Australia among the world’s worst on biodiversity conservation



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A long-term monitoring project in Simpson Desert provides crucial information about the ecosystem.
Mina Guli/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Noel D Preece, James Cook University

Australia is among the top seven countries worldwide responsible for 60% of the world’s biodiversity loss between 1996 and 2008, according to a study published last week in the journal Nature.

The researchers examined the conservation status of species in 109 countries and compared that to conservation funding. Australia ranks as the second worst of the group, with a biodiversity loss of 5-10%.

The study clearly linked adequate conservation funding to better species survival, which makes it all the more concerning that one of Australia’s most valuable national environmental monitoring programs will lose funding next month.


Read more: We need our country; our country needs us


Established in 2011, the long-term ecological research network (LTERN) monitors alpine grasslands, tall wet forests, temperate woodlands, heathlands, tropical savannas, rainforests and deserts. It coordinates 1,100 monitoring sites run by numerous researchers, bringing together decades of experience. There’s nothing else like it in Australia, and at an annual cost of A$1.5 million it delivers extraordinary value for money.

Long term ecological research stations across Australia.
TERN

The value of long-term research

Our continent has a hyper-variable environment, with catastrophic bushfires, alarming species extinctions, and widespread loss of habitat.


Read more: Half the world’s ecosystems at risk from habitat loss, and Australia is one of the worst


In the battle to manage and predict the future of our ecosystems, the LTERN punches above its weight.

In the Northern Territory it was long thought that the ecosystems centred on Kakadu National Park were intact. But instead, long-term monitoring showed alarming and unexpected crashes towards extinction of native mammals of the region since the 1990s, driven by fire regime changes, feral animals, disease, cane toads, climate change and grazing.

Likewise, the 70-year-old network of monitoring sites in Australia’s alpine regions revealed the impact of climate change on flowering pollination, and the fact that livestock grazing actually increases fire risk. Without these insights it would not be possible to manage these ecosystems sustainably.

In the Simpson Desert – the only LTERN site that captures the remote outback – the dynamic of boom and bust has been monitored since 1990. It reveals a long-running and cyclical explosion of life. Intermittent downpours support flushes of wildflowers, booming marsupial populations and flocks of budgerigars, which are then ravaged by feral foxes and cats. Spending only one year in the desert would mean missing this dynamic, which has driven dozens of native species to extinction.

Several of these monitoring sites are likely to close when funding stops next month, as alternative support is not available. Without the network, coordination among the remaining sites will become much harder.

We should be able to predict environmental changes

The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme, which ultimately funds the LTERN, has called for the development of a national environmental prediction system to forecast ecosystem changes.

But without long-term data, the development of a reliable and accurate environmental prediction system is impossible, particularly for biodiversity.

The journal Science reported in August that researchers working with LTERN are trying to find alternative funding, possibly for a more comprehensive network. But with limited funding commitment and opaque long-term plans from government, this seems ambitious.

After 40 years working in Australian ecosystem management, assessment, investigation and research, I am deeply concerned about terminating the existing system and starting again. It takes time to understand ecosystems, and the accumulated knowledge of up to 70 years of monitoring is invaluable. It risks destroying one of the few successes in long-term monitoring of our ecosystems and species.

Australia is infamous for commencing new initiatives and then stopping them. Australia’s surveillance and monitoring efforts are already recognised as inadequate. Breaks in continuity of long-term ecological datasets significantly reduce their value and disrupt key information on environmental and ecosystem change.

Out of step with the world

In a letter to Science, 69 Australian scientists described the decision to defund the LTERN as “totally out of step with international trends and national imperatives”. Indeed, the United States has recently expanded its long-term monitoring network, which has been running for nearly 30 years.

Not only is Australia’s decision against the international trend, it also defies Australia’s own stated goals. Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy explicitly commits to establishing a national long-term biodiversity monitoring system. The strategy’s five-year review admits to failing to achieve this outcome.


Read more: The environment needs billions of dollars more: here’s how to raise the money


The loss of the LTERN will undermine assessments of the sustainability of key industries such as grazing and forestry. Without it, we can’t robustly evaluate the success of taxpayer-funded environmental management.

