How Australia’s animals and plants are changing to keep up with the climate



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Flora and fauna can adapt to climate change, but some are more successful than others.
allstars/shutterstock

Ary Hoffmann, University of Melbourne

Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing Australia’s wildlife, plants and ecosystems, a point driven home by two consecutive years of mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. The Conversation

Yet among this growing destruction there is a degree of resilience to climate change, as Australian animals and plants evolve and adapt.

Some of this resilience is genetic, at the DNA level. Natural selection favours forms of genes that help organisms withstand hotter and drier conditions more effectively.

Over time, the environmental selection for certain forms of genes over others leads to genetic changes. These genetic changes can be complex, involving many genes interacting together, but they are sufficient to make organisms highly tolerant to extreme conditions.

Some of this resilience is unrelated to DNA. These are “plastic” changes – temporary changes in organisms’ physical and biochemical functions that help them deal with adverse conditions or shifts in the timing of environmental events.

Plastic changes occur more quickly than genetic changes but are not permanent – the organisms return to their previous state once the environment shifts back. These changes also may not be enough to protect organisms from even more extreme climates.

What about Australia?

In Australia there is evidence of both genetic and plastic adaptation.

Some of the first evidence of genetic adaptation under climate change have been in vinegar flies on the east coast of Australia. These flies have a gene that encodes the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. This gene has two major forms: the tropical form and the temperate form. Over the past 30 years, the tropical form of the gene has become more common at the expense of the temperate one.

Plastic adaptation due to climate change has been demonstrated in common brown butterflies in southern Australia. Female butterflies are emerging from their cocoons earlier as higher temperatures have been speeding up their growth and development by 1.6 days every decade. According to overseas research, this faster development allows butterfly caterpillars to take advantage of earlier plant growth.

Higher temperatures are causing the common brown butterflies in southern Australia to come out of their cocoons earlier.
John Tann/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In many cases, it is not clear if the adaptation is genetic or plastic.

The average body size of Australian birds has changed over the the past 100 years. Usually, when comparing birds of the same species, birds from the tropics are smaller than those from temperate areas. In several widespread species, however, the birds from temperate areas have recently become smaller. This might be the direct result of environmental changes or a consequence of natural selection on the genes that affect size.

In the case of long-lived species like eucalypts, it is hard to see any adaptive changes. However, there is evidence from experimental plots that eucalypts have the potential to adapt.

Different eucalypt species from across Australia were planted together in experimental forestry plots located in various environments. These plots have unwittingly become climate change adaptation experiments. By monitoring the plots, we can identify species that are better at growing and surviving in extreme climatic conditions.

Plot results together with other forms of DNA-based evidence indicate that some trees unexpectedly grow and survive much better, and are therefore likely to survive into the future.

What’s next?

We still have much to learn about the resilience of our flora and fauna.

There will always be species with low resilience or slow adaptive ability. Nevertheless, plastic and genetic changes can provide some resilience, which will change the predictions of likely losses in biodiversity.

Much like how our worst weeds and pests adapted to local climate conditions, as demonstrated many years ago, our local plants and animals will also adapt.

Species with short generation times – a short time between one generation (the parent) and the next (the offspring) – are able to adapt more quickly than species with longer lifespans and generation times.

For species with short generation times, recent models suggest that the ability to adapt may help reduce the impacts of climate change and decrease local extinction rates.

However, species with long generation times and species that cannot easily move to more habitable environments continue to have a high risk of extinction under climate change.

In those cases, management strategies, such as increasing the prevalence of gene forms helpful for surviving extreme conditions and moving species to locations to which they are better adapted, can help species survive.

Unfortunately, this means doing more than simply protecting nature, the hallmark of our biodiversity strategy to date. We need to act quickly to help our animals and plants adapt and survive.

