand still while you milk it. That, I would assume, would make that glass of milk mean something more to you, and also perhaps make you grateful to the cow (and calf) for sharing it, and to nature for feeding the cow so that she in turn could give it to you.

We are living in a time of rapid technological development and urbanization. This means that an increasing number, more than half of the world’s population according to the United Nations, are living in cities. City-life and innovations have enabled a lifestyle where you seldom have to risk bumping in to dangerous animals, where one can swoosh from one end of the world to the other in a matter of hours by airplane, and where you can get basically everything you would ever need and want from a store a few kilometres away. But what implications does this lifestyle have for our perception and understanding of nature?

Continue reading Bring the kids back to the woods!

Designing the reefs for the future

Of the world’s ecosystems, coral reefs are expected to be the first to experience the repercussions of a changing climate. As images show, coral reefs are already under severe stress by a swiftly heating planet. Corals only thrive in very specific environmental conditions, and when temperature rises by just a little, the coral expels its symbiotic algae partner who provide its nourishment – a process called bleaching. Without its symbiotic algae, the coral turns white and simply starves. Worldwide, mass-bleaching events have been increasingly destructive over the years, hitting an all-time high in the current year, in which high water temperatures killed 67% of corals of the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. As climate change continues, oceanic waters across the globe are expected to further warm, suggesting a bleak (and bleach) future for coral reefs.

As a response, a group of coral reef scientists from Hawaii and Australia came up with a controversial plan to save coral reefs from their foredoomed destiny. They aim to create heat-resistant corals that can thrive in warmer water. By steering their evolutionary pathway into a desired direction, these scientists effectively prepare corals for climate change.

Continue reading Designing the reefs for the future

Plenty of Fish in the Sea?

Worldwide, countless people depend on fishing for food, culture, and economic well-being.  From local subsistence fishermen in small coastal communities to large industrial-sized operations, oceans contribute to societies and economies at all scales.  To keep pace with demand, fishing rates have greatly accelerated, to the extent that over 77 billion kilograms of seafood are harvested each year.

Harvested fish on ice to be sold at a market
Fisheries around the world capture large harvests of fish to sell at markets.

At such high rates, many fish populations cannot reproduce quickly enough to replenish their depleted numbers, thereby classifying them as overfished.  Currently, 90 percent of fisheries around the world are burdened with or on the brink of over-exploitation beyond sustainable yields. Continue reading Plenty of Fish in the Sea?

Can One Bad Apple Rot Canada’s Sustainable Forest Management Reputation?

Canada is known for having some of the most rigorous sustainable forestry regulation and enforcement in the world. Holding 10% of the world’s forests including 552 million hectares or nearly 30% of the world’s Boreal forests and as a leader in the forestry industry, Canada’s sustainable forestry management has global implications, setting standards both environmentally and economically.

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75% of Canada’s forests are Boreal. 3.7 million people live within the area including 70% of Canada’s Aboriginal People. This area is also a major carbon sink, a source of freshwater storage and home to high levels of biodiversity.

Complementing the management process are three voluntary third party sustainability certifications that “provide a stamp of approval that shows consumers they are buying products from forests managed to comprehensive environmental, social and economic standards”. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a global NGO initiated non-state market mechanism, and is considered the “gold standard for well managed forests”. The other third-party certification schemes, Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and Canadian Standards Association (CSA), are both industry-initiated under the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) international umbrella organization.

Resolute Forest Products, a global forestry force based in Montreal Canada holding logging rights on 22 million ha of mostly public land, has 100% sustainable timberland certification by third-party Forest Management Standards and is a signed member of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. Resolute company values include be accountable, ensure sustainability and work together.

Corporate responsibility is clearly fundamental to Resolute, their management, brand value and reputation, so what is the problem?

It seems they will go to any lengths, including violating sustainable certification principles, disregarding indigenous rights, suing governments and suppressing environmental organization freedom of speech to assume this farce.

From an ecological standpoint, Resolute’s “sustainable”, “eco” and “recycled products” have in fact come from clear cutting three endangered forest areas; Ontario’s Caribou Forest and Quebec’s Montagnes Blaches and Broadback Valley. These areas are home to 150 birds, the highest densities of threatened woodland caribou and many Cree First Nations communities. Woodland caribou are considered an “indicator species”; sensitive to disturbance, and an “umbrella species”; their protection could ensure the survival of other species in the same habitat. The Grand Council of the Cree have challenged Resolute’s logging practices stating they are detrimental to their trapping lifestyle and the ecosystem balance throughout the area.

