Here’s how your holiday photos could help save endangered species



Zephyr_p/Shutterstock

Kasim Rafiq, Liverpool John Moores University

Animal populations have declined on average by 60% since 1970, and it’s predicted that around a million species are at risk of extinction. As more of the Earth’s biodiversity disappears and the human population grows, protected landscapes that are set aside to conserve biodiversity are increasingly important. Sadly, many are underfunded – some of Africa’s most treasured wildlife reserves operate in funding deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars.

In unfenced wilderness, scientists rarely have an inventory on the exact numbers of species in an area at a particular time. Instead they make inferences using one of many different survey approaches, including camera traps, track surveys, and drones. These methods can estimate how much and what kind of wildlife is present, but often require large amounts of effort, time and money.

Camera traps are placed in remote locations and activated by movement. They can collect vast quantities of data by taking photographs and videos of passing animals. But this can cost tens of thousands of dollars to run and once in the wild, cameras are at the mercy of curious wildlife.

Track surveys rely on specialist trackers, who aren’t always available and drones, while promising, have restricted access to many tourism areas in Africa. All of this makes wildlife monitoring difficult to carry out and repeat over large areas. Without knowing what’s out there, making conservation decisions based on evidence becomes almost impossible.

Citizen science on Safari

Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the world – 42m people visited sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 alone. Many come for the unique wildlife and unknowingly collect valuable conservation data with their phones and cameras. Photographs on social media are already being used to help track the illegal wildlife trade and how often areas of wilderness are visited by tourists.

Despite this, tourists and their guides are still an overlooked source of information. Could your holidays snaps help monitor endangered wildlife? In a recent study, we tested exactly this.

Partnering with a tour operator in Botswana, we approached all guests passing through a safari lodge over three months in the Okavango Delta and asked them if they were interested in contributing their photographs to help with conservation. We provided those interested with a small GPS logger – the type commonly used for tracking pet cats – so that we could see where the images were being taken.

We then collected, processed, and passed the images through computer models to estimate the densities of five large African carnivore species – lions, spotted hyaenas, leopards, African wild dogs and cheetahs. We compared these densities to those from three of the most popular carnivore survey approaches in Africa – camera trapping, track surveys, and call-in stations, which play sounds through a loudspeaker to attract wildlife so they can be counted.

The tourist photographs provided similar estimates to the other approaches and were, in total, cheaper to collect and process. Relying on tourists to help survey wildlife saved up to US$840 per survey season. Even better, it was the only method to detect cheetahs in the area – though so few were sighted that their total density couldn’t be confirmed.

Thousands of wildlife photographs are taken every day, and the study showed that we can use statistical models to cut through the noise and get valuable data for conservation. Still, relying on researchers to visit tourist groups and coordinate their photograph collection would be difficult to replicate across many areas. Luckily, that’s where wildlife tour operators could come in.

Tour operators could help collect tourist images to share with researchers. If the efforts of tourists were paired with AI that could process millions of images quickly, conservationists could have a simple and low-cost method for monitoring wildlife.

Tourist photographs are best suited for monitoring large species that live in areas often visited by tourists – species that tend to have high economic and ecological value. While this method perhaps isn’t as well suited to smaller species, it can still indirectly support their conservation by helping protect the landscapes they live in.

The line between true wilderness and landscapes modified by humans is becoming increasingly blurred, and more people are visiting wildlife in their natural habitats. This isn’t always a good thing, but maybe conservationists can use these travels to their advantage and help conserve some of the most iconic species on our planet.The Conversation

Kasim Rafiq, Postdoctoral Researcher in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Liverpool John Moores University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Dog owners could take the lead on dingo conservation with a ‘Fido fund’



Dingo puppers. A small levy on dog costs could help create more ethical management of dingoes.
Shutterstock

Neil R Jordan, UNSW and Rob Appleby, Griffith University

Humans and dogs go way back. From wolf totems to the big bad wolf of fact and fairy tale, through sheepdogs, lap dogs, and labradoodles, our relationships with these animals are complex, emotionally charged and sometimes contradictory.

The split between humanity’s lavishing of affection on domestic dogs and our contrasting animosity towards their wild relatives is well-documented. But what of domestic dogs and dingoes?

