A Steppe Towards Conservation

By Tom Bradfer-Lawrence @_EcologyTom

Lost in the steppe

The heat haze is intense. Not only is the sun burning in the sky, but an incessant desert wind is blowing straight out of the Gobi. And, if the sun and wind weren’t already enough, the radiator in our aged minibus is packing up. The only way to avoid the engine overheating is to have the fans on at full blast. Even then, every few miles we have to turn the van into the wind and open all of the doors in an attempt to reduce the engine temperature from incandescent to merely roasting. There isn’t a sign of another human. Every five minutes or so we pull up next to a barrel on top of a pole and I look inside. Between the heat, the emptiness, and the repetitive task, I feel like I’ve entered another world.

That day was a couple of years ago now, and I was looking for Saker Falcons (Falco cherrug). The Saker has a huge range, covering some very remote parts of the world. Living in areas with few direct anthropogenic impacts, the Saker seems an unlikely candidate for extinction. Yet its population is plummeting, perhaps by 50% over the last 25 years. Assessed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN in 2000, the status slumped in ‘Endangered’ in only a few years.

There’s a lot of open space in Mongolia

The Saker is a bird of the open steppe, specialising in hunting small mammals and birds. Having seen a Saker stoop on a thrush, I can testify to their speed and power. These attributes also make them excellent for falconry, and for centuries Sakers have been used in the Middle East to hunt Houbara Bustard. Each year birds on migration would be caught on their passage through the Arabian Peninsula. Unfortunately, a Saker is worth a lot of money. And in recent decades, thousands of birds have been illegally captured in their breeding grounds and smuggled into the Middle East. This unregulated trade is one of the key causes for the decline in Saker populations.

A rare natural nest site in the steppe (and cooling down the minibus)

Although Sakers are CITES listed, the very fact they live in such remote areas makes it difficult to prevent illegal capture. So can smuggling be discouraged? The answer is to flood the market with legally obtained birds. Yet the global Saker population could probably not support such an offtake. This is where the Middle East Falcon Research Group (MEFRG) came in, with a plan to raise the Saker breeding population by installing artificial nests in areas with high prey densities but low nest site availability. In Mongolia the steppe teems with passerine birds and small mammals, but nesting sites are limited to occasional rocky outcrops, and it represented an ideal country to host the project. Funding came from the Abu Dubai Environment Agency, where many wild Sakers are used for falconry. If a sufficient increase in the breeding population could be achieved, the Mongolian government would be allowed to legally export Sakers to the Middle East.

One of the artificial nests

Five thousand nests were constructed from old orange juice barrels welded to the top of poles, and they were installed in suitable habitat 1km apart. Whilst 5000 seems like a lot, they are lost in the enormity of Mongolia. By the time I was in Mongolia, it was the third breeding season. The project seemed to be a huge success; we recorded over 600 breeding pairs that year.

Those surreal moments in the field made my time in Mongolia some of the most interesting work I’ve been involved with. Yet assisting on the project also made me realise that whilst solving conservation problems is not straightforward, it is possible to find common ground. Although the size and international scale of the smuggling seems insurmountable, cross-border cooperation was also the key to this innovative solution. All of the stakeholders involved, whether conservationists or falconry enthusiasts, had a common goal; ensuring that the Saker can recover and thrive.

The Conservation Conversation: Is climate change the greatest threat to biodiversity?

In 1984 Jarod Diamond synthesised the threats facing biodiversity and famously came up with his “four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse” – 1. Over-exploitation, 2. Introduced species, 3. Habitat destruction and 4. Chains of linked extinctions – with the recent addition of a fifth, 5. Climate change. While these threats are not independent of each other, it can be useful to identify which are the most urgent in order to prioritise conservation actions.

At October’s Conservation Conversation here at Stirling I asked researchers, “What is the top threat to biodiversity?” Most attending the discussion said “habitat loss” or “habitat degradation”. I was surprised that not one person said “climate change”. I grew up in the 1990s as an environmentally aware kid and was inundated with campaigns from my favourite NGOs about the imminent threats of deforestation and large-scale land-use change across the world. However it appears the environmental agenda has moved on, and in the 2010s talk of deforestation and land-use change has been replaced with climate change. Clive Hambler, in a provocative article for ECOS in 2013, argues, “… some NGOs have lost perspective and now obsess with preventing climate changes…” In anticipation of the COP21 climate talks in Paris this November, I set out to understand this a bit more and explore the relationship between habitat loss and climate change as threats to biodiversity.

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Are the simplest solutions ever the right ones?

By Tom Mason.

I have recently returned from a conference in the foothills of the Austrian Alps where one presentation in particular resonated with me. It concerned the fate of the Bargy population of Alpine ibex living in the Haute-Savoie region of the France. In this population there is a high prevalence of brucellosis; a bacteria-borne disease which – unfortunately for ibex – Image: Tom Masoncan be transmitted to humans and livestock. The Haute-Savoie region is famed for its production of the cheese Reblochon, which contributes substantially to the area’s economy. Reblochon is a raw-milk cheese central to dishes such as fondue and tartiflette, but here it is the final ingredient in the recipe for conflict between conservation and human livelihoods (apologies, that was incredibly cheesy).

