The Sussex Study: 50 years of monitoring an agricultural ecosystem

From inauspicious beginnings in a Sussex barn to policy-changing science, the Sussex Study aims to reverse the decline of wildlife on Britain’s farmland.  This is the story of a unique and impressive set of data gathered by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and its predecessors during the past 50 years over an area of farmland in West Sussex, UK.

Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936) wrote of this area in southern England in his 1906 poem A Three-part song, which starts:

I’m just in love with all these three,
The Weald and the Marsh and the Down countree.
Nor I don’t know which I love the most,
The Weald or the Marsh or the white Chalk coast!

The Sussex Study was originally called the Partridge Survival Project and began in April 1968.   Its inception represented an extraordinary effort by Chris Hunt, a Member of the Game Research Association’s Council, Managing Director of North Farm, Washington, Sussex and founding Chairman of the GWCT.  Dr Dick Potts had just been appointed as Project Officer to investigate the effect of pesticides on the grey partridge, an iconic game bird species of the British countryside.  Dick had just completed work on the effect of organochlorines on the breeding success of seabirds(1).   Dick was also the son of a Yorkshire farmer and this background helped to pave the way for the project.  Access was granted to 62 sq km of farmland by the landowners and farmers who worked on the area.  Their support, and that of the generations that followed them, has now endured for 50 years. The primary aim of what soon became known as The Sussex Study was to investigate reasons behind the declines in the breeding success of grey partridges, especially chick mortality(2).  A conscious decision was made that the Sussex Study would simply monitor the effects of the land management decisions taken by the farmers and gamekeepers in order to reflect developments in cereal farming in England. Results from the monitoring would then feed into experiments elsewhere in cereal growing areas of the UK, testing ways to improve game and wildlife conservation and finally into management on farms.

The Study area is bounded to the west by the flood plain and water meadows of the Arun valley, and to the east by the Adur valley.  (This area lies merely 30 miles to the south and west of Ashdown Forest, the home of A. A. Milne’s famous bear Winnie the Pooh and friends.) The northern boundary is defined by the South Downs scarp slope which is thickly wooded, predominantly with beech, ash, or hawthorn scrub, and rises to approximately 220m above sea level.  Wooded areas form the southern border, together with villages and coastal conurbations such as Littlehampton (where the yacht of the children’s author Arthur Ransome was built and which he named after one of the key characters in his series of stories starting with Swallows and Amazons) and Worthing (to the west of Brighton, the favoured sea-side retreat for many Londoners).  The landscape is one of open landscapes of rolling hills of freely drained, thin chalk downland soils.  The area is bounded on the west by the Cathedral City of Arundel and is contained within the UK’s newest National Park, the South Downs National Park.  This area was used for military training (by the Canadian Army Second Division) between 1939 and 1945, and much of the scrub was cleared and ploughed from 1947 to 1954.  Arable farming superseded sheep grazing, and the traditional grass ley farming and rotation practices were in decline by the time the Sussex Study began(3).  At this time the light soils and open landscapes were a stronghold of the UK’s native partridge species, the grey partridge.  (Richard Adams sets his best-selling novel Watership Down in such a landscape.)

Dick and his team began a system of annual monitoring with partridges counted in the spring as breeding pairs, and again in late August/early September to monitor breeding success.  Annual surveys of the occurrence of arable weeds and abundance of invertebrates in cereal fields were undertaken in June to coincide with the time of peak grey partridge chick hatch.  Earlier work at Imperial College, University of London by other researchers had identified the importance of insect-rich diet for rapid grey partridge chick growth and feather development. Monitoring chick-food resources in cereal fields was combined with detailed monitoring of the use of pesticides in the same fields(4).

1970s

In the first decade of the Sussex Study, Dick recruited several scientists to expand the work, starting with two entomologists.  Dr Paul Vickerman joined Dick in 1972 and set to work investigating the effects of pesticides and cereal field management on invertebrates in cereal fields, then joined by Dr Keith Sunderland in 1973.  In 1974, Dr Steve Tapper began research into the effects of stoat and weasel predation on gamebirds.  Collaborations were initiated, most notably with Dr Steve Wratten at Southampton University, researchers at the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute in Littlehampton, and The Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire.  A series of young researchers began their research careers with the Trust, working on problems identified from the Sussex Study monitoring.  The first of these Ph.D. candidates was Nick Sotherton (now Professor Sotherton and Director of Research at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust) who started work in 1976 on the beetle Gastrophysa polygoni, whose larvae were relished by partridge chicks and required the arable weed knotgrass Polygonum aviculare as its host plant.