Our research, published today, found similarly contrasting relationships in Australia, where the dingo, Australia’s native dog, is frequently killed for management. We suggest that an inexpensive “dingo conservation levy” on domestic dog costs could fund more ethical management of dingoes. In this way our affection for domestic dogs could be harnessed to improve conservation outcomes for their wild relatives.

Dingoes have an ecotourism appeal in places like K’gari (Fraser Island)
Shutterstock

Canine economics

Australians collectively spend over A$10 billion each year on their domestic dogs – housing, feeding, and sometimes even giving them the status of honorary family members. Meanwhile, government and landowners jointly spend at least A$30 million on large-scale exclusion fencing and lethal control of dingoes.

Industry funded research suggests that dingoes killing livestock, especially sheep, and efforts to control dingoes, cost at least A$145 million annually. What’s more, such losses also come with psychological stress, which you can’t always put a price on.

Other research suggests dingoes, as top predators, provide considerable economic benefits. For example, dingoes prey upon kangaroos and other herbivores that may compete with livestock for food and water. In fact, some estimates suggest dingoes improve gross margins by $0.83 per hectare in this context.

They also help biodiversity by suppressing feral cats and foxes, and dingoes have considerable ecotourism appeal in locations like K’gari (Fraser Island) and Kakadu National Park.

Managing dingoes

Australia’s current approach to dingo management highlights the paradox of an animal viewed both as a valuable native predator that should be conserved, and as a pest to be destroyed. And this makes it a nightmare to manage.

The dingo fence stretches for thousands of kilometres in the Australian outback to try to keep dingoes away from sheep and livestock.
Shutterstock

Current dingo management relies heavily on exclusion fencing and lethal control, and around 200kg of 1080 powder (poison) is administered to baits and peppered across the continent annually.

Countless bullets are also fired, and traps set, as the lion’s share of management budgets is allocated to business as usual. To break this deadly cycle, there is a clear need to provide farmers and governments with good evidence that different approaches could work. This can only be done through substantial parallel investment in robust, independent experimental tests of alternative approaches.

Despite broad support in society for non-lethal management, accessing sufficient funds to support such a transition remains challenging.

A modest dingo conservation levy could fund this. With a levy on the A$10 billion domestic dog industry, we could harness humanity’s affinity for domestic dogs to improve conservation and welfare outcomes for their wild counterparts.

It wouldn’t need to be prohibitively expensive either.

A levy on the sale of pet dogs, dog food, or both, of only about 0.3% of the amount that pet owners spend on this annually – or A$7.36 per dog – would generate A$30 million each year.

That is similar to the lowest estimates of current national spending on dingo control, which means we would potentially see the current spending doubled.

Why should dog owners pick up the tab?

Applying a levy to all dog owners may seem unfair, and perhaps it is. But as Australia’s “dingo problem” is, arguably, at least in part caused by domestic dogs gone feral, such a levy would seem no more unfair on conscientious dog owners than third-party insurance is on careful drivers.

Given that pet owners tend to view wild animals more positively and show more concern for their welfare, such a levy might actually be well received by dog-owners anyway.

An alternative approach might be to seek the voluntary involvement of pet-food manufacturers in such a scheme, giving consumers choice over whether to support it.

Dog-lovers generally also love wild animals, and may be happy to pick up the costs for ethical dingo conservation.
Shutterstock

A dingo conservation levy – perhaps supplemented by a voluntary fund for donors without dogs – might also be more acceptable and attractive if it were clear the funds would be specifically channelled towards research and uptake of non-lethal tools.

Generally, we are broadly in favour of any techniques designed to reduce the animosity towards dingoes, reduce the costs and negative impacts of living alongside them, and boost the positive effects dingoes have on ecosystems.

As some have already argued, they are all dogs at the end of the day. Perhaps then it is time that we treated them as such.


We would like to gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Mike Letnic, Henry Brink, Brad Purcell and Hugh Webster to this article.The Conversation

Neil R Jordan, Lecturer, UNSW and Rob Appleby, PhD student at the Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Death by 775 cuts: how conservation law is failing the black-throated finch


April Reside, The University of Queensland and James Watson, The University of Queensland

Nearly 20 years ago, Australia adopted national environmental legislation that was celebrated widely as a balanced response to Australia’s threatened species crisis. In the same year, Queensland introduced its Vegetation Management Act. Together, these laws were meant to help prevent further extinctions.

