Category Archives: Wildlife

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.

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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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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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Was Jaws Really the Villain?

Habitat destruction. Pollution. Over exploitation. All terms that have been echoed through the vast literature over and over again, and which are being institutionalized in our understanding of the world around us. Once again, my friends, we must apply the deleterious effects of these atrocious activities to yet another beautiful group of creatures, those belonging to the super order Selachimorpha under the subclass Elasmobranchii (for simplicity sake, we’ll call them sharks). It has been shown that population levels of sharks have been experiencing precipitous declines for many decades.

While all activities that impact the shark populations are of importance, the largest driver (and possibly most important) is that of over exploitation. Over harvesting sharks, especially for their fins, has decimated species abundances, resulting in losses anywhere from fifty percent to complete collapse. Continue reading Was Jaws Really the Villain?

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.

Whoa! Is there any stopping the Eurasian collared-dove?

The beautiful Eurasian collared-dove is adorned in muted grays, browns, and whites, and has a distinct dark crescent on its neck. Its incessant cooing is gentle and familiar to city and farm dwellers throughout Europe and North America.

Before its unprecedented expansion across Eurasia and later North America, it resided in southern Asia from Turkey to southern China and from India south to Sri Lanka. At the beginning of the 20th century, collared-doves began dispersing westward and then northward, reaching Britain in 1953 and breeding by 1955, arriving in Ireland in 1959, and Iceland by 1964 (although it has never become established there). Collared-doves also expanded eastward to southern Russia, most of China, and even Japan (where they may have been introduced), and southward to Egypt, Morocco and the Canary Islands.  This rapid rate of expansion has been estimated at 27 miles/year; not bad for a non-migratory, but obviously highly dispersive, species. Today collared-doves are ubiquitous in towns and countryside throughout Europe and Asia, where they seems to be comfortably coexisting with their avian neighbours.

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Shanthanu Bhardwaj, Wikimedia

But that’s not quite the end of the story.

The invasion of collared-doves in North America began when a small flock escaped captivity in Nassau, Bahamas in 1974. By 1982, collared-doves had arrived in in Florida, where they rapidly began expanding, and then very quickly moved to nearby states (see Figure 1 below). By 2005, collared-doves had arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC) in Canada, greatly surpassing expansion estimates (see Figure 2 from BC Bird Atlas). Given their arrival in southern Florida in 1982, collared-doves have dispersed across the approximate 2,800 mile distance between Miami and Vancouver at a phenomenal rate of ~128 miles/year, much faster than estimated dispersal rates in Europe (i.e., 27 miles/year) and for other introduced species such as starlings and House Sparrows in North America (see estimates below).

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Figure 1. BBS route results for 2007 survey. Dark circles indicate collared-dove presence and abundance.

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Figure 2: Eurasian collared-dove distribution in British Columbia, Canada between 2008 and 2012.

Expansions of other introduced species in North America are also well documented. European starlings were first introduced in Central Park, New York in 1890 and 1891, and by 1959 had reached Vancouver, BC on the west coast. Starlings had made the approximate 2,400 mile journey at a dispersal rate of about 42 miles/year. House Sparrows have  a similar history of dispersal. First released and established in New York between 1851 and 1855, they were first reported in the Vancouver area around 1900. House Sparrows made the 2,400 mile journey to Vancouver at a dispersal rate of about 49 miles/year, very similar to starlings. In contrast, collared-doves have dispersed at a much more rapid rate (128 miles/year).

So, how concerned should we be for our native fauna, particularly other dove species such as Mourning Dove and Common Ground-dove? Recent research suggests that inter-species competition may not be a significant issue. For example, the size of seeds selected by mourning doves and collared-doves is quite different, “which may limit foraging competition between these species” and collared doves are not overly aggressive. Collared-doves may take over other nests (e.g., American Robin), but this affect has not been widely documented and is likely not a major issue. As well, there has been some concern that collared-doves could transmit new pathogens or infectious diseases to native bird species, but evidence of inter-species transmission in collared-doves has not been well documented.

So should we be concerned or impressed? Is this a good news story when accounts of bird extirpation and range retractions are almost a daily event? Should we embrace the increased species richness or alpha diversity in our local towns and gardens? Do collared-doves bring satisfaction and joy to urban dwellers who rarely move beyond their city gates? One thing is for certain, Eurasian collared-doves are here to stay. I can only be impressed by their versatility, adaptability, and tenacity as they have settled into their new homes.

The Living Planet Report 2016 – Impacts of the Anthropocene? The ugly, the bad and the good

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future
Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize winning physicist

Recently WWF published its famous ‘Living Planet Report 2016. Risk and resilience in a new era‘ showing  an alarming reality of the state of the planet and what the future holds if concrete actions are not implemented NOW.