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Woodland Caribou have already been pushed north of their historic range. Unfortunately logging industries are also being pushed north and since protected areas don’t sufficiently cover their habitat meaning the caribou must rely on sustainable forest management for security. (Info-Map from Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society)

In what way can they continue to state claims of sustainability and certification?

Many major US and global brands have moved away from SFI citing “the logging industry-run program misleads consumers and allows massive clear cuts, other destructive logging and human rights abuse”. Resolute instead is moving towards them. Their FSC certified lands have dropped by 50% since 2010 because of non-compliance and non-renewal. By switching to SFI, Resolute improved their sustainability certification cover to 100% without environment practice or management changes

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forest Initiative offer competing sustainability certifications. While all non-state market driven certification schemes have implementation, management and accountability issues to contend with, FSC is considered more non-discretionary and broad based in their policy. 

But how is Resolute getting away with this?

Resolute, aware that its reputation is at stake, has used its corporate weight and legal prowess to squash critics and competitors with SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation).

Following a failed audit in 2014 for “not complying with good environmental standards”, Resolute sued Rainforest Alliance, the FSC certified auditor. Bypassing the normal FSC dispute resolution, the case was settled and the report sealed. In 2015 Resolute filed a $70+million suit against the Canadian Government because the Nova Scotia Provincial government provided a subsidy to their local mill creating competition, which Resolute says caused their Quebec mill to go under. Resolute is in court with Greenpeace over a $7 million defamation suit for a report Greenpeace published in 2013, which critiqued the logging companies environmental and social conduct. While this case is still in progress, the Ontario Superior Court has dismissed broadening the case stating Resolute’s allegations of Greenpeace are “irrelevant”, “scandalous and vexatious”. They have now brought the case against Greenpeace to the US under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) with goals to silence Greenpeace’s freedom of speech.

Well, what are the implications of Resolute’s actions? It’s only one company right?

Public interest groups are worried over extrapolated implications of using the RICO lawsuit against freedom of the press/speech. The RICO law originated to combat the mafia, but it’s use “as a club to silence Greenpeace from using non-violent means to mobilize the public, raise awareness alongside the necessary funds to operate, and seek to bring about change in respect of environmental practices it opposes would chill the exercise of First Amendment rights not only by Greenpeace but by other groups, by Amici. It would endanger the ability of non profits to operate and set a dangerous precedent,” says the Sierra Club. Resolute’s lawsuits against NGO’s, governments and auditors can threaten not only the viability of non-state market drivers of forest governance, but traditional governance and advocacy roles.

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80  public interest organizations have come together to “condemn Resolute’s intimidation lawsuit and call on the company to respect the US Constitution – and our planet” via an advertisement in the New York Times earlier this month.(New York Times)

Sustainable forestry certifications are growing in supply and demand without a price premium attached or new markets opening up. Consumers aren’t willing to pay more yet they appear to expect these certifications as a minimum standard for forest products. Resolute feels their; “adherence to third party verified forest certification standards gives [them] an important competitive edge. It provides our customers with the assurance that our forests are managed responsibly according to rigorous standards”. With Resolute’s reputation benefiting from eco-certification where does that leave other logging companies particularly smaller ones. Forest managers must absorb the costs to gain and comply with certification schemes. Without significant product pricing benefits, where is the incentive to comply with stricter FSC protocol? This leaves the door open for industry-wide environmental degradation and unsustainable forestry practices.

Resolute has failed to adhere to not only it’s sustainable certifications, but it’s own corporate values of being accountable, ensuring sustainability and working together without any consequences. As indigenous groups are undermined, protected areas harvested and species threatened, Canadian Sustainable Forest Management practices are fundamentally destabilized. What does this mean for the legitimacy of Canadian Sustainable Forestry Management and third party sustainable forestry certification schemes? Can they continue to function as global environmental and social responsibility standards? How can the system be revised so the Boreal Forest, it’s residents both human and non human and it’s consumers aren’t left vulnerable to corporate greed?

The author will continue to look at these questions over the next month while writing a paper on Corporate Social Responsibility in Canada’s Forestry Industry. If you are interested in learning more or have insight, critiques or ideas please feel free to leave a comment or contact the author.

Natalie Knowles is an MSc student from Toronto, Canada. Her research interests include forest protected areas, ecosystem function and indigenous roles in conservation.

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Wilderness: A Documentary Illusion

The footage that reached our television screens last Sunday was no doubt familiar to us all: a sea of densely forested hills expanding for miles in every direction as the camera broke through the clouds. The trees were seemingly endless. Other episodes of this series of Planet Earth will show similarly dramatic landscapes: perhaps a savannah dotted with wildebeest; or a vast expanse of desert; or a towering mountain range. One thing is certain: they will all be landscapes without humans.