A$1.5 million a year is a very small price to pay for crucial insights into our continent’s changing environments and biodiversity. But reinstating this paltry sum will not solve the very real crisis in Australian ecosystem knowledge.

The ConversationWe urgently need a comprehensive national strategy, as pledged in Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy. The evidence is in: investment in biodiversity conservation pays off.

Noel D Preece, Adjunct Principal Research Fellow at Charles Darwin and, James Cook University

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

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Rethinking tourism and its contribution to conservation in New Zealand



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The Tongariro Crossing is one of New Zealand’s most popular walks in a national park.
AAP, CC BY-ND

Valentina Dinica, Victoria University of Wellington

New Zealand is one of 36 global hotspots for biodiversity. Its unique wildlife is a major draw card for tourists.

About three million international visitors arrive in New Zealand each year, adding NZ$15 billion to the economy. At least half explore a national park or protected area (PA), but they contribute very little to these conservation lands.

Government policies implemented since 2009 as part of a “conservation economy” vision aimed to stimulate economic growth by opening up business access to national parks.

Contracts have been granted with an expectation that businesses that benefit from New Zealand’s natural capital would bring environmental and infrastructural gains. My research finds no evidence of such improvements. Here I propose how businesses could help to make nature tourism more sustainable.


Read more: Is it too cheap to visit the ‘priceless’ Great Barrier Reef?


Challenge of saving threatened species

The little spotted kiwi is among many endangered bird species that are found only in New Zealand.
Shutterstock, CC BY-ND

Globally, biodiversity is in crisis. Experts agree that the world is undergoing its sixth mass extinction.

In New Zealand, a third of the land area is protected. Many animals and plants are found nowhere else, but 80% of the country’s native bird species are in trouble.

Biodiversity conservation in PAs is funded primarily from the state budget. Historically, the appropriations for the Department of Conservation (DOC) have been too small to tackle the challenge of protecting some 2800 species considered to be endangered, at risk of extinction or vulnerable.

The contribution of tourism to DOC’s budgets has so far been below 9%. This includes concession fees from tourism operators approved to access PAs, user fees for huts and other facilities, donations and sponsorships.

Conservative budgets for protected areas

Funding cuts are reported around the world, particularly under neoliberal or conservative governments. Stagnant or diminishing budgets sometimes occur despite growing visitor numbers and ambitious tourism growth targets.


Read more: Americans think national parks are worth US$92 billion, but we don’t fund them accordingly


The previous New Zealand government aimed to lift the contributions from natural resources to 40% of GDP by 2025. DOC has been asked to prioritise spending on tourism-related operations over biodiversity spending such as pest control and species recovery programmes. This is inconsistent with the agency’s legislative mandate.

New Zealand law does not allow charging entry fees for PAs. Attempts to change that have been met with opposition from recreation groups and some tourism businesses. Tax instruments are generally opposed by the tourism industry.

Regulatory options for sustainable tourism

Concessions and planning are powerful tools for an ecologically sustainable use of PAs. Several regulatory approaches could help reverse biodiversity decline, while enhancing the environmental performance of tourism.

  • Concession contracts could include responsibilities that reflect the latest developments in conservation practice. Such contracts would need to be followed by adequate monitoring and enforcement. This has been used for some time in several countries, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Rwanda, South Africa and the United States. In these countries, concession contracts are also regularly revised to ensure businesses keep apace with environmental innovation, new ecological threats and changing pressures from visitors.

  • Concession applicants could be selected for their environmental track record and the most deserving environmental design of tourism services. Options here are tenders or auctions, which are already used in the countries mentioned above. Other methods should be used in parallel to ensure that small businesses are not disadvantaged. In the United States, the legal framework for concessions has been revised in 2010 to ensure this doesn’t happen.

  • The planning of tourism development needs to be sufficiently specific to the ecosystems in each zone. Under a concession plan, authorities determine the ideal location of particular tourism activities and maximum numbers of tourists and tourism operators. Recently, authorities have restricted the number of tourism operators allowed to operate in the Haleakala National Park in Hawai’i to only four, based on a concession management plan aiming to ensure environmentally and culturally acceptable tourism.
    Such planning is already practised in many countries, including Australia (Queensland, Western Australia), Canada, Rwanda and Argentina.

