In Summary: Drought has left wildebeests and zebras of the Tarangire Ecosystem in northern Tanzania without food or water on their calving grounds, disrupting their normal migration and forcing them to give birth near the Tarangire River.
Tanzania is experiencing a drought after the short rainy season failed to deliver much-needed rainfall during recent months. The landscape across the Tarangire Ecosystem of northern Tanzania is now unseasonably dry, and where the ground would normally be a carpet of green, grasses and herbs are now in short supply. Normally, at this time of year, the long-distance migratory wildlife like wildebeests and zebras would be on their calving grounds on the short-grass plains near Gelai and Simanjiro, far from the Tarangire River. However, the lack of water and food on the calving grounds has forced pregnant wildebeests and zebras to return early to Tarangire National Park to give birth, a disruption of their normal migratory behaviour with uncertain consequences.
The Tarangire Ecosystem is defined by the long-distance migration of wildebeests and zebras between their dry-season range along the Tarangire River in Tarangire National Park, and their wet-season calving grounds on the Northern Plains and Simanjiro Plains outside the park. The reason for the migration is that the greater nutritional content of the grasses on the calving grounds support lactation and calf growth, but the less nutritious grasses near the river do not. Wildlife migrations are an endangered phenomenon in the world and there are only three remaining wildebeest migrations in Africa. The Tarangire migration supports the Tarangire Ecosystem as an important source of wildlife tourism revenue for the country but the ecosystem is largely unprotected and the population of wildebeests has plummeted from 40,000 in the 1980s to only 7,000 today. Conservationists fear this disruption could exacerbate the Tarangire wildebeest’s already precarious situation, which is why Wild Nature Institute has prioritized protection of the Northern Plains migration route.
It remains to be seen whether the wildebeest calves now being born in Tarangire National Park will survive, given the poor forage quality there. If this year’s crop of wildebeest calves is lost due to the drought, the population will have a harder time recovering from its already depleted numbers. On the positive side, the unusual presence of so much easy prey in Tarangire National Park is likely helping the lions and other predators that live there. Lion numbers have been steadily declining in Tarangire due to illegal killing when they leave the safety of the park. Giraffes too should see unseasonably high calf survival as the lions and hyenas concentrate their predation on wildebeests and zebras. The current drought situation highlights the interconnectedness of all parts of a functioning ecosystem, and how a natural disruption can push endangered wildlife populations over the edge when they are already suffering from human-caused habitat loss and illegal killing.
Proposed Forest Thinning Will Sabotage Natural Forest Climate Adaptation and Resistance to Drought, Fire, and Insect Outbreaks
By Derek E. Lee, PhD
The USDA Forest Service is proposing widespread forest thinning on our public lands across the West in a misguided attempt to reduce the impact of drought, fire, and insects (see National Forest Restoration Projects, Sierra Nevada National Forest Land Management Plan Revisions, news articles). These logging schemes are the latest in a series of Forest Service attempts to chainsaw their way out of a perceived problem. However, forests in the western United States have evolved to naturally self-thin uncompetitive trees through forest fires, insects, or disease. Forest fires and other disturbances are natural elements of healthy, dynamic forest ecosystems, and have been for millennia. These processes cull the weak and make room for the continued growth and reproduction of stronger, climate-adapted trees. Remaining live trees are genetically adapted to survive the new climate conditions and their offspring are also more climate-adapted, resistant, and resilient than the trees that perished. Without genetic testing of every tree in the forest, indiscriminate thinning will remove many of the trees that are intrinsically the best-adapted to naturally survive drought, fire, and insects.
Recent studies have demonstrated that genetic variation is high within populations of forest trees, with especially high diversity found at the lower latitudes and altitudes that form the edges of a species’ distribution. Local genetic and epigenetic variation makes some individuals naturally more likely to survive drought, fire, and insect outbreaks. This is because ecotones, or transitional areas, are where each species experiences the most extreme climate conditions that it can survive, the lowest elevation and latitude boundary. These natural edges are where trees with the most resistant and resilient adaptations are found. It is also where significant mortality is to be expected as part of the process where the distribution of tree species shifts north and uphill in our warming climate.
After forest fire or insect-caused mortality, green forest naturally regenerates without any need for expensive human interventions. Locally climate-adapted tree seedlings sprout and grow, and nitrogen-fixing shrubs and forbs replenish the soil and curb erosion. In the meantime, standing dead trees, snags, and logs provide critical food and shelter for many types of wildlife. Seedlings used in most Forest Service replanting efforts are bred for timber production, and although breeding programs are now looking for drought and temperature tolerance, there is a natural breeding program already underway that costs nothing and ensures the most locally adapted individuals will resist and persist as the climate warms.
