Joined-up thinking on wildlife habitats

by ZSL on

In the first year of the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, Monica Wrobel, Head of Asia Conservation Programmes, looks at the key learnings from ZSL’s recent work with wildlife habitats – and how we can all do our bit for the natural world. 

“A lot of our work in Asia, like our KELOLA Sendang project in Sumatra, is about conserving surviving pieces of wildlife habitat among human-dominated landscapes, and connecting the dots for wildlife,” says Monica. “In the places where ZSL has worked to conserve tigers, we are seeing population recovery, and animals dispersing to new areas to find a mate. In Thailand, we’ve seen tigers from our project site, in a protected area on the western borders with Myanmar, dispersing into a mosaic of forest reserves and parks, agricultural areas and towns.

“So the next big questions are about connectivity and coexistence. Where can these tigers disperse to – can we connect up habitats and create safe passages for wildlife? And how can we prepare local communities for animals moving through new areas?” 

Promoting peaceful coexistence 

Having a wild elephant suddenly appearing in your village or a tiger preying on your livestock can be a shocking and dangerous experience, especially if it has never happened before. These encounters can result in injury or death for either people or wildlife, especially if interactions become panicky, says Monica.

Kelola Sendang

“We want to reduce human-wildlife conflicts by keeping people out of harm’s way and minimising interactions between people and animals as much as we can,” she explains. “Some of that means thinking through the lens of the species themselves: what will prevent them being tempted to come into a human area, or motivate them to move on?” 

Understanding the reasons for animals entering human-dominated landscapes can also help. “In India, a huge concrete irrigation channel was built that forced elephants to divert 10km from their usual crossing place to find food – taking them directly into a village to make the crossing. Farmers weren’t happy – but once they understood why it was happening, they were more sympathetic.” 

Meanwhile, we can’t help wildlife while ignoring the pressures on its human neighbours. “We need to ensure that in poor and remote communities, people don’t need to resort to setting snares to capture wild meat, or being recruited by a poaching network,” says Monica. “To remove that temptation or necessity we need to help provide other, more sustainable, livelihood opportunities.”

Making palm oil sustainable 

The palm oil rush is continuing – and where it’s not sustainably managed, it is having devastating effects on wildlife habitats. “Palm oil really is above-the-ground oil for many countries,” says Monica. “The tragedy of the rapid oil palm development in Sumatra is that some areas that have been converted to oil palm are not really suitable. Decisions are being taken without any technical or ecological knowledge.”  

“A big part of what ZSL is looking at now is ecosystem recovery and resilience,” she adds. “How do we make sure entire ecosystems are looked at? And what are the functioning species in these systems that are keeping it going and preventing collapse?” 

A big part of what ZSL is looking at now is ecosystem recovery

She notes that habitat drying is an emerging concern in the age of climate change; as has been seen in Sumatra, with swampy peatland being drained to irrigate oil palm plantations, turning it into a tinderbox.  

Every individual matters 

As Monica notes, protecting or restoring habitats at a landscape scale requires conservationists to be good mediators who can open a dialogue with a wide range of key players, including governments, private industry, NGOs, development banks, the transport and tourism sectors, and local communities, to champion nature-based solutions. “With KELOLA Sendang we had to work at a scale to be meaningful in the face of the climate change and human pressures involved,” she says.  

we had to work at a scale to be meaningful in the face of the climate change

Big challenges require big thinking, and we can’t hope to solve global threats purely through small-scale, localised responses. That doesn’t, however, mean that individual action doesn’t matter. “Even large-scale conservation projects like KELOLA Sendang are made up of lots of individual contributions,” Monica says. ‘A community member bringing the wisdom of their lived experience around wildlife is just as important as, say, someone on a steering committee. “We should all feel empowered to make a difference and ask: ‘What can I do?’” 

That could be doing our bit to reduce carbon emissions, or using our power as consumers to hold corporates to account and ask how sustainable their products are. Or it might involve calling on politicians to help put nature at the heart of national and global decision making. As COP26 approaches, there has never been a better time to make our voices heard. 

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