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Protecting Nature’s Nomads

Human interference with the environment has had a devastating impact on many migratory species. While nature should never be prized merely for its economic value, in a world of competing demands and limited resources, economic considerations can help tip decisions in favor of conservation.

NAIROBI – For the elephants that are returning to southern Angola, after herds were devastated during the country’s civil wars, the battle is far from over. Old land mines, sown during the decades of conflict that ended in 2002, are threatening the lives and limbs not only of people, but also of the growing elephant populations that are crossing into Angola from northern Botswana on ancient migration routes that continue into Zambia. Mines are a particularly stark example of how humans interfere with migratory journeys that have linked breeding and feeding sites across the globe for millennia.

Up to 10,000 animal species are thought to migrate. Yet, increasingly, air, water, and land routes are being destroyed by barriers, ranging from roads, fences, dams, and power lines to unsustainable hunting or fishing practices, habitat degradation, pollution, and climate change.

One example is the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, found in the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia. Barriers to its migration range from entrapment in fishing nets to conditions caused by gold mining and dam building.

Likewise, someone strolling through Norway’s Fennoscandia region in the 1900’s would have marveled at the abundance of Lesser White-fronted Geese, which then numbered in the thousands. Today, only 20-30 breeding pairs remain – the result, according to the World Wildlife Fund, of the drainage of wetlands in countries such as Greece, and of hunting along the bird’s migration routes.

In North America, one of the world’s fastest land animals, the Pronghorn antelope, faces obstacles such as highways and fencing. The harsh winter in 2010 left herds stranded and hungry, blocked by fences while they burned up their fat reserves searching for ways through. Similarly, in South Africa, 12% of Blue Cranes, South Africa’s national bird, and 30% of Ludwig’s bustards are dying annually in collisions with a growing number of power lines.

Climate change is also having a severe impact on the world’s most peripatetic animals. Migratory species, from Monarch butterflies to humpback whales, are suffering as a result of shifts in temperature and the disruption of the traditional timing, abundance, and location of food sources.

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The trend looks bad. But some countries are taking action. Since the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals entered into force in 1983, its membership has grown steadily to include 116 countries in Africa, Central and South America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. To date, the CMS has concluded agreements and memoranda of understanding to conserve more than 26 migratory species.

Thanks to the CMS, Papua New Guinea and Mozambique, for example, recently agreed on cooperative arrangements to conserve migratory dugongs, animals once thought by seafarers to be mermaids. Likewise, a 20-year agreement has recently helped to increase the number of harbor seals in the Wadden Sea, shared by Germany and the Netherlands.

Protecting migratory species benefits not only the animals concerned, but humans as well. A ten-year program to restore and conserve seven million hectares of wetlands in China, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Russia has improved conditions for the critically endangered Siberian crane, as well as drinking-water supplies, inland fisheries, and carbon storage.

Austin, Texas, is home to the world’s largest urban colony of migratory bats, which live underneath the city’s central Congress Avenue Bridge. On summer nights, hundreds of people visit to witness the bats emerge for their nightly feed. Not only do the bats act as natural pest controllers, consuming up to 4,000 mosquitoes each per night; they also underpin a local tourism industry that generates an estimated $10 million a year.

On November 20-25, the CMS will hold its 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Bergen, Norway.Among other success stories, the participants can cite the example of the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau. Many shark species are now at high risk, owing to growing consumption of their fins, which are widely believed to boost sexual potency and enhance general health. But Palau is helping to reverse this trend. Two years ago, Palau became the first country to declare its coastal waters a shark sanctuary – scientists estimate that shark-diving tours now generate around 8% of the country’s GDP, and that a single shark generates revenues from ecotourism amounting to €1.9 million ($2.6 million) over its lifetime.

Nature should never be prized merely for its economic value. But, in a world of competing demands and limited resources, economic considerations can help to tip decisions in favor of conservation rather than degradation. This kind of strategic thinking can help to ensure that the world’s 10,000 migratory species continue their journeys, so that future generations can also marvel at these nomads of the natural world.