Ary Hoffmann, Professor, School of BioSciences and Bio21 Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Plastic fantastic: how lotteries could revolutionise recycling



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So many ways to win.
Bignai/Shutterstock.com

Ian A. MacKenzie, The University of Queensland

In July 2018, Queensland will launch a container refund scheme, in a bid to boost recycling and reduce litter and pollution. The Conversation

It will join South Australia, the Northern Territory, New South Wales (later this year) and other places around the world in offering a small refund on all eligible drink containers deposited at designated collection points.

Many of the details have been decided already, including the size of the refund: 10c a bottle.

But is Queensland missing a trick here? Economic evidence suggests that the scheme could be cheaper to run, and boost recycling more, if it was run as a lottery instead, with every recycled bottle representing a “ticket” to a prize draw.

In it to win it

Boosting recycling relies on people changing their behaviour. One of the strongest drivers of behavioural change is economics; that’s why container refund schemes exist at all.

But economists also know that the type and size of this financial reward can have a large bearing on people’s behaviour. For many decades, researchers have focused on working out which rewards prompt the most effort. One key question is whether participants respond better to small, reliable rewards, or to being offered a chance of a big windfall.

Research suggests that contests can be easily designed to incite higher levels of effort than the more humdrum piece-rate rewards. Such contests have already been shown to work well in other environmental contexts, such as allocating pollution permits to companies.

Instead of getting 10c per container, Queenslanders could instead be given an electronic ticket for each container recycled. These tickets – which could perhaps be linked to a householder’s council rates account or other personal identifier – could then be entered into a quarterly lottery. The state government would need to decide on the size and number of prizes, as well as the eligibility rules.

Eyes on the prize

Several benefits are clear. First, there is evidence that it is very easy to incite more recycling using a contest approach.

Lotteries are also more flexible – the prizes can be adjusted relatively easily to increase or decrease participation. If recycling rates are too low, the prize value in the next lottery could be increased. In contrast, adjusting the 10c container refund would be far more difficult once it has already been set up.

The scheme might end up costing less overall, too. As the lottery may have only one prize (or a few), the administrative costs would be minimal compared with a per-unit payment. Depending on the size and number of the prizes, the prize fund could also be smaller than the cost of paying millions of 10c refunds.

Finally, the government can control the geographical placement of container points. This would allow it to influence the number of participants and also the ability to focus on citizens that may have certain preferences for recycling, or risk preferences that enjoy lottery contests. Indeed, research shows that risk attitudes and citizens’ preferences have an important impact on contest outcomes.

Lucky chance

A poorly designed lottery might conceivably work too well – recycling rates might become so high that they overwhelm the infrastructure or cause a glut of recycled materials. This has been shown to be possible when lottery-style contests are used in other environmental regulatory contexts. For example, contests that use pollution reduction as a lottery criterion can be too successful – driving down emissions hugely but at a significant cost to economic output.

Choosing the right-sized prize is crucial. If it’s too small, few people will be enticed to change their behaviour and take part. But if it’s too big, many people might stop using their kerbside recycling facilities altogether, “saving up” their recycling for the lottery. This would present a problem of “additionality”: the scheme would be capturing lots of bottles that would have been recycled anyway.

These are mere details, and the challenges of getting it right shouldn’t stop the Queensland government seriously considering giving the idea a go. It might make recycling a whole lot more exciting.

Ian A. MacKenzie, Senior Lecturer in Economics, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Five golden rules to help solve your recycling dilemmas


Jenni Downes, University of Technology Sydney

Have you ever found yourself facing your recycling bin, completely befuddled about whether or not you can put a particular item in it? You’re not alone. According to Planet Ark, nearly half of Australians find recycling confusing. The Conversation

Australia’s recycling rules can seem horrendously complicated, but fortunately they are becoming more simple.

In the meantime, here’s a brief guide to some of the golden rules of kerbside recycling, plus what to do with materials that can’t go in your recycling bin.



The Conversation, CC BY-ND

As the first rule above says, most papers, plastics, metals and glasses can be recycled, but there are a few exceptions and rules for special handling. To find out more, click on each material below. This will also tell you how else you can recycle the items that can’t go in your kerbside recycling bin.


