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World Wildlife Fund Science Driven

filtered by category: Tools & Technology

  • 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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