Weather and climate data are painting a clear picture of warmer, drier summers across most of the western United States. Forest fires are strongly correlated with the Palmer Drought Severity Index where drier years make bigger fires, so people living in fire-prone areas need to be prepared for wildfire as an inevitable occurrence, and take all precautions to protect their homes with defensible space and ember-stopping attic vent screens. Thinning the forest within a hundred yards from structures and some minor fireproof retrofitting are the only practices proven to protect homes and communities from wildfire.
The West is getting drier than it was in the recent past, and that will require some adaptation, particularly in light of the significant recent human population growth in rural areas. We must also understand that recent fires are not unprecedented in size or severity as is often claimed by people who make money cutting our trees. The early 20th century sometimes saw 30 million acres of forest burn, and that was before widespread fire suppression, so fuel buildup is not the looming fire monster some folks who profit from logging have made it out to be. The world is an inherently dynamic and changeable environment, and generally the cost of fighting change is much more expensive than adapting to it.
Studies referred to are:
Kolb, T.E., Grady, K.C., McEttrick, M.P. and Herrero, A., 2016. Local-scale drought adaptation of ponderosa pine seedlings at habitat ecotones. Forest Science, 62(6), pp.641-651.
Prunier, J., Verta, J.P. and MacKay, J.J., 2016. Conifer genomics and adaptation: at the crossroads of genetic diversity and genome function. New Phytologist, 209(1), pp.44-62.
Pinnell, S., 2016. Resin duct defenses in ponderosa pine during a mountain pine beetle outbreak: genetic effects, mortality, and relationships with growth. PhD Thesis, University of Montana, Missoula.
Dr. Derek E. Lee is an independent biologist. Born and raised in the rural West, Dr. Lee writes about the intersection of Western ecology and economy.
Since the announcement that giraffes are Vulnerable to Extinction, many concerned people have asked me what they can do to help save giraffes. Donating money and/or time to conservation groups like Wild Nature Institute is a great first action to help giraffes. Whatever your skill set, there is an important place for you in the giraffe conservation world where you can make a difference. The next step is to raise awareness of the problem within your social circles, and encourage others to donate money or time to saving giraffes. We need volunteers to raise awareness in their home communities, either informally, or by writing, speaking, and contributing to the global conversation about our planet’s biodiversity crisis. Specialized people also can use their career skills by providing advice, services, or goods in their area of expertise that can help the cause. Please let me know what you are interested in and we can craft a personal plan for you to become a a giraffe hero. Email me at email@example.com
Arusha, TANZANIA, 8 December 2016-
The iconic giraffe, one of the world's most recognizable animals and the tallest land mammal, is now threatened with extinction. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world body responsible for maintaining the global Red List of Threatened Species, announced today that giraffes are officially in danger of extinction. The species, found only in Africa, has moved from the Red List category ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Vulnerable’ due to a dramatic 40% decline over the past 30 years. This announcement is the result of a new assessment of giraffes conducted by the world’s leading experts. Dr. Anne Dagg, a prominent pioneer of giraffe research who has been working for nearly 50 years to conserve giraffes said, “We must act now to ensure that these magnificent creatures never become extinct.”
The primary causes for Red Listing the giraffe are Illegal hunting and habitat loss. The largest giraffe populations tend to reside in protected areas such as national parks and reserves, but even giraffes in national parks are not entirely safe. “In protected areas we’re still seeing giraffes threatened by poaching,” says Dr. Megan Strauss, who recently completed a study in Tanzania’s world-famous Serengeti National Park. “Poachers in Serengeti target giraffes with snares hung in the tree canopy and this has contributed to a substantial decline in their numbers.”
Fortunately, the world’s giraffe experts are actively working to conserve the animals they spend their lives researching. The estimated 97,600 giraffes in the world are divided into nine subspecies; five subspecies have decreasing populations, three have increasing populations, and one is stable. The Thornicroft’s giraffe subspecies in Zambia numbers only 600, but a small population was intensively monitored for decades and Dr. Fred Bercovitch, of the University of Kyoto, has used those data to illuminate many aspects of giraffe society and ecology. Dr. Bercovitch said, “With numbers dwindling, conservation action is essential, but requires a solid foundation of accurate knowledge about giraffe biology and ecology.” Dr. Francois Deacon, a giraffe specialist at the University of the Free State in his native South Africa, added, “This vulnerability shows we are quickly losing grip on our last few natural populations.” Dr. Deacon is leading several research and conservation projects to help save giraffes.