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Other helpful sources for recycling rules include:

Why do some things need special treatment?

Some items need special handling before they can go in kerbside recycling. These are generally either very small items, or complex/composite items.

Small items, like scraps of paper or foil, steel bottle caps or plastic bottle lids and coffee pods, can cause problems if simply placed in a recycling bin. Because they are small, they can literally fall through the cracks in sorting machines, causing damage to the machines or ending up in landfill.

Combined or composite items are complex items that contain multiple materials, such as newspapers or magazines in plastic wrap, or composite items like Pringles tubes. Automated recycling machines can cope with very small amounts of different materials, such as staples in paper, plastic windows on envelopes, paper labels on glass jars, or slight residues of food on containers. But items with multiple materials can confuse the machines and end up in the wrong category, introducing contamination.

Why is contamination an issue?

Contamination is when things that can’t be recycled through kerbside recycling systems end up in the recycling system.

Contamination can create many problems: recyclable materials may need to be dumped in landfill; the output of recycled materials is less pure; workers at recycling facilities can be put at risk; and in some cases machinery can be damaged. All of these lead to increased costs of recycling that may be passed on to residents.

For example, glass recycling programs are designed only to process glass bottles and jars, which are crushed and then melted down and re-used. Drinking glasses, ceramics, plate glass (window panes) and oven-proof glass melt at higher temperatures than normal glass bottles and jars. When these are incorrectly placed in recycling, this tougher glass can remain solid among the melted glass, leading to impure glass products and damaged machinery.

Better technology is helping to remove contaminants during sorting. But it’s always best to get it right at the source. Planet Ark says that a good recycler’s motto is: “If in doubt, leave it out.”

What about things that can’t be recycled at home?

Just because something can’t be recycled through kerbside collections, that doesn’t mean it can’t be recycled at all.

New channels for recycling more complex items have been pioneered by organisations such as Planet Ark and TerraCycle, as well as by local councils, industry and government under schemes such as the Australian Packaging Covenant and the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme.

Most councils have drop-off locations for larger items that can’t go in kerbside bins, such as electronics, batteries, light bulbs, chemicals and hazardous waste, as well as pickups for white goods and mattresses.

Many supermarkets in metro areas have REDcycle bins that accept soft plastics like plastic bags, soft plastic packaging, biscuit packets and trays, dry cleaning bags, and other “scrunchable” plastics.

Industry take-back programs include Fridge Buy Back, TechCollect for electronics, and ReturnMed for unwanted or expired medicines.

Some big companies now have collection points, such as Ikea which take used batteries, light bulbs, mattresses and allen keys, and Aldi which also takes used batteries.

Free Terracycle recycling programs.
Adapted from TerraCycle (http://www.terracycle.com.au)

Recycling is vital to reducing resource use and waste to landfill, and so getting it right is crucial.

Jenni Downes, Research Consultant, Institute of Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Recycling can be confusing, but it’s getting simpler


Jenni Downes, University of Technology Sydney

At first glance, Australians appear to be good recyclers: ABS figures report that in 2012 about 94% of households participated in some way in kerbside recycling. State waste authorities also report a consistent increase in the volume of materials recovered for recycling. The Conversation

However, these figures do not justify complacency. Our total household waste is increasing and our kerbside recycling rate – the amount of materials collected for recycling as a percentage of the total waste generated – is actually relatively low by global standards, and is only growing slowly.

The recycling rate increased from 45% in 2007 to 51% in 2011, just creeping above the average of 50% across comparable countries.

One reason our kerbside recycling rate isn’t higher is because many people find the rules confusing: a Planet Ark survey found that 48% of Aussies struggle to figure out what can and can’t be recycled, and many incorrectly identified materials that could be recycled. Much of this is likely due to the variation in rules in different places, and the extent to which recycling has changed in the 35 years since it began in Australia.

Many people are confused about what can and can’t be recycled.
Adapted from Planet Ark, 7 Secrets of Successful Recyclers

Why is there variation in recycling rules?