But have they worked?

A famous finch

We investigated whether these laws had successfully protected the habitat of the endangered southern black-throated finch.

Our study found that, despite being nominally protected under federal environmental law, habitat for the species has continued to be cleared. Just three out of 775 development applications that potentially impacted the endangered southern black-throated finch were knocked back, according to our new research.




Read more:
Queensland coal mines will push threatened finch closer to extinction


Defining exactly what is habitat for the black-throated finch is tricky – we don’t have oodles of data on their habitat use over time, and the extent of their sightings has declined substantially. But Queensland has excellent vegetation mapping, and we recorded all of the vegetation types in which the southern black-throated finch has been seen.

We then mapped the extent of this habitat in three different time periods: historically; at the advent of the environmental laws (2000); and current day.

Clear danger

We found that most of the black-throated finch’s habitat had been cleared before 2000, mainly for agriculture before the mid-1970s. The black-throated finch hasn’t been reliably seen in New South Wales since 1994 and is listed there as “presumed extinct”.

We looked at all the development proposals since 2000 that were referred to the federal government due to their potential impact on threatened species. 775 of these development proposals overlapped areas of potential habitat for the black-throated finch.

Only one of these projects – a housing development near Townsville – was refused approval because it was deemed to have a “clearly unacceptable” impact to the black-throated finch.

In addition to these projects, over half a million hectares of the cleared habitat were not even assessed under federal environmental laws.

We estimate that the species remains in just 12% of its original range. Yet despite this, our study shows that the habitat clearing is still being approved within the little that is left.

So in theory, Australia’s and Queensland’s laws protect endangered species habitat. But in practice, a lot has been lost.

Critical habitat

The highest-profile development proposal to impinge on black-throated finch habitat loss is Adani’s Carmichael coalmine and rail project. Adani has been given approval to clear or otherwise impact more than 16,000 hectares of black-throated finch habitat, a third of which Adani deemed “critical habitat” But there are four other mines in the Galilee Basin that have approved the clearing of more than 29,000 ha in total of black-throated finch habitat.

But it’s not just the mines. In 2018 the federal government approved clearing of black-throated finch habitat for a housing estate and a sugar cane farm, both near Townsville. Several solar farms have also been proposed that would clear black-throated finch habitat around Townsville.

To further complicate matters, the black-throated finch’s habitat is also threatened with degradation by cattle grazing. The finch needs year-round access to certain grass seeds, so where grazing has removed the seeding part of the grasses, made the ground too hard, or caused the proliferation of introduced grasses such as buffel, the habitat suitability can decrease until it is no longer able to support black-throated finches.

So while they are losing their high-quality habitat to development, a lot of their habitat is being degraded elsewhere.

Heavy cattle grazing degrades habitat for the southern black-throated finch by removing edible grass seeds.
April Reside

The federal government has placed conditions on approved clearing of black-throated finch habitat, often including “offsetting” of any habitat loss. But securing one part of the black-throated finch’s habitat in exchange for losing another still means there is less habitat. This is particularly problematic when the lost habitat is of very high quality, as is the case for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine lease.

Little by little

Our research suggests there is a real danger of the black-throated finch suffering extinction by a thousand cuts – or perhaps 775 cuts, in this case. Each new development approval may have a relatively modest impact in isolation, but the cumulative effect can be devastating. This may explain why a stronger environmental response has not occurred so far.




Read more:
Does ‘offsetting’ work to make up for habitat lost to mining?


So how can we prevent the black-throated finch from going extinct? The finch is endangered because its habitat continues to be lost. So its recovery relies upon halting the ongoing loss of habitat – and ultimately, increasing it. Achieving this would require a political willingness to prioritise endangered species protection.

Australia has already lost hundreds of its unique plants and animals forever. In just the last few years, we have seen more mammals and reptiles disappear to extinction. If we continue on our current path, the southern black-throated finch could be among the next to go.The Conversation

April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland and James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ten feelgood environment stories you may have missed in 2018



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The Epic Duck Challenge: one of 2018’s happier environment stories.
Jarrod Hodgson, Author provided

Michael Hopkin, The Conversation

Let’s be honest – environment news isn’t always the jolliest, and 2018 was no exception. From climate change, to recycling, to energy policy, at times it has felt like we’ve been lurching from one crisis to the next.

