For wildlife, huge difference between different kinds of agriculture

We live in an increasingly human-dominated world, where once-intact native habitats are being rapidly fragmented into smaller 'islands' surrounded by a hostile 'sea' of human land-uses.  But for wildlife, not all human land-uses are equal.

Bobcats like having trees overhead

Bobcats like having trees overhead

A recent study in southern California shows that the bobcat, an important but shy wildlife species, is affected very differently by different types of farming.

Like most species, bobcats must move to survive.  Animals trapped in small habitat fragments live in populations too small to be viable.  Bobcats are therefore far more likely to survive if human-dominated lands surrounding habitat fragments are 'permeable' to their movements.

One way to make fragmented landscapes more permeable is to create movement corridors linking the fragments together -- what some have called "bandages for wounded landscapes". 

Another way is to use less-hostile types of agriculture that pose less of a barrier to sensitive species.  For bobcats, it turns out that orchards pose considerably less of a barrier to movements than do intensively cultivated row-crops such as maize, soy, and sugar beets.

Bobcats used row crops only rarely, and even then tried to dash through them quickly, evidently feeling highly vulnerable.  However, their movements in orchards were much more relaxed and similar to those in native habitats.

Studies in the tropics have similarly shown that agriculture that retains tree cover is often much more benign for nature. 

In the New World tropics, for instance, birds, bats, and many other species tend to be much more abundant in shade-cacao plantations (used for producing cocoa), where larger trees are retained or grown to shade the cacao trees, than in more intensively used lands. 

Bare-eyed antbird, an understory specialist in New World rainforests

Bare-eyed antbird, an understory specialist in New World rainforests

Wildlife diversity is especially high when native tree species are retained in the shade-cacao plantations, rather than using exotic fruit or timber species.  Another big bonus for wildlife is having native forest nearby the shade-cacao plantation.

However, shade-cacao is not a panacea for tropical species.  The most sensitive wildlife, such as understory birds, rarely use cacao and are mostly restricted to native rainforest.

The bottom line: native habitats are always the best, but when agriculture is unavoidable, not all types of farming are created equal.  Understanding how different farming methods affect wildlife -- and which wildlife species are most vulnerable -- will give us a leg up for managing and conserving nature.

Universities: destroyers of life or opportunity for biodiversity?

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud tells us that universities are failing to protect biodiversity even on their own campuses:

Lonely blackbuck: Is it enough to teach nature conservation but not do anything about it?

Lonely blackbuck: Is it enough to teach nature conservation but not do anything about it?

Harvard students have organized a blockade of the university, calling for an open dialogue with administrators about divesting Harvard’s funds in fossil-fuel corporations as a way to help change the face of the energy industry.  The reason for this heated action was the university Board’s total dismissal of divestment as a tool to fight harmful climate change.

Finally, the intellectual elites of the world are beginning to face the absurdity of present energy-use policy.  But when will this happen for biodiversity?  

We ecologists usually think corrupt industrialists and large-scale plantation corporations are the cause of ecosystem destruction.  But if you sit at your desk in your own university, what do you see?  In most cases you observe a total lack of concern for local biodiversity.

Take Pondicherry University in south-east India—one of the few universities in India with a Department of Ecology.  It has a 300-hectare campus and is located on the dry evergreen-forest belt, one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country.

For thirty years, ecologists have suggested ecological restoration in parts of the campus.  Some have even attempted to create anti-erosion structures.  

Today, at best, only the parts of campus that are neglected by the administration can be thought of “natural”.  Otherwise, no Vice-Chancellor, administration, or department was in the least interested in maintaining biodiversity in even a tenth of their campus.

Another example is the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus in Chennai, India.  IIT-Chennai is India’s equivalent of MIT—a prestigious school for intellectual elites.  The campus was originally part of Guindy National Park and a reserve for the blackbuck, a near-threatened antelope.

