A recent study from the University of British Columbia used thousands of remote cameras to track mammals, from lions to tigers and bears, on four continents. The results: Designating an area as “protected” is the single best thing you can do to safeguard mammalian diversity.
In 2019, a group of leading scientists from around the world came together to gauge the extinction threats facing thousands of plant and animal species on planet Earth.
The numbers that came back were sobering: a million species are already threatened with extinction, and at the rate the planet was going, its diversity of life forms was disappearing at a rate probably hundreds of times faster than the average of the 10 last million years.
At the same time, scientists have increasingly warned that the conservation of biodiversity – nature’s survival system – cannot be viewed in isolation from climate change. A warming planet could soon mean the loss of entire Arctic ecosystems; expanding deserts and drought are expected to engulf large swaths of equatorial country, rendering them uninhabitable.
On land, the razing of forests and wetlands to extract resources and build cities only adds to the pressures wildlife face. (According to a United Nations report, 85% of wetlands have been destroyed and 77% of the world’s land has been “significantly altered”).
As the planet dips deeper into the Anthropocene – a time dominated by humans – what can be done to give life the best chance of survival?
That’s what a group of scientists led by researchers at the University of British Columbia set out to answer in a landmark new study published last week in the journal Conservation Letters.
For decades, one of the main strategies for saving endangered species around the world has been to push for more protected areas, such as parks and reserves.
“The assumption is that it’s a good thing. But in many cases we lacked the data to actually say ‘it works well,'” said Cole Burton, a UBC biologist and supervising researcher on the study.
To answer this question, Burton and his team compiled data from more than 8,600 remote cameras tracking 321 land mammals in 23 countries and four continents.
As a young wildlife biologist, Burton spent years in Cambodia and Ghana, searching for the last remnants of tigers and lions. But these small studies have yielded disappointing results.
“It’s getting a bit depressing,” he said. “As far as we could tell, the tigers were no longer in that area of Cambodia, and the lions were no longer in that area of West Africa.”
“I was basically ghost hunting.”
At the same time, not finding the once abundant predators motivated Burton to keep searching. There was no global wildlife camera data clearinghouse, nothing to paint the bigger picture.
That’s where Cheng Chen, a PhD student in forestry, came in. He’s cobbled together 91 camera trap surveys from around the world.
Researchers now had a treasure trove of images in their hands, from cougars and black bears riding protected areas near Sooke, British Columbia, to moose and wolves roaming wildlife sanctuaries and disturbed landscapes near Fort McMurray. , Alberta.
In some cases, camera traps in northern Peru have captured a hunter on horseback chasing game; in others, ocelots, pumas and spectacled bears posed for the camera.
In Ghana and Sri Lanka, the team examined elephants quenching their thirst and leopards prowling at night. And in China, two endangered bison were filmed banging their heads on a forest floor.
“It was a game-changer to have the development of these remote cameras to give us an eye on many of these secretive and rare species,” Burton said.
Suddenly, researchers had a decade of wildlife sightings that together could paint a global picture of the pressures facing mammals.
WHAT HELPS MAMMALS THE MOST?
In what Burton describes as “detective work,” the researchers sought to understand what compressed mammalian diversity the most. To do this, they assessed a complex set of geography, measuring how close the habitat was to city building and how it was impacted by hunting or human recreation. They also filtered sightings inside and outside protected areas.
“We kind of put it all on equal footing and said, you know, which one of them might be more important?”
After sifting through all the data, one factor stood out above all else: tracts of land designated as “protected areas” turned out to be the best predictor of safeguarding mammalian diversity.
Surprisingly, Burton said, the “strong positive correlation” between protected areas and mammal sightings also occurred when habitats were impacted by logging or hunting.
“This signal suggests to us that it’s really that political decision to protect an area and to dedicate resources to that protection that trumps whether or not people use it,” Burton said.
“I think that’s an encouraging sign in the sense that we have control over these policy decisions and how we create and sustain protected areas.”
CROSSING PATH WITH THE BEARS
Burton says the group found a few exceptions. A protected area near the community of Sooke on Vancouver Island, for example, was found to have a greater diversity of mammals, such as raccoons and cougars, than nearby urban areas. But when they looked at the black bears, in particular, the areas where the forest meets the city turned out to attract many sea urchin neighbors.
As many communities bordering wilderness areas know, human attractants such as unattended garbage can quickly attract bears to these interface areas. In other places around the world, wolves and big cats have been found roaming protected areas to attack livestock.
Yet overall, the researchers found overwhelming evidence that designating mammal habitats as protected can work. In the future, how can protected areas be expanded and improved?
In the past, land set aside for protected areas has often been created unjustly, in many cases by the displacement of local indigenous peoples. They were also created when fewer valley bottoms and hillsides were dotted with human settlements, resource consumption was lower, and climate change had not changed the rules of the game, forcing animals to move their territory.
“I don’t think we can protect ourselves from extinction risk the way we’ve done in the past,” Burton said. “It’s a different game now.”
“How we provide protection in the future will have to be different.”
SHARING THE EARTH WITH WILDLIFE
Burton and Chen’s research suggests that a path to coexistence could include officially protecting more land for wildlife while finding ways to tolerate some human footprint.
In British Columbia, that could mean moving away from single-crop farms so farmland can serve as productive habitat or abandoning logging practices from clear-cutting entire forests to selectively felling trees. . In the north of the province, Burton says much more work could be done to rehabilitate abandoned tracts of forest cut for oil and gas exploration – damage seen as a major factor in the decline of woodland caribou on the way. of disappearance.
Policymakers will also need to find ways to balance the presence of people and wildlife in parks, and Burton says indigenous protected areas offer one of the most exciting models of human-wildlife coexistence.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Mammals play a vital role in the world’s ecosystems – predators control prey populations, herbivores disperse seeds, and scavengers help recycle nutrients, to name a few. Their disappearance heralds a collapse of unimaginable magnitude.
As Burton said, if humans can’t figure out how to stave off the extinction of mammals – the charismatic species that adorn many children’s walls – how will they ever protect an endangered beach moth or blobfish? , just two links in the planet’s life support system?