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Fires: Friend or Foe

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First For Wildlife

forest fire1

Catastrophic wildfires are now frequent events in many places around the world. Currently, there are eight American states with active fires! Some blame global climate change, which causes longer fire seasons with hotter, drier conditions.  Others would argue that fire is a natural event. But perhaps biologist and land managers can do more to reduce the negative effects.

Prescribed burning is a controversial subject, but it is also an effective tool that can be used to prevent wildfires from becoming catastrophic. Prescribed burning is the careful use of fire to manage forested areas, which reduces hazardous fuels. Hazardous fuels include pine needles, hardwood leaves, fallen branches and herbaceous vegetation which make the forest more susceptible to fires. Large accumulations of these fuels lead to hot, damaging fires.  Prescribed burns also consume trees, shrubs, and invasive species that compete with other vegetation for moisture and nutrients.

Prescribed fires enhance vegetative growth…

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Jaguars and Land Use

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First For Wildlife

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The jaguar is one of the largest feline species in Central and South America, with an average adult male growing to 7 feet in length and weighing 200 pounds. Their range stretches from the southern tip of Mexico to the thick forests of the Amazon Basin.  However, the Amazon, particularly the Pantanal (a large tropical wetland spanning across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay), is where the majority of the jaguar population resides.  Their habitat has been fragmented due to rapid expansion of agriculture, ranching and continuing deforestation throughout Central and South America.

According to Victor M. Villalobos, Director General of the Inter American Institute for the Cooperation on Agriculture, Latin America holds 42 percent of the world’s agricultural expansion potential. With growing human populations in South America and the necessity for economic stimulus, many countries are exploring new options for land use.

Agricultural practices have profound effects on biodiversity. Much like…

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Reflections by Dr. Paula Kahumbu, the global elephant lady, on the death of Satao

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This is sad news about Satao. I was in Tsavo a year ago and unfortunately did not have an opportunity to see this majestic animal. Mountain Bull, another famous large tusker from Kenya was killed recently in the Lewa conservancy of northern Kenya. We must find a way to end this poaching pandemic!

ATC News by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome

Much has been said and much more will be said in coming days about the fact that Satao, an iconic huge elephant who roamed the plains of Tsavo, was killed by poachers and his tusks, said to be the largest of any elephant at the time in Kenya, hacked out of his skull.

10351261_459388834164329_4000034021727138882_n.jpg(Picture courtesy of Tsavo Trust)

This latest killing of an iconic elephant, the previous one only two weeks ago when in similar fashion another big tusker was poached in Central Kenya, exposes the rot in the establishment, which has been big on lipservice and short of action, to the point of even denying that there is a poaching crisis in Kenya. Clearly, this latest case, one of dozens in the wider Tsavo/Taita/Taveta area in recent months, demonstrates that the Kenyan government is NOT doing all which could be done and should be done to take the battle…

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A New Day for the Nēnē | Audubon Magazine

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A New Day for the Nēnē | Audubon Magazine.

Is rewilding of modern species a good idea? The answer: sometimes

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Building off of my previous rant against the idea of pleistocene rewilding I would like to discuss the idea of rewilding modern species. Unlike pleistocene rewilding, which suggests modern descendants of ice age megafauna should be introduced to habitats where their ancestors roamed, modern rewilding involves reintroducing an extirpated species, or at least a closely related subspecies, into an ecosystem which it was known to live in recent times. Probably the greatest example of this would be the reintroduction of wolves to the American west. Since most  gray wolf populations were completely eradicated from the lower 48 a closely related subspecies of gray wolf was brought in from Canada to repopulate American parks such as Yellowstone.

Unlike pleistocene rewilding this effort should not upset the ecological balance of habitats these modern species are reintroduced to. These species have evolved in these ecosystems and the ecosystem relies on them for certain services. Continuing with my gray wolf example, in the absence of wolves prey species exploded in population. These increased populations began to destroy their habitats, literally eating themselves out of house and home as there was no predator efficient enough to keep their populations in check. Restoring wolves to these habitats has returned the natural balance. Prey populations have fallen to more natural, sustainable levels and the plant community has begun to rebound.

While I still contend that pleistocene rewilding is a terrible idea, modern rewilding can be beneficial. However, I do not recommend we place modern rewilding as the highest priority. Some areas should strive for this if it is necessary to restore the habitat and there are no greater conservation concerns upon which they should focus. For example, I do not believe India should focus so much of its time and resources on the rewilding of cheetahs when the protection of their tigers and rhinos from poaching should be their highest concern at this time.

Additional Readings:

The first wolf family in Denmark since centuries? » Rewilding Europe A new beginning. For wildlife. For us.

Project to ship cheetahs from Africa to India totally misconceived – Telegraph.

WII Plans Rs 260 Crore Project for Reintroducing Cheetah in India – The New Indian Express.

African cheetah sourced for reintroduction to India – Big Cat Rescue.

Cheetah reintroduction stirs up debate – The Times of India.

The fall of the wild?

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Another example of development efforts destroying our natural heritage. This and other projects like the Serengeti highway must be stopped!

Pleistocene Rewilding: Is it really a good idea?

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Recently a concept known as pleistocene rewilding has arisen within the conservation community. This idea is the cause of great controversy as it suggests we should introduce descendants of extinct pleistocene megafauna to ecosystems where their ancestors once roamed. This would mean releasing species such as lions (Panthera leo), tigers (Panthera tigris), and elephants (Loxodonta africana) into the Great Plains region of North America or bringing a species of rhino into Europe.

While restoring species to an ecosystem in which they, or at least their ancestors, evolved may seem like a good idea at first we must take a closer look at the implications of such an action. These species have been absent from these habitats for thousands of years, most since the end of the last ice age. These systems have continued to evolve without these species. In many places new species have arisen to fill the ecological void left by the extinction of these ancient species. Sure, there are examples of niches which have not been filled (for instance, no predator other than man has found a way to hunt the American pronghorn since the extinction of the American cheetah), but this does not mean we should intervene. More often than not introductions of species do not end well. I of course must cite the example of introduced species such as pythons and kudzu.

Some argue that it was the actions of ancient humans rather than natural selection which pushed these species into extinction. Whether this is true or not it does not justify the introduction of their modern descendants into ecosystems which have adapted to the lack of these pleistocene megafauna. Currently we have greater conservation issues at hand such as deforestation, poaching of rhinos, declining grassland birds, and deterioration of reefs to worry about something frivolous like pleistocene rewilding.

Additional readings:

Bringing wild rhinos into Europe proposal “red herring and won’t fly” – News – News – Voice of Russia UK, Voice of Russia – UK Edition.

Pleistocene Rewilding– in North America

Pleistocene Rewilding, Frankenstein Ecosystems, and an Alternative Conservation Agenda – Oliveira-Santos – 2010 – Conservation Biology – Wiley Online Library.

JSTOR: The American Naturalist, Vol. 168, No. 5 November 2006, pp. 660-681.

Rants from the Hill: Pleistocene rewilding — High Country News.

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