This early work on the Sussex Study area was pivotal to the establishment of a new branch of ecology that concentrated on the agricultural ecosystem- agro-ecology.  The importance of the Sussex Study was highlighted by Amyan MacFadyen, the Editor of Advances in Ecological Research, who wrote that the 1974 article by Dick Potts and Paul Vickerman in this journal “was remarkable for introducing a thorough ecological approach to an ubiquitous but – to the ecologist – unfamiliar system, for the biological breadth of its treatment and for the clear relevance to a number of practical fields which have been ignored by conventional agricultural science(5).  Until the Sussex Study began, very few scientists had monitored farmland for its value to wildlife.  Dick and Paul concluded their 1974 article saying: “It would surely be prudent to investigate the structure of these ecosystems before adopting the large-scale use of more pesticides and further intensification of cropping.” They hoped that “the results of their future studies will help to provide data which will allow further increases in agricultural productivity without unnecessarily violating sound ecological processes and without undue environmental costs.(3).

The 1974 publication Advances in Ecological Research became a seminal work and an inspiration to a generation of conservation scientists who now regard these intensively managed, man-made ecosystems as having conservation merit worthy of our attention.  Sussex cereal fields might be man-made but they were some of the first to be cleared in Britain by Neolithic man, following the retreating ice sheets and making the conversion from hunter gatherer to settled farmer.  Some of these fields have a history of growing cereals going back 7,000 years.

1980s

The main findings from the first fifteen years of the Sussex Study formed the basis of Dick’s book published in 1986 entitled The Partridge. Pesticides, Predation and Conservation(2). This book is one of the cornerstones of agri-ecology, detailing the effect of intensification in land use and particularly the management of cereal crops on numbers of grey partridges through changes in their food resources, nesting habitat and losses due to predation.  It is this work that, in 1984, led to the inception of three of the Trust’s major research projects.  If the Sussex Study was the test-bed of ideas and the birth place of hypotheses to identify why partridges were in decline, these hypotheses were to be tested elsewhere.

The Cereal and Gamebirds Project sought to address the loss of chick-food insects in cereal fields caused by agricultural intensification.  Potential management solutions were tested experimentally at the farm scale(6).  The Salisbury Plain Experiment, examined the effect of legal predator control on grey partridge abundance through experimental manipulation using a “crossover design”.  This consisted of predator control (the treatment) being applied randomly to one of two farms for three years, after which predator control was switched to the control farm and the farm that had been the treatment area became the control(7).  Finally, work on the ideal nesting cover was undertaken by Dr Mike Rands for his DPhil at Oxford University.  Mike characterised the nesting cover of partridges, stressing the importance of perennial grass cover and how well these nesting sites on the ground can drain after heavy rain(8, 9).

Work within the Cereal and Gamebirds Project, chaired by Hugh Oliver-Bellasis of the Manydown Estate, led Nick Sotherton and other researchers at the Trust to develop “conservation headlands” (where the edges of cereal fields receive selective pesticide applications, avoiding both broad-spectrum herbicides and insecticides in spring and summer to promote a weedy understorey rich in insects) and beetle banks (grass banks established across the middle of fields to provide refuges for beetles that are natural predators of cereal pests).  Initially this early work on pesticides and their indirect effects on wildlife could not be funded by the GWCT.  So the project was independently funded by the UK’s cereal farmers who paid a levy of 20 pence per acre to join and support the project.  With grants from various charitable trusts, over £1.5 million pounds was raised, worth over £4.5 million today.  Funding for both of these methods of mitigating the intensification of cereal management is now available through the UK’s agri-environment schemes.

The Salisbury Plain Experiment demonstrated the importance that predation has on grey partridge numbers, particularly through its impact on the number of young fledged per pair.  Where predators were controlled, annual young production was twice as high, and breeding density improved 2.6 fold over three years, relative to where predators were not controlled.  Throughout all our studies on predation on partridges, our predator control is always seasonal (only during the nesting season, late March to early July) and always legal (taking species with methods that UK law allows).  The experiment also verified the ability of legal predator control to restore Grey Partridge numbers against the backdrop of 1980s agriculture.

Towards the end of the 1980s a new development in cereal management on the Sussex Study raised concerns from those monitoring the area.  This was the widespread use of the broad-spectrum insecticide dimethoate on the Sussex Study area in 1989.  Statistical modelling by Dr Nicholas Aebischer (who had joined the Trust in 1987 partly to computerise the invertebrate and arable flora data collected through the time of the Sussex Study) found that sawflies (Symphyta), whose larvae were another important food item, could take as many as seven years to recover from the use of dimethoate in the summer (10).  This work underlined the long-term damage to non-target cereal invertebrates that may occur with the use of insecticides in the summer.

Dick Potts collecting insect samples using a DVac

It was about this time that the UK’s government statistics on the status of the UK’s breeding birds were analysed and the unhappy results published.  The list of farmland birds that had declined by more than 50% in the last 25 years included the grey partridge but also many other once common species such as corn bunting, lapwing, yellowhammer and linnet.  Of these the species with the closest association to farming was the grey partridge.

