From Today’s Lecturers: The importance of inclusivity in large mammal conservation

Big cats

The main threats facing wildlife today are anthropogenic in nature, and these include poorly regulated hunting and fishing, human encroachment, habitat degradation and direct conflict with humans. As the human population continues to grow and anthropogenic pressure on wildlife and their habitats increases, it is important to study species inhabiting challenging landscapes. Studying these populations can help guide management of wildlife in increasingly human-altered ecosystems worldwide.

A core part of formulating science-based conservation strategies for any species is knowing the abundance of the species and how it is distributed across the landscape. African lions are an example of a species whose social behavior has been studied widely, and yet information about their abundance and distribution remains incomplete in many parts of their current range. Therefore, studies which utilize better methods for making reliable estimates of abundance and distribution are urgently needed.

Threats to the persistence of many large mammals are always evolving, with new ones emerging. In the Luangwa Valley of Zambia where I work, there is an emerging illegal trade in cat skins, and there is also increasing potential for human-lion conflict. Historically, there has been minimal livestock rearing because of heavy tsetse fly infestation in the area. Habitat conversion has led to the decline of the disease-transmitting insect’s populations, making livestock farming possible. Pastoral tribes from the plateau are moving into the valley in search of greener pastures, increasing incident of human-lion conflict as a result of lions attacking livestock. As the numbers of people and livestock increase around protected areas in Zambia, the resulting human-carnivore conflict could have catastrophic consequences for the carnivore populations. Working closely with affected communities will be essential in developing and implementing strategies that will help mitigate the impacts of this conflict. In order to better understand the nature and extent of human-carnivore interactions, regular community surveys should be conducted.

I believe involving local people in all aspects related to the management and conservation of the natural environment is very important. Communities have the potential to be stewards once they understand that conservation is not a hindrance to sustainable economic activities. Through environmental education programs and promoting alternative livelihoods, it is essential in order to move people away from detrimental economic activities such as the illegal bushmeat trade. In light of increasing human impacts, evolving problems and emerging threats, innovative and more inclusive solutions are required. Even though in the conservation field challenges are plentiful and success stories are few and far between, there is still hope based on human capacity for positive change and nature’s resilience once given a chance.

Thandiwe Mweetwa is a senior ecologist at the Zambian Carnivore Programme where she is also manager of the organization’s conservation education program. She was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2016.

Blue whales

In the ocean, the challenges of estimating distribution and population size of a species are compounded by inaccessibility and the costs involved in ocean exploration. As a result, while 70 percent of our planet is covered by ocean, we have only explored 5 percent of its entirety.

Marine species face a set of challenges that are consistently growing and evolving. In Sri Lanka, the largest animals to ever roam the planet — blue whales — are at risk of death by ship-strike. Given that 90 percent of everything is shipped, we are all to blame, and therefore it is important that stakeholders work together to be part of the solution and not just part of the problem. While ship traffic has doubled globally since the ’70s, it has quadrupled around the Indian Ocean, indicating that trade is changing and highlighting that the problem of ship-strike is not likely to reduce, but in fact exacerbate, in the years to come.

Further, these species are threatened and harassed by a growing, unregulated whale-watching industry. If we do not contextualise our conservation messages, highlight how important species such as blue whales are to our very own survival as a result of their roles as ecosystem engineers, it is difficult to engage the communities that depend on these resources in conservation. Inclusivity and equality are two key elements that are non-negotiable if we want to save our oceans, and indeed our entire planet. Scientists like myself depend on the public for data to answer the most fundamental questions such as how many individual whales use the waters off Sri Lanka. Photographs of key body parts and characteristic markings are useful for identifying and re-identifying individuals within our ocean basin — potentially the least studied of them all. These photographs are important parts of a giant jigsaw that provide answers not just of population size, but other demographics such as age structure, species diversity and an understanding of the importance of particular hotspots around our shores. The benefits of having more eyes on the water are clear, and data of this nature allows us to focus our conservation efforts while also creating the collective voice that is imperative if we are to push for important policy changes pertaining to our oceans.

Sharing the stories of what we learn, engaging with stakeholders, and empowering everyone to participate in conservation are absolutely key if we truly want to leave this planet a better place than we found it.

Asha de Vos is a Sri Lankan marine biologist who oversees the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, the first long-term study on blue whales within the northern Indian Ocean. She was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2016.

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