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World Wildlife Fund Science Driven

  • Date: 27 May 2014
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

Do you ever wonder what it would be like to be an explorer? To discover a natural wonder? Being a conservation biologist, I always hope I might experience that in some small way. But in our rapidly developing world, where wilderness continues to shrink, it can feel like there is nothing big left to discover. Yet my colleague Robin Naidoo and his collaborators in Namibia (WWF, Ministry of Environment and Tourism) and Botswana (Elephants Without Borders) have done just that. They have discovered the longest known land mammal migration in Africa — a 300+ mile seasonal trek by Burchell’s zebra (their newly published full study appears in Oryx).

Adding to the surprise, this journey is not happening in the Serengeti that is so famous for massive wildlife migrations. It is happening in southern Africa, where up to several thousand zebra migrate back and forth between the Chobe River floodplains in Namibia and Nxai Pan National Park in Botswana.

The discovery seems straight out of the golden age of exploration. It’s a story about modern technology and adrenaline-pumping adventure producing some good old fashioned field science. The key technology was GPS tracking collars that Robin and colleagues used to document the movement of eight female zebra for several months through the dry and wet seasons. But first they had to get the collars onto wild zebra – no easy task! In their scientific paper about the discovery, there is a very clinical explanation: "Adult female zebras (n=8) were darted from the air or ground and immobilized using a mixture of etorphine hydrochloride, azaperone and hyaluronidase. The age and family group size were estimated for each individual, and a satellite-tracking collar attached.”

The work began when team members, including a wildlife veterinarian and one of Namibia's best chopper pilots, went swooping over the bush in a helicopter looking for a healthy female zebra. The vet would lean out to sedate the animal with a tranquilizer dart. The team would then jump out the helicopter, put the collar on the animal, take some measurements and blood samples, and administer a drug to wake the animal back up. All the while they had to be on the lookout for protective and possibly dangerous family members who were not tranquilized. One kick from an angry zebra and the operation is over for you. 

Once the zebra were collared, and everyone safely back in the helicopter, technology took over the work. The GPS units recorded the precise location of each animal every 5 hours, and uploaded the data via satellite communications. When Robin plotted the data on a map upon his return from Christmas holiday in 2013, he and other wildlife biologists were stunned to see the zebras' long-distance migration route.

They had collared the animals in October, during the dry season near the Chobe River in Namibia. The zebra stayed there until early December, when one, and then the others, started moving south. By late December, seven of the 8 zebra had traveled more than 150 miles to Nxai Pan; the eighth animal arrived in early January. As more GPS data came in, Robin and colleagues could see that the zebra remained at Nxai pan for almost two months. Then, as the grass on the pan started to dry out, they headed back north to Chobe where they had started their migration.

People in Namibia have long known that zebra leave Salambala conservancy, which borders the Chobe River, at the end of the dry season, but they didn’t know where they went. Likewise, people knew that zebras came to Nxai Pan during the wet season but didn’t know where they came from. Thanks to Robin and team's adventurous and high tech fieldwork, the dots are now connected. We know that it’s the same zebra traveling 150 miles each way between Chobe and Nxai Pan, the longest documented land migration of any mammal in Africa.

And it turns out that this superlative is part of an even bigger one. The entire migration takes place within the boundaries of the largest multi-country conservation area in the world—the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, commonly known as KAZA.

This 109 million acre expanse covers five countries. It was established in 2011 by the governments of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, in recognition of the large-scale habitat needs of some of Africa’s most magnificent wildlife species.

KAZA reflects the reality that wildlife never has, and never will, abide by the political boundaries that humans draw on maps. Today, elephants, wild dogs, wattled cranes and both black and white rhinos call KAZA home and benefit from protection within its vast landscape.

With this in mind, we know that the previously unknown migration is more than a cool discovery. It reminds us of the value of doing science in the field in order to explore and better understand a natural world that is still full of surprise. And it underscores how essential large-landscape conservation is for preserving spectacular phenomena like the longest zebra migration in the world.

To glimpse this process from the researcher’s point of view, check out this stunning short video:

  • Date: 21 March 2014
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

I recently was asked by Foreign Affairs Magazine to contribute an essay exploring the nexus of conservation and technology. I jumped at the opportunity, honored by the invitation and eager to call attention to – and ponder the possibilities of – some of the most cutting edge innovations and ideas in the name of saving nature and our place in it.

Perhaps for the first time, conservation is beginning to operate at the pace and on the scale necessary to keep up with, and even get ahead of, our toughest environmental challenges. Technological innovation – from elephants equipped with cell phones to quantifying the value of nature – is giving us new hope for averting the planet’s environmental collapse and reversing its accelerating rates of habitat loss, species extinction, and climate change.

You can read my essay in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs here. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts (and ideas) in the comments section.

