Artificial refuges are a popular stopgap for habitat destruction, but the science isn’t up to scratch


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Darcy Watchorn, Deakin University; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Mitchell Cowan, Charles Sturt University, and Tim Doherty, University of SydneyWildlife worldwide is facing a housing crisis. When land is cleared for agriculture, mining, and urbanisation, habitats and natural refuges go with it, such as tree hollows, rock piles and large logs.

The ideal solution is to tackle the threats that cause habitat loss. But some refuges take hundreds of years to recover once destroyed, and some may never recover without help. Tree hollows, for example, can take 180 years to develop.

As a result, conservationists have increasingly looked to human-made solutions as a stopgap. That’s where artificial refuges come in.

If the goal of artificial refuges is to replace lost or degraded habitat, then it is important we have a good understanding of how well they perform. Our new research reviewed artificial refuges worldwide — and we found the science underpinning them is often not up to scratch.

What are artificial refuges?

Artificial refuges provide wildlife places to shelter, breed, hibernate, or nest, helping them survive in disturbed environments, whether degraded forests, deserts or urban and agricultural landscapes.

Nest boxes are a commonly used artificial refuge for tree-dwelling animals.
Ed Reinsel/Shutterstock

You’re probably already familiar with some. Nest boxes for birds and mammals are one example found in many urban and rural areas. They provide a substitute for tree hollows when land is cleared.

Other examples include artificial stone cavities used in Norway to provide places for newts to hibernate in urban and agricultural environments, and artificial bark used in the USA to allow bats to roost in the absence of trees. And in France, artificial burrows provide refuge for lizards in lieu of their favoured rabbit burrows.

An artificial burrow created for a burrowing owl.
AZ Outdoor Photography/Shutterstock

But do we know if they work?

Artificial refuges can be highly effective. In central Europe, for example, nest boxes allowed isolated populations of a colourful bird, the hoopoe, to reconnect — boosting the local genetic diversity.

Still, they are far from a sure thing, having at times fallen short of their promise to provide suitable homes for wildlife.




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One study from Catalonia found 42 soprano pipistrelles (a type of bat) had died from dehydration within wooden bat boxes, due to a lack of ventilation and high sun exposure.

Another study from Australia found artificial burrows for the endangered pygmy blue tongue lizard had a design flaw that forced lizards to enter backwards. This increased their risk of predation from snakes and birds.

And the video below from Czech conservation project Birds Online shows a pine marten (a forest-dwelling mammal) and tree sparrow infiltrating next boxes to steal the eggs of Tengmalm’s owls and common starlings.

The effects of predation should be considered when using artificial refuges.

So why is this happening?

Our research investigated the state of the science regarding artificial refuges worldwide.

We looked at more than 220 studies, and we found they often lacked the rigour to justify their widespread use as a conservation tool. Important factors were often overlooked, such as how temperatures inside artifical refuges compare to natural refuges, and the local abundance of food or predators.

Alarmingly, just under 40% of studies compared artificial refuges to a control, making it impossible to determine the impacts artificial refuges have on the target species, positive or negative.

This is a big problem, because artificial refuges are increasingly incorporated into programs that seek to “offset” habitat destruction. Offsetting involves protecting or creating habitat to compensate for ecological harm caused by land clearing from, for instance, mining or urbanisation.

For example, one project in Australia relied heavily on nest boxes to offset the loss of old, hollow-bearing trees.

But a scientific review of the project showed it to be a failure, due to low rates of uptake by target species (such as the superb parrot) and the rapid deterioration of the nest boxes from falling trees.




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The future of artificial refuges

There is little doubt artificial refuges will continue to play a role in confronting Earth’s biodiversity crisis, but their limitations need to be recognised, and the science underpinning them must improve. Our new review points out areas of improvement that spans design, implementation, and monitoring, so take a look if you’re involved in these sorts of projects.