Best practice for doing business

Currently, New Zealand is not using best practice in regulation and planning. Concession contracts are designed on a “do no harm” approach. The culture has been that if concessionaires rectify and mitigate environmental effects, then all should be fine.

The 1987 Conservation Act enables DOC to insert environmental responsibilities and requirements. However, the analysis of 30 concession contracts and tens of official documents reveals that compliance with more generic environmental regulations is typically deemed sufficient. In addition, DOC’s performance on monitoring and enforcing concessions has raised many complaints, even from tourism operators.

Even more problematic is that DOC mostly uses the non-competitive “first-come first-served” method to allocate concessions in PA plans that do not use visitation quotas, except for a few tracks and sensitive sites, such as caves or wetlands.

The cumulative impact of approved concessions has led to a number of tourism hotspots in several national parks. For example, helicopter landings have increased dramatically in the Fiordland and Westland National Parks. The famous Tongariro Crossing track is now used by thousands of visitors on any day with reasonable weather.

The ConversationHowever, DOC views this as a social carrying capacity issue. The government needs to demonstrate concern by implementing innovative regulatory and planning instruments with proven effectiveness. If a government cannot ask businesses that profit from access to a country’s most precious lands to use the best available environmental practices to manage biodiversity, then who can it ask?

Valentina Dinica, Senior Lecturer Public Policy, Victoria University of Wellington

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

Even ugly animals can win hearts and dollars to save them from extinction



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It can be easier to raise money to aid animals like these African elephants than species that are more threatened with extinction but get humans less excited.
www.shutterstock.com

Diogo Veríssimo, Johns Hopkins University and Bob Smith, University of Kent

The Earth is home to millions of species, but you wouldn’t know it from the media’s obsession with only a few dozen animals like tigers and gorillas.

This narrow focus makes the most of popular fascination with large and cute creatures. Conservationists take advantage of these nonhuman celebrities to raise awareness about important issues and to seek donations to help save endangered animals. Given the multi-billion-dollar funding shortfall for nature conservation, public support is crucial.

Very popular species attract the most wildlife conservation funding. But what about the Nimba otter shrew, the Cuban greater funnel-eared bat or other threatened yet obscure species? And don’t all imperiled green spaces, not just the homes of snow leopards and orangutans, deserve attention?

Mining activities have destroyed parts of the Nimba otter shrew’s habitat.
Flickr/Julian Bayliss, CC BY-NC-SA

Conventional wisdom counsels sticking with the old approach to fundraising, and conservationists tend to see animals like bats and snakes as lost causes. As conservation scientists, we wanted to discover whether marketing could perhaps rescue these species. If companies can successfully sell mops and other humdrum products, why can’t conservationists raise money to save the unglamorous giant golden mole – even if it looks like a small cushion with a nose poking out of it? We sought the answer to this question by measuring the links between marketing efforts and conservation fundraising success.

Who will save the giant golden mole?
Gary Bronner, CC BY-NC-SA

Two different animals

Our recently published study contrasted online fundraising campaigns by two conservation charities: World Wildlife Fund-US (WWF-US) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), through its EDGE of Existence program.

These campaigns are very different. WWF-US raises money for a broad set of projects, addressing global issues from climate change and illegal wildlife trade to forest and ocean conservation. The EDGE campaign we analyzed focuses on saving 100 threatened mammal species.

Given these contrasting approaches, we wanted to see if and when marketing makes a difference. To do this we also had to account for whether the species used for fundraising mattered. This involved measuring an animal’s “appeal,” which depends on lots of factors, such as whether it is cute, large or famous. To see which animals were the most appealing, we showed 850 conservation supporters a random selection of the animal photos featured on the WWF-US and EDGE websites and asked these volunteers to rank the photos.

Let’s first consider WWF-US, which raises money through animal “adoptions.” When people donate, they signal their support for the well-known species. In return they get a stuffed toy, photos of the animals and adoption certificates. But the money WWF-US raised funds projects that benefit more than just the “adopted” animals.