Every local council makes its own decisions about what it collects for recycling, based on factors like population density, economics, local infrastructure and facilities, waste contracting services available, and potential end markets.

For example, the volume and value of recyclables collected from smaller or remote populations might be too low to be economic, once the costs of collection and transport are factored in. In other words, one size will not fit all council areas.

The type of facilities available to a council also affects what can be collected. For example, combination products like Tetra Pak juice cartons are made of multiple materials: cardboard, plastic and foil linings. Specialised machinery is needed to separate the product into its component materials before it can be recycled and this may not be available in all areas.

In the past the variation between councils was big, as some got access to facilities and new technologies quicker than others.

The good news is things are getting simpler as councils move towards much greater consistency. Now more than 80% of people can place the same things in their recycling bins, by following a few golden rules.

How has recycling changed over time?

Household kerbside recycling schemes were introduced in the 1980s, initially in Sydney, and then spread to the other major centres. By the early 1990s nearly half of households had kerbside collections, and by 2014 94% of Australians had access to kerbside recycling.

Early recycling collections used council-provided bags and crates, or boxes or other bins that were provided by the householder. But mobile garbage bins, better known as “wheelie bins”, have steadily gained in popularity and are now the major form of recycling bin provided by councils. This shift was in part driven by waste service contractors desiring greater cost-efficiency.

Initially, recycling had to be sorted into paper and plastic/glass. Over the past 15 years many councils have moved towards “comingled” recycling, in which all recyclables are placed in the one bin. For example, in 2006, only 47% of Sydney councils had comingled recycling, while in 2012, 95% of councils across NSW did.

Research suggests, however, that while comingled recycling is more convenient for households, it leads to lower recovery rates and more contamination than separated recycling.

Again, the shift to comingled recycling is partly due to a desire for reduced costs. While sorting was traditionally done by hand, recycling is increasingly sent straight to automated machines in materials-recovery facilities, which use the physical properties of different materials to separate them from each other.

Is recycling enough?

Like most conversations about recycling, so far we have only discussed the “supply” side: how things get recycled. It is also important to recognise the “demand” side: what happens to recycled material.

A strong recycling system requires a closed loop, where there is demand for products made from recycled material. Increased demand supports a more circular economy by providing an incentive for investment in recycling collection schemes and infrastructure.

People who want to be super successful recyclers can increase demand by “buying back” their recycling; looking for products with recycled content, such as toilet paper, wrapping and copy paper, boxes, plastic containers and packaging, as well as bigger items like outdoor furniture and carpet underlay.

Recycling also needs to be considered in its appropriate place in the scheme of things. While it is extremely important to ensure useful materials don’t go to waste in landfill, many might be surprised to know that recycling sits below a number of waste avoidance actions. Recycling and other waste management should be more of a last line of defence.

The ‘waste hierarchy’ prioritises actions by those with the greatest environmental benefit.
UTS: Institute for Sustainable Futures, CC BY-SA

Most of us only think about recycling when we’re disposing of something. However it’s much more effective to think about recycling where we’re acquiring it. For most of us, that is in the supermarket when buying groceries.

When considering a product, if we think about the waste that will be produced when we get home, we could choose refuse to purchase products with too much packaging, thus reducing the amount of waste that needs to be recycled. Similarly, we could buy reusable items instead of single-use, disposable items.

New social movements are also trying to encourage people to be even more creative about how they can avoid waste, introducing concepts like “repair” and “re-gifting” back into our consciousness. They are trying to create an extended waste hierarchy with more emphasis on waste avoidance.

An extended waste hierarchy, focusing on waste avoidance.
UTS: Institute for Sustainable Futures, CC BY-SA

Recycling is vital to reducing resource use and waste to landfill, and getting it right is crucial. But it’s also important for recycling to take its place alongside waste-avoidance actions for a more sustainable lifestyle.