We also urge for more partnerships between ecologists, engineers, designers and the broader community. This is because interdisciplinary collaboration brings together different ways of thinking and helps to shed new light on complex problems.

Some key steps arising from our research which suggest a way forward for artificial refuge science and implementation.
Author provided

It’s clear improving the science around artificial refuges is well worth the investment, as they can give struggling wildlife worldwide a fighting chance against further habitat destruction and climate change.




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The Conversation


Darcy Watchorn, PhD Candidate, Deakin University; Dale Nimmo, Associate Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University; Mitchell Cowan, PhD Candidate, Charles Sturt University, and Tim Doherty, ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Sydney

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

Environmental destruction is a war crime, but it’s almost impossible to fall foul of the laws



It was defoliants, seen here during Operation Ranch Hand in the Vietnam War, that prompted action to protect the environment during conflicts.
National Museum of the US Air Force

Shireen Daft, Macquarie University

An open letter from 24 scientists published in Nature last month calls on governments to draft a new Geneva Convention dedicated to protecting the environment during armed conflict.

This inspired a number of headlines that misleadingly said the scientists want environmental destruction to be made a war crime.

But environmental destruction is already recognised as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. The existing legal framework governing armed conflict also provides some protections for the environment.




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The problem is these protections are inadequate, inconsistent, unclear, and most military behaviour won’t fall foul of these laws.

The legal protections already in place

There are currently four Geneva Conventions and three Additional Protocols that are supposed to regulate conduct during armed conflict, sometimes known as the rules of war.

The original four Geneva Conventions, which celebrate their 70th anniversary this year, contain no explicit mention of the natural environment.

The use of Agent Orange (and Agents White and Blue) to defoliate huge spans of land during the Vietnam War led to the introduction of the first specific protections for the environment during armed conflict.

It’s shaky video to begin with but 18 seconds in you see US soldiers spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Following the Vietnam War, two major developments in the law occurred.

The first was the adoption of the United Nation’s Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques Convention (ENMOD) that prohibits the hostile use of environment-altering techniques that have “widespread, long-lasting, or severe effects”.

The second was the inclusion of provisions in Additional Protocol I (API) that prohibits methods or means intended or expected to cause “widespread, long term, and severe damage to the natural environment” during warfare.

Near impossibly high standards

Both treaties set a very high threshold for falling foul of the prohibitions. API requires that all three elements of damage — widespread, long term, and severe — must be met for military action to be in violation of this provision.

The consequence is that most military behaviour, even when damaging the environment, won’t be in violation of these laws.

Making it even more difficult, the meaning of the three terms differs between the two, and there is ongoing disagreement as to their definition.

While an understanding was reached to determine the definitions in ENMOD, there is still dispute about the meaning of the terms in API. The definitions provided here are among the more commonly accepted.
Shireen Daft, Author provided

The only environmental destruction in recent times that has been considered to meet such a high threshold was the setting alight of Kuwaiti oil fields by Iraqi forces as they withdrew during the 1991 Gulf War.

A Kuwaiti oil well fire, south of Kuwait City, in March 1991.
Wikimedia/EdJF, CC BY

The United Nations Compensation Commission held Iraq liable for the environmental damage caused in Kuwait. But because Iraq was not a party to either ENMOD or API, the Commission applied a unique legal standard derived from Security Council Resolution 687 and Iraq is still paying compensation to Kuwait to this day.

Neither ENMOD nor API specifies that a breach of these provisions constitutes a war crime. This came in 2002 when the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court came into force.

The Rome Statute says it is a war crime to intentionally cause “widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive” to the military advantage to be obtained.

The terms are not defined in the Rome Statute, and what is meant by “clearly excessive” is subjective, and introduces a test of proportionality.

Another Geneva Convention?

A new international agreement that balances the interests of environmental protection and respects the laws on armed conflict could be of enormous benefit.

The existing legal framework is only equipped to deal with direct attacks on the natural environment.

