Wednesday 31 August 2016

#023 Expeditions, Projects & Extinctions

'Anthropocene Extinction', 'Poaching Crisis', 'Marine Destruction'.

A reading of the September 2016 'Extinction Special' edition of Geographical magazine, leaves a sense of dismay at how desperate things have got for many of the living things on our planet. There's nothing new about the message, our most well known and respected naturalists have been broadcasting it for years. David Attenborough's State Of The Planet address at the turn of the millennium made for hard viewing.

As Homo sapiens relentlessly encroaches on the natural world and its inhabitants, the viewer is presented with a choice: leave behind a flourishing planet or a dying one.

"The future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action. Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there is a change to our societies and our economics and in our politics. I've been lucky in my lifetime to see some of the greatest spectacles that the natural world has to offer. Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy, inhabitable by all species".
                                                                                    David Attenborough - in closing.

So what is meant by the Anthropocene (or Holocene) extinction? Without putting shoe shine on it, we are currently living in the middle of a mass extinction event, which is principally down to the proliferation of modern humans. Not since the Cretaceous, 66 million years ago, has the rate of extinction been so high, some estimates have it currently running at tens of thousands of species per year! The Anthropocene epoch covers many thousands of years, but lets look at just a few examples of the iconic mammals and marsupials we have lost forever in the past 150 years: Quagga, Thylacine*, Pyrenean Ibex, Javan Tiger and the Western Black Rhino, in 2011!

(*Based on a novel by Julia Leigh, if ever there was a film dramatising the madness of extinction, The Hunter is that film. The ending...!)

Then add to this the locally extinct mammals, birds, amphibians and collapse of marine ecosystems. It doesn't take a clairvoyant to see that things are set to get much worse:

"If you're an animal bigger than a breadbox and not more than a day, or half day's walk from a road, your days are numbered"
                                                               William Robichaud - Global Wildlife Conservation

Most of my personal wildlife experience has been focused upon sub-saharan Africa, and in particular East Africa. The current poaching crisis occasionally makes the television news, so its safe to say most of us are aware of the problems facing elephant and rhino. But to couch some numbers against this: In March 2016, The Guardian reported that African elephants 'are being killed faster than they are born'. Statistics from Save The Rhino indicate that, in South Africa alone, over 1000 rhino have been poached each year in 2013, 2014 & 2015. This has risen from just thirteen in 2007.

However, fewer people know that since 1900 the African lion population has dropped from one million to just 20,000 by current estimates. Rather than poaching, it seems the cause is down to human encroachment. The area which wild lions are now known to cover has shrunk to just eight percent of their historical range. How could the fact that the king of beasts is in serious trouble have dropped off the media radar?

The reason could be to do with our perception of time. Conservation, by definition, tries to protect what is here today. If encroachment and degradation of habitat happens over a long period of time, several decades or more than a human lifetime (in the case of African lions) then the animal population is managed to fit within its slowly depleting range. In his thought provoking and illuminating book Feral, George Monbiot describes this as 'shifting baseline syndrome' where species are being managed into extinction.

The evocative and sometimes controversial remedy to baseline shift is to reinstate the extent and diversity of habitat by 're-wilding'. Several years ago, before many people had come across the term, I made this the subject for one of my discussions during my Mountain Leader Assessment. I started off with management of chalk grassland to facilitate the re-introductions of the rare Adonis blue butterfly, which had gone locally extinct in some regions. Without exception, the group nodded in approval.

Next I moved onto the white tail sea eagle programme in the Western Isles of Scotland. The group listened to this with even more enthusiasm. Anecdotal proof that people readily engage with iconic species. If these animals are protected and are thriving, it is an indicator that the trophic pyramid of life supporting their existence is diverse and healthy. The reintroduction on beaver was next up. Here there were some questions and curiosity, especially from the paddlers in the group, as to their effect upon river systems.

Lastly, I revealed my trump card. The wolf. I don't think anyone expected it. There was a moment of silence, before the thought of this apex predator, extinct in the UK since the 18th Century, once again roaming the wild. But also bringing much needed balance to an environment suffering from over population of deer (there are more deer alive in the UK now that at any other time and their presence is suppressing growth of young trees). The conversation ignited with interest. Although, there remain many hurdles to overcome before wolf reintroduction becomes a reality.

Of course, it's much easier to sell the concept of re-wilding to outdoor leaders who are already enthusiastic about nature and wilderness. But, there are other people who's livelihood and careers come from the land. Re-wilding will attract resentment and hostility if schemes are railroaded without consideration to other land users.

In August 2016, in an interview with The Sunday Times, bushcraft expert, Ray Mears' thoughts illustrate that there is is still much work to do regarding attitudes to re-wilding.

"Plans to reintroduce lynx and wolves should be put on hold until people learn to live with the predators already in Scotland." 