Jenni Downes, Research Consultant, Institute of Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Conservation efforts must include small animals. After all, they run the world


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Ladybugs stop pests from eating our food and destroying crops.
Flickr/Inhabitat

Michael Samways, Stellenbosch University

Humans like to think that they rule the planet and are hard wired to do so. But our stewardship has been anything but successful. The last major extinction event, 66 million years ago, was caused by a meteorite. But the next mass extinction event, which is under way right now, is our fault. The Conversation

Geologists have even given this era in the history of the Earth a new name to reflect our role: the Anthropocene, the age of humans.

It’s the first time in the history of the Earth in which one species dominates all the others. These “others” numbers are probably around 10 million. The vast majority are the invertebrates, the animals without backbones. Not all are so small – some squids and jellyfish are several metres long or across.

Most, though, are small and unassuming. And they are hidden in plain view. They are busy maintaining the fabric of the world around us. They are the warp and weft of all natural systems. They make the soil, pollinate the flowers, spread seeds, and recycle valuable nutrients back into the soil. They are also food for many birds that are so loved, and keep other small animals in check by eating or parasitising them.

Yet most of us are oblivious of the many roles of these mostly small, even tiny, animals. If all their services were gone tomorrow, many plants would soon go extinct. Crops would be lost overnight. Many birds would die from lack of food, and soil formation would largely halt. The knock-on effects would also be huge as food webs collapse, and the world would quite literally fall apart.

So how can all the small animals be saved?

Saving small animals

Future generations depend on these small animals, so the focus must be on increasing awareness among the young. Research has shown that children are intrinsically interested in what a bee, cricket, butterfly or snail is. Their small world is at the same level as this small world of insects and all their allies without backbones. Yet strangely, while we care about our children, we care so little for all the small creatures on which our children depend on now and into the future.

Children must be shown that the bee is keeping the flowering plant species alive and well, the grasshopper is recycling scarce food requirements for plants, the millipede is making the soil, and the ladybug is stopping pests from eating all our food. Showing children that this miniature world is there, and that it’s crucial, is probably one of the best things to do to help them survive the future in this world of turmoil.

Children need to be shown that the bee is keeping the flowering plant species alive and well to help them understand the importance.
Flickr/RDPixelShop

Being aware of what the various species actually do for maintaining ecosystems is crucial to understanding how complex the world around us is. Pointing out that a bee is intimately connected with flowers and so seeds are produced, and an ant is the cleaner of the forest floor, taking away all the debris from other small animals, and the caterpillar is feeding the soil by pooing on it. Then we can conceptually jump to the whole landscape, where there are millions of little claws, mandibles and tongues holding, munching and sucking nectar all the time, even though we rarely see it happening.

Natural communities

A good way to understand this complexity is to view a small community of 1000 species. This can lead to potentially half a million interactions between the various species. Yet the natural communities around us are usually much larger than that. This makes understanding this world too mind boggling, and conserving its complexity too unwieldy. What this means is that for conservation, while we use conceptual icons, like the bee and the butterfly, the actual aim is to conserve landscapes so that all the natural processes can continue as they would without humans.

Conservationists have developed approaches and strategies that maintain all the natural processes intact in defined areas. The processes that are conserved include behavioural activities, ecological interactions and evolutionary trends. This umbrella approach is highly effective for conserving the great complexity of the natural world. This doesn’t mean that particular species are overlooked.

Small-creature conservationists in reality work on and develop strategies that work at three levels. The first is at the larger scale of the landscape. The second is the medium scale of the features of the landscape, which includes features like logs, ponds, rock crevices, patches of special plants, among many others. The third is the still smaller scale of the actual species.

The third is really about a conceptual scale because some particular species actually need large spatial areas to survive. At this fine scale of species, conservationists focus attention on identified and threatened species that need special attention in their own right. The beautiful Amatola Malachite damselfly, which is endangered, and lives in the Eastern Cape mountains of South Africa, is a case in point.