  • Date: 14 January 2014
  • Author: Roopa Krithivasan

We know a lot of great conservation science happens out in the field. WWF is involved in efforts ranging from tracking the movements of key species to collaborating with communities to improve human lives and the environment. But there’s a side to science at WWF that we don’t always hear about—the important work that happens when scientists are back in DC, sitting at their desks. The research we do in the office can help provide invaluable conservation insights.

A few years ago, WWF started one such “desk-based” study to better understand what happens to national parks, nature reserves, and other protected areas after they are established. Protected areas are regions designated or managed for conservation purposes and conventional wisdom suggests that once one is created, it will continue into perpetuity.

But by poring over thousands of documents, reports, and maps, and speaking with experts from around the world, our team found this is not always the case. Our detailed analysis identified a poorly understood but widespread phenomenon that was affecting protected areas globally: Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD). That is, protected areas sometimes go through a legal process that makes them weaker (downgrading), smaller (downsizing), or eliminates them completely (degazettement).

Our new research looks at when and why PADDD happens in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean—regions that are particularly important to our conservation work. We identified 543 instances of PADDD across 57 countries, affecting around 500,000 km2 – roughly the size of Spain.

So why does PADDD happen? And what does it mean for conservation?

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  • Date: 20 November 2013
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

My last day in the polar bear capital of Churchill, Manitoba got off to a difficult start. But I soon discovered some optimism and hope for how contact between polar bears and people might be managed in a way that is safer for everyone.

After lunch, I was able to see a polar bear get released from "polar bear jail." About a week before I arrived in Churchill, a polar bear went on a burglary spree, breaking into a local resident's cabin and stealing half of a moose. Wildlife officers tracked the burglar bear down and put him in what’s commonly known as polar bear jail, along with about 10 other problem bears. These bears are isolated in a specially designed holding facility for a few days, sometimes even up to a few weeks. The idea is to give the problematic bears an unpleasant but harmless experience that will make them want to stay away from people. On this day, an inmate bear was going to be released back into the wild. It was a quick and exciting operation.

Here is a short homemade video of the relocation taken with Google Glass

Inside the facility, the bear was given a drug to immobilize it. Outside, the bear was then placed into a heavy duty net spread on the ground. As a helicopter hovered above the bear, wildlife officers hooked the net to a tether from the helicopter. The helicopter lifted the bear, but officers quickly realized the bear’s head was dangling out of the net. So the helicopter set the bear back down for an immediate adjustment and then off they went again. The bear would be flown 30-40 miles out of town and released, hopefully convinced that Churchill was not a place to visit again.

Jailing and releasing bears in this way is serious and expensive business. Each release can cost about $2000 for the helicopter, pilots, etc. But it's proving to be a valuable way for the people of Churchill to live with the bears that so many tourists are eager to see. In fact, the release I witnessed was paid for by Natural Habitat Adventures, the company with which I had traveled to Churchill.

As arctic sea ice diminishes in the face of climate change, bears will have to spend more time on land. That will increase the likelihood that bears and people encounter each other. And that will make effective strategies for managing human-bear interactions an essential part of polar bear conservation.

  • Date: 19 November 2013
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

I recently traveled to Churchill, Manitoba—known as the polar bear capital of the world. It's a great place to observe polar bears in late autumn because the normally solitary predators gather along the shore, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so that they can head out on the ice to hunt seals.

Much of the conversation with fellow travelers was about climate change, and how it is threatening many polar bear populations, including the one around Churchill. Arctic sea ice is diminishing as temperatures rise and polar bears are spending more and more time on land.

On our last morning in town, we got a first-hand lesson in another threat facing polar bears—increasing contact with people.

Around 5am, a young woman was attacked by a polar bear while walking to work. A local resident heard the woman’s screams and ran outside to help. Consequently, the bear turned on him. In response to the attacks, two bears were killed—the male responsible for the attacks and a female who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, the female also had a cub that was not visible when she was shot. The cub was taken into captivity and is being placed into the International Polar Bear Conservation Center facility, in Winnipeg.

This was a tragic and dangerous incident. Thankfully, the two people are recovering well from the injuries, and local residents along with the Polar Bear Alert Program (run for many years now by the Govt. of Manitoba) were able to respond quickly.

Even though polar bears regularly wander through town during this time of year, this was not a normal incident in Churchill, One other attack occurred a month prior but that was the first since 2008. Residents and tourists alike were shaken up. They were concerned about the two people who were injured, upset about the bears that were killed, and questioning what could have been done to prevent it.

I found some optimism after breakfast when I had a chance to meet a dogsledder from a nearby community. With the bear attack fresh in mind, I wondered if bears were a threat to his dogs. He hadn't personally lost any dogs to polar bears, but he described several times when bears knocked down his dog yard fence. A polar bear even slept next to one of the doghouses.