At the end of the 1980s, the UK government began to address the detrimental effects of agricultural intensification highlighted by the emerging field of agro-ecology.  This included the introduction of Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs, defined areas of the country where farmers were paid to manage their land in ways that conserved wildlife, landscape and historic features) and voluntary set-aside (initially a measure to curb overproduction but latterly used to provide wildlife habitats). The Sussex Study area fell within the second tranche of ESAs and the farmers on the area took up the funded management options within it, taking land out of cereal production and establishing grass fields to recreate chalk downland over a long time-scale.

1990s

By the beginning of the 1990s the cereal field was being considered as an important area of study for ecologists, not least due to the work of the Trust’s scientists both within the Sussex Study and elsewhere.  In 1990 the British Ecological Society (BES), and the Association of Applied Biologists (AAB), held a symposium in Cambridge on “The Ecology of Temperate Cereal Fields”.  The published proceedings of this meeting(11) demonstrated the ecological understanding required by agriculturalists to achieve quality and profitability in cereal production, together with conserving the flora and fauna found in cereal fields.  Dick’s contribution(12) forms the opening chapter of this publication, backed by two more chapters from the Game Conservancy Trust: by Dr Nicholas Aebischer(13) and Dr Nick Sotherton(14).  All three of these chapters owe a debt to the Sussex Study monitoring, in particular Nicholas’ paper presents information on the long-term trends in arable flora and cereal invertebrates monitored in the Sussex Study.

Sussex Study Conservation Headland (Peter Thompson GWCT)

The expansion of agri-environment policy by government continued in the early 1990s. Countryside Stewardship was launched across the country for those areas not covered by an Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme (ESA) in 1991 and the area covered by ESAs expanded in 1993.  It was during this expansion of the ESA that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), provided funds for monitoring of the effects of the ESA.  This allowed Nicholas Aebischer and Dr Andrew Wakeham-Dawson to examine the effect of the management undertaken by the farmers across the Sussex Study area (and beyond) on plants, invertebrates and farmland birds.  They found that, although the long-term leys established under the ESA had fulfilled their landscape value, their contribution towards conserving arable flora and fauna was minimal(15).  This work led to the inclusion of conservation headlands and undersown cereals (where cereal crops are sown with a grass/clover mix that provides a green cover overwinter following cereal harvest) in the options within the ESA, setting a precedent for in-field habitat management in agri-environmental schemes within the UK.  This was the first instance where agri-environment options developed from the results of that early monitoring on the Sussex Study were put in place on the study area.  It would not be the last.

In addition to research on ESA management, Nicholas secured funds for a Ph.D. student, Nick Brickle, to examine the effect of agricultural intensification on Corn Buntings, Emberiza calandra, on the Sussex Study area(16).  The corn bunting has become a rare bird in the UK, unable to deal with changes to cereal crop management.  Nick began work on the study area in 1995, determining that the breeding success of Corn Buntings was directly related to the availability of chick-food invertebrates in the cereal crops surrounding their nests.  This concurred with earlier work on the Sussex Study area on Grey Partridge chick survival.

In the late 1990s, a report reviewing the evidence for the effect of pesticides on farmland birds(17) for the Joint Nature Conservancy Council (JNCC), stated that work by The Game Conservancy Trust on Grey Partridge provided the most convincing case for the effect of pesticides on farmland birds.  Funding was provided by the JNCC for Dr Julie Ewald (who had joined the Trust in 1995 to construct a GIS database of the Sussex Study data) to collate and analyse the effects of pesticide use within the Sussex Study area on both arable flora and cereal invertebrates(18).  The results of this work, in conjunction with Nicholas Aebischer’s 1990 modelling work on sawflies, remains the best example of the effect of pesticides on cereal invertebrates persisting into the year following pesticide application.

2000s

As the Sussex Study moved into the new millennium, the results of the long-term monitoring of both the cereal ecosystem and the management decisions of the farmers on the study area started to be appreciated by policy makers in government and elsewhere.  Agri-environmental funding increased, with the addition of arable options, including conservation headlands and beetle banks, to Countryside Stewardship.  Both are designed to boost the abundance of insects and other invertebrates crucial for the survival of young birds.

