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.

Megadiversity in peril?

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is one of Malaysia's most active scientists.  Here he tells us about his mission to save an imperied megadiversity hotspot:

A tsunami of forest clearing for oil palm

A tsunami of forest clearing for oil palm

Malaysia is one of Earth’s 17 megadiverse countries.  It straddles Peninsular Malaysia and a chunk of Borneo.

With over 220 species of mammals, 620 birds, 250 reptiles and 150 frogs, few countries on Earth boast similar biodiversity to Malaysia.

It is also home to bizarre species found nowhere else on earth, often in unique ecosystems such as peat swamps and limestone karsts.  For instance, an you guess what this animal is?

Bizarre land snail  ( image (c) Reuben Clements)

Bizarre land snail ( image (c) Reuben Clements)

It’s actually a land snail.  In 2008, I discovered that this creature, Opisthostoma vermiculum, is the only one in the world with four axes of coiling.  It's known only from a single limestone karst in Peninsular Malaysia.

Unfortunately, Malaysia is fast losing its natural forests to oil palm and rubber plantations and infrastructure development, with wildlife hunting an additional peril.

A recent study showed that Malaysia had the highest rate of deforestation in the world between 2010 and 2012.  As a result, even a network of key wildlife corridors identified by the government may end up being paper corridors.

Many endemic plant and animal species are threatened with extinction.  Even Malaysia’s trio of large charismatic mammal species, the Malayan tiger, the Asian elephant and the Sumatran rhinoceros, now face a very uncertain future.

To advocate for endangered wildlife, my wife Sheema Abdul Aziz and I co-founded a non-profit research group known as Rimba, which means ‘jungle’ in Malay.

Since 2010, Rimba’s biologists have been conducting research on threatened species and ecosystems in Peninsular Malaysia.

Our team of young scientists has managed to secure a state-wide ban on hunting flying foxes facing local extirpation, as well as briefly halting development in a crucial wildlife corridor.

Saving flying foxes in Malaysia

Saving flying foxes in Malaysia

Rimba hopes its research can help decision-makers in Malaysia to reduce growing threats to imperiled ecosystems and species.  Here's our tagline: "we all NEED a jungle out there!"

Take a minute to help save Sumatra's last rainforest

It's the last place on Earth where orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos still coexist.

It's the last major tract of lowland rainforest on Sumatra--the island paradise devastated over the last decade by corporate oil palm and wood-pulp plantations and slash-and-burn farming.

Rare real estate... tiger footprint in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

Rare real estate... tiger footprint in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

It's the Leuser Ecosystem, and you can help save it.  Just take 30 seconds to add your name to this growing petition, appealing to the Aceh government in Sumatra.

And ask your friends to support this initiative too--by signing up for ALERT's automatic updates and liking ALERT on Facebook

For more information about the imperiled Leuser region, see our earlier blogs and press release.