The common thought is that it’s only tigers, whales and parrots that need conserving. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of small creatures that all need special conservation focus like bees for example. And this focus becomes increasingly and critically important every year, if not every day, that passes. It’s crucial to think and conserve all these small animals that make up the platform for our future survival on the planet.

Time is short as the Anthropocene marches on. Putting in place strategies that conserve as many animals as possible, along with the rest of biodiversity, is not a luxury for the future. New strategies are possible, especially in agricultural and forestry areas where the aim is to optimise production yet maximise on biodiversity conservation and the maintenance of natural ecosystem function.

Michael Samways, Professor, Conservation Ecology & Entomology, Stellenbosch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Galapagos giant tortoises make a comeback, thanks to innovative conservation strategies



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Giant tortoise on Pinzon Island, Galapagos.
Rory Stansbury, Island Conservation/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

James P. Gibbs, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry

The Galapagos Islands are world-famous as a laboratory of biological evolution. Some 30 percent of the plants, 80 percent of the land birds and 97 percent of the reptiles on this remote archipelago are found nowhere else on Earth. Perhaps the most striking example is the islands’ iconic giant tortoises, which often live to ages over 100 years in the wild. Multiple species of these mega-herbivores have evolved in response to conditions on the island or volcano where each lives, generating wide variation in shell shape and size. The Conversation

Over the past 200 years, hunting and invasive species reduced giant tortoise populations by an estimated 90 percent, destroying several species and pushing others to the brink of extinction, although a few populations on remote volcanoes remained abundant.

Remains of tortoises killed by hunters, Galapagos Islands, 1903.
R.H. Beck/Library of Congress

Now however, the tortoise dynasty is on the road to recovery, thanks to work by the Galapagos National Park Directorate, with critical support from nonprofits like the Galapagos Conservancy and advice from an international team of conservation scientists.

Together we are advancing a broad multiyear program called the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, overseen by Washington Tapia, Linda Cayot and myself with major collaboration from Gisella Caccone at Yale University. Using many novel strategies, the initiative helps guide the Galapagos National Park Directorate to restore viable, self-sustaining tortoise populations and recover the ecosystems in which these animals evolved.

Back from the brink

As many as 300,000 giant tortoises once roamed the Galapagos Islands. Whalers and colonists started collecting them for food in the 19th century. Early settlers introduced rats, pigs and goats, which preyed upon tortoises or destroyed their habitat. As a result, it was widely concluded by the 1940s that giant tortoises were headed for oblivion.

After the Galapagos National Park was established in 1959, park guards halted killing of tortoises for food. Next, biologists at what was then known as the Charles Darwin Research Station did the first inventory of surviving tortoises. They also initiated a program to help recover imperiled species.

One species, the Pinzon Island tortoise, had not produced any juveniles for over 100 years because nonnative black rats were preying on hatchlings. In 1965 park guards started methodically removing eggs from tortoise nests, rearing the offspring to “rat-proof” size in captivity and releasing them back into the wild. More than 5,000 young tortoises have been repatriated back to Pinzon Island. Many are now adults. This program is one of the most successful examples of “head-starting” to save a species in conservation history.


Storpilot/Wikipedia

The Española tortoise, which once numbered in the thousands, had been reduced to just 15 individuals by 1960. Park guards brought those 15 into captivity, where they have produced more than 2,000 captive-raised offspring now released onto their home island. All 15 survivors are still alive and reproducing today, and the wild population numbers more than 1,000. This is one of the greatest and least-known conservation success stories of any species.

Eliminating nonnative threats

Over the past 150 years, goats brought to the islands by early settlers overgrazed many of the islands, turning them into dustbowls and destroying forage, shade and water sources that tortoises relied on. In 1997 the Galapagos Conservancy launched Project Isabela, the largest ecosystem restoration initiative ever carried out in a protected area.

Over a decade park wardens, working closely with Island Conservation, used high-tech hunting tactics, helicopter support and Judas goats – animals fitted with radio collars that led hunters to the last remaining herds – to eliminate over 140,000 feral goats from virtually all of the archipelago.