The take-up of these measures was poor, however, and it was at this time that the Sussex Study monitoring began to raise serious concerns about the number of Grey Partridges on the study area.  The breeding density of birds had fallen from a high of 20 pairs per 100 ha in the late 1960s to less than a pair per 100 ha in 2003.  There was a real prospect that the reason the Sussex Study had been initiated in the first place, to monitor grey partridges, might monitor them to extinction.  By now Dick Potts had retired from The Game Conservancy Trust, but not, crucially, from the Sussex Study.  Retirement gave Dick the time and freedom to respond to a direct request from the Duke of Norfolk, one of the landowners on the Sussex Study area, to restore Grey Partridge abundance on his land.  The Duke was incredibly ambitious. He not only wanted to bring back Grey Partridges, he wanted to restore his farm to a sustainable wild Grey Partridge shoot – something it had not been for 40 years.

(Peter Thompson GWCT)

Work began on the Norfolk Estate in late 2003, initially on an area of 140 ha.  Conservation measures (beetle banks resulting in smaller fields, conservation headlands, wild bird cover, reduced pesticide applications, patchwork quilt of cropping) were put in place and legal and seasonal predator control was directed towards controlling nest predation on Grey Partridges. Unfortunately, densities of Grey Partridges had declined to such an extent that only one pair remained.  Something had to be done and, in the spring of 2004, nine pairs of wild Grey Partridges were translocated to the area.  Since then with no further translocation, the numbers have grown to almost 400 pairs of Grey Partridge with a bonus of 150 pairs of Red-legged Partridge.  In 2007, the managed area expanded to 1033 ha and sustainable Grey Partridge shooting had been re-established along with a most impressive boost in biodiversity of the flora and fauna.

2010s

The long-term monitoring began to attract attention as a resource that allowed ecologists to look at both changes in agriculture and climate change(19, 20, 21).  This work underlined the prolonged negative effects of agricultural intensification on the cereal ecosystem and highlighted the need for continued governmental support for agri-environment schemes.

The new developments on the Norfolk Estate benefitted from the UK government’s agri-environmental funding at the offset.  In 2005, the UK had launched the Environmental Stewardship programme, with both Entry level (available to all) and Higher level (competitive sign-up) available.  The Norfolk Estate successfully applied for funding under the Higher Level Scheme in 2011 but continued to provide habitat management above and beyond the level paid for through agri-environment support.  The success of all this, particularly as presented in Dick’s book(22) was appreciated not only by ecologists but, more importantly, by policy-makers. It is recognised by farmers and policy-makers as a best-case example of conservation.  At the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s 2012 Research Conference, following Julie Ewald’s presentation on the success of the work on the Norfolk Estate, Natural England staff suggested that the project was a blueprint for how other farmers could undertake conservation. ‘Farmer Clusters’ (farmers working together for conservation, to gain the benefits of scale) were developed out of this idea.  Not surprisingly, the pilot programme for this included a ‘cluster’ run by the farmers on the Sussex Study.

‘Farmer Clusters’ were developed as a concept and fed into the UK government’s plans for the replacement of the Environmental Stewardship agri-environment scheme.  In 2015, the UK government released information concerning the new Countryside Stewardship.  As part of the new agri-environment scheme there would be scope for a competitive Facilitation Fund to “support people and organisations that bring farmers, foresters, and other land managers together to improve the local natural environment at a landscape scale”.  The farmers on the Sussex Study, together with others, successfully applied in the first round of Countryside Stewardship facilitation fund applications. Their Arun to Adur Group encompassed the whole of the Sussex Study area.

Looking back on 50 years of the Sussex Study, it is inspiring to think that work begun to answer questions and concerns highlighted through the Sussex monitoring that began in the 1960s is now enabling the farmers on the Sussex Study to conserve wildlife on their land.  Surely this is the best measure of how successful the Sussex Study has been.  The initial set-up of the project, instigated by farmers and the long-term commitment of what is now the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and its staff, in particular Dick Potts, have been crucial.  It is, therefore, a cruel misfortune that Dick will not be able to join in the 50th Anniversary celebrations of this prestigious Study as, most regrettably and to the great sadness of all his colleagues at the Trust, he died after a brief illness at the end of March 2017.

The Sussex Study is a brilliant example of the value of maintaining a long-term monitoring programme, keeping it relevant in a changing world and providing practical information for land managers.  To end, as we began, with a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s poem A Three-part Song – its concluding verse:

I’ve given my soul to the Southdown grass,
And sheep-bells tinkled where you pass.
Oh Firle an’ Ditchling an’ sails at sea,
I reckon you keep my soul for me!

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust manages research projects in a variety of disciplines encompassing expertise from its scientists in biology, botany, entomology, and ornithology, covering a broad range of environments from moorland, heathland and farmland to wetlands and other riparian territories, which aim to restore and conserve habitats and its wildlife, and to provide a sustainable source of game for future generations.  The applied science carried out by the Trust often provides a basis for elements in conservation schemes run by Natural England or Scottish Natural Heritage, (two of the UK’s Government Agencies responsible for wildlife) and can be directly applied by farmers and gamekeepers across the UK.  GWCT scientists have produced scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals since 1929, and with other work published in books and also in unpublished Ph.D. theses by doctoral students, the total number of scientific articles currently runs at over 1,800.