Hear it from Marco Lambertini – Director General WWF International

The Living Planet Index (LPI) showed that from 1970 to 2012 (little over 40 years!) vertebrate population abundance has declined in average 58% (more than half!). The Terrestrial, Freshwater, and Marine LPI showed that populations have declined by 38%, 81% and 36% respectively, between the same period of time.

For any person these numbers surely pose an alarming reality of the pressures humans have put on the planet. Are we seeing on this report the crude impacts of the so called ‘Anthropocene’?

Continue reading The Living Planet Report 2016 – Impacts of the Anthropocene? The ugly, the bad and the good

The Journey – the importance of animal movement and migration for conservation

The migration has been going for almost two months now. Her legs are tired, the sun beats down, the rain seems a far off dream. Yet, she still puts one foot in front of the other. What for? The sweet grass that comes with the rains, that provide the nourishment her calf needs to grow and survive. Bodies are pressed together, a pulsating artery in the savanna of animals rushing in a anticipation to get the plains. The risks are evident.She has seen the crocodiles writhe in the water, their jaws snapping at legs rushing by. She will cross the river, perhaps avoiding death. Once passed the river, there are still many dangers she will face; exhaustion, dehydration, hunger, or an unlucky encounter with an opportunistic predator. However, instinct and the pull of the herd is strong and she will continue her migration: even if it kills her.

The migration of 1.3 million wildebeest in the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem is arguably one of the most awe-inspiring sights. Throngs of herbivores travel across vast distances in an effort to follow the rains and the grass. But why is knowing why and how an animal moves important?

A central question in ecology: animal movement

With strings attached to their legs, John James Audubon, became the first person to record the return of migratory birds in the following spring in the early 1800s. Charles Darwin discussed the idea of ‘home areas’ for many species. The idea of animal movement ecology is not new. However, the importance of this discipline is gaining more recognition.

Often, there is little data on where, why and how species move. However, this information is critical to making management decisions. Perhaps a better way to answer the question of why studying animal movement is important is to explore just a  few of the studies of this arm of ecology and how the data has bettered conservation decisions.

Planning for fisheries

Bycatch, whereby other sea creatures are caught in commercial fish nets, is a serious problem around the world. Populations of leatherback turtles have plummeted by 90% over recent decades from fishery mortality, habitat loss and the unsustainable harvest of their eggs. A study into their migrations from Costa Rica showed that the turtles travelled to the South Pacific Gyre. It had been previously assumed that the leatherback turtle population migration had a highly dispersed pattern. This information was used to identify areas of potential fisheries bycatch and set up dynamic and temporary closure for fishing of the migration route to prevent fishery mortality.

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Photo by Claudia Lombard, USFWS – Flickr

Planning for habitat change

Lisovski et al (2016) demonstrated how studying migratory shorebirds in  East Asian–Australasian Flyway could help to conserve a threatened species in a changing environment. Using geolocators, the feeding and resting sites of the migratory Sanderlings were tracked. Five key areas were identified in China for potential conservation or special protection sites as it was shown that the Sanderlings were using the coast of the Yellow Sea as stopover sites. The data was also highlighted as a source of information of how the species will respond to changes in the Flyway habitats.

Predicting poaching hotspots

There have been multiple studies that have used animal movement data to help predict potential poaching hotspots. Explaining the spatial distribution of species affected by poaching can help to manage and protect vulnerable populations. With populations of elephants plummeting in Africa by 100,000 individuals and costing $25 million in lost tourism revenue per annum, studies to better protect this iconic species are desperately needed.  A study of elephant movement in the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe using geographic information systems (GIS) showed that hot spots for poaching of elephants were typically close to water sources and dense vegetation cover. This data could be used to implement anti-poaching initiatives in the areas identified as poaching hotspots.

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Photo by Penny Banham

Revealing new migration routes and managing for development

A ground-breaking study into the migration of Burchell’s zebra in Namibia and Botswana in Africa revealed the longest migration of a terrestrial mammal in 2014. GPS readings from collars attached to the zebras showed a migration that spanned from Namibia to the south of Botswana that was not driven my water or resource availability, but by a genetic or, perhaps, cultural reason for the 500 km migration. The study highlighted the need for animal movement knowledge before development of roads, fences or settlements that could impede the migration. Furthermore, the study provided evidence in supporting the proposed Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area that covered the migration route.

Reducing human-wildlife conflict

One of the main uses of monitoring animal movement is to facilitate the reduction of human-wildlife conflict. Studies into ranging patterns and movement of animals are crucial in areas where the human population is growing and encroaching on wildlife habitat. By tracking wild dogs and dingoes in  Australia, McNeill et al (2016) collected information on home ranges of these animals using GPS collars. It was found that wild dogs and dingoes are often found within an urban-bushland matrix in close proximity to humans. Dingoes and wild dogs pose a risk to human health and safety. However, by tracking their movements for the first time, management efforts could be decided to relocate dingo populations out of urban areas to decrease human-wildlife conflict.

