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Conservation Corner: Looking Back, Moving Forward

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It’s a festive time of year; a time of holidays and office parties, of family and feasting. The year’s end is a time for celebration, but also a time to step back and take stock. As the New Year approaches, we are encouraged to set free the past and level our sights on the future. We make our resolutions and layout our hopes and goals for the year to come. This tradition is an important one, especially when it comes to the work of conservation.

The goal of Conservation Corner has always been to introduce readers to topics and ideas that aren’t yet part of the national discourse. We want to illuminate ongoing issues in the world and hopefully, incite some critical thinking and discussion on these topics. When it comes to conservation, progress only takes place when demanded by an informed public.

To that end, we try to cover a broad spectrum of topics. While we often write about specific events such as the death of Nola the white rhinoceros, we’ve also been known to delve into the more esoteric fare, like migratory adaptation. Regardless of the topic, we always try to drive the conversation deeper and to explore the broader ramifications of the concept under discussion.

The death of Nola was perhaps the biggest news item so far covered by Conservation Corner. When she passed away at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the number of northern white rhinos left on the planet was reduced to three. The story blew up online and on TV for all the usual reasons; it was dramatic, it was traumatic, and it illuminated a gigantic and obvious conservation problem. People responded in droves and that can only be counted as a win for the forces of wildlife conservation.

In our coverage of the loss of this beautiful animal, we tried to refrain from focusing on the depressing and macabre and instead investigated what her species’ decline had meant for the particular ecosystem.

That article led directly to our opening piece of 2016, entitled “Settling for Second: The Evolutionary Cost of Trophy Hunting”. This piece focused on a frequently unnoticed side-effect of human hunting. While it’s well-documented that such pressures can eliminate a species (as seen in the dodo, Stellar’s sea cow, and others). What has been largely ignored is the effect it can have even on well-managed target populations; such as those of bighorn sheep or mule deer. Whereas standard predatory practice targets the old, the sick, and the weak thereby weeding out undesirable genetic traits, trophy hunting specifically targets idealized specimens. This has the side-effect of leaving less-qualified individuals to reproduce and carry on the species.

From there we covered another topic related to anthropogenic over-hunting; a novel reintroduction project enacted by the Sahara Conservation Fund and their partners, Environment Abu Dhabi, and the Government of Chad. This ambitious project aims to reintroduce into the deserts of Chad, a species of antelope that has been extinct in the wild for nearly three decades. The scimitar-horned oryx (which roam in the habitats here at Safari West) is one of the many victims of unrestricted human hunting discussed above. Luckily, forward-thinking conservationists were able to establish functional captive breeding programs before the last wild individual was shot in 1989. Thanks to that foresight and the ongoing work done by so many, including our own hoofstock keepers, the species is now getting a second chance to thrive in their natural habitat.

This is not to say, however, that the re-wilded scimitars are being released into an Edenic, human-free environment. Quite the opposite in fact. They will be competing for resources with domesticated goats and cattle. They will need to contend with roadways and vehicles. Undoubtedly, hunters, human and otherwise, will also be a concern.

We explored this intersection of humanity and our wild neighbors deeper in a piece focused on the ways in which animals are adapting to us. In the long history of this planet, life has always had to evolve to deal with challenges; climate change, sea level rise and fall, the invasion of novel species, and natural disasters galore. While the ubiquity and industry of the human species may be unprecedented in nature, life appears to be up to the challenge.

In that article, we focused primarily on the fascinating and mysterious monarch butterfly. This world-famous pollinator makes the longest migration of any insect species, traveling up and down the United States; from the border of Canada to the forests of northern Mexico. Although they’ve always been forced to fly around the Gulf of Mexico—sticking doggedly to the coastlines along the way—they’ve recently begun to make surprising use of offshore oil rigs. Normally a symbol of environmental exploitation and degradation, these machines of industry are increasingly becoming stopover points, allowing millions of delicate but determined butterflies to rest their weary wings as they make the arduous trip south.

Discussion of this migration must’ve stuck in our minds because the very next edition of Conservation Corner furthered the discussion. Dovetailing into the centennial of the National Parks Service, we discussed their incredible success at protecting specific areas of the wilderness and the sedentary species that make their homes there. What the park system has been less successful at is creating safe havens for migratory animals like the monarch. Their focus as they move into their second century is centered on how to address the needs of migrating birds, pronghorn antelope, salmon, butterflies, and more.

The National Park Service is one of the world leaders in human management of the ecosystem, but the example they’ve set is being followed by others. The Pepperwood Preserve—Safari West’s neighbor to the east—is among those pioneering forces. Earlier this year they held a prescribed burn. They intentionally set fire to a portion of their vast acreage. This technique is increasingly used to reduce the potential for wildfires across the world, but Pepperwood’s experiment had a different aim. They were hoping to reduce the spread of an invasive grass. Medusahead grass has exploded beyond its original range and continues to flood into novel environments at an alarming rate. The Pepperwood experiment is part of an increasing trend toward utilizing natural processes rather than synthetic ones—like toxic herbicides—to help control and restrict environmentally destabilizing invasive species.

Ecosystem engineering of this sort is looking more and more like it will be a necessity in the world of tomorrow and further exploration of the idea lead us to explore the kind of bioengineering that takes place even without our intent. We looked into how species like beavers can transform an entire forest with their teeth and tails as effectively as we can with chainsaw and bulldozers. This exploration revealed how ecosystems that have adapted to the activity of bioengineers like beavers suffer at their loss, whereas ecosystems that experience novel engineering, such as that so frequently brought about by human industry, tend to suffer.