Alpine ibex. Image: Tom Mason

Things came to a head back in 2012 when two children contracted brucellosis after eating cheese from an infected cow, resulting in an entire herd being slaughtered and all of its cheese destroyed (the children were fine). The French Government was under pressure to act, in particular to preserve France’s ‘brucellosis-free’ status, and implemented a cull of all ibex older than 5 years, which was about 50% of the population (older individuals had higher prevalence rates). Unsurprising to many conservationists, the cull did not achieve its aim of reducing brucellosis rates, with post-cull monitoring actually detecting increases in the prevalence of the disease. There is lots of evidence that culling can disrupt the social and spatial organisation of animal populations, leading to increased disease transmission rates. This appears to be what has happened in Bargy, where a general reorganisation of herd structure and increases in contact between younger males and females has led to increased brucellosis in younger ibex.

All this got me thinking: how often do simple, reactive responses to problems in wildlife conservation, such as mass culls, actually work? Most conservation problems have at their heart complex socio-economic issues and ecological dynamics that even as ecologists we are still in the process of fully understanding. Such complicated problems seem unlikely to have simple answers. However, for politicians, solutions that are simple, direct and (at least in the short-term) cheap are likely to be innately appealing, particularly with the short-termism of current politics. In contrast, a more nuanced and proactive approach – for ibex perhaps combining a vaccination programme with measures that reduce the probability of cattle and ibex encounters – could be better for both human livelihoods and conservation in the long-term.

Alpine ibex. Image: Tom MasonPerhaps as conservationists, we need to improve how we communicate recommendations to decision-makers. As scientists, we can be naturally cautious, advising against rash action due to a lack of sufficient data or the level of uncertainty in our predictions. This is unlikely to be the answer wanted by politicians, keen to be seen taking positive action rather than dawdling. Also, frequently we focus only on conservation, rather than the socio-ecological system as a whole. If we can prove that alternatives strategies can provide greater benefits to both conservation and human livelihoods, and be more cost-effective over the long-term, politicians may be more likely to listen. Modelling approaches do now exist that can be used for this end (e.g., MSE), assessing the robustness of competing management options within a single ecological and socio-economic framework.

Depressingly for the Bargy ibex, despite the failure of the previous cull, managers implemented a new cull in October 2015 – to the dismay of local scientists – aiming to preserve a core of around 60 healthy animals (the current population is around 300). In doing so, they ignored the findings of an assessment of the previous cull undertaken by a scientific advisory group, something which has clear parallels to the case of badgers and tuberculosis in the UK. The 2015 cull may yet see some success but experts see no reason why this latest cull will fare any better than its precursor, due to the low probability of killing all infected individuals. While causes for optimism here are limited, perhaps at least we will be able to learn some lessons from the case of the Bargy ibex.

Alpine ibex. Image: Tom Mason

All images credited to Tom Mason.

The battle of the sciences

These last two weeks I have been lucky enough to be at two workshops that could not have been more different. One was surrounded by the high mountains of the French and Swiss Alps and the other one close to the flat muds of the Wadden Sea at the Danish-German border. Both landscapes are equally inspiring and I was massively looking forward to broadening my horizon and being inspired by two workshops in such great settings.

Wadden Sea








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Flying bat or ground-dwelling beetle, local habitat quality is not all that matters, the landscape is important too

You might think that having the ability to fly makes bats highly mobile animals, but this is not necessarily the case. The shape of their wings is often a telling feature on this matter: species with long narrow wings are usually well adapted to fly fast across open spaces (like Noctule bats); other species with shorter and wider wings are not that well designed for fast flight over long distances, but rather for good maneuverability (like Brown long-eared bats), which comes in very handy when getting hold of your dinner depends on your ability to glean invertebrates off the vegetation in a cluttered woodland or even catch them while they fly. Roosting preferences are important too, and while some species are quite fussy about their requirements and only roost in trees, others have adapted to life in the city and quite happily use human-made structures (e.g. houses and bridges) as their homes. These differences in wing morphology, feeding and roosting ecology are linked to how species perceive their landscape and how sensitive they are to changes in their environments.

Brown long-eared bat being released after trapping session in a woodland.

Brown long-eared bat being released after trapping session in a woodland.

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Bringing the tropics to Stirling: BES-TEG 2015

The British Ecological Society has a special interest Tropical Ecology Group (BES-TEG), there for all us “tropicologists” to get together, whether it’s via social media or through the annual BES-TEG meeting for early career researchers. This annual meeting is generally organised by PhD students and hosted at their university. A fellow PhD student – Rebekah Mayhew – and I organised this year’s BES-TEG meeting at the University of Stirling, 3-4th September 2015. Continue reading

The Conservation Conversation: nature documentaries and science

Remember Attenborough’s soothing voice on a Sunday night? For many watching nature on TV at an early age kick-started a passion for wildlife and future careers in the fields of conservation and biology. In June’s Conservation Conversation we discussed nature documentaries and science: what we think is good about them now in terms of science communication, and where we think they could go in the future to contribute more. Nature documentaries and their presenters have a huge following; tapping into that following would be invaluable for communicating science to a broad spectrum of people. Continue reading