Wildlife documentaries, such as the BBC’s Planet Earth (and most recently Planet Earth II), are beloved by the public and conservationists alike. They offer us inspiration, an insight into the lives of the world’s most charismatic creatures – and an illusion of a global wilderness.

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Shots of undisturbed rainforest are common in wildlife films (Source: pexels.com)

The emphasis within wildlife documentaries on wild landscapes without people can be understood as a manifestation of the wilderness ideals embedded in the conservation and nature movements. The concept of wilderness as we understand it today grew up in America in the late 19th century as a product of Romanticism. It was rapidly exported worldwide, particularly to colonial governments in Africa, who saw the vast sparsely populated savannahs of eastern Africa as pristine regions, unchanged by humans. It was these areas, with their abundance of game, that were designated as some of the earliest protected areas and which formed the blueprint for conservation as it developed.

Wilderness ideas have remained central – and often pervasive – in the conservation movement. To this day, protected areas in many regions of the world are created with wilderness ideals in mind: activities within them, such as resource extraction and tourism, are strictly limited, often to the detriment of local people. ‘Fortress conservation’, as it is known, may involve the removal of indigenous groups from the landscape in order to create these wildernesses, as has been seen in Tanzania and India. It is this style of conservation that we see reflected in wildlife films. Nature is presented as something exotic, distant and entirely non-overlapping with the human world.

 

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The Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, where the Maasai people were threatened with eviction (Source: wikimedia.org)

 

But why does this (largely Western) cultural perception of wilderness matter, and what are the implications of a focus on wilderness ideals, both for conservationists and the general public?

Firstly, we need to recognise that, despite the emphasis on wild nature in documentaries, wilderness landscapes form a minority of land area globally: only around 23% of habitable land area remains as wilderness. In contrast, around 50% of habitable land area is now agricultural land. This means that across the majority of landscapes globally, humans are interacting with and influencing ecosystems. If we are to get a handle  on conservation and the natural world we need to be considering these non-wilderness landscapes too.

This is especially important when we consider the fact that even landscapes that are human-dominated may still have high biodiversity value. As an example, many habitat types across Europe developed as a result of centuries of agricultural production and extensive human-nature interactions. Importantly, this does not lessen their value for biodiversity: moorlands, heathlands, calcareous grasslands, cork oak forests and coppiced woodlands so familiar across Western Europe are actually reliant on traditional human management to maintain their unique structure and high biodiversity. However, if wildlife documentaries only feature landscapes devoid of humans as containing valuable or charismatic biodiversity, we may forget to connect with this biodiversity in landscapes closer to home.

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Cork oak forest in the Mediterranean: a human-managed, biodiverse ecosystem (Source: wikimedia.org)

 

Furthermore, even landscapes that are presented as pristine and untouched may well have a history of human interaction, and viewing them as wilderness only tells half the story. The Amazon rainforest is widely regarded as an ‘unexplored wilderness’, but prior to European colonisation, areas of the Amazon basin were densely settled. Paleo-ecological studies have shown that across these inhabited areas forests were impacted through burning and felling, creating areas of open forest, rather than the closed canopy forest we see today.

Secondly, consideration of humans as separate to nature erases the ways in which humans need nature. The concept of ecosystem services has become an increasingly popular framework for understanding the benefits that ecosystems provide. These benefits occur across a whole range of scales from large scale carbon sequestration by tropical forests all the way down to local opportunities for recreation in nature parks. Crucially, humans can generally only profit from the full range of services when they live in close proximity to an ecosystem: for example, the flood regulation provided by wetlands or mangroves is only appreciated when there is human infrastructure in the area benefiting from protection.

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Wetlands provide protection against flooding by absorbing and holding large quantities of water (Source: flickr.com)

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, human influence on ecosystems is growing. This pressure will only increase through the 21st century as the global population nears an estimated 10 billion. With the growing impact of climate change, even the most isolated areas of wilderness will soon be unable to escape human impacts. It is imperative that we recognise this fact and move to work with it, rather than against it. Increased impacts need not sound the death knell for biodiversity. Instead, with targeted research on the impacts of human activities it will be possible to properly manage ecosystems under environmental change. For example, recent research on the impacts of logging in tropical forests suggests that carefully managed low-intensity logging can have minimal impacts on species richness. If we only value pristine wilderness systems, we risk devaluing human-altered systems, and overlooking the myriad ways in which nature persists in these landscapes.

Though wildlife documentaries are valuable, for education, enjoyment and for inspiration to value the natural world, by omitting humans from the stories they tell they miss the nuance inherent in our relationship with the environment. The way we interact with wild places is complex and evolving, and only by considering these interactions can we hope to fully understand and conserve nature in all its forms.