Shape Shifting

Conservation strategies have been historically focused on getting an overview of the species in a region, and then trying to protect those species that are endangered. I’ve written often before about how important a top predator species can be to the overall health and biodiversity of an ecosystem. For example, the presence of wolves in a natural region can impact the health of the forest and even river flow. 

Textures of liquid crystals (transitions) Source: Senyuk/Kent State University

Textures of liquid crystals (transitions)
Source: Senyuk/Kent State University

But like reading the ingredient list for a familiar recipe, we’ve worked on the assumption that carrying out a tally of individual species in a certain area and getting a consistent count usually means that the biodiversity is also remaining the same and will result in the same ecosphere profile.

If a major ingredient is missing or in decline, we work to protect it; if a ‘wrong’ ingredient has been introduced in the form of an invasive species, we work to push it back out. The goal has been to prevent a major loss of biodiversity.

Textures liquid crystals Source: Senyuk/Kent State Univ.

Textures liquid crystals (transitions)
Source: Senyuk/Kent State Univ.

But what if the entire ingredient list is shifting, forming a completely new recipe on the page, even as the number of ingredients remains the same?

A study out in Science shows that around the world, monitoring programs are showing a surprising consistency of biodiversity – but only when it comes to the absolute number of species counted. The composition of the species is an entirely different matter: In some coral reef regions, the number of coral species has dropped significantly, even as the number of algae species has increased. Florida has a wide diversity of species – when it comes to non-native ants.

Ashmole Bestiary (early 13th century) Source: Oxford Bodley Library

Ashmole Bestiary (early 13th century)
Source: Oxford Bodley Library

According to authors Nicholas Gotelli and Robert Colwell, as habitat ranges shift under the influence of climate change, some areas might see an increase in nominal biodiversity, but it will be at the cost of traditionally local species in favor of successful ‘generalists’ like invasive weeds, rats or ants.

The study concludes that there “is need to expand the focus of research and planning from biodiversity loss to biodiversity change.”

The change is happening quickly, over just a decade or even a year. A bit like putting a cake in the oven, and then when the timer goes off, opening the door to find instead a casserole.

Paper Parks

Paper lion - an historic French West Africa banknote (1926)

Paper lion – an historic French West Africa banknote (1926)

A team of researchers spent six years tracking populations of West African lions (Panthera leo), a breed genetically distinct from other lions on the continent. Twenty-one parks exist for their protection, but according to a study out in PLOS ONE, lions were actually found in only four of these parks.

Lions are protected throughout Africa, with millions of dollars spent in conservation efforts – just not in West Africa. The lion population – estimated to be at under 400 individuals – has been divided, encroached upon, hunted. Habitat destruction due to farming, and the large bushmeat market that competes with the lions for prey, have done most of the harm.

The research team and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) are calling for immediate investment in protection of this species, but considering that West Africa is among the poorest regions on the planet, this will be an uphill march.

Dr. Philipp Henschel, survey coordinator for Panthera, the non-profit wild cat conservation organization that sponsored the survey, led a team that examined lions across 17 countries. I heard Dr. Henschel interviewed on the BBC.

In addition to the plight of these animals, one image of his particularly struck me: He and his colleagues devoted years to the survey before ever laying on a living West African lion, symbol and emblem of West Africa. They went from park to designated park, only to find the lions had disappeared.

They had thought they would be counting lions, but they spent most of the survey counting paper parks – parks in name only, the subjects of protection already long gone.

Fish Owl Equation

The Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) is an intimidating creature of tufted ears and daunting size – the largest known owl in existence, it stands at up to 75 cm (2.5 feet) and has a wingspan of over 180 cm (6 feet). It is also a flying barometer of forest health.

Blakiston Fish Owl hunting Source: Internet Bird Collection

Blakiston’s Fish Owl hunting
Source: Internet Bird Collection

Its dining habits – it feeds on salmon and other fish from running rivers – require pristine forest and river health.

A study has shown that the large trees in which the fish owl nests are the very ones that create the best river environments for salmon life cycles, and thus add another facet to why these trees are important to the fish owl. When the trees age and fall into rivers, their girth and length creates the deep backwaters and rapid-flow passages the salmon require.

If the Blakiston’s fish owl is disappearing from its ranges in the Russian and Chinese far east, and in northern Japan, it is mostly due to habitat disruption. Other factors are the big bird’s inability to avoid getting caught in power lines and fish nets.

Blakiston fish owl Photo: © Jonathan C. Slaght, WCS Russia

Blakiston’s fish owl
Photo: © Jonathan C. Slaght, WCS Russia

The fish owl is an impressive if shy indicator of the well-being of the forest, an element in an equation that includes salmon, other owl species and large mammals.

At  the heart of the equation are the old-growth trees. And what is the solution to this equation?