The dogsledder then remarked on how much he and other dog mushers appreciated WWF's assistance to acquire buffalo fencing that bears couldn't knock down and food storage containers that bears couldn't break into. I hadn't yet told him that I worked for WWF, so it felt like a genuine endorsement for WWF's conservation work in the region.

Fencing, bear-proof containers, local polar bear patrols and warning plans for when bears enter town are all part of efforts, from WWF and local governments and residents, to reduce conflict between polar bears and people. As the bears come in contact with communities more frequently, these efforts will have to increase and more solutions found.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about a moment from my trip that gave me great hope for the future of polar bears in the region and an innovative solution to the problem of human-polar bear conflict.

  • Date: 29 October 2013
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

What would Halloween be like without bats? Maybe a little less scary. Probably a little less fun.

A really scary thought is to imagine what the world would be like if we didn't have any bats at all.

There are about 1200 species of bats in the world—one in every five mammal species. The largest bat is the flying fox, with a wingspan of six feet! The smallest species is the bumblebee bat that weighs less than a penny. Among all of those species, only three are vampires, so you don't really have to worry much about bats sucking your blood.

Two-thirds of bat species feed on insects and other small prey. They are our nighttime pest patrol. One Mexican free-tailed bat can eat about 1000 mosquitoes per hour. The large colony of 30 million bats in Bracken Cave in Texas consumes about 250 tons of insects every night. Just 150 big brown bats can eat 33 million root worm pests.

Without bats, we'd have more pests and our crops would suffer from more pest damage.

Other bat species feed on flowers and fruits, acting act as pollinators and seed dispersers, especially in deserts and rain forests. Bats pollinate wild bananas, the famous saguaro cactus, and durian, the world's most expensive fruit. Without bats, rain forests would recover more slowly from disturbances. We would also not have tequila—the agave plant from which tequila is made depends on the Mexican long-tongued bat to pollinate it.

Bats are threatened by loss of habitat, especially their roosting sites. You can help bats by protecting their roost sites and maybe building a bat house for your yard.

Bats are also vulnerable to being killed by wind turbines. That risk can be reduced through careful siting of wind power developments away from important bat roosts and migration routes, and by raising the cutout speed for turbines so that they aren't spinning in low wind (read low power) conditions when bats are most active. Another nefarious threat is white-nose syndrome, a disease that is wiping out many bat populations in North America.

To learn more about the importance of bats, check out my video about A World Without Bats below and on History.com.

  • Date: 15 October 2013
  • Author: Brendan Fisher

Brendan Fisher, a research scientist for WWF and pictured above, is guest blogging for Science Driven. Below he discusses results from a WWF-CARE Alliance conservation program in Mozambique.

My friend Matt has raised an amazing vegetable garden every year since I met him 12 years ago. He knows what he is doing. And yet despite continued success and the basic facts that given good soil, sunlight and water, a good seed will sprout, he is still in awe every spring when his seedlings first pop up in his planters.

I know what he means. There are basic scientific principles to know and simple rules to follow and voila—production. Still, it is its own small miracle.

I was thinking about Matt while on my way to one of WWF’s priority regions in Coastal East Africa—the Primeiras e Segundas in northern Mozambique. I was on my way to a project, in collaboration with the Ministry of Fisheries, collecting first results from our work on farms and in fisheries in the region.

Primeiras e Segundas is a complex land and seascape consisting of sand islands, coastal mangroves, estuaries, dry forests and farmland. It is where humpback whales mate on their southern migration down the coast; a critical nesting area for hawksbills, olive ridley and green turtles; and a seascape with relatively unexplored reefs.

It is also one of the poorest regions in one of the world’s poorest countries. Food insecurity plagues 1/3 of households and 2/3 for female-headed households. People are equally reliant on the condition of their farmland and fisheries. And while only about 30% of households actively fish, 2/3 of households rely on fish protein for nutrition on a daily basis.

Over 80% of those fishing households also farm. And there is the shocking statistic that almost 50% of coastal rural Mozambican children are stunted.

It was into this complex context that CARE and WWF stepped to undertake joint work in 2008 under the CARE-WWF Alliance. The goal was to jointly work on conservation and livelihood issues. Two of the joint interventions with communities there involved training in conservation agriculture techniques and establishing fish sanctuaries, or ‘no-take’ fishing zones.

The science sitting underneath these interventions is pretty solid. Conservation agriculture, as a suite of techniques including no-tillage, cover crops, and intercropping, has been shown to improve soil health and moisture retention, which combine to increase yields.

No-take zones in fisheries (when placed in the right spots at the right time) have shown both biodiversity and abundance rebounds for over-fished regions—or as my marine biologist friend says “fish breed like rabbits.” Our no-take zones are co-managed by the local communities, an increasingly popular and effective solution in such contexts and one of the key current approaches highlighted in the Rockefeller Foundation’s Oceans and Fisheries strategy.