We found two factors influenced WWF-US donors’ choices: the animals’ appeal and the degree of the threat of their extinction. Marketing efforts played no role. No matter how they were described or presented, the most appealing species always drew more donations. This was probably because people already knew and liked them.

The EDGE program raises money in a different way. It supports some universally familiar animals, like the Asian elephant, but many of the species it helps are less appealing to humans, including a variety of rats and bats. Each of these species is shown on their website, so people can click on a link to find out more and then donate.

We found that while people were generally more interested in donating to appealing species, the amount of marketing also made a difference. The animals EDGE actively promoted fared better with potential donors – including some homely ones. Similarly, pitches for the species shown higher up on EDGE’s site got more donors interested in funding the animals’ conservation.


https://cdn.theconversation.com/infographics/105/e3ab8b91f50afedb8ecf0ed8b623bf6f46fc331c/site/index.html

A way to save the rodents

EDGE’s track record suggests that using marketing techniques to raise money for wildlife conservation could increase donations aimed at helping less popular species. To estimate the difference that marketing could make in this regard, we created a mathematical model based on our analysis of the EDGE data. This is an equation that predicts donations based on a species’ appeal (which is fixed) and whether it was promoted by EDGE or shown high up on the website (which we could vary).

Partnering with an EDGE staff member, we then modeled different fundraising scenarios for the 10 most appealing and 10 least appealing animals, as rated by our conservation volunteers. With no marketing effort, our model predicted that the most appealing species would raise 10 times more money than the least appealing animals. This was in line with what we expected and supported the WWF-US strategy.

However, things changed when we modeled the impact from EDGE’s marketing efforts. If the group highlighted the least appealing species by making them prominent on its website, our model predicted a 26-fold increase in donations for those specific animals. This suggests that charities could raise conservation funds for species like bats and rodents, if they tried hard enough.

Our findings indicate that conservationists have more options than they may realize to raise money to aid wildlife.

When can marketing boost donations?

But when should they fundraise for more obscure species? The answer depends on how threatened the animal is, how much help it already gets, the cost of saving it and the chances of the project succeeding. When conservationists focus only on saving elephants, rhinos or other popular species, they often overlook these considerations.

That doesn’t mean WWF-US should end its focus on familiar animals. Since the money it raises funds broad projects that benefit more than just the “adopted” animals, catering to widespread fixations with particular species makes sense.

To be sure, our research did not measure whether marketing efforts pay off by increasing donations overall. But including more kinds of species in a campaign may boost donations – especially for endangered frogs and tarantulas or other underappreciated animals – and even plants.

It might also increase the total number of species in the public eye, highlighting the many ways everyone can help save wildlife.

Conservationists often complain animals that are important to save can get ignored. Our results suggest that they should stop complaining and start marketing.

The ConversationThe graphic containing endangered animals in this article that was originally published on June 21, 2017 was corrected on July 5, 2017. The new version contains the top five animals for EDGE’s fundraising. The old version misidentified and featured the other five in the group’s top 10.

Diogo Veríssimo, David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, Johns Hopkins University and Bob Smith, Director, Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent

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

How to set conservation priorities in response to climate change



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The grey long-eared bat.
Anton Alberdi / Bat conservation trust, Author provided

Orly Razgour, University of Southampton

Climate change is not something that will just go away. It is already affecting global biodiversity, food security and human migration, and the situation is not expected to improve soon. Rising temperatures and regular extreme events will produce new selection pressures.

These will force many species to move to find more suitable conditions, or adapt. Their ability to respond to these pressures will depend on the rate and extent of change, their ability to adapt to new conditions or their ability to move away. Understanding how biodiversity responds to climate change requires an interdisciplinary perspective, combining ecological, molecular and environmental approaches.

As part of our work to establish a new way of studying biodiversity, we developed an integrated framework to help guide conservation efforts by identifying wildlife populations under threat from climate change. We assign levels of risk to populations based on their exposure to changing climate conditions, their sensitivity due to genetic variation and their ability to alter their range (range shift potential).