The first action of IIT-Chennai was to erect a wall between the new campus and the rest of the national park, splitting the black buck population.  The forest officer at the time approved it and no one thought antelopes needed open space to run and feel comfortable. Today, IIT is attempting to start a program in Urban Ecology but is failing to manage the biodiversity of its own campus.

The Harvard example should resonate widely if we want to change our societies for the better.  Universities should be places where energy and local biodiversity are properly managed.  

But don’t wait for your administration to act.  Don’t wait for your teachers.  Demand that part of your campus becomes a real biodiversity repository.  And ensure that it happens.


Debate about forest conservation scheme in India

Things are heating up in India.  ALERT member Priya Davidar and her colleague Jean-Philippe Puyravaud provide this perspective on a key conservation issue there.  Their focus is a plan to reconnect fragmented rainforests in the Western Ghats--some of the most biologically important real estate in India.

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Davidar and Puyravaud's comments follow:

The BBC article How India is building Asia’s largest secure forest network (20 March 2014) asserts that since 2012, the state of Karnataka has declared nearly 2,600 square kilometers of forests as protected areas, linking a series of national parks in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot.  These forests would connect with adjoining forest areas in neighboring states.

We congratulate the Karnataka Forest Department for this initiative, but this information has not been made public in India.  Where there have been initiatives to add forests to the protected-area network, it is not at the scale indicated in the article.  Given the high price of land in India, the suggested plan would cost billions of dollars, far more than the entire budget of India's Ministry of Environment and Forests.

At present, the protected-area “network” in Karnataka is chopped up by highways, pipelines, dams, railroad tracks, and human settlements.  Wild elephants are dying there because they can't access water in the dry season.  Parks and reserves are under enormous pressure from fuelwood harvesting, cattle grazing, pollution, plant invasion, violent fires, poaching, and unmanaged tourism.  In some national parks, the tourism pressure is so high that connectivity within the protected areas themselves is threatened.

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

The BBC article comes at the same time that a proposed high-tension power line would slice through forests in the heart of the “secure forest network”, from Mysore to Kozhikode.  This project would be followed by a four-lane highway and railway line.  Funds have been sanctioned for surveys on these projects without considering alternative routes or proper environmental impact assessments.

The bottom line: Optimism about the proposed Karnataka Corridor needs to be tempered with caution.  These vital forests are far from secure and there are many challenges ahead.

Does ecotourism help or hurt nature?

Some people worry that nature-loving tourists might be loving nature to death

It's fair to fret about such things, but a new study suggests otherwise.  At least in Costa Rica, ecotourism is good for nature and helps local people--a lot. 

Start 'em young (photo by William Laurance)

Start 'em young (photo by William Laurance)

Those are the conclusions of a study just published in the top-flight journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Economists Paul Ferraro and Merlin Hanauer found that local communities near Costa Rican conservation areas had considerably lower poverty than those in other locations.  They attribute most of the benefit to ecotourism, despite the fact that deforestation was reduced near reserves. 

Overall, the authors concluded that two-thirds of the poverty reduction associated with protected areas results from tourism.

Other studies have suggested another big benefit of nature lovers: illegal poachers and encroachers avoid places with tourists and also scientists.  "They don't dare show their face," says veteran ecologist John Terborgh, who has spent decades working at Manu National Park in Peru.

One recent analysis suggested that "no other sector spreads wealth and jobs across developing countries like tourism does". 

With ecotourists now spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually, it's gratifying to know that local communities and nature are also seeing some real benefits.

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In Borneo, an imperiled Eden struggles to survive

Danum Valley is one of the very few places in Borneo that hasn't been severely logged, burned or overhunted.  As a result, wildlife abound there and it's among the biologically richest real estate anywhere on Earth.

In this article, I highlight the efforts of a dedicated band of international and Malaysian scientists to save this biological Eden--as the roar of encroaching bulldozers grows ever louder.

-Bill Laurance

A massive emergent tree in Danum Valley.

A massive emergent tree in Danum Valley.