Full details of the work published by the GWCT can be found on its website: www.gwct.org.uk

The link to the webpages specific for the Sussex Study is: http://www.gwct.org.uk/research/long-term-monitoring/sussex-study/

References:

(1)  Potts, G.R. (1968). Success of eggs of the shag on the Farne Islands, Northumberland in relation to their content of dieldrin and pp’DDE. Nature, 217: 1282-1284.
(2)  Potts, G.R. (1986). The Partridge: Pesticides, Predation and Conservation. Collins, London.
(3)  Potts, G.R. & Vickerman, G.P. (1974). Studies on the cereal ecosystem. Advances in Ecological Research, 8: 107-197.
(4)  Potts, G.R. (1969) Partridge Survival Project Progress Report. Game Research Association Annual Report. 8: 14-17.
(5)  MacFadyen, A. (ed.) (1974). Advances in Ecological Research. Volume 8. Academic Press Inc. (London) Ltd, London.
(6)  Chiverton, P.A. & Sotherton, N.W. (1991). The effects on beneficial arthropods of the exclusion of herbicides from cereal crop edges.  Journal of Applied Ecology, 28: 1027-1039.
(7) Tapper, S.C., Potts, G.R. & Brockless, M.H. (1996). The effect of an experimental reduction in predation pressure on the breeding success and population density of grey partridgesPerdix perdix. Journal of Applied Ecology, 33: 965-978.
(8)  Rands, M.R.W. (1986). Effect of hedgerow characteristics on partridge breeding densities. Journal of Applied Ecology, 23: 479-487.
(9)  Rands, M.R.W. (1987). Hedgerow management for the conservation of partridges Perdix perdix and Alectoris rufa. Biological Conservation, 40: 127-139.
(10)  Aebischer, N.J. (1990). Assessing pesticide effects on non-target invertebrates using long-term monitoring and time-series modelling.  Journal of Functional Ecology, 4: 369-373.
(11)  Firbank, L.G., Carter, N., Darbyshire, J.F. & Potts, G.R. (eds) (1991). The Ecology of Temperate Cereal Fields. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.
(12)  Potts, G.R. (1991). The environmental and ecological importance of cereal fields. In: Firbank, L.G., Carter, N., Darbyshire, J.F. & Potts, G.R. (eds) The Ecology of Temperate Cereal Fields: 3-21. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.
(13)  Aebischer, N.J. (1991). Twenty years of monitoring invertebrates and weeds in cereal fields in Sussex. In: Firbank, L.G., Carter, N., Darbyshire, J.F. & Potts, G.R. (eds) The Ecology of Temperate Cereal Fields: 305-331. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.
(14)  Sotherton, N.W. (1991). Conservation Headlands: a practical combination of intensive cereal farming and conservation. In: Firbank, L.G., Carter, N., Darbyshire, J.F. & Potts, G.R. (eds) Ecology of Temperate Cereal Fields: 373-397. British Ecological Society Symposium, Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.
(15)  Wakeham-Dawson, A. & Aebischer, N.J. (1998). Factors determining winter densities of birds on Environmentally Sensitive Area arable reversion grassland in southern England, with special reference to skylarks (Alauda arvensis). Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 70: 189-201.
(16)  Brickle, N.W., Harper, D.G.C., Aebischer, N.J. & Cockayne, S.H. (2000). Effects of agricultural intensification on the breeding success of corn buntings Miliaria calandra. Journal of Applied Ecology, 37: 742-755.
(17)  Campbell, L.H., Avery, M.I., Donald, P., Evans, A.D., Green, R.E. & Wilson, J.D. (1997). A Review of the Indirect Effects of Pesticides on Birds. JNCC Report 227. Peterborough: Joint Nature Conservation Committee.
(18)  Ewald, J.A. & Aebischer, N.J. (1999). Pesticide Use, Avian Food Resources and Bird Densities in Sussex. JNCC Report No. 296, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough.
(19)  Potts, G.R., Ewald, J.A. & Aebischer, N.J. (2010). Long-term changes in the flora of the cereal ecosystem on the Sussex Downs, England, focusing on the years 1968-2005.Journal of Applied Ecology, 47: 215-226.
(20)  Ewald, J.A., Aebischer, N.J., Moreby, S.J. & Potts, G.R. (2015). Changes in the cereal ecosystem on the South Downs of southern England, over the past 45 years. Aspects of Applied Biology, 128: 11-19.
(21)  Ewald, J.A., Wheatley, C.J., Aebischer, N.J., Moreby, S.J., Duffield, S.J., Crick, H.Q.P. & Morecroft, M.B. (2015). Influences of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields over 42 years. Global Change Biology, 21: 3931-3950.
(22)  Potts, G.R. (2012). Partridges. Countryside Barometer. New Naturalist Library Book 121. Collins, London.