So here are ten upbeat environmental stories from this year that prove it’s not all doom and gloom.


Cane toads cracked

In September, scientists announced they have decoded the cane toad genome, potentially paving the way for new weapons to repel the slimy invaders.

The successful effort potentially makes it easier to identify viruses that can be used to attack the toxic toads.

Cracking the cane toad genome.

Bears on the mend

The treatment of bears imprisoned in Asian bile farms is heartbreaking. But the good news is they can recover from their ordeal if given the right care during rehabilitation, going on to lead relatively stress-free lives even after years of torture.


Tasty trick

Blockchain isn’t just for bitcoin and other clever stuff best left to the financial experts. It can also help tackle illegal tuna fishing, helping to ensure the fish on your dish is more sustainable and bringing much-needed transparency to an important global industry.


Why did the fish cross the road?

Crossing roads is hard enough if you have legs. You might think it’s impossible for fish, and technically you’d be right. But Queensland researchers have invented a device that lets fish do the next best thing: swim upstream through culverts beneath the road, even if they’re facing a raging torrent in the opposite direction.

A breakthrough for fish.

Epic feat

The excitingly named “epic duck challenge” proved that drones can do an even better job of surveying wildlife than human scientists. This development should help this under-resourced area of research finally take flight (sorry).


Hey, good lookin’

And before we leave the animal stories, there’s just time to take you back inside the world of million-dollar beauty pageants… for camels. We guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

Ready to wow the judges.
Mahmood Al amri and Jaime Gongora, Author provided

Feeling the energy

Yes, it was a spirit-sapping year for energy policy, with one round of bickering after another. But throughout the year, South Australia’s big battery has been quietly kicking goals.

It celebrated its birthday in late November, and although questions remain over what will happen when its battery packs need replacing, it made A$13 million during the first half of 2018, and has generally been a roaring success considering that it owes its existence to some billionaires’ banter on Twitter.


Grounds for optimism

Your coffee habit could do more than give you a pick-me-up. Used coffee grounds can boost the health of your garden too, as long as you compost them first.


Contain your excitement

And if you’re more of a cola drinker, take heart in the fact that container deposit schemes really do help reduce the amount of plastic in the oceans, by as much as 40% off the US and Australian coasts. We’ll drink to that.


And… breathe

The holiday season is traditionally a time to draw breath and recoup for the new year. So you might like to meditate on the fact that our breath (and other animals’ too) literally helps trees to grow.

And if you like thinking about trees, why not sign up to our Beating Around the Bush series, with plenty more uplifting musings on some of Australia’s favourite species.The Conversation

Michael Hopkin, Editor: Energy + Environment, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The small patch of bush over your back fence might be key to a species’ survival


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A kangaroo finds refuge in a small patch of vegetation surrounded by a new housing estate.
Georgia Garrard, Author provided

Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne and Sarah Bekessy, RMIT University

It may not look like a pristine expanse of Amazon rainforest or an African savannah, but the patch of bush at the end of the street could be one of the only places on the planet that harbour a particular species of endangered animal or plant.

Our newly published global study of the conservation value of landscapes in 27 countries across four continents has found these small patches of habitat are critical to the long-term survival of many rare and endangered species.

In Australia, our cities are home to, on average, three times as many threatened species per unit area as rural environments. This means urbanisation is one of the most destructive processes for biodiversity.

It tends to be the smaller patches of vegetation that go first, making way for a housing development, a freeway extension, or power lines. Despite government commitments to enhance the vegetation cover of urban areas and halt species extinctions, the loss of vegetation in Australian cities continues.




Read more:
We’re investing heavily in urban greening, so how are our cities doing?


This story plays out all over the world day after day. Of course, it’s not just an urban story. Patches of rural vegetation are continually making way for, say, a new pivot irrigation system or a new mine to provide local jobs.