Recently, (amidst the tawdry and shabby politics) a less publicised result of Brexit is the danger that we may lose much of the European legislation which aimed to protect wildlife and habitats. Also there is uncertainty regarding the continuation of scientific funding which underpins this legislation. Unless this is re-routed, rather than appropriated by government, there could be dark times ahead for conservation projects in the British Isles.

But all the legislation, multitude of NGO's, charity campaigning, 'raising awareness', CITIES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) blocks on trade in animal products, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red Lists, is obviously not working well enough. Since I was very young there has there been fundraising efforts to 'save the Amazon rainforest'? What happened to all that money? It should have the whole ecosystem protected by now with local people employed as custodians of it.

But, this is not a blog written to 'raise awareness'. Recently, Observer correspondent Peter Ross eloquently wrote on a unrelated subject:

If there is one thing that we need to stop doing as citizens of social media, it's raising awareness. We have more awareness of what is going in the world right now than at any point in human history thanks not only to the internet, but to the instant connectivity that social media provides. Unfortunately mere awareness of any issue actually does nothing.
So instead of this just being a useless rant, I'm going to make one proposal that has the potential for wide reaching and long term good on a global scale.

I'm not going to pretend that there is one magic answer to the issues facing wildlife and habitat. The answers to conservation issues are multi-faceted. But primarily it all comes down to money, the will of governments and of people to care enough to lobby their leaders to take action. Crime, corruption, poverty, access to education and healthcare are all blockers to making change happen.

Indeed, why should a hard working family in the UK, who are having to rely upon food banks to feed their kids, care about what happens in Africa (or anywhere else for that matter) when they are living in a dystopian country seemingly intent on sending whole sections of society back to Dickensian times. If this seems like a hard sell, then next try convincing the subsistence communities in developing countries.

Conservationists often speak of ensuring wildlife is here for our children and future generations. Talking about tomorrows generations is too abstract, too easy to think of as less immediate. Well here's the wake up, those children and teenagers are already here and they're growing up fast. They are the upcoming entrepreneurs, leaders and influencers of opinion and policy.

On the expeditions I lead, I'm frequently surprised at how disengaged many young people feel about environmental issues. It's as if the last 30 years of blue chip BBC Natural History Unit films and the message they carry hasn't yet made it onto the national curriculum. One complaint I do have about wildlife programmes is that they 'raise awareness' - that phrase again - but rarely go on to suggest what difference the viewer can make (other than simply coughing up money).

If our natural world is going to survive the Anthropocence, isn't it about time to inspire and engage a whole generation in a practical way?

I have been a leader for schools expedition company World Challenge, for six years. During this time I have worked alongside Challegers on some superb community projects: Helping local laborers rebuild the house of a genocide widow in Rwanda has to be the most poignant. On every project I am extremely proud of the Challengers and what they have achieved with just hand tools and a lot of hard graft.

When on World Challenge in Namibia, the trekking phase was in the Gondwana Concession section of Fish River Canyon. The custodian of the base hostel was also a biologist. She had worked with school groups conducting ecological surveys and suggested that school's expedition companies could make a useful contribution to this kind of data gathering. Since then, this topic has arisen regularly in conversations with fellow expedition and outdoor leaders.

The ethos of schools expedition companies can include environmental awareness alongside the experiential development of the participants. There are other companies which focus on selling conservation tourism, but these tend to be the sole focus of the trip. It seems that there remains an untapped resource and opportunity available to schools expeditions to move beyond awareness and into significant action.

Offering conservation projects as a part of the developmental ethos would have a far reaching positive legacy as well as a new business growth opportunity.

The traditional type of expedition projects are already providing subsidy to communities, so why not take this principle and apply it to conservation and ecological assignments. Science and research is data driven. The immediate benefit would be the contribution made by participants to this at grass roots level. The participants would gain training and skills for example in species identification, surveying, sampling, statistics, tracking methods and technology. To ensure that the activity yields useful results, it might include a training phase in advance of the project, possibly even in the home country.

Participants benefit in gaining skills, experience and real world context to their studies, making their portfolio more attractive to higher education applications and employers.
Science and conservation benefits from a subsidised workforce to achieve faster conclusions.
Wildlife benefits from more action in reversing habitat destruction and the rush to extinction.

Careful selection of projects would ensure participants believe and know what they are doing is important and that it will make a real difference. It's an litmus test which is already being applied to community type projects by reputable schools expedition providers. If we look at the schools expedition providers in the UK alone, if just half of the projects shift towards a conservation emphasis, there would be hundreds of expeditions each year with thousands of participants, providing the potential for enormous and far reaching positive change.

It is only by winning hearts and minds of this generation that we will win the battle against the Anthropocene Extinction.


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