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Photo by Gabriela Dominguez – Flickr

Migratory effects on other wildlife

Animal movements are part of numerous and nested interactions with other species. By researching the movement of certain species, the life history of other species can be delineated. Lee et al (2016) conducted a study that showed that lions were selecting migrating wildebeest and zebra as the prey items instead of giraffe calves, which has a significant effect on giraffe population dynamics. This study highlighted that the decline of migratory populations will have serious consequences on other species population dynamics.

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Photo by MudflapDC – Flickr

Setting hunting quotas

When ungulate populations increase beyond their normative values, serious habitat destruction can accrue. In researching the migratory patterns of male red deer in the Western Carpathians in Slovakia, Kropil et al (2015) were able to suggest hunting options in the region. With data from Konopka and Kastier 2013 which showed that red deer populations were 57% higher than normal and were damaging the forest, Kropil et al (2015) could suggest areas hunting quotas in the winter feeding grounds of the red deer.

The future

It is often assumed that we know where animals travel. What is clear is that we know very little about the journeys of the species on our planet. However, the snapshot of studies covered here has shown how we can use animal movement data to reduce human-wildlife conflict, assign protected areas and understand the life histories of so many species. Perhaps we should follow their journeys and our path to protecting the world’s species may become a little clearer.

Cultural Constructions of ‘Nature’, or; How ‘Natural’ is it really?

“Stowe is not a garden of flowers or shrubs, it’s a garden of ideas”

from Gardens in Time S1E2, Stowe.

On the morning of Sunday the 23rd of January (prior to our field trip to Waddesdon and Stowe Gardens) our BCM class undertook an exercise analysing how we imagine nature. We each mentally conjured up images of nature: subjective of course as they are relative to our past experiences. For me, it materialised as a tranquil English countryside scene – complete with meandering stream, numerous imposing oak trees and a collection of beautiful butterflies, chirping crickets and feisty foxes – as this is the idea of nature I have grown up with in the UK (see picture below for an approximation). This image to me reflects the ‘naturalness’ and untouched qualities of nature. However, I was to learn that things aren’t always what they seem with regard to the ‘natural’ world.

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The English Countryside. Credit: Natural England.

Upon arriving at Stowe, it became apparent that my idea of nature had actually been constructed in the 18th century, with the development of the landscape garden. Stowe is a demonstration of the changes in this movement, as Cobham uses nature to create a powerful, politically charged, and influential gardens, bringing in examples and techniques from Europe and further afield. By introducing new designs such as the Ha-ha (France) and the Serpentine river (Japan) – as well as plenty of Greek and Roman influences seen in the Elysian fields and the statue of Venus – Cobham demonstrated his political ideology and rebellion against the Tory party.

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Ha-ha at Stowe. Credit: Willowbrook Park blog.

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The Serpentine River at Stowe Gardens.

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Statue of Venus at Stowe. Image released under creative commons.

It was during this time period (17th and 18th centuries) that influential British landowners begun to spatially delineate the English countryside in order to gain more power and control. This can be seen at Stowe, where Cobham inserted a thick treeline on the perimeter of his gardens to block the sight of the nearby village of Lamport, as he regarded it as unsightly and not in keeping with the ‘naturalness’ of the gardens. This reinforces the nature/culture binary, as well as the exclusivity of the property.

Some of the most notable features that appear completely incidental to the untrained eye are the serpentine river (actually designed and constructed by Charles Bridgeman to free the garden from the tyranny of geometry and filled with black sand in order to look like the river Styx), the various trees (managed and arranged to perfectly frame Cobham’s imposing military monuments), and the Grecian valley opposite the Temple of Concord and Victory (created with the intention of forming a man-made lake). Thus Cobham manipulated nature in order to demonstrate his political and military achievements to whoever was deemed important enough to be deigned with an invitation to Stowe.

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Lord Cobham’s Pillar.

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Grecian Valley. Credit: Mike Jackson.

As a desired result of this manipulation of nature, Stowe became THE venue for important political discussions, and Cobham would invite some of the most well-known and respected figures from the military, banking and political sectors. Henceforth, investments were discussed and decisions were made that would influence the politics of the Whig party for the next 100 years.

Cobham’s gardens at Stowe are a reflection of both his political ideas and military victories. It is here that nature begins to be interwoven into the rich historical and political tapestry of 18th century England, as Cobham incorporates the former (perhaps rather awkwardly) into the latter, disturbing and blurring the boundaries firmly set in place by the geometrical landscape garden previously dominant in Britain. The result is a co-produced ‘nature’ that is both cultural and natural, serving the purpose of amplifying the cultural successes of military victories and a new politics.

But where does this leave us today? I believe this field trip raised many important questions for today’s conservationists:

  1. To what extent is Nature a cultural construction?
  2. Will our society ever stop viewing Nature as something to be used and manipulated?   And more to the point…
  3. Should it?