Tying into this idea of environmental resilience, we then discussed invasive species more directly. Invasive species have become one of the largest conservation issues dealt with by facilities like Safari West. The term “invasive species” is one that has established itself in the common discourse and is familiar to any farmer, rancher, any boater, or any traveler who’s crossed a state line. They’ve become the boogeymen of modern conservationist thought which is a bit of a mixed blessing. While public awareness of the problems of invasive is by all accounts a good thing, the underlying fact is that invasive species are also critical to the process of evolution. Ecosystems are by their very nature dynamic and novel influences help keep populations healthy and strong. To an extent. In isolated ecosystems like those found on many islands, the much slower pace of invasion leaves them vulnerable to extreme disruption when something new appears. As with the bioengineering article, our exploration of invasive species revealed a concept in which frequency or intensity made the difference between what is a stabilizing influence, and what is catastrophically destabilizing.

That article brought us into back-to-school season and so we came out of the deep weeds on conservation philosophy and presented a targeted piece that aspired to illuminate the vast and growing problem of rampant consumerism. We now live in a culture that constantly tells us that every occasion requires a purchase and that last year’s model can’t compare to this year’s. In a world of more frequent buying, products must be cheaper and more disposable. This leads inevitably to exploding waste, primarily of cheap and easy to produce plastics.

Ecosystems may be able to adapt to a novel species in their midst, but thus far, no system has come up with a cure for plastics. Plastic polymers persist almost eternally, don’t biodegrade, and are detrimental to virtually all forms of life. We are filling our planet with plastics and most of the human race is so far unaware that there’s a problem.

The last two articles of the year continued the theme of illuminating largely invisible problems. The first piece focused on palm oil; an ingredient nearly as ubiquitous as plastic and one which has an equally detrimental impact. The oil palm is an amazing plant that produces—quite efficiently—a product which has found use in everything from food to cosmetics. Many studies have suggested that over fifty percent of all products on store shelves contain palm oil derivatives. The problem with palm oil is that it grows best in the same places that tropical rain forests do and coincidentally, those tend to be the very same locales that have the least amount of legal protection. The high and growing demand for palm oil has led to unrestrained deforestation on an apocalyptic scale. Slash-and-burn land clearing techniques and unrestricted persecution of local wildlife has led to precipitous declines in hundreds of irreplaceable species like orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, and elephants. Luckily, there is progress even on this front and it is now easier than ever to track you palm oil usage and direct your dollars toward companies that supply it sustainably.

The most recent issue of Conservation Corner focused on yet another widely unknown but absolutely critical conservation issue; that of our seafood supply. Fish arrive in our supermarkets daily and almost none of us question where they come from. The oceans are vast and fished by massive fleets representing hundreds of nations. The difficulties in regulation, the loopholes in labeling, and a complete and utter lack of transparency have all helped to lead us where we are today. Worldwide, fishing stocks have been depleted by anywhere from seventy to ninety percent. Our oceans are becoming deserts and the vast majority of us don’t even know there’s a problem.

Over the last year, we’ve covered a long list of topics that range from land to sea, and from practical to philosophical. We’ve made an effort to be illuminating rather than depressing and to offer solutions wherever possible. As we close out this year, and in case we failed in that goal, I’d like to point out a few of the bright rays of hope that have 2016 shine.

Safari West became partners with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. This program is one of the leaders in combating the issues with our seafood supply. Simply by downloading their app onto your phone, you become instantly equipped to make informed choices in your seafood purchases, whether in a restaurant or at the grocery store. Experience has shown again and again that industry follows the money. If we’re buying sustainable supplied products, they will shift to capitalize on that trend.

On a similar note, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has an app that accomplishes the same thing with palm oil. The app includes a barcode scanner that will tell you at a glance whether the ice cream in your hand is produced by a member of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil. It’s a great tool for identifying sustainability-minded companies that you may want to support.

This was also a year which saw the meeting of nearly two-hundred nations in Johannesburg, South Africa to discuss and regulate trade in endangered species. This conference of parties to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) not only shut down several proposals to re-legalize trade in ivory and rhino horn, but also established new protections for many species including elephants, rhinos, pangolins, and numerous species of sharks and rays. The conference was a big step forward for many endangered species and ecosystems.

Lastly, I want to take a moment to mention some of the practical things that have been accomplished right here at Safari West. We updated the plumbing system throughout our luxury tent camp. While this update in no way impacted guest experience, it did reroute all gray water (water draining from sinks and showers) to be used in our landscaping. Thousands of gallons that would otherwise have drained away wastefully are now being put to use among our vegetation. In a state stricken by drought, this is a valuable conservation action.

We’ve also initiated a brand new wildlife monitoring project. Our habitats aren’t only home to our exotic collection, but also to all manner of local wildlife. At Safari West our safari guides and keeper regularly encounter hawks, vultures, snakes, turtles, deer, otters, and countless other member species of the Mayacamas Mountains biome. This wildlife monitoring program will help us to better understand how these species are adapting to our presence and how to make the environment of Safari West more welcoming to them.

As we close out this chapter and begin the next, it is with a palpable sense of excitement and motivation. Many challenges await—both those we know about and the inevitable surprises waiting in the wings—but every year, our species gets smarter and more ambitious. We figure out what we’re doing right and how to correct what we’re doing wrong. We continue to improve our ability to live effectively within our ecosystems, rather than struggling to dominate them. Progress is being made and it’s thanks to people like you. We at Conservation Corner thank you for your support throughout this year and we look forward to working with you to make the next one even better.

Happy Holidays to you and a very Happy New Year!

Jared Paddock

Jared Paddock

Safari West staff and conservation writer.