Originally posted 2018-04-05 01:00:31.

New camera trap photos in Thailand reveal a wildlife haven

Kui Buri National Park is one of 21 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries that make up the important Dawna Tenasserim Landscape that straddles the border of Thailand and Myanmar. Covering more than 5.6 million acres, the Landscape is one of the largest protected area complexes in southeast Asia and provides vital habitat for an astounding array of wildlife, including sun bears, tigers, and Asian elephants.

Since 2005, the Kui Buri Wildlife Conservation Program has been working to protect wild elephants and other wildlife in the park. A collaboration between WWF-Thailand and the Department of National Parks, the project supports critical habitat restoration, anti-poaching patrols, and robust wildlife monitoring efforts to protect local elephant populations, in addition to preventing and mitigating human-wildlife conflict.

Human-elephant conflict was once a regular occurrence around the park, which is surrounded by farmlands to the south and east. Elephants would often venture into local pineapple fields in search of a snack, which led to significant losses for farmers and danger for elephants that faced retaliation. Today, WWF and park staff engage local farmers and communities to encourage sustainable land use planning, stop human encroachment into elephant habitats, and work together to reduce human-elephant conflict.

Thanks to their efforts, elephant deaths have declined dramatically since 2010. Elephant habitat and prey for tigers have also improved drastically in key regions, bolstering wildlife populations.

Learn more learn about how WWF is using camera traps for conservation:

Originally posted 2018-07-11 12:00:00.

Nepal nearly doubles its wild tiger population

Doubling tigers

With fewer than 4,000 wild tigers left in the world, more must be done to ensure tiger numbers keep trending upwards. “Every tiger counts, for Nepal and the world,” said Dr. Ghana S. Gurung, Country Representative of WWF-Nepal. “While Nepal is but a few tigers away from our goal to double tiger numbers by 2022, this survey underscores the continued need to ensure protection and improved and contiguous habitats for the long-term survival of the species.”

Two years ago, WWF shared that, based on the best available data, global tiger numbers had increased for the first time in more than a century. But while countries like Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Russia have made significant gains in recovering their populations, tiger conservation remains a challenge in Southeast Asia, where rampant poaching and deforestation are an ever-present threat. 

WWF is working with governments, scientists, rangers, and local communities to put an end to tiger poaching across Asia and prevent habitat loss, and to help communities better address human-tiger conflict.  

We’re confident that together, we can double the number of tigers in the wild.  

You can help save this incredible species. Pledge to Save Tigers Now.

Can Storytelling Save Wildlife?

By Millie Kerr

We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories. –-Jonathan Gottschall

People have been telling stories since before Homo sapiens mastered language, and, whether we realize it or not, we hear and tell stories every day. Stories come in a variety of shapes and sizes but are bound by their ability to help us understand the world and our place in it. Since they deliver emotional impacts, stories have the power to cause people to change their minds.

A member of Botswana’s Khoisan community shows a group of tourists one of the Kalahari’s scorpions.” © Millie Kerr

Last month, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published “Using Story to Change Systems,” in which author Ella Saltmarshe identified three core qualities through which “all sectors can use [stories] to change systems: story as light, as glue, and as web.” In a nutshell, this means that stories can spotlight faults in a system while drawing attention to bright spots where positive change is either already happening or envisioned for the future. Stories also bring communities together by engendering “empathy and coherence”; we’re far more likely to understand another person’s position when emotions and narratives are involved. And, finally, stories build webs that help us rewrite our own personal narratives, not to mention cultural and mythic frameworks.

With the environment in crisis and wildlife suffering from the Sixth Great Extinction, conservationists must learn to use stories to bring awareness to environmental declines while helping people understand the planet’s precarious position and how we are part of problems and solutions. In recent years, conservationists, most of whom train as scientists, have begun to recognize the importance of communication and storytelling—an important step for a community that once scoffed at the idea of communicating with the general public (during a September 2015 speech in San Antonio, Texas, which I attended, Jane Goodall shared that the University of Cambridge was incredibly disappointed when she revealed that she planned to publish the results of her PhD with an outlet that targeted the masses).

