How well do community-managed lands promote nature conservation?

When it comes to conserving nature, how well do the vast expanses of land managed by local and traditional communities fare compared to formal protected areas?

Red pandas are small and wary enough to survive in community-managed lands

Red pandas are small and wary enough to survive in community-managed lands

This is becoming an increasingly topical and key question, with some arguing that community-managed lands garner local support for conservation and are therefore a better long-term strategy for protecting wildlife and ecosystems.

Others, however, assert that formal protected areas -- such as national parks, World Heritage sites, and other kinds of reserves -- are generally the best strategy, protecting vulnerable species and populations that rarely survive outside of such areas.

Who is right?  The answer, it seems, is (1) not so simple, and (2) clouded by a serious lack of reliable data.

Advocates of community-managed lands often blend at least two different arguments together: such lands are seen as socially and economically beneficial and important for securing the land rights of traditional or rural landowners, while also benefiting nature. 

Such advocates often assert that, because community-managed lands produce tangible local benefits, they are likely to be more viable in the long term than protected areas -- a sizable number of which are being imperiled to varying degrees by human encroachment.

The devil, however, is often in the details. 

For example, in a recent study in northeastern India, Nandini Velho and colleagues (including ALERT director Bill Laurance) found that Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary -- a protected area famed for its rich biodiversity -- protected quite different sets of species than did nearly lands managed by resident tribes.

The study, based on animal-sign surveys, camera-trapping, and interviews of local residents, concluded that:

- Eaglenest harbored much larger numbers of large-bodied wildlife species, such as Asian Elephants and Gaur, a species of wild cattle, that are vulnerable to poaching. 

Big animals like Gaur get hunted out of community-managed lands

Big animals like Gaur get hunted out of community-managed lands

- However, the community-managed lands supported a number of smaller species, including several of high conservation significance such as the Red Panda, Clouded Leopard, and Golden Cat.

The Velho et al. study is notable for being one of very few that have compared matched protected areas with nearby community lands, using carefully standardized sampling in each area.  Clearly, more rigorously-designed studies like this are much needed.

In addition, when assessing the effectiveness of community-managed lands for nature conservation, other issues can become very relevant.  For instance:

- Are community-managed lands being used to augment protected areas, or replace them?  The latter could be a much higher-risk strategy for nature, whereas the former is likely to be beneficial.

-  There could be a big difference in environmental impacts when long-term local residents or indigenous peoples are involved, versus recent immigrants.  The latter may much more environmentally destructive, as evidenced by massive deforestation in government-sponsored agrarian settlements in the Amazon and transmigration programs in Indonesia.

-  Rapid population growth can defeat community-based conservation.  Many areas can sustain sparse to moderate populations but become unsustainable when human numbers swell.  This is a serious issue in many developing nations.  For instance, in Papua New Guinea, escalating human numbers are increasing a range of social and environmental pressures on traditional lands.

Some highly preliminary conclusions: Community-managed lands are no panacea but under the right circumstances, they can clearly help to augment traditional nature-conservation efforts such as protected areas.  Determining just when and how community lands become part of the solution is an urgent priority.

The global collapse of the great animal migrations

In our modern world we are accustomed to seeing large-bodied species in decline.  Elephants, rhinos, tigers, whales, sharks, big trees -- the list goes on and on.

But there's another large biological phenomenon that is at least as vulnerable -- the great animal migrations.

Move or die: Cape Buffalo in Africa

Move or die: Cape Buffalo in Africa

Seasonal movements are crucial to the survival of most migratory animals.  And nearly everywhere one looks, migrations are collapsing.

In the plains of the American Midwest, the once-thunderous migrations of Bison and other large wildlife have virtually disappeared.

In northern Cambodia, the great migration of Asian Elephants, Gaur, and other large mammals -- known as the "Serengeti of Indochina" -- have vanished.

On the island of Borneo, large-scale movements of Bearded Pigs and Sun Bears -- in response to pulses of fruit availability -- are collapsing and causing massive animal die-offs, as poignantly illustrated by this video of a starving Sun Bear.

In the western Pacific, stunning annual migrations of shorebirds -- with some species traversing from Alaska to Australia and back each year -- are being rapidly eroded by runaway development of coastal shorebird-foraging sites, most dramatically in China and the Koreas.

Critical feeding ground for stressed-out migrants

Critical feeding ground for stressed-out migrants

In the Mojave Desert, a proposed solar-energy project would imperil the seasonal migration of Bighorn Sheep -- as highlighted recently by ALERT member Thomas Lovejoy and Harvard biologist Edward Wilson.

And in the iconic Serergeti Plain of Africa, a proposed highway would slice directly across the route of migrating wildebeest and scores of other wildlife species, potentially imperiling the greatest surviving migration on Earth.

David Wilcove at Princeton University has long studied animal migrations and their demise.  He makes a key observation: nobody has ever set out to destroy a great migration. 

Instead, migrating animals are being forced to endure an ever-growing array of human pressures -- new roads, dams, farms, cities, overhunting, persecution, and myriad other threats. 

And then, one day -- seemingly without warning -- the migration just stops.  The salmon runs collapse.  The last surviving Passenger Pigeon disappears.

As humans gobble up ever more of the planet, saving the Earth's last great migrations is going to be one of the greatest of all challenges facing conservationists. 

That it is an enormous challenge makes it not one bit less important.