Remnant salmon gum woodland surrounded by cropland near Bencubbin in Western Australia’s northeast wheatbelt.
Mike Griffiths, Author provided

Mostly, policymakers and scientists do not consider these losses to be, on their own, a fatal blow to the biodiversity of a region or country. Small, often isolated patches of vegetation are considered expendable, tradeable, of limited ecological value due to their small size and relatively large amount of “edgy” habitat. Wrong.

Research forces a rethink

Our study analysed the relationship between conservation value of vegetation patches and their size and isolation in landscapes across Europe, Australia, North America and Africa. The findings prompt a rethink of long-held views about the relative importance of small, isolated habitat patches for biodiversity conservation. We show that these patches often have unique ecological and environmental characteristics.

The critically endangered Western Ringtail Possum lives mainly in small habitat patches in or around urban areas near Perth and is under intense pressure from housing development, foxes, cats and dogs.
Yokochi K., Bencini R./Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

That’s because they are the last patches left over from extensive clearing of flat, fertile land for agriculture or urban growth close to rivers and bays. They often contain habitats for rare or endangered species that have disappeared from the rest of the landscape. This makes these small, isolated patches of habitat disproportionately important for the survival of many species.

Our study calls for a rethink of urban planning and vegetation management regulations and policies that allow small patches of vegetation to be destroyed with lower (and often zero) scrutiny. We argue that the environment is suffering a death by a thousand cuts. The existence of large conservation reserves doesn’t compensate for the small patches of habitat being destroyed or degraded because those reserves tend to contain different species to the ones being lost.

The combined impact of the loss of many small patches is massive. It’s a significant contributor to our current extinction crisis.




Read more:
Let’s get this straight, habitat loss is the number-one threat to Australia’s species


Why are small patches seen as dispensable?

A key variable used in decisions on vegetation-clearing applications is the size of patch being destroyed. Authorities that regulate vegetation management and approve applications are more permissive of destruction of small patches of vegetation.

This is partly due to a large body of ecological theory known as island biogeography theory and subordinate theories from metapopulation ecology and landscape ecology. These theories suggest that species richness and individual species’ population sizes depend on the degree of isolation of the patch, its size and the quality of the habitat it contains.

While it is crucial that we conserve large, intact landscapes and wilderness, the problem with conserving only large and well-connected patches of high-quality vegetation is that not all species will be conserved. This is because some species exist only in small, isolated and partially degraded habitats, such as those characteristic of urban bushlands or remnant bush in agricultural areas.

A remnant wetland is still valuable habitat for species like the Pacific Heron.
Wayne Butterworth/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

For this reason, we highlight the importance of protecting and restoring habitats in these small isolated patches. And these areas do tend to be more vulnerable to invasion by weeds or feral animals. If the impacts of invasive species are not managed, they will eventually lead to the destruction of the habitat values and the loss of the species those habitats support.

Small and isolated patches of vegetation on the urban fringe are under enormous pressure from human use, pets, escaped seed of Agapanthus and the many other invasive species we plant in our gardens. These plants spread into local bushland, where they outcompete the native plants.

Communities can make a difference

As well as these perils, being on the urban fringe also brings opportunity. If a remnant patch of vegetation at the end of the street is seen to be of national environmental importance, that presents a great opportunity to channel the energies of community groups into conserving and restoring these patches.

A patch that is actively cared for by the community will provide better habitat for species. It’s also less likely to fall foul of development aspirations or infrastructure projects. The vicious cycle of degradation and neglect of small patches of habitat can be converted into a virtuous cycle when their value is communicated and local communities get behind preserving and managing them.

Volunteer community groups can play a vital role in preserving and enhancing small habitat patches.
Robin Clarey, Friends of Edithvale Seaford Wetlands, Author provided

Urban planners and developers can get on board too. Rather than policies that enable the loss of vegetation in urban areas, we should be looking at restoring habitats in places that have lost or are losing them. This is key to designing healthy, liveable cities as well as protecting threatened species.

Biodiversity-sensitive urban design makes more of local vegetation by complementing the natural remnant patches with similar habitat features in the built environment, while delivering health and well-being benefits to residents. Urban development should be seen as an opportunity to enhance biodiversity through restoration, instead of an inevitable driver of species loss.