Reduced logging, recovery programs for river systems, restricted human access to remote protected areas.

Elements we often have difficulty adding up to action, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.



Butterfly House

Mission Blue Butterfly Source: California Academy of Sciences

Mission Blue Butterfly
Source: California Academy of Sciences

There’s a new building going up in San Francisco, just a block or so from where I used to live when I was right out of college.

It’s got all the bells and whistles of the kind of green, sustainable, fashionable and expensive development one might expect from that city, up to and including the rooftop biosphere and a habitat for endangered butterflies.

The building will have 81 apartments, with one-bedroom rental units listed at between $2950 – $4500/month. Amenities include a rooftop herb garden, an on-site car share program, living walls, rainwater harvesting and solar heating systems.

Okay, I admit that the presence on the ground floor of a Whole Foods store, the notoriously green but pricey organic supermarket, is a bit gratuitously over-the-top. And it looks like I, for one, would never have been able to afford living in this neighborhood when I was a recent graduate.

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly Source: Wikipedia

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly
Source: Wikipedia

The 38 Dolores complex has come in for some criticism – its combination of high prices and all-round green gentrification (and that downstairs Whole Foods market) make it look like an over-the-top enviro-indulgence for the wealthy.

It’s fair enough to say that particular building probably only appeals to a certain socio-economic demographic. And it’s true that this young, wealthy demographic is changing the nature of many San Francisco neighborhoods, especially the Mission.

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly Photo: Leslie Gonzales / WWU

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly
Photo: Leslie Gonzales / WWU

Where the media eye-rolling does actual harm, however, is in making it seem like the upscale nature of this development is reflected in its rainwater harvesting, rooftop gardens or solar heating systems. As if these building aspects are an indulgence alllowed only to the rich.

For modern urban buildings, it could be argued that it is the lack of good building water use, some form of renewable heating and/or power, or the potential for car sharing which should be considered an outdated indulgence.

And sometimes, it’s all in the marketing. Yes, an ‘urban butterfly habitat for endangered butterfly species’ sounds a bit precious. But when we know that a ‘butterfly habitat’ can be as easy as planting a few select flowers, it’s not really all that glamorous, expensive, or difficult to maintain.

I have a ‘butterfly and bee habitat’ in my garden. I call it lavender plants and bee balm flowers.

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year - most colonies only number 50 or less, so I'm assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby. Photo: PK Read

My butterfly and bee habitat
Photo: PK Read

*All the endangered butterflies above are among those listed as protected by the 38 Dolores habitat.

Proximity to Magnificence

bear-skin-rugs-polar-bear-F1When I was a little girl in the 1960s, a friend of my parents brought over a few unexpected gifts for me. One of the gifts was a genuine Indian tiger skin, complete with claws, head, teeth, and glass eyes. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, also known as the Washington Treaty) wouldn’t come into force until 1975, almost a decade away, so there was nothing illegal about the gift.

I loved my tiger skin, and thought of it almost like a real animal or pet. It was a massive skin that covered almost the entire floor of my room, and I as a little girl, I liked to imagine that it protected me.

When I think back on how I felt, having the tatters of that splendid creature in my room, I feel guilt. And the guilt is mixed with an understanding for the appeal of these products.  It’s a proximity to and ownership, however imaginary, of the fierce magnificence of a top predator.

I’m sure that people made money all along the line that led from where the tiger was taken to where my parent’s generous friend finally bought the tiger skin. And the economics for each individual undoubtedly seemed viable – after all, the tiger was just walking around, not doing anybody any good while standing on its own four paws. But dead and skinned, it could bring in money for the trackers, the hunters, the shippers, and the middlemen. The tiger population was already under pressure back then, but that didn’t matter. And, unlike today, each of these transactions was legal.

When I read this week about the legal trade in polar bear products and the legal hunting quota for polar bear in Canada, I think back to that tiger skin. Sure, the trade is still legal, and for whatever reason, the government considers the annual hunting and sale of 600 polar bears economically viable and environmentally sustainable ‘enough’. The polar bear is not yet protected as an endangered species under CITES, it is only considered ‘threatened’ if its habitat continues to erode, if hunting continues at unsustainable levels.

Zambia recently banned the hunting of big cats within its boundaries – the amount of revenue brought in by hunting tourism is dwarfed by that of non-lethal tourism focused on observing live animals.

If the nations which allow polar bear hunting and the trade in polar bear parts were to find it economically more interesting to preserve their dwindling populations, would that make a difference to sustainable biodiversity and the survival of top predators?

The Economics of Polar Bear Hunting in Canada

Update: 7 March 2013 – The CITES conference fails to pass a ban on the export of polar bear products, handing  victory to Canada, which argued against the US and Russia-supported ban.