How we identify groups that are at risk.
Image from Razgour et al. 2017, Molecular Ecology Resources, Author provided

We show how our approach can be applied in a bat species, the grey long-eared bat, Plecotus austriacus. This bat is one of the rarest mammals in the UK, with a population estimated at less than 1,000 individuals. This bat has also been in decline across Europe. Our previous work showed that its geographic distribution is limited by climate, and current patterns of genetic variation were shaped by changes to the climate. We collected wing biopsy samples for genetic analysis from eight populations in the Iberian Peninsula and two populations in England – the southern and northern edges of their range.

Making models

We used ecological modelling and climate data to look at where changes are likely to be most extreme. And to identify climate-driven genetic adaptations we looked at genomic data. This allowed us to assess which populations are likely to be most sensitive to the effects of climate change. Finally, we use a combination of genetic and geographic data to predict the ability of populations to track suitable conditions in the future.

We show that while conditions in the UK could actually improve for the bat, populations in southern Europe that hold the key to the survival of the species as a whole could be devastated. We identified those likely to be most sensitive to future changes because they do not contain enough climate-adaptive variation.

We also looked at landscape connectivity to show populations that will become isolated in the future. As the suitability of the environmental changes, the movement of individuals will be affected. This will limit the ability of populations to move to more suitable areas, and limit the chances of spreading adaptive genetic variation into populations that are at risk.

A grey long eared bat in France.
Alexandre Roux/ Flickr, CC BY-SA

We identified one population, along the eastern coast of Spain, as being high risk. It will be exposed to high changes in the suitability of the climate, has a low levels of climate-adaptive genetic variation and will experience limited landscape connectivity.

We identified two other populations in the central regions of Spain that are medium-high risk. Despite high exposure to changes and limited connectivity, they have a higher frequency of adaptive genetic variation. In contrast, populations along the Atlantic coast of the peninsula and in the UK are at lower risk from climate change, because they will experience less change in the suitability of the climate, and keep higher landscape connectivity.

Implications for Conservation

Assigning levels of threat to populations can help us to set conservation priorities. Conservation management can focus on rescuing high risk populations. This could be by moving of the population to more suitable areas, or moving individuals with the right adaptive variation into the population.

But such intense management is likely to be costly and irrelevant when considering the number of species likely to be in need of these measures. Alternatively, we could focus on reducing threats to medium and medium-high risk populations by increasing landscape connectivity, this would allow range shifts and the spread of adaptive genetic variation.

Long-lived, slow-reproducing species with smaller population sizes are unlikely to adapt to climate change fast enough by spreading new mutations. They will depend on the spread of adaptive genetic variation caused by the movement of individuals between groups. Therefore a better understanding of movement processes and landscape connectivity is needed for predicting population persistence under climate change.

The ConversationThe framework we developed can be widely applied to other population groups and ecological systems to help decide how to focus conservation efforts to help species survive.

Orly Razgour, Lecturer in Ecology, University of Southampton

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

Zoos aren’t Victorian-era throwbacks: they’re important in saving species



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A meerkat at the National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra. The Zoo has recently announced an expansion that will double its size.
AAP Image/Stefan Postles

Alienor Chauvenet, The University of Queensland

The National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra recently announced a new expansion that will double its size, with open range space for large animals like white rhinos and cheetahs.

As well as improving visitors’ experience, the expansion is touted as a way to improve the zoo’s breeding program for threatened animals. However, zoos have received plenty of criticism over their capacity to educate, conserve, or even keep animals alive.

But while zoos began as 19th-century menageries, they’ve come a long way since then. They’re responsible for saving 10 iconic species worldwide. Without captive breeding and reintroduction efforts, there might be no Californian Condor or Przewalski’s Horse – the only truly wild horse – left in the wild.

Australian zoos form part of a vital global network that keeps our most vulnerable species alive.

What is the role of zoos for conservation?

Although Canberra Zoo is relatively new compared with others in Australia – Melbourne zoo, for example, was opened in 1862 – it adds to a collection of conservation-orientated establishments.

In Australia, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens, Adelaide Zoo and Perth Zoo are all members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). WAZA is an international organisation that aims to guide and support zoos in their conservation missions, including captive breeding, reintroductions into the wild, habitat restoration, and genetic management.

