Thursday, 26 August 2004

Migration of Swifts

Last night, just after 7 pm there were several hundred swifts moving west, just above the height of the trees. It was a very clear and visble movement in one direction, lasting for between 10 and 15 minutes. The weather had been wet for most off the day, but cleared up around 7 pm, and I presume the insects on which Swifts feed had been brough low by the weather. Over 40 years ago I had been an avid bird ringer in the suburbs of South london, and each year we caught and ringed several hundred Swifts over Beddington Sewage Farm. And it was then that I first became enthralled by Swifts. These amazing birds are among the world longest living (for a small bird) -- surviving for 20 years or more, and they fly to Central Africa and beyond each year. One of the birds we captured at Beddington was later killed by a boy with a catapult in the Congo. And the nestlings can go torpid during bad weather when the parents fail to bring food. And perhaps the most remarkable of all is that once the young leave the nest, they may well fly to Africa and back, not actually breeding until they are four years old, and sleeping on the wing, never settling. Remarkable birds.

Splitting hares and other species

In the last couple of decades numerous species have been 'split'. That is to say, what was once thought to be a single species has been split into several. The European Brown Hare, which was once thought to be a single species spreading all over Europe, and over most of Africa and Asia, is now believed to comprise at least three species, possibly more, in Europe, and the classification of the hares of Africa and Asia is still being worked out. In South America the situation is even more dynamic, with numerous new species of primate being separated. The reason for these new classifications is largely the advances in DNA studies, but also for some species studies of behaviour such as song and calls. Important as these studies are in demonstrating the existence of discrete populations, I do have some worries, that we are over-emphasising these differences, and that they may not actually represent separate species. Afterall what happens if, just because a bird that is virtually identical in all other respects to another species, but has a diferent song or call and is considered a separate species? Should we apply the same criteria to humans? This would mean that someone speaking a different language would become a different species. And the differences in the DNA of some of the primates, may be no greater than the extremes found in human populations. Language in humans is often a perfectly good barrier to interbreeding, particularly when combined with other cultural separators, but it still does not make the Otrthodox Greeks a separate species from the Muslim Turks. In the rush to split species, we are in danger of losing sightt of the most important factor in conservation, and that is the ecological integrity of an area. Does it matter if two allopatric populations have slightly different DNA, if either one of them will fulfill the same role in an ecosystem? There is talk of splitting the White Wagtail and the Pied Wagtail into two different species -- but if one or the other disappeared, the one remaining would fill the niche in the ecosystem perfectly well. Or am I missing something?

Tuesday, 24 August 2004

Islands for sale update

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an island in Belize. This week I have found an island of over 2000 hectares for sale in Argentina for $580,000. That works out at around £60 an acre or $100 an acre. It is being advertised as ideal for hunting, and is situated in the middle of a river in the more tropical part of Argentina, and no doubt teeming with wildlife.

It is very frustrating, since all the time we are hearing of beautiful unspoiled pieces of land, in all parts of the world, but we lack resources to acquire them. Many of our supporters write in suggesting places, while others suggest we put pressure on governments to do something. The reality is that very often there is little or nothing governments can do -- in most poorer countries they lack the resources to protect existing parks and reserves adeqately. And in many cases the land is privately owned. The only solution is for the land to be acquired by a conservation body. However, funding for the purposes of land acquisition is difficult. International agencies and government agencies rarely support land acquisition -- presumably because of fears of being accused of colonialism. Aid agencies will fund research and training (which usually benefits the donor country more than the recipient), but not the actual acquisition. So this is where the public come in. This is why public support for the work of the WLT is so vital. If the public can help us buy land, we can set up the infrastructure for a local non-government organisation (NGO) to manage the land, and then aid agencies will usually support the management costs of looking after the land.

But the WLT is too small. We need to grow. We need to have in hand enough capital to make purchases when they come on the market. Unlike many other conservation activities, land acquisition usually has to move very fast, otherwise speculators and devlopers will move in, particularly when we are trying to buy the land as cheaply as posssible. The cost of a single tank used in Iraq would solve the WLT's problems......

The WLT is cost effective, and proportionately it has achieved more than many much bigger organisations, but there is little doubt we could do a lot more. Biodiversity is the buzz word of the 21st century, and the WLT's projects conserve biodiversity as one of their prime objectives. The WLT's network of partners conserve over 300,000 acres of land for wildlife -- that's significantly more than the RSPB, which has over a million supporters. Not a particularly fair comparison, but nontheless, acre for acre, the WLT's projects conserve many times more species, many more endangered species, at a fraction of the cost. Ideally we would like to create a large endowment fund, so that we had enough funds to run day to day activities, and then all efforts could be devoted to land acquisition. But where is the wealthy donor who will estblish such a fund? For the super rich of the world, whether it is a Bill Gates or a David Beckham, $10 or $15 million is insignificant. But it could make a huge difference to the future of wildlife.

Thursday, 5 August 2004

For Sale: A pristine island at $40,000 an acre

To give our readers an idea of the sort of battle we are struggling against, I can do no better than quote a Real Estate advertisment from Belize:

Beyond the Reef it's unbelievable, un-imaginable and unbeatable. It's a divine Paradise. To the west it lays only a stone throw away from History- the fascinating and enchanting world of the Mayas and their civilization and nestles among the lush Tropical Forests of Northern Belize. Accessible – year round, Archeological sites of Altun Ha and Lamanai, World Famous Archeological sites.

It's a real and alive world of birds and plants and animals living in harmony with man and nature.

This island is a virgin paradise and if you need sand to develop, there is plenty surrounding this beautiful and unique island. Also, not to mention great fishing for tarpon, permit, fighting bonefish and various areas where the manatees feeds adding more attractions to the island for a resort development or just your private get-away!

End of quote

A 25 acre paradise, ripe for development (=despoiling) for $1million. And since it is not in any top priorities for conservation, it will almost certainly end up being developed, the manatees may get chopped up by propellors from speed boats, nesting turtles will disappear, and yet another bit of paradise will have gone. Our resources are so limited, we have to concentrate on areas which are really important, but it is depressing to have to ignore such islands, and allow them to slip away.