From Australia to Africa, fences are stopping Earth’s great animal migrations



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Wildebeest crossing the Mara River in Tanzania during their annual mass migration.
Jane Rix/Shutterstock

Bill Laurance, James Cook University and Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University

For time immemorial, many wildlife species have survived by undertaking heroic long-distance migrations. But many of these great migrations are collapsing right before our eyes.

Perhaps the biggest peril to migrations is so common that we often fail to notice them: fences. Australia has the longest fences on Earth. The 5,600-kilometre “Dingo Fence” separates southeastern Australia from the rest of the country, whereas the “Rabbit-Proof Fence” stretches for almost 3,300 kilometres across Western Australia.

Emus attempting to cross the Rabbit-Proof Fence in Western Australia.
Western Australia Department of Agriculture & Food

Both of these enormous fences were intended to repel rabbits and other “vermin” such emus, kangaroos and dingoes that were considered threats to crops or livestock. Built over a century ago, their environmental impacts were poorly understood or disregarded at the time.

Since construction these fences have caused recurring ecosystem catastrophes, such as mass die-offs of emus and other species trying to find food and water in a land notorious for the unpredictability of its rainfall, vegetation growth and fruit production.

Fatal fences

The same thing is happening across much of the planet. While a nemesis for larger wildlife, nobody knows how many fences exist today or where they’re located. A study that mapped all the fences in southern Alberta, Canada, found there were 16 times more fences than paved roads.

Scientists are waking up to the peril of fences, realising that from an environmental perspective they’re grossly understudied — “largely overlooked and essentially invisible,” according to a recent global review.

A zebra noses a fence in Kenya.
Duncan Kimuyu

In Africa, home to some of the most spectacular wildlife migrations, scientists found that of 14 large-mammal species known to migrate en masse, five migrations were already extinct. Proliferating fences, along with habitat loss and wildlife poaching, has sent ecosystems such as the Greater Mara in Kenya crashing into ecological turmoil.

And a 2009 audit of Earth’s greatest terrestrial-mammal movements showed that of 24 large species that once migrated in their hundreds to thousands, six migrations have vanished entirely.

Many remaining migrations are mere shards of their former glory. For instance, Indochina once had mass migrations of elephants and other large mammals, big cats, monkeys and birds — often called the “Serengeti of Southeast Asia”.

Elephants and Banteng graze in Kuri Buri National Park in Thailand, vestiges of a once-massive fauna that migrated annually across Indochina.
Pattarapong/iStock

The thundering herds of American bison – some numbering up to 4 million animals – which once dominated the plains of North America have all but vanished today.

How to save mass migration

There are two main ways to destroy mass migrations: killing the animals outright by hunting and over-harvesting, or stopping the animals from accessing food or water, typically by fencing them out or clearing and fragmenting their habitat.

As the human footprint rapidly expands, scary things for wildlife are happening all over. Research that one of us (Bill Laurance) led revealed that 33 African “development corridors” would, if completed, exceed 50,000 kilometres in length and crisscross the continent, chopping its ecosystems into scores of smaller pieces.

Cost-benefit assessment for 33 massive ‘development corridors’ that are proposed or under construction in Sub-Saharan Africa.
William Laurance

Beyond this, over 2,000 parks and protected areas in Africa would be degraded or cut apart by the massive developments.

Migrations are vulnerable even in the seas. Recent research shows that growing shipping traffic is an increasing danger to migratory great whales, basking sharks, and giant whale-sharks – all highly vulnerable to collisions with fast-moving ships, as well as disruption of their sensitive hearing and vocal communications by shipping noise and sonar, and pollutants from vessels.

But the inspiring news is that, if you remove barriers such as fences, animal migrations can spontaneously resume – like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

A Red-Billed Oxpecker, which feeds on skin parasites of African mammals.
Fernando Quevedo de Oliveira/Alamy Stock Photo

In 2004, a fence that had blocked a former zebra migration in Botswana was removed. By 2007 it was one of the longest animal-migration routes in the world.

And a few places on Earth are still free from fencing and fragmentation. The world-famous Seregeti ecosystem of Tanzania is an iconic example. In war-torn South Sudan, a spectacular mass migration of a million antelope — known as white-eared kob — is still intact because there are no fences.

And caribou still migrate in great herds across large expanses of northern Canada and Alaska.

Alarming news for Botswana

Collapsing migrations are a global concern, but right now conservationists are most worried about Botswana.

This mega-diverse nation in southern Africa is considering profoundly changing its wildlife management by expanding fences and cutting off wildlife migrations not considered beneficial to the country’s current priorities.

This would be a shocking decision, because Botswana’s wildlife conservation is almost entirely dependent on its mass migrations.

For wildebeest, zebra, eland, impala, kob, hartebeest, springbok and many other large migrants, isolation is a killer – destroying their capacity to track the shifting patterns of greening vegetation and water availability they need to survive.

And it’s not just grazing and browsing animals that are affected: entire suites of large and small predators, scavengers, commensal and migratory bird species, grazing-adapted plants and other species are integrally tied to these great migrations.

Lions attacking an Angolan Giraffe, one facet of Botswana’s complex migratory ecosystems.
Michael Cohen

Botswana is already sliced into 17 giant “islands” by fences, erected in colonial times to protect the livestock of European farmers from foot-and-mouth disease.

But foot-and-mouth disease is far more likely to be spread by cattle, not wildlife. Fence-free strategies for managing disease risk also have have great potential.

And nature tourism in Botswana is a large, vibrant, and growing part of the national economy. Ecotourists will continue to favour the nation so long as it maintains untrammelled areas and spectacular animal migrations.