From the perspective of nature conservation, zoos have two major roles: educating the public about the plight of our fauna, and contributing to species recovery in the wild.

Conservation education is deeply embedded in the values of many zoos, especially in Australia. The evidence for the link between zoo education and conservation outcomes is mixed, however zoos are, above anybody else, aimed at children. Evidence shows that after guided experiences in zoos children know more about nature and are more likely to have a positive attitude towards it. Importantly, this attitude is transferable to their parents.

Zoos contribute unique knowledge and research to support field conservation programs, and thus species recovery. In Australia, zoos are directly involved in monitoring of free-ranging native fauna and investigations into emerging diseases. Without zoos many fundamental questions about a species’ biology could not be answered, and we would lack essential knowledge on animal handling, husbandry and care.

Through captive breeding, zoos can secure healthy animals that can be introduced to old or new habitats, or bolster existing wild populations. For example, a conservation manager at Taronga Zoo told me they’ve released more than 50,000 animals that were either bred on-site or rehabilitated in their wildlife hospitals (another important function of zoos).

Criticisms of captive breeding programs

The critics of captive breeding as a conservation strategy raise several concerns. Captive bred population can lose essential behavioural and cultural adaptations, as well as genetic diversity. Large predators – cats, bears and wolves – are more likely to be affected.

Some species, such as frogs, do well in captivity, breed fast, and are able to be released into nature with limited or no training. For others, there is usually a concerted effort to maintain wild behaviour.

There’s a higher chance of disease wiping out zoo populations due to animal proximity. In 2004 the largest tiger zoo in Thailand experienced an outbreak of H5N1 bird flu after 16 tigers were fed contaminated raw chicken; ultimately 147 tigers died or were put down.

However, despite these risks, research shows that reintroduction campaigns improve the prospects of endangered species, and zoos can play a crucial role in conservation. Zoos are continually improving their management of the genetics, behaviour and epidemiology of captive populations.

They are the last resort for species on the brink of extinction, such as the Orange-bellied Parrot or the Scimitar-horned Oryx, and for those facing a threat that we cannot stop yet, such as amphibians threatened by the deadly Chytrid fungus.

Orange-bellied parrots are ranked among the most endangered species on the planet – their survival depends on zoos.
Chris Tzaros/AAP

Zoos need clear priorities

A cost-benefit approach can help zoos prioritise their actions. Taronga, for example, uses a prioritisation system to decide which projects to take on, with and without captive breeding. Their aim is to a foresee threats to wildlife and ecosystems and implement strategies that ensure sustainability.

Developing prioritisation systems relies on clearly defined objectives. Is there value in keeping a species in captivity indefinitely, perhaps focusing only on education? Is contributing to a wild population the end goal, requiring both education and active conservation?

Once this is defined, zoos can assess the benefit and costs of different actions, by asking sometimes difficult questions. Is a particular species declining in the wild? Can we secure a genetically diverse sample before it is too late? Will capturing animals impact the viability of the wild population? How likely is successful reintroduction? Can we provide enough space and stimulation for the animals, and how expensive are they to keep?

Decision science can help zoos navigate these many factors to identify the best species to target for active captive conservation. In Australia, some of the rapidly declining northern mammals, which currently do not have viable zoo populations, could be a good place to start.

Partnerships with governmental agencies, universities and other groups are essential to all of these activities. Zoos in Australia are experts at engaging with these groups to help answer and address wildlife issues.


The ConversationAlienor Chauvenet would like to acknowledge the contribution of Hugh Possingham to this article, and thank Nick Boyle and Justine O’Brien from Taronga Conservation Society Australia for the information they provided.

Alienor Chauvenet, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

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

Rhinos should be conserved in Africa, not moved to Australia


Matt Hayward, Bangor University

Rhinos are one of the most iconic symbols of the African savanna: grey behemoths with armour plating and fearsome horns. And yet it is the horns that are leading to their demise. Poaching is so prolific that zoos cannot even protect them. The Conversation

Some people believe rhino horns can cure several ailments; others see horns as status symbols. Given horns are made of keratin, this is really about as effective as chewing your finger nails. Nonetheless, a massive increase in poaching over the past decade has led to rapid declines in some rhino species, and solutions are urgently needed.