Read more:
Here’s how to design cities where people and nature can both flourish


The Conversation


Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne and Sarah Bekessy, Professor, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dynasties: Lions may disappear without urgent funding for conservation


Niki Rust, Newcastle University

In part three of the BBC’s new nature series Dynasties, the protagonists, Charm and Sienna, show us how hard it is to be a successful lioness in a land filled with enemies.

Under constant threat of marauding hyenas and cub-killing male lions, the two mothers have to fight for their lives to ensure their offspring have a chance of making it to adulthood. But the episode also shows us that the biggest enemy of lions isn’t other wild predators – it’s humans.

Down from as many as 200,000 lions a century ago, some experts believe that we could now have as few as 20,000 individuals remaining in the wild – and that number is likely to be falling by the day. Worryingly, the general public are mostly unaware of their precarious conservation status. We have done a bad job of showing the perilous state of these big cats.

The lion’s kingdom under siege

Lions face attack by humans on many fronts. Panthera, a wild cat conservation organisation, believes the most serious causes for their decline include habitat loss, humans killing them to protect their livestock, wild prey depletion, accidental snaring, poorly managed trophy hunting and the illegal wildlife trade.

Since their threats are so varied, there is no single solution for protecting lions and overcoming these threats will be no mean feat. It will require locally-tailored solutions that fit each specific context. For instance, for lions that reside alongside people in areas outside national parks, research has shown that it is absolutely vital to reduce the perceived costs of lions to local people, like livestock depredation, while increasing their benefits, such as income from photographic tourism or trophy hunting.

Tourists gather to spot lions on safari in the Maasai Mara park.
Wikimedia Commons/Bjørn Christian Tørrissen., CC BY-SA

For lions inside protected areas, some experts argue that we must fence lions in to stop them causing problems with people. However, this has earned criticism from others, who believe that fences incur significant ecological and economic costs by disrupting the migration of herbivores. The issue over “to fence or not to fence” has turned into a bit of cat fight and shows the political nuances and ecological complexities of conserving such a charismatic species.

In a bold attempt to reunite conservationists, Pride, the Lion Conservation Alliance, has brought together five lion NGOs to pool their efforts and share funding. It may come as no surprise that, like the species they’re fighting to conserve, they have realised the benefits of coming together and working as a team rather than competing.

A lion always pays his debts

Focusing on lion populations in Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, their community conservation efforts empower locals to be stewards of wildlife. By turning lion poachers into guardians, their initiatives have reduced lion killing by up to 99% in some of the areas in which they work.

By building on the cultural significance of lion hunts, young warriors that would usually show their bravery by killing lions are now employed to track lions and monitor their activities. They also inform their community if lions are approaching so that farmers can guard their livestock.

While TV shows such as Dynasties are helping to raise the profile of this threatened carnivore, what the lion needs now more than anything is funding. Conserving lions is an expensive business: one recent paper showed that to effectively manage the protected areas where lions currently reside would require a whopping US$0.9 billion to US$2.1 billion in additional income per year – on top of the money that is already raised.

The areas where lions are known to have lived in the past (red) versus where they survive today (blue).
Wikimedia Commons/Tommyknocker.

Where this cash comes from remains a bit of a mystery. We have to go beyond financing conservation from the meagre income of photographic tourism in national parks. Solutions could involve more corporate partnerships and financially linking lion lovers in the West to Africans living with lions.

An idea from Sir David Attenborough himself argues that companies that use lions in their marketing should pay for lion conservation. What is abundantly clear is that if we want lions to have a future, we must start stumping up the cash for their conservation.

Many commentators have suggested BBC’s Dynasties takes on the gripping, conflict-ridden format of storytelling that Game of Thrones perfected. If this is the case, humans would surely play the vicious and selfish King Joffrey. It is us, after all, who terrorise lions the most. But it is us, too, who have the power to guarantee their survival.The Conversation

Niki Rust, Postdoctoral Researcher, Newcastle University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Trails on trial: which human uses are OK for protected areas?



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Mountain biking seems harmless but can damage soil and scare wildlife.
Pixabay

Bill Laurance, James Cook University and David Salt, Australian National University

There’s no question about it: parks and protected areas are the absolute cornerstone of our efforts to protect nature. In the long term, we can’t save wildlife and ecosystems without them.