Building on lessons learned from Project Isabela, the Galapagos National Park Directorate and Island Conservation then eradicated nonnative rats from Pinzón Island in 2012, enabling tortoise hatchlings to survive and complete their life cycle again for the first time in a century.

Restoring ecosystems with tortoises

The argument for tortoise conservation has been strengthened by reconceptualizing giant tortoises as agents whose actions shape the ecosystems around them. Tortoises eat and disperse many plants as they move around – and they are more mobile than many people realize. By attaching GPS tags to tortoises, scientists with the Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme have learned that tortoises migrate tens of kilometers up and down volcanoes seasonally to get to new plant growth and nesting sites.

As they move, tortoises crush vegetation. They may be an important factor in maintaining the native savannah-like ecosystems on the islands where they live. When tortoises are scarce, we think that shrubs sprout up, crowding out many herbaceous plants and other animal species.

We need data to support this theory, so we have constructed an elaborate system of “exclosures” on two islands that wall tortoises out of certain areas. By comparing vegetation in the tortoise-free zones to conditions outside of the exclosures, we will see just how tortoises shape their ecosystems.

Restoring ecosystems on islands where tortoises have gone extinct requires more drastic steps. Santa Fe Island lost its endemic giant tortoises more than 150 years ago, and its ecosystems are still recovering from a scourge of goats. Park managers are attempting to restore the island using an “analog,” nonnative species – the genetically and morphologically similar Española tortoise.

In 2015 the Galapagos National Park Directorate released 201 juvenile Española tortoises in the interior of Santa Fe Island. They all appear to have survived their first year there, and 200 more are scheduled for release in 2017. Española tortoises are still endangered, so this strategy has the extra value of creating a reserve population of them on Santa Fe island.

On Pinta Island, which also has lost its endemic tortoise, park managers have released sterilized nonnative tortoises to serve as “vegetation management tools” that can prepare the habitat for future introductions of reproductive tortoises. These initiatives are some of the first-ever to use analog species to jump-start plant community restoration.

Reviving lost species

The endemic tortoises of Floreana Island are also considered to be extinct. But geneticists recently discovered that in a remote location on Isabela Island, tortoises evidently had been translocated from around the archipelago during the whaling era. In a major expedition in 2015, park rangers and collaborating scientists removed 32 tortoises from Isabela Island with shell features similar to the extinct Pinta and Floreana species.

Now the geneticists are exploring the degree of interbreeding of these 32 distinct tortoises between the extinct species and native Wolf Volcano tortoises. We are hoping to find a few “pure” survivors from the extinct species. Careful and selective breeding of tortoises in captivity with significant levels of either Pinta or Floreana ancestry will follow to produce a new generation of young tortoises to be released back on Pinta and Floreana Islands and help their ecosystems recover.

Removing a Wolf Volcano tortoise from Isabela Island for the Floreana tortoise restoration initiative.
Jane Braxton Little, CC BY-NC-ND

Converting tragedy to inspiration

Lonesome George, the last known living Pinta Island giant tortoise, died in 2012 after decades in captivity. His frozen remains were transferred to the United States and taxidermied by world-class experts. In mid-February Lonesome George will be returned to Galapagos once again and ensconced as the focus of a newly renovated park visitation center. Some 150,000 visitors each year will learn the complex but ultimately encouraging story of giant tortoise conservation, and a beloved family member will rest back at home again.

James P. Gibbs, Professor of Vertebrate Conservation Biology and Director of the Roosevelt Wild Life Station, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

India’s militant rhino protectors are challenging traditional views of how conservation works



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Benedikt Saxler / shutterstock

Bhaskar Vira, University of Cambridge

In Kaziranga, a national park in north-eastern India, rangers shoot people to protect rhinos. The park’s aggressive policing is, of course, controversial, but the results are clear: despite rising demand for illegal rhino horn, and plummeting numbers throughout Africa and South-East Asia, rhinos in Kaziranga are flourishing. The Conversation

Yet Kaziranga, which features in a new BBC investigation, highlights some of the conflicts that characterise contemporary conservation, as the need to protect endangered species comes into contact with the lives and rights of people who live in and around the increasingly threatened national parks. India must balance modernisation and development with protections for the rights of local people – all while ensuring its development is ecologically sustainable.