One proposal is to take 80 rhinos from private game farms in South Africa and transport them to captive facilities in Australia, at a cost of over US$4m. Though it cannot be denied that this is a “novel” idea, I, and colleagues from around the world, have serious concerns about the project, and we have now published a paper looking into the problematic plan.

Conservation cost

The first issue is whether the cost of moving the rhinos is unjustified. The $4m cost is almost double the anti-poaching budget for South African National Parks ($2.2m), the managers of the estate where most white rhinos currently reside in the country.

The money would be better spent on anti-poaching activities in South Africa to increase local capacity. Or, from an Australian perspective, given the country’s abysmal record of mammal extinctions, it could go towards protecting indigenous species there.

In addition, there is the time cost of using the expertise of business leaders, marketeers and scientists. All could be working on conservation issues of much greater importance.

Bringing animals from the wild into captivity introduces strong selective pressure for domestication. Essentially, those animals that are too wild don’t breed and so don’t pass on their genes, while the sedate (unwild) animals do. This is exacerbated for species like rhinos where predation has shaped their evolution: they have grown big, dangerous horns to protect themselves. So captivity will likely be detrimental to the survival of any captive bred offspring should they be returned to the wild.

It is not known yet which rhino species will be the focus of the Australian project, but it will probably be the southern white rhino subspecies – which is the rhino species least likely to go extinct. The global population estimate for southern white rhinos (over 20,000) is stable, despite high poaching levels.

This number stands in stark contrast to the number of northern white (three), black (4,880 and increasing), great Indian (2,575), Sumatran (275) and Javan (up to 66) rhinos. These latter three species are clearly of much greater conservation concern than southern white rhinos.

There are also well over 800 southern white rhinos currently held in zoos around the world.

With appropriate management, the population size of the southern white is unlikely to lose genetic diversity, so adding 80 more individuals to zoos is utterly unnecessary. By contrast, across the world there are 39 other large mammalian herbivore species that are threatened with extinction that are far more in need of conservation funding than the five rhino species.

Exploitation

Rhinos inhabit places occupied by other less high profile threatened species – like African wild dogs and pangolins – which do not benefit from the same level of conservation funding. Conserving wildlife in their natural habitat has many benefits for the creatures and plants they coexist with. Rhinos are keystone species, creating grazing lawns that provide habitats for other species and ultimately affect fire regimes (fire frequency and burn patterns). They are also habitats themselves for a range of species-specific parasites. Abandoning efforts to conserve rhinos in their environment means these ecosystem services will no longer be provided.

Finally, taking biodiversity assets (rhinos) from Africa and transporting them to foreign countries extends the history of exploitation of Africa’s resources. Although well-meaning, the safe-keeping of rhinos by Western countries is as disempowering and patronising as the historical appropriation of cultural artefacts by colonial powers.

Conservation projects are ultimately more successful when led locally. With its strong social foundation, community-based conservation has had a significant impact on rhino protection and population recovery in Africa. In fact, local capacity and institutions are at the centre of one of the world’s most successful conservation success stories – the southern white rhino was brought back from the brink, growing from a few hundred in South Africa at the turn of the last century to over 20,000 throughout southern Africa today.

In our opinion, this project is neo-colonial conservation that diverts money and public attention away from the fundamental issues necessary to conserve rhinos. There is no evidence of what will happen to the rhinos transported to Australia once the poaching crisis is averted, but there seems nothing as robust as China’s “panda diplomacy” where pandas provided to foreign zoos remain the property of China, alongside a substantial annual payment, as do any offspring produced, for the duration of the arrangement.

With increased support, community-based rhino conservation initiatives can continue to lead the way. It is money that is missing, not the will to conserve them nor the expertise necessary to do so. Using the funding proposed for the Australian Rhino Project to support locally-led conservation or to educate people to reduce consumer demand for rhino horn in Asia seem far more acceptable options.

Matt Hayward, Senior Lecturer in Conservation, Bangor University

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.