Another giraffe hero is John Doherty, whose Reticulated Giraffe Project in Kenya is working to halt and reverse the population decline of its namesake subspecies, which numbers less than 8,000.
With fewer than 2,000 individuals, the Rothchild’s giraffe subspecies is in trouble, but the Rothchild’s Giraffe Project, based in Kenya, is leading research, conservation, and education efforts to save them. The head of the Rothchild’s Giraffe Project, Zoe Muller said, “One of the most important aspects of conservation work must be to communicate the benefits of wildlife to the people sharing their habitat and environment, to local communities.” Giraffes are one of the most important animals supporting the safari tourism industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year for African countries. Safari tourism revenues help support protected areas, as well as public health, education, and infrastructure projects all across East and Southern Africa.
Environmental education of both Africans and Americans is the focus of efforts led by Dr. Strauss and giraffe geneticist David Brown. They have developed children’s books, posters, and lesson plans for educators that teach ecological and social lessons using giraffes as the focus. Brown said, “High-quality, culturally relevant educational materials are nurturing the next generation of conservationists and a shared love of giraffes is building bridges between kids on both continents.”
Due to habitat losses across the continent, most giraffes in Africa now exist in fragmented landscapes with heavy human impacts. Dr. Derek Lee, of the Wild Nature Institute in Tanzania, is studying how giraffes use these fragmented landscapes in order to learn how people and giraffes can live together. This is one of the biggest studies of a large mammal ever undertaken, and includes data for more than 2,100 individual Masai giraffes. Masai giraffes are the most numerous subspecies at 31,000, but their population has halved since the 1980s. Dr. Lee said, "There is a great network of giraffe scientists working together to save them from extinction. We all hope this Vulnerable Red Listing will raise public awareness and increase support for giraffe conservation."
Wild Nature Institute is an independent non-profit scientific research, education, and advocacy organization. Monica Bond is a Principal Scientist at the Wild Nature Institute.
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Looking for the perfect holiday gift for the children in your life? Get Wild Nature Institute's Juma the Giraffe kid's book, and give twice. Juma tells the story of a young giraffe searching for what makes him unique, as he also discovers why giraffes are so special in the animal kingdom. This is a hardcover, 32-page, full color storybook for kids ages 3-7, with an illustrated dust jacket. http://www.jumathegiraffe.com/buy-juma.html
All funds raised from the sale of the book goes directly to Wild Nature Institute’s research and conservation of wild giraffes in Tanzania, including giving a Swahili version of the book to thousands of Tanzanian children.
What better message to send to children for the holidays? Please support our work by buying a book.
On the Juma website you will also find fun giraffe facts and games, quizzes, and free downloadable posters and lesson plans for teachers and parents to explore the concepts raised in the story. You can also purchase a limited-edition Juma growth chart.
Thank you for sticking your neck out for giraffes! Please share this with your friends, and very happy holidays to you.
This video describes Wild Nature Institute's giraffe-themed educational materials for school children and their teachers. These materials are being used by more than 5500 kids near Tarangire and Ruaha national parks. The giraffe can be used to teach multiple subjects from biology, geography, and science to math and even language skills development. We developed a storybook Juma the Giraffe, an activity book Giraffe and Friends, a poster describing the anatomy and behavior of giraffes, and accompanying lesson plans and activity guides. We are providing free workshops for educators to facilitate effective use of these materials. These workshops help teachers meet the Tanzanian government mandate for environmental education in primary and secondary schools. As the national animal of Tanzania, giraffes are inspiring the next generation of Tanzanian conservationists.
Wild Nature Institute is proud to announce that we have assessed and offset all of our carbon emissions for 2016, and our projected emissions for 2017, with the the help of Carbon Tanzania.
Funds from our carbon offsetting will support forest conservation as well as rural economic development. Carbon Tanzania develops REDD+ projects (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) together with people who are living within and depend upon Tanzania's forests.
These efforts are critical because Tanzania has the highest rate of deforestation in Africa, and one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. We are especially cognizant of the importance of trees, because not only do woodlands and forests store carbon and provide us with oxygen, but giraffes (and many other browsers) depend upon trees for food. Conserving forests is vital for life on this planet.
Yesterday, Wild Nature Institute's Dr. Derek Lee participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session at the /r/AskScience subreddit. More than 220 comments were generated by the good people of Reddit. Check it out to learn more about our work and Dr. Lee's viewpoints of a wide variety of topics.
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