Things have changed dramatically since then. In 2015, the University of Cambridge admitted me—a lawyer-turned-journalist with no scientific education beyond high school—to its Conservation Leadership master’s program. During the yearlong course, I heard countless lecturers discuss the need for improved conservation communication, so I decided to write my dissertation on what I call “conservation storytelling.” My general observations about narrative align with Saltmarshe’s, but I worry that intellectual discussions about something as complex as storytelling border on the esoteric, which is especially problematic for conservationists who’ve studied conservation biology instead of literature or creative writing. “Scientist storytellers,” as author Randy Olson calls them, need practical guidance for mastering the art of storytelling,

I spent many frustrated hours in the University Library trying to come up with a simple definition for “story” and eventually realized that the concept is too elusive to be instructive. Instead, I parsed out elements that make stories successful:

Compelling narratives:

  1. Enchant and inspire wonder;
  2. Show, don’t tell;
  3. Feature change, drama, and tension;
  4. Feature clear characters that are ideally relatable;
  5. Depict a hero overcoming obstacles—sometimes on a quest;
  6. Pit good against evil using protagonists and antagonists; and
  7. Engage the listener.

Although it’s helpful to consider these features when crafting a story, the seven elements are not intended to operate as a checklist: in fact, some may be mutually exclusive (a story featuring protagonists battling antagonists may not have the ability to enchant and inspire wonder). There are different kinds of stories, each with its own time and place, and a storyteller’s expertise and nature influence his decision to pursue a particular tone. David Attenborough, for instance, trades on approachability and wonder; though his documentaries often feature drama, I would argue that stirring enchantment is his greatest gift.

To understand how the above techniques operate in conservation, I looked to recent conservation narratives. Documentaries were an obvious starting point since they’re among the most popular science and conservation stories of today, plus they employ all of the core elements. At their core, they tend to enchant and inspire or play on conflict. Universal narratives—like life, death, and family ties—connect human viewers to animal characters even when films don’t contain clear protagonists. But while drama sells, networks like the BBC Natural History Unit—which is committed to educating in addition to entertaining—must watch out for sensationalism of the kind on display during Shark Week. Though appealing, shock-and-awe programs often reinforce negative stereotypes about animals, which may reduce public interest in conserving endangered species.

A notable example of a single story that engaged citizens and encouraged them to tell their own versions of the original narrative involved the death of Cecil the lion at the hands of trophy hunter Walter Palmer. Oxford University’s WildCRU analyzed traditional and social media in reaction to Cecil’s death, finding “an unprecedented media reaction” spanning the globe. WildCRU believed that Cecil’s story resonated because: an identifiable villain killed the big cat; Cecil died a slow, painful death; the main reaction to his shooting was anger, which causes more social media sharing than sadness; and, finally, Cecil was a majestic, well-studied animal with an English nickname.

Researchers often dislike naming animals since the practice anthropomorphizes them, but Cecil’s case proves that people respond to animals with human names. And why wouldn’t they? We’re accustomed to calling one another by name, and names are easier to remember than a string of characters. Media outlets took Cecil’s personification a step further by focusing on the fact that his death would likely lead to the death of his offspring. They, perhaps subconsciously, made us realize that Cecil wasn’t just a lion: he was a father. Although some conservationists support trophy hunting, everyone seemed to vilify Palmer. Perhaps this stemmed from the circumstances, or maybe it was strategic: dramatic headlines hook readers, some of the best stories pit good against evil, and conservation organizations stand to benefit from public outrage.

It’s far easier to get people excited about beautifully shot wildlife films and controversial topics, like trophy hunting, than it is to advocate on behalf of insects or bats, but less charismatic animals star in stories, too. Bat Conservation International founder Merlin Tuttle learned to take interesting photographs of bats that showcase their unique attributes and physical characteristics. For years, the Bronx Zoo has run “Name a Roach,” a successful fundraising campaign around Valentine’s Day that taps into our communal dislike for the insect. And children’s books prove that children are open to connecting with any kind of animal character; just look at Charlotte’s Web.

Conservationists often feel like they’re fighting a losing battle, so asking them to add storytelling to their to-do lists may seem like asking too much. But, just as stories about nature inspire appreciation for the natural world, experiences in the natural world inspire creativity. It could be argued, then, that stories produce nature-lovers, and nature-lovers produce stories, both relationships key to a continuous appreciation for, and protection of, the planet.

* * *

Millie Kerr

Ambitious and entrepreneurial lawyer-turned-multimedia journalist focused on wildlife conservation. After three years of practicing law— first as a securities lawyer in London, then as a media lawyer in Washington, D.C.— I put law aside to pursue my primary passions: storytelling and conservation. I subsequently: completed several month-long volunteering stints with Namibian conservation organizations; spent a year writing for the Wildlife Conservation Society; published conservation articles with a wide range of magazines and newspapers, from Outside and Scientific American to The Guardian and Mongabay; and presented/produced a digital segment for Earth Touch News. I recently completed a master’s in conservation leadership from the University of Cambridge, with my focus on conservation storytelling, and now work as a journalist and conservation consultant in London.

