Half-Earth Is Not Happening, But Co-Habitation Is

 

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LUISA RIVERA / YALE E360

Thanks to Richard Conniff, whose articles about the intersection between humans and other species, and about how our museums shape our views we have shared from various sources, including this recent one from Yale360:

Habitat on the Edges: Making Room for Wildlife in an Urbanized World

Efforts to protect biodiversity are now focusing less on preserving pristine areas and more on finding room for wildlife on the margins of human development. As urban areas keep expanding, it is increasingly the only way to allow species to survive.

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A female mountain lion in the Verdugos Mountains, north of Los Angeles. Also known as cougars, these animals are an increasingly common sight in the mountains surrounding Southern California’s cities. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

One morning not long ago, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, I traveled with a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist on a switchback route up and over the high ridge of the Western Ghats. Our itinerary loosely followed the corridor connecting Bhadra Tiger Reserve with Kudremakh National Park 30 miles to the south.

In places, we passed beautiful shade coffee plantations, with an understory of coffee plants, and pepper vines — a second cash crop — twining up the trunks of the shade trees. Coffee plantations managed in this fashion, connected to surviving patches of natural forest, “provide continuous camouflage for the predators,” — especially tigers moving through by night, my guide explained, and wildlife conflict was minimal.  Elsewhere, though, the corridor narrowed to a thread winding past sprawling villages, and conservationists played a double game, part handholding to help people live with large predators on their doorsteps, part legal combat to keep economic interests from nibbling into the wildlife corridor from both sides. It was a microcosm of how wildlife hangs on these days, not just in India, but almost everywhere in the world.

For conservationists, protecting biodiversity has in recent years become much less about securing new protected areas in pristine habitat and more about making room for wildlife on the margins of our own urbanized existence.  Conservation now often means modifying human landscapes to do double-duty as wildlife habitat — or, more accurately, to continue functioning for wildlife even as humans colonize them for their homes, highways, and farms.  There is simply no place else for animals to live.

The ambition to create new protected areas still persists, of course.  National parks, wildlife refuges, and other protected areas remain essential, especially for species that do not adapt well to human-dominated landscapes. The 168 signatory nations to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have acknowledged as much, at least on paper, committing to extend protected area coverage to 17 percent of their land area by 2020. But getting there has proved difficult. Coverage by national parks and other terrestrial protected areas has remained stuck for the past few years at about 15 percent worldwide, well short of CBD commitments, much less E.O. Wilson’s grander vision of “half-Earth”set aside for nature.

Meanwhile, though, work to improve buffer zones around parks, and to establish corridors on the land between existing protected areas, has flourished. For instance:

  • Just since 2000, the area protected by land trusts in the United States has more than doubled, from 23 million to 56 million acres, according to the Land Trust Alliance. Easements are one increasingly common tool for conservation on private lands, though recent research indicates that those easements tend to impose fewer restrictions on landowners than in the past.
  • Corridor protection on the grand scale has achieved remarkable results, notably with the 2,000-mile long Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative. It aims to connect protected areas and to ensure safe passage for elk, grizzly bears, and other wildlife across 500,000 square miles of largely shared habitat, both public and privately owned. At the same time, research by Nick Haddad, a conservation biologist at the University of Michigan’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, has demonstrated substantial improvements in biodiversity from corridors as little as 25 yards in width, well within the range, he says, of “what’s reasonable in urban landscapes.”  Indeed, a new study from northern Botswana has found that elephants traveling from Chobe National Park to the nearby Chobe River will use corridors as small as 10 feet wide to traverse newly urbanized areas.
  • Urban areas now increasingly recognize that it’s cheaper to protect clean water by buying up natural habitat both within their own borders and at the source, instead of installing expensive technology to purify it after the fact.  It’s not just about New York City purchasing huge chunks of the Catskills. North Carolina’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund, for instance, has also protected 500,000 acres of watershed and riverside habitat over the past 20 years — with enormous incidental benefits for wildlife.
  • Cities have begun to recognize the value of protecting wildlife within their own borders. Singapore, for instance, has increased its natural cover to almost half its land area over the past 30 years, even as its human population has doubled.  Its Central Catchment Nature Reserve has become one of the last refuges of the straw-headed bulbul, a bird once common across Southeast Asia. The government also recently announced plans to create new nature parks as habitat for the critically endangered banded leaf monkey.
  • Even in the absence of new parks and other habitat, city residents have rallied to their wildlife, sometimes in extraordinary fashion. In Mumbai, development-oriented politicians continue to encourage the destruction of natural habitat, particularly in the Aarey Milk Colony neighborhood abutting the city’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park.  But local conservationists, together with the park itself, have launched a pioneering campaign to help densely populated neighborhoods around the park cope with more than 30 free-ranging leopards in their midst. Likewise, Los Angeles has turned its mountain lions into urban folk heroes. (The Facebook bio of the lion known as P22 begins: “Hi! I’m LA’s loneliest bachelor. I like to hang out under the Hollywood sign to try and pick up cougars. Likes: Deer, catnip, Los Feliz weekends. Dislikes: Traffic, coyotes, P-45.”)
  • While gas and electric transmission lines commonly divide and destroy landscapes, some utility companies have found maintenance savings (and good press) by managing these corridors as habitat, especially for pollinators and migratory birds. California’s Pacific Power & Gas, with 6,400 miles of gas transmission lines, is the latest U.S. utility to sign up with the Right of Way Stewardship Council.
  • Highway departments have learned that they can save money, reduce their carbon footprint, please tourists, and also help wildlife by converting roadsides and medians from grass to wildflowers. The Federal Highway Administration recently published best management practices for using roadside margins as pollinator habitat — with Florida incidentally saving $1,000 per road mile in mowing costs and Oregon reducing pesticide use by more than 25 percent.
  • While restoration of abandoned rail lines as habitat and hiking trails is old news, British companies have recently begun restoring habitat along active rail lines. Network Rail, which controls most of the rail lines in the United Kingdom, works with conservation groups on species from the great crested newt to the natterjack toad…

Read the whole story here.

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