But people want to use parks too, and in rapidly growing numbers. Around the world, parks are destinations for recreational activities like hiking, bird-watching and camping, as well as noisier affairs such as mountain-biking, snowmobiling and four-wheel-driving.

Where do we draw the line?

Road risks

Let’s start by looking at the roads that take us into and through parks. They can be a double-edged sword.

Roads are needed to allow tourists to access parks, but we have to be very careful where and how we build them.

Road for an industrial gold mine slicing through Panamanian rainforest.
Susan Laurance

In regions where law enforcement is weak, roads can rip apart a forest — sharply increasing illegal activities such as poaching, deforestation and mining.

According to my (Bill’s) research, new roads – often driven by foreign mining or timber investors from nations such as China – could damage up to a third of all the protected areas in sub-Saharan Africa.




Read more:
The global road-building explosion is shattering nature


In Nouabale Ndoke Park in the Congo Basin, poaching wasn’t a big problem until a new road was built along the edge of the park.

Suddenly the fatal rak-rak-rak of AK-47 rifles – often aimed at elephants by ivory poachers – was being heard all too often.

Bill Laurance examines a forest elephant slaughtered by poachers in the Congo. The elephant’s face had been hacked off to extract its valuable ivory tusks.
Mahmoud Mahmoud

Trails on trial

Roads are one thing, but what about a simple bike trail or walking track? They let in people too. But they are harmless, right?

Not always. A 2010 Canadian study found that mountain biking causes a range of environmental impacts, including tyres chewing up the soil, causing compaction and erosion. This is a significant problem for fragile alpine vegetation in mountainous areas where many bikers like to explore.

Rapidly moving cyclists can also scare wildlife. In North America and Europe, many wild species, such as bears, wolves, caribou and bobcats, have been shown to flee or avoid areas frequented by hikers or bikers.

In Indonesia, even trails used by ecotourists and birdwatchers scared away some sensitive wildlife species or caused them to shift to being active only at night.

The red panda, an endangered species. Some wildlife avoid areas with even limited human use.
Pixabay

Every type of human activity – be it hiking or biking or horse riding — has its own signature impact on nature. We simply don’t know the overall effect of human recreation on parks and protected areas globally.

However, a study earlier this year found that roughly one-third of all terrestrial protected areas worldwide – a staggering 6 million square kilometres, an area bigger than Kenya – is already under “intense” human pressure.




Read more:
One-third of the world’s nature reserves are under threat from humans


Roads, mines, industrial logging, farms, townships and cities all threaten these supposedly protected places. And on top of that are the impacts – probably lesser but still unquantified – of more benign human activities aimed at enjoying nature.

Keep people out?

Is the answer to stop people from visiting parks?

Not really. Visitors in many parts of the world help to fund the operation of national parks, and provide vital income for local people.

Exposure to nature is also one of the best ways to enhance human health, build support for environmental protection, and generate political momentum for the establishment of new protected areas.

A hiker in the Leuser Ecosystem, Indonesia.
William Laurance

What’s more, locking people out of land is a very unpopular thing to do. Governments that block people from accessing nature reserves often face an electoral backlash.

How to manage humanity

If we accept that people must be able to use parks, what’s the best way to limit their impacts on ecosystems and wildlife? One way is to encourage them to stay on designated trails and tourist routes.

A recent study (using geotagged data from photos) showed that half of all photos by park visitors were taken in less than 1% of each park.

In other words, most visitors use only a small, highly trafficked part of each park. That’s good news for nature.

If people tend to limit their activities to the vicinity of pretty waterfalls, spectacular vistas, and designated hiking areas, that leaves much of the park available for sensitive animals and ecosystems.

Forest elephants in Central Africa. In the past decade, two-thirds of all forest elephants have been wiped out by poachers and expanding roads.
Thomas Breuer/ Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

There are many opportunities for practical science and management. We want to help design protected areas in a way that lets people enjoy them – but which also focuses their activities in particular areas while retaining large intact areas where wildlife can roam free with little human disturbance.

And while we’re designing our parks, we want to use every opportunity, and every visit, to educate and empower tourists. We need people using parks to understand, appreciate, and stand up for nature, rather than thinking of parks as simply playgrounds.The Conversation

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University and David Salt, Science writer and editor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.