Protecting nature's nomads

By Achim Steiner, UN Under‐Secretary General and Executive Director UN Environment Programme and Erik Solheim, Norwegian Minister of the Environment and International Development

Elephants, which are once again returning to southern Angola after herds were devastated during civil wars, are facing deadly dangers on their ancient migration and foraging routes.

Old land mines, sown during decades of conflict that ended in 2002, are threatening the lives and limbs of people but also growing elephant populations coming across the border from northern Botswana on journeys onto Zambia.

Mines are a particularly stark example of how humans are interfering with migratory species and journeys that for millennia have linked breeding and feeding sites across the globe.

Up to 10,000 animal species are thought to migrate with the Arctic tern deemed the star performer covering between 50,000 and 80,000 kilometres every year as it flies from breeding grounds in the Arctic to wintering habitats in the Southern hemisphere.

Yet increasingly these flyways, swim ways and land routes are running into ‘barriers’ ranging from unsustainable hunting or fishing practices, habitat degradation, pollution and emerging climate change to ones such as roads, fences, dams and power lines.

Accelerating solutions and catalyzing cooperation to overcome these multiple challenges will take centre stage when governments meet in Bergen, Norway in November under the UN Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species (UNEP CMS).

Take the now critically endangered Irrwaddy dolphin, found in the Bay of Bengal and south east Asia. Barriers to its migration range from entrapment in gill and drag nets to impacts from gold mining and dam building.

In the 1900s, someone strolling through Norway’s Fennoscandia region would have marveled at the abundant population of lesser white‐fronted geese which then numbered in the thousands.

Today only some 20 to 30 breeding pairs remain—the result of the drainage of wetlands in countries such as Greece and hunting along the bird’s migration routes according to the wildlife group WWF.
In North America there is concern over the world’s fastest land animal—the fleet footed panghorn antelope.

Obstacles like highways and fencing can spell big trouble, especially during the harsh winters witnessed in 2010 that left herds stranded and hungry after being blocked behind fences burning up fat reserves searching for ways through.
In South Africa, 12 per cent of blue cranes‐‐South Africa’s national bird‐‐ and 30 per cent Ludwig’s bustards are dying annually after colliding with a growing number of power lines.

Meanwhile climate change is triggering concern for migrating Monarch butterflies to humpback whales as a result of shifts in temperature and the timing, abundance and location of food sources. Since the CMS’s entry into force in 1983, its membership has grown steadily to include 116 countries from Africa, Central and South America, Asia, Europe and Oceania with many important achievements to date.

Papua New Guinea, through the Secretariat of Pacific Regional Environment Programme and Mozambique through CMS recently agreed on cooperative arrangements to conserve migratory dugongs, animals once thought by sea farers to be mermaids.

A 20 year agreement to improve the prospects for seals in the Wadden Sea has recently seen numbers of harbor seals again on the rise.

There are a myriad of smart measures and more intelligent management options that can assist—better ways of setting fishing lines can help reduce mortality of wandering albatrosses and cultivating food sources that attract birds like the Blue crane to land rather than fly into power lines may be another.

Supporting demining operations by organizations such as the Halo Trust will benefit people and elephants in Angola.

There are also growing and compelling Green Economy arguments. A ten year programme to restore and conserve seven million hectares of wetlands in China,
Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia has not only boosted the prospects for the critically endangered Siberian crane but also improved drinking water supplies, inland fisheries and carbon storage.

For some Austin Texas may be best known as the birthplace of actress Jerry Hall or Frank Beard, the drummer with ZZ Top.

But it is also home to the world's largest urban colony of migratory bats living underneath Congress Avenue Bridge and on summer nights hundreds of people visit to witness this miracle of nature.

Not only do the bats act as natural pest controllers, consuming up to 4,000 mosquitoes each in a night, they underpin a tourism industry worth an estimated $10 million a year to the city of Austin.

Perhaps governments, meeting in Bergen under the theme “Networking for Migratory Species”can also look to the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau.
Sharks, which have roamed the oceans more than 400 million years ago, are being increasingly hunted for their fins. However, they are now emerging as more valuable alive than dead.

Two years ago Palau became the first country to declare its coastal waters a shark sanctuary‐ scientists now estimate that shark diving tours are generating around eight percent of the country’s GDP and that a single shark generates revenues from ecotourism amounting to €1.9 million over its lifetime.

Nature should never be merely prized for its economic value—we all know it is worth far more than that.

But in a world of competing demands and limited resources, it can play its part in tipping decisions in favour of conservation rather than degradation.

And in doing so assist to ensure that the world’s 10,000 migratory species continue their journeys so that future generations can marvel, be amazed and benefit from these nomads of the natural world.


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