Botswana is expected to have over 40,000 tourism-related jobs by 2028, showing their key importance to the national economy.
Travel & Tourism Economic Impact: Botswana 2018

But you can kiss a lot of those tourism revenues goodbye if Botswana shatters its great migrations – killing off the spectacular living panoramas that are a magnet for the world’s nature lovers.

If we can avoid fencing and bulldozing critical parts of the Earth, we could hugely increase the chances that our most vibrant wildlife and ecosystems have a fighting chance to survive.The Conversation

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University and Penny van Oosterzee, Adjunct Associate Professor James Cook University and University Fellow Charles Darwin University, James Cook University

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

Africa’s great migrations are failing but there is a solution – and you can eat it too


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A Wildebeeste, or Gnu.
Wikimedia Commons

Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University

Until I went to southern Africa last year, I couldn’t imagine an African savanna without its awe-inspiring migrations. But Africa’s plains are increasingly empty of wildlife. My subsequent investigation showed that fences are marching across the savannas instead.

An audit of 24 large mammal species, which used to migrate regularly, showed that many migrations are already extinct. Fences stopped animals in their tracks, often within sight of the food and water that would sustain them. These fences had severed historically massive migrations. Millions of wild animals – wildebeest, zebra, hartebeest, springbok and many others – have likely died of thirst or hunger since the 1950s.

It’s a huge problem, yet it has received little attention. In Kenya, fences form clusters and virtual battle lines, threatening the collapse of the entire Greater-Mara ecosystem. A recent global study of 57 species of moving mammals shows that the future of the planet’s most spectacular natural events is on the cusp.




Read more:
Why smart agricultural development is needed in Africa’s savannas


A land divided

Botswana is one of the last great places on earth for free-ranging wildlife. Here, fences erected to protect European beef producers from foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) slice the country into 17 “islands”.

Fencing is expensive – especially fencing strong enough to keep out migrating animals – and it favours only a small proportion of cattle owners, locking local livestock farmers out of the export industry. To make matters worse, this comes as wildlife-based tourism is overtaking livestock as a proportion of GDP in countries like Botswana.

An elephant, behind one of the high double layered veterinary fences used in Botswana.
M. Atkinson

With colonial-era subsidies of the fencing system gone, what’s left is a lose-lose system that hinders local farmers, tourism and sustainability. Many savanna landscapes are now conflict zones between local people and wildlife.

Against this bleak backdrop, a rare good news story has emerged, driven by myth-busting science and patient advocacy. It turns out that wildlife does not play a significant role in the transmission foot-and-mouth disease, apart from the African buffalo; ironically it is more likely to be spread by cattle. Many areas, like the Kalahari, have no cattle or buffalo – so the fences in those areas serve no disease control purpose.

Careful scientific sleuthing is showing that migrations restart when these fences are removed. The longest animal migration ever recorded, of zebras across Botswana, resumed a few years ago after just a portion of fence was removed.

Process over place

Perhaps the most important breakthrough has been a relatively new scientific approach called One Health. One Health is a problem-solving strategy that tackles issues at the interface of wildlife, domestic animal and human health. A monumental effort by veterinarians and other scientists, working with communities and animal health organisations, has teased out a solution. Instead of looking at livestock’s geographic origin, it looks at the meat production process itself – from farm to fork – through a food safety lens.

This approach was initially developed for astronauts in the 1960s to avoid illness from contaminated food. It is now used throughout the food industry, from growing vegetables, to canning fruit and processing meat. For beef, it means that even in foot-and-mouth zones, a combination of vaccination, veterinary surveillance, and standardised meat preparation ensures disease-free, wildlife-friendly beef.

But it is one thing to have the solution, and quite another to convince policy makers to implement it. The focus of the One Health team soon turned to policy and advocacy. After years of research and dialogue between sectors that rarely sat at the same table, in 2012 the Southern African Development Community (SADC) issued The Phakalane Declaration on Adoption of Non-Geographic Approaches for Management of Foot and Mouth Disease.

Put simply, these new “non-geographic approaches” are not reliant on fencing.

Policy into practice

This consensus statement from southern African animal health experts was a shot heard ‘round the world. A genuine policy breakthrough finally came in 2015, in Paris, where the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) rewrote the Terrestrial Animal Health Code to allow for international trade of fresh meat from countries or zones with foot-and-mouth disease.

Since then, Ngamiland, home to world-renowned wildlife and the recently World Heritage-listed Okavango Delta, committed late last year to reassessing its fences with wildlife-friendly beef and wildlife concerns in mind.

Okavango Delta, Botswana.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Botswana is also at the centre of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area which spans parts of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and is home to the world’s largest remaining population of elephants. The Animal and Human Health for the Environment And Development (AHEAD) program, based at Cornell University, have been working with local partners to resolve FMD-related conflicts in the largest peace park in Africa. Meanwhile, non-fence solutions were at the forefront of a recent multi-country summit in late 2016.




Read more:
It’s time to stand tall for imperilled giraffes


The new meat processing-focused approach seems like common sense but, after generations of conflict, it is bold and brave. Botswana, leading the charge, is now on the cusp of redeeming itself in the eyes of conservationists after 70 years of fence-related wildlife deaths.

The ConversationNow, not only can this new way forward allow wildlife to rebound, but a regional economy benefiting from both wildlife and livestock can do the same – if policy-makers can indeed move – beyond fences.

Penny van Oosterzee, Adjunct Associate Professor James Cook University and University Fellow Charles Darwin University, James Cook University

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

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