Tuesday, 29 July 2003

Where have all the elephants gone?

The second half of the 20th century saw the destruction of the huge herds of elephants that once roamed much of Africa. Despite the depredations of the ivory traders, until the 1950s, elephants still survived in reasonable numbers. But then, with the spread of independence among African states in the 1960s, there was also a dramatic rise in the armaments available. And one of the results of this ‘arms race’ was the destruction of elephants and rhinos. But parallel with the much publicised destruction of the African Elephant, the Asian Elephant was declining even faster. The population explosion of the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia has fragmented the elephant’s habitat to tiny remnants of the forests that once spread over much of the area. There are now probably less than one tenth of the number of Asian Elephants compared to African.

The Asian Elephant is slightly smaller, hairier, with smaller ears than the African, but another feature is that the females rarely have tusks and the males’ are generally smaller than those of the African Elephant. But this may not always have been the case. It has been suggested that this is the result of centuries of hunting for ivory, which has selectively removed larger tuskers from the population, altering the genetic structure.

The future for Asian Elephants is very gloomy. They need large areas in which to roam, and inevitably come into conflict with humans, and their agriculture. Even parks and reserves do not entirely solve the problem, as few of them can be large enough to preserve populations of significant genetic diversity. One solution is the creation of corridors between national parks and other protected areas.

The World Land trust is raising funds to help its partner, the Wildlife Trust of India, with an exciting new project to create elephant corridors in North-west India. Working with local communities, the project will set aside areas where the elephants can move safely, and alternative sources of income will be developed with the communities to off-set the losses caused by the elephants. It is also anticipated that this approach will benefit a wide range of other wildlife – such as primates and big cats, as they will undoubtedly use the corridors as well.

The cost of creating the corridors has been estimated at around £25 an acre and the World Land Trust is ‘marketing’ acres as an ideal gift – for the person who wants to do something really positive for elephants, and also be able to feel they have done something tangible. The campaign will not be launched until September, (with a target of £30,000, it’s modest and should be achievable). But meanwhile, if any readers of this column know of a company or individual who would like to sponsor this work, I would be very pleased to hear from them. This is only the first of several corridors, but we anticipate it will prove successful a long-term strategy.

Wednesday, 16 July 2003

How green are wind farms?

The 'green' movement, led by Greenpeace, greeted the UK government's announcement this week that it was to build huge wind farms with almost universal approval. But how 'green' are wind farms?

Wind energy is, of course, renewable, but the turbines themselves are created from non-renewable resources, and being such huge structures, they require huge concrete bases to anchor them. Concrete is a pretty energy intensive material, and the placing of the bases may well affect natural drainage patterns. But to me, as a naturalist, the most worrying feature about wind farms is the death and destruction they can and do mete out to wildlife. Now, not all wind farms or individual wind turbines kill wildlife. But many do, and some on a very significant scale. I have been reading about a Spanish wind arm in Navarre that has killed hundreds of the threatened Griffon Vultures. It has also killed over 600 bats in a year, as well as thousands of small birds and other endangered species such as White Stork and Bonnelli's Eagle. In California, there are serious concerns about the impact of wind farms on the local Golden Eagle population. And flying around the Internet there are accusations that data about wind farm mortalities is being suppressed.

Gathering data on the mortalities at wind farms is difficult, but the fact that they kill birds is incontrovertible. Nearly all large man-made structures from pylons, power-lines, oil rigs, skyscrapers are hazards, killing large numbers. But add to those structures blades whirring around with a wing-tip speed of nearly 150mph (240kph), and there is a serious hazard for all but the most agile of birds and bats. And for less manoeuvrable species - such as eagles and hawks, collisions often become inevitable.

Birds and bats killed or even injured by wind turbines fall to the ground, and in turn may attract predators, so gathering data becomes difficult. And the predators attracted, may in turn become victims. But research has been carried out to calculate these losses, and this indicates that some of the estimates may well be too low. And of course collecting data at sea is even more difficult.

Far too little is known about the likely impact on wildlife populations of the proposed wind farms in Europe, and the enthusiasm for them by some environmentalists may well be entirely misplaced if they endanger birds and bats. But once they are built, just like the nuclear power stations, it will be very difficult to get them shut down, however many birds the kill. And the problem seems to be compounded by the fact that the wind power promoters are now funding many conservation organisations, including the RSPB. This has led to critics of the wind farms accusing such organisations as not being objective. The time has surely come for a really objective look at the environmental impact of wind farms. David Bellamy and I have been looking at this issue and trying to find out what the real effects will be - clearly renewable energy is something we all support, but what if the costs, in terms of other impacts on the environment are too high?

My concern is that the energy companies (whose main raison d'ĂȘtre is to sell more and more energy) are promoting wind farms because they have convinced the environmentalists that it is totally safe and renewable. The environmentalists are more concerned with being anti-fossil fuels than really considering the environmental impacts of wind farms. And it is the wildlife that will miss out- yet another straw on the donkey's back.

Feedback will be welcome.

Friday, 11 July 2003

Anonymous damselfly

Peter Taylor, the World Land Trust's Website manager, is also a keen naturalist, and wrote the following news item this week, as a result of his interest in odonata. I thought some of our readers might be amused.

"Damselfly returns to Hardy country" News story on BBCi


The BBC is currently featuring a rather lovely story about the return of a rare damselfly to Dorset. Although the story runs to more than 500 words, and includes quotes from two experts it fails to mention at any point the name of the species of damselfly concerned. Perhaps the damselfly is so rare that it doesn't have a name, or maybe the BBC decided not to bother us with trivial details. Luckily help is at hand - a quick look in the new Reviews section of the WLT website should reveal the name of the insect they're talking about.

UPDATE Monday 14th July: It now seems the damselfly has a name - the news item now includes a nice photo of a marked damselfly - (CD Marker pens work well)

Monday, 7 July 2003

Modern farming and the future of British wildlife

I drive some 6 miles to the office of the WLT most days and it always makes me pause and think about modern farming. There are hedges and copses, but there are also expanses of wheat, barley sugar beet and peas stretching a hundred acres or more, and rarely less than 40 acres. These are sterile expanses, that 50 years ago would have been criss-crossed with hedges. There would have been large areas of old permanent pasture, rich with wild flowers, and with a diverse selection of insects and other invertebrates. The fields of arable crops would have a healthy selection of weeds.

Even in the 1970s I remember corn marigolds and other weeds mixed in the wheat. But now no longer. It is a miracle that so many species of birds and other wildlife survive at all, though I am very concious of a slow inexcorable decline in a huge number of species. From Lapwings to Tree Sparrows, from Swallows to Yellow Wagtails, many species now seem to be doomed to extinction in Britain. Or if they survive, it will be in isolated populations on nature reserves. And then there the 'island effect' -- when small populations are isolated they become increasingly vulnerable to local extinctions, and recolonisation is more difficult.

Despite all the valiant efforts of UK conservation organisations, I find it increasingly difficult to be optimistic about the future of British wildlife. The changes in the European Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) perhaps give some glimmer of hope. But meanwhile, saving what's left of the unspoiled parts of the planet is to me a really high priority. There is probably no part of the British Isles where the hand of man is not easily observed. No 'natural' ecosystem. But in Ecuador and other parts of the world near pristine forests do exist, but for how long? We have a duty to try and save as much as possible, by what ever means we have at our disposal.