But this ignores the many other ways the environment is affected by conflict. Resources such as diamonds, coltan, timber and ivory are all used to help fund conflicts, and this can place enormous stress on the environment.

A particular gap is that no consideration is given in the existing framework to non-human species – to wildlife affected by war or to animals used for military purposes. Yet conflict has proved the biggest predictor of population declines in wild species.

But a new treaty that creates strong, effective, and enforceable protections requires significant political will.

An attempt was made two decades ago, headed by Greenpeace, but no agreement could be reached. That attempt was made during a time when international cooperation and treaty development was at its highest, following the end of the Cold War.

In the current political and social environment it seems unlikely any attempt for such an agreement would be successful. At best, we would see watered-down protections, no stronger than what is already in place. Thus drafting such a Convention now could do more harm than good, in the long run.

If not a new treaty, then what?

The International Law Commission (ILC) is about to release its report dealing with the issue of protecting the environment during armed conflict. This was what inspired the Open Letter from the scientists in the first place.

The Draft Principles it is producing are not new principles of law, but those already found in the existing legal framework. Unfortunately the work produced so far continues to use “widespread, long term, and severe” with no clarity as to what they mean.

But they do confirm that all the fundamental principles of the rules of war apply to the environment, and should be interpreted “with a view to its protection”. The environment should not be a target, and the impact on the environment must be taken into consideration in military operations.

The work of the ILC should inform governments of the interpretation of existing law. Governments should then give more attention to the environment in the operational guidelines used by their militaries.




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The Australian Law of Armed Conflict manual, used by our defence forces, already acknowledges they have a duty to protect the natural environment. The next step is to move beyond this general principle to the specific, and have clear guidelines about what protecting the environment during armed conflict means, in practice.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is also currently updating its guidelines for all military manuals to ensure the environment is a consideration to be evaluated during all military operations.

While the world might not yet be ready to consider a new Geneva Convention relating to the environment, the survival of our natural environment does depend on changes being made to the way the war is conducted.The Conversation

Shireen Daft, Lecturer, Macquarie Law School, Macquarie University

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

Amazon in Crisis


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the Amazon rainforest and the environmental destruction going on in that region. The article contains a good number of photos.

For more visit:
http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/forests/pictures-silent-crisis-amazon-20140507

World Wetlands Disaster


The link below is to an article that reports on the destruction of half of the world’s wetlands in the last 100 years.

For more visit:
http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/half-of-worlds-wetlands-destroyed-in-100-years.htm

Gabon: Destroying Ivory Stockpile


The link below is to an article reporting on the destruction of Gabon’s ivory stockpile, which it is believed will assist in the fight against elephant poaching.

For more, visit:
http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0409-hance_gabon_ivory.html

Chile – Patagonia: Wilderness Threatened by Massive Dam


The Patagonian wilderness is truly an amazing place. I have never been there, but have been fascinated by it for years. It captures my imagination and wonder anytime I see pictures or footage of it. Now I have discovered that this wilderness is under threat.

The article below reports on plans to construct a massive dam that has the potential to cause massive destruction of the Patagonian wilderness. It would seem that the planned dam is incredibly foolish and will destroy a large section of one of the world’s last remaining wild places.

For more visit:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/chile-favors-7-billion-hydroelectric-dams-on-remote-patagonian-rivers-despite-opposition/2011/05/09/AFcA2aaG_story.html

 

Kenya: Mountain Bongo Facing Extinction


With less than 120 individuals left in Kenya, the world’s largest antelope is facing extinction in the wild within a matter of years. Kenya is the only country in the world where Mountain Bongo exist in the wild. They are threatened by poachers, habitat destruction and a collapsing gene pool.

There is possible good news for the Mountain Bongo, with increasing captive populations, including a growing breeding population in Kenya which may one day be reintroduced to the wild.

For more visit:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=mountain-bongo-faces-extinction-aft-2011-04-15