Select Clips

  1. Namibia’s Re-Wilding Efforts Give Hope to Orphaned Cheetahs,” The Atlantic(digital)
  2. Great Apes in Asian Circus-Style Shows on Rise- So is Trafficking,” Mongabay.com
  3. Ending the Sale of Ivory May be the Only Way to Save Africa’s Elephants,”Pacific Standard (digital)
  4. Lion Facial Recognition Debuts in Africa,” Scientific American 

Originally posted 2018-04-05 00:43:50.

Endangered Vultures Critical to Disease Control in Africa

Dr. Corinne Kendall giving a presentation on vultures in Tanzania.

National Geographic Society grantee Corinne Kendall studied vulture biology and conservation at Princeton and now works for North Carolina Zoo putting her knowledge to work in on-the-ground (and in-the-sky) research in Tanzania. She’s also passionate about education, managing a teacher training program in Uganda and teaching at zoos and universities across the United States. We asked her about her recent findings about these critically endangered birds.

Why are vultures so important to the overall health for life in Africa?

Vultures play a critical role in disease control and waste removal. They are actually one of the most important scavengers in Africa and are believed to consume even more carrion than mammalian scavengers like hyenas. Vultures also eat rapidly and feed in large groups which allows them to consume carrion quickly. This reduces the risk of disease spread from flies or bacteria. Vultures are resistant to many diseases so they don’t contract or spread diseases like tuberculosis or brucellosis even if the animals they are consuming died from those causes.

Vultures have the advantage of incredibly efficient soaring flight which allows them to travel large distances in short amounts of time. White-backed vultures are also highly social. These two characteristics make vultures uniquely capable of responding to fluxes in food availability created when a large animal dies or during an epidemic. As a result they can be particularly important for reducing disease spread during an outbreak.

What can vultures teach us about the spread of anthrax and other animal mortalities?

Vultures respond to disease outbreaks quickly and reduce the spread by consuming carrion without contracting the disease. In Tanzania, Wildlife Conservation Society biologists and I have satellite-tagged White-backed vultures and recently had a unique opportunity to understand how anthrax spreads during an outbreak using our tagged vultures. Because birds stop for extended periods when feeding at a carcass, we were able to identify locations of animals that died of anthrax during a recent epidemic in Ruaha National Park. Using our tagged birds we can assess when and where the outbreak started, how it spread, and when it ended. In collaboration with Tanzanian National Parks, we were even able to identify contaminated carcasses so that rangers could destroy some carcasses and help to reduce the spread of anthrax.

Vultures might be able to help us understand other animal mortalities as well. For instance, there is concern about a giraffe skin disease which has become very common in Ruaha National Park.

It is not known if this disease affects mortality rates in giraffe. Using vultures, we may be able to find giraffe carcasses more rapidly and assess how severe the skin disease was in the deceased individual.

Why are African vultures declining?

African vulture populations have declined precipitously in the last three decades and many species are now considered endangered or critically endangered. Poisoning is the primary cause of decline. Poisoning occurs when people put pesticides onto livestock carcasses when cows or other domestic animals are killed by lions and hyenas. These retaliatory killings are intended to kill the carnivores, but vultures are the more common victims of poisoning. In some cases, poachers have also begun poisoning vultures either for their body parts or because they want to reduce vulture numbers so that the birds don’t alert rangers to elephant carcasses, from individuals that have been recently poached.

Vultures FEEDING ON ANIMAL CARCASSES HELPS SCIENTISTS TRACK THE SPREAD OF DISEASES SUCH AS ANTHRAX. Photograph by James Smoliga.

What can be done to save Africa’s vultures?

Wildlife Conservation Society and North Carolina Zoo are working closely with Tanzanian National Parks to ensure a safe future for vultures in Tanzania. We have conducted ranger trainings on how to respond to poisoning events, such as ways to collect evidence, how to care for sick birds, and how to properly dispose of the poisoned carcass. In addition, in September 2017 we held Tanzania’s first ever Vulture Awareness Day. This event attracted hundreds of people and media attention in Tanzania and communities were amazed to learn about the important role that vultures play in the environment and what they can do to save them. It really helped raise the profile of these sometimes overlooked birds.

Is there hope for African vultures?

The threats to African vultures are great and poisoning can kill a large number of birds very quickly. However, there is hope for African vultures. Recent studies from Wildlife Conservation Society and North Carolina Zoo in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania suggest that this park may be a critical stronghold for African vultures. Populations appear to be stable and poisoning appears to be infrequent in this area. We are optimistic that vulture populations in southern Tanzania can flourish even though declines are continuing elsewhere.

For the white-backed vulture and other wildlife, time is running out. Join National Geographic explorers, like Corinne Kendall, as they work to protect wildlife, preserve the last wild places on the planet, and push the boundaries of discovery. Click here to donate.

Originally posted 2018-02-02 07:04:46.

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