Friday, August 8, 2014

Is There Any Wildlife Any More?

That question is the logical end of a line of thinking that started a couple of years ago during a photo safari in South Africa. It came up again on a recent trip to Botswana. That led to some academic research and ultimately the question about the state of wildlife -- and humans --  in the world today.

Wild giraffe in South Africa

It all began as I rode around Kruger National Park with some other photographers with an observation that if we drove every mile of road in the park, we  could see at best perhaps five percent of the total land area, and therefore only the animals in that five percent. We wondered if the animals in the other 95 percent behaved differently from the ones we could see. We stopped wondering when we stopped to photograph a family of giraffes browsing the trees near the road.

When the same conversation occurred two months ago in Botswana, I wondered if anyone had done any serious research around the question. Indeed, a few people have. One of them, Dr. Colin Beale, on the biology faculty at the University of York in England, was gracious enough to respond to an e-mail. 

A habituated lion
I asked specifically if animals in the visible zone behave differently from those beyond our range of vision. Furthermore, I wanted to know if predators and prey adapt to human presence by changing their hunting and evading strategies. 

Dr. Beale confirmed that research has shown that animals do "habituate" to human presence in places like Kruger Park. Deeper investigation has led to the idea that "not only ... animals in different parts of protected areas may well behave differently, but that the very same individual animal may well respond differently in different areas." 

That suggests an even higher level of adaptation than I was not expecting.

As for the latter question, about predators and prey changing strategies to take advantage of human presence, I already knew the answer, at least as it
Tarpon use divers' lights to help them hunt
applies to marine animals. Scuba divers who go down on tropical reefs at night are familiar with the phenomenon of tarpon and other large predators swimming beside them, all but invisible in the dark, and then streaking out to nab a grunt that the diver's light exposed before it could find a hidey hole in the reef. That is clearly learned behavior, or, as the biologists would put it, evidence of "habituation."

In Africa, we speculated about whether prey animals like impala go on high alert when they see a traffic jam of safari vehicles. Any safari client knows that such a traffic jam, or "lion jam," as Dr. Beale puts it, means there's been a predator sighting. Could the antelopes have learned that, too?

Lion and impala
Dr. Beale pointed out that there are well-known examples of predators in Africa taking advantage of human presence. Cheetahs will jump on vehicles to use as lookout points, just as they have long used termite mounds for the same purpose. Leopards have used tourist spotlights to nail prey at night, and lions have used the traffic jams they cause to get close to zebra.

"Animals aren't silly and will take what cover they can," Dr. Beale said. "I've never thought that prey might learn to associate cars with predators, though, so guess that might be less of a chance."

Okay, so maybe prey animals are not as smart as predators (by our measures, at least). Maybe that's why they are prey. But hunters in Virginia have long insisted that deer in the vicinity of Shenandoah National Park seem to know when hunting seasons begins, as they seem to migrate into the sanctuary of the park until hunting season ends.

Do impala know that a traffic jam means lions are about?
In any case, to get back to the original question about whether there is such a thing as wildlife any more, these observations seem to suggest that truly wild animals are becoming more and more rare, and most of them will never be seen except by a few scientists and BBC camera crews. And how can we be sure that even the most careful researcher isn't changing the behavior of the animals she sees just by being there. What would Jane Goodall say?

The next question, of course, is so what? Does it matter? Sure, humans have made impacts on the planet, many of them harmful. In recent years, some people have tried to reverse some of the damage (see my recent blogpost about the ongoing recovery of the once endangered wood stork and other wildlife). 

Of course, when we try to restore the planet, we need to know what we're restoring it to. Do we want to re-create the world before humans invaded? Good luck with that. The bottom line is we have done damage and much of it is permanent. With climate change and air and water pollution, our reach extends even into areas beyond our reach. There is no wilderness any more, nothing untouched by man.

Is he really wild?
Again, so what? We're here. Our footprint will be here even after we go extinct. And at the rate we're going, we are likely to be the first animal to cause our own extinction. That is the so what. When we protect and restore the habitat of the wood stork, we are improving the quality of our own life support system. When we put certain areas off limits to exploitation, we are protecting the goose that laid the golden egg. When we destroy bird habitat to support the metastatic spread of human beings, we are damaging the system that gives us life.

Human life depends upon wildlife and wild places. It's that simple. The health of this great ecosystem known as Planet Earth depends upon biodiversity. The addition of humans to this ecosystem should have enhanced biodiversity, but the opposite has happened. We have accelerated the rate of extinction beyond what the ecosystem can sustain. What we have not killed off we have "habituated." Or is that just another form of extinction?