Linking these marine and land-based livelihood interventions is critical in a place experiencing so much pressure on its resource assets.

So why was I nervous about this trip?

Well, for the same reasons my friend is always in awe of his seedlings—so much can go wrong. Drought, pests, a lack of compliance. The list is endless.

But here’s the news… it’s working.

After two years, the farmer field schools for conservation agriculture—jointly run by community members—deliver, on average, 50% higher soil stability scores than traditional treatments. We are waiting on lab results for soil organics, but stability is a strong indicator of soil health, and hence potential productivity.

Even more exciting is the impact of conservation agriculture on dietary diversity in regional households. Why is this a big deal? Well because dietary diversity is a strong indicator of many health outcomes including micronutrient deficiency, the key driver behind childhood stunting.

In our no-take fishing zones in Moma Estuary, we carried out fish surveys with local fishermen. In three years of community-led enforcement, species diversity inside the no-take zones was 45%-93% higher than outside.

All of these are preliminary results, and the long-term the biological and social outcomes will be an ongoing story. But for now, the science-driven work with farming and fishing communities in one of the poorest regions in the world is showing positive biological and social impacts.

It is a tribute to the hard work of the communities and the field team. It is also, like those seedlings, a small miracle.

Jamesmorgan-23

In Mozambique, training in conservation agriculture techinques has shown positive results in soil stability and dietary diversity within households.

  • Date: 26 September 2013
  • Author: Robin Naidoo

Robin Naidoo, a Senior Conservation Scientist for WWF, is guest blogging for Science Driven. Below he discusses a recent study he co-authored citing the link between Namibia's communal conservancies and a reduction in behaviors that spread HIV.

Namibia’s Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) program has long demonstrated success in balancing the needs of people and wildlife. WWF has partnered with local communities to help them manage their natural resources, ensuring a future that includes healthy wildlife populations and vibrant rural economies. As a result, we know there is a direct relationship between the health of wildlife populations and the prosperity of local communities—poaching declines, populations of species are restored and economic opportunities such as eco-tourism arise.

But there is now evidence that CBNRM has had additional positive effects on local communities: HIV/AIDS outreach and policies associated with Namibia's communal conservancies appear to have significantly reduced behaviors that spur the disease's spread in Africa, according to a new study

Two-thirds of all people living with HIV (22.5 million) reside in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the epidemic appears to have stabilized, the rate of new infections remains high and HIV continues to devastate families and communities.

To fight its spread, a community-based HIV/AIDS outreach and education program in 31 conservancies raised awareness of the disease from 2003-2007. They used radio broadcasts, written material, and traditional song and dance; trained peer educators; drafted HIV policies and plans; and disseminated condoms. The program clearly explained the links between HIV prevention and the maintenance of conservancy-based livelihoods. It also utilized existing the governance and management structures in conservancies to engage in culturally appropriate prevention activities and behavior-change messaging.

To evaluate the impact of the program, we used Demographic and Health Surveys data from 2000 and 2006/2007 to evaluate whether changes in numbers of sexual partners were related to exposure of rural Namibians to the community-based HIV/AIDS program.

Results showed that there was a significant drop in the number of conservancy men having two or more sexual partners, relative to non-conservancy men. As multiple sexual partners is the dominant driver of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, this has dramatic implications for reducing infections in communal areas of Namibia.

Given the high prevalence of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa and its devastating effects on the social and economic fabric of communities, there is hope that lessons from Namibia's program and its associated HIV/AIDS mainstreaming effort may help slow the disease in other communal areas of Africa as well.

  • Date: 20 August 2013
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

August 20, 2013 marks Earth Overshoot Day—the estimated date when we've used up the Earth's annual supply of renewable natural resources and carbon absorbing capacity. After that, we're using more than the planet can sustain. It's a  one-day reminder of a year-round problem—we are living too large on a finite planet.

You probably have a general sense of why. Our human population continues to grow. We are consuming more and more resources. And we still have only one planet. To appreciate just how large we are living in relation to our finite planet, let's look more closely at some numbers.

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  • Date: 13 August 2013
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra
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Deforestation in Borneo

Conservation is in the midst of a fundamental shift that I call "The Pivot." Conservation is pivoting from being backward-looking to forward-looking. This reorientation promises to expand what conservation can achieve by setting the stage for Conservation 3.0.

Despite frequent reference to the interests of future generations, conservation has mostly been a backward-looking endeavor. Hearkening back to "good old days" before extensive human impact on nature, conservation resisted change. It used verbs like "protect," "preserve," and "restore." It benchmarked success in terms of similarity to historical baselines. In short, conservation sought to make the future look as much as possible like the past.

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