To understand what’s at stake in Kaziranga, consider these three crucial issues:

1. The militarisation of conservation

The BBC feature shows park rangers who have been given the license to “shoot-on-sight”, a power they have used with deadly effect. In 2015 more than 20 poachers were killed – more than the numbers of rhino poached that year.

The programme accuses the rangers of extra-judicial killings of suspected rhino poachers. This resonates with a wider trend in the use of violence in defence of the world’s protected areas and the growing use of military surveillance technologies to support the efforts of conservation agencies.

In India, the Forest Department, which is responsible for the protection of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, has always been a “uniformed” service. Rangers wear military-style khakis, are allowed to carry arms, and have powers to prosecute offenders. Recently, the government allowed them to use drones as an anti-poaching measure in Kaziranga.

To justify such escalation and its talk of a “war” against poaching, the government cites the growing power and sophistication of the crime syndicates involved in the illegal wildlife trade. However, as with all wars, a serious conflict over rhinos risks collateral damage. The worry is that increased militarisation is not conducted within strict legal limits or subject to judicial scrutiny. The BBC alleges that such checks and balances were not in place in Kaziranga.

2. The rights of local and indigenous populations

The BBC story also points to the growing conflict in and around Kaziranga between the interests and rights of local and indigenous people and the need to protect threatened species. Groups including Survival International – which features in the BBC story – claim that well-meaning conservation projects have denied and undermined the rights of indigenous groups around the world. The group calls for these rights to be placed at the heart of modern approaches to conservation – and most enlightened environmentalists now agree. It’s increasingly hard to look at conservation without also considering human rights and social issues.

Kaziranga is also home to tigers, elephants, buffalo and these swamp deer.
kongsak sumano

The context for these struggles in India is the colonial legacy of forest settlement, which reserved forests for the imperial state, but failed to take account of the rights of people who already lived there. This injustice was recognised in 2006, in landmark legislation known colloquially as the Forest Rights Act, which restored both individual and community rights based on evidence of historic access and use.

Yet there remains significant tension between India’s wildlife conservation lobby, which perceives the Forest Rights Act as the death-knell for nature, and groups such as Survival International which argue that it is only by recognising the rights of local people that the country’s wildlife will be protected.

3. Can we keep expanding protected areas?

To protect threatened species across the world, conservationists have called for more and more land to be placed under protection. Renowned biologist EO Wilson, for instance, wants us to set aside “half the planet”.

In an unconstrained world, dedicating half the earth to the protection of the most threatened species and the world’s important habitats might seem like a sensible way to avoid the risks of what people fear might trigger the next great extinction. In reality, there are few places left where such a proposal might practically be implemented.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in rapidly developing India. The country already has a population of 1.3 billion – and it aspires to both develop as a global economic powerhouse and lift its poorest people out of poverty. This development requires land and resources, with little space left for nature.

Plans to double the size of Kaziranga means villagers are being displaced with little due process and there are documented cases of violence and even death. This is a violent “green grab”, where land is usurped for ostensibly progressive environmental objectives, but which results in the dispossession of some of the most vulnerable people on this planet.

Kaziranga illustrates the dilemmas of contemporary conservation. If it is to be successful, environmentalism in India must be seen as part of the changing social and economic context, and not set itself up in opposition to these wider trends.

Conservation needs to recognise the need to build bridges, sometimes with its fiercest critics. While Kaziranga is in many ways a remarkable conservation success, its costs are considerable. The forces driving the world to overuse its resources haven’t gone away, and finding sustainable futures for both people and the planet requires coalitions that work together – let’s begin with Kaziranga.

Bhaskar Vira, Reader in Political Economy at the Department of Geography and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College; Director, University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.