We need wild animals. We need wild places. We need places we can not and do not touch. We need to protect the planet and its other inhabitants from us, for our own sakes.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Wood Stork Rebounds, Thanks to People Management

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell

Last week. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the official "downlisting" of the wood stork from endangered to threatened. Personally I would have called the status change an upgrade, since that is indeed what it is.

Sec. Jewell made the announcement at Georgia's Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, which now hosts the largest single wood stork rookery in the U.S., with about 400 breeding pairs. That's great news, of course. Even better news is that this large colony represents only about 3.5 percent of all the breeding pairs in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, according to last year's census. This year's numbers are looking even better. 

Consider that in 1978, there were just 2,695 nesting pairs, all confined to Georgia and Florida, and these numbers are remarkable indeed. When the wood stork officially made the endangered list in 1984, scientists were seriously concerned that the bird could go extinct by 2000.

Wood stork happy dance
The wood stork's decline was primarily due to destruction of the birds' traditional nesting habitat in southern Florida. The construction of canals, levees and floodgates in the Everglades effectively eliminated most of the wetlands necessary to provide food for these large wading birds. 

The Department of Interior officially credits determined efforts on the part of federal, state and private parties to protect and restore wetlands elsewhere in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. I believe equal credit has to go to the wood storks themselves, which set out from their destroyed homelands and found new places to perpetuate themselves, hundreds of miles from south Florida.

Bald eagle, no longer endangered
I don't mean to take anything away from the many people who have worked to protect and restore wetlands and who came up with innovative ways to ensure nesting success for the storks. We humans are quite as capable of patting ourselves on the back for correcting our environmental mistakes as we are for making those mistakes in the first place. The whole notion of "wildlife management" strikes me as somewhat absurd, actually. The best wildlife managers on the planet are and always have been wildlife themselves.

Until the largely hairless bipedal mammalian Homo sapiens showed up on the third planet from the sun a few hundred thousand years ago, wildlife populations managed themselves quite nicely by behaving appropriately within their assigned link of the food chain. Human intrusion into these food chains has invariably had devastating consequences. 

It has only been in the past 50 years that humans have begun making real efforts to undo some of the devastating changes they have inflicted and continue to inflict on the planet and its other inhabitants. Rachel Carson's watershed book Silent Spring was published in 1962 and awakened Americans to the damage the pesticide DDT was causing to populations of eagles, ospreys, pelicans, falcons and other birds.

Osprey, sitting pretty
When I first moved to the South Carolina Lowcountry in 1972, bald eagles and ospreys were rare enough that a sighting was worth a newspaper story. Both birds, along with brown pelicans and the American alligator, were among the first animals listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when it was finally enacted in1973. That law authorized federal agencies to regulate activities that could cause further harm to species that were literally in danger of going extinct in the foreseeable future. 

(As an aside, it was Republican President Richard M. Nixon who urged Congress to pass the ESA, declaring that existing laws to prevent extinction were inadequate. Can you imagine any Republican saying such a thing today?)

Critics of the ESA insist that the law is not effective because very few species have been taken off the list once they get on it. But bald eagles, ospreys, brown pelicans, American alligators and peregrine falcons have all been removed from the list because they have recovered sufficiently due to efforts supported by the ESA. Perhaps in a few years wood storks will also come off the list entirely. 

Brown pelican, populations soaring
What may be more telling is that since the law went into effect in 1973, 99 percent of the species that have been listed have not gone extinct in spite of the efforts of powerful lobbies that fight tooth and nail to prevent application of the law.

What I find interesting about the success stories is that the solutions have been relatively simple. Do nothing (i.e., don't cut down critical forest habitats, don't drain swamps, don't poison the planet, etc.) or take positive actions to restore what we've already damaged (i.e., restore wetlands, plant long term (not just harvestable) forests, find new and safe ways to deal with pests, etc.). In other words, let the wildlife manage themselves and give them enough space to do so. 

There is hope for this wood stork youngster
That has been the idea behind marine sanctuaries and marine protected areas, for example. Some animals that were in serious danger of disappearing have recovered nicely if left alone. In some cases, fish that were too rare to be caught have become commercially viable again when sections of ocean have been put off limits for a while. 

The animals know what to do, and what they mostly need from us is to be left alone. Give them back some living space, stop taking so much of their living space (i.e. stop creating so many more humans) and they will manage themselves and their populations as they did for millions of years, without even thinking about it.

In other words, we don't need wildlife management. We need people management.