Wild Nature Institute's giraffe research makes the cover of the Journal of Animal Ecology!
Cover image: Female Masai giraffes that live closer to human settlements have weaker and more exclusive relationships with other members of their social communities compared with those living deep within protected areas. See page 212‐221. Photo by Derek Lee.
Wild Nature Institute is pleased to share our 2020 Annual Report. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we successfully continued and expanded our giraffe conservation science and education in Tanzania thanks to donations from our committed supporters, and thanks to our fantastic Tanzanian staff who rose to the occasion and did great work. We hope you enjoy reading about what we have all accomplished this year.
This week, as some of the largest wildfires in decades continue to burn across U.S. western states, a group of pro-logging scientists and activists reignited the debate about spotted owls and wildfires by publishing a comment article critical of a 2018 synthesis of all scientific evidence on the topic. Federal and state authorities are pushing plans to increase government-subsidized logging in national forests, claiming such logging would protect spotted owls from wildfire.
Derek Lee, associate research professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of the 2018 synthesis said, "spotted owls are usually not affected by wildfire, but there are also significant benefits to reproduction from high-severity fire. I believe money intended for logging national forests would be better spent hardening homes and other human structures to protect lives and property against wildfire." There are limited resources available to protect homes and communities from wildfire, and logging backcountry forested lands such as in owl habitats has no impact on community safety, so Lee argues that forest fire mitigation resources should be focused on home fire resistance and protection. The only proven way to protect homes and lives from wildfires is to create fire-safe communities, improve warning systems, and provide evacuation assistance, measures contained in the Wildfire Defense Act introduced by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
Gavin Jones, U.S. Forest Service Researcher and lead author of the comment affirmed Lee's observation saying, "Severe fire has not resulted in range-wide spotted owl population declines, and fire has not been an overriding driver of recently observed long-term spotted owl population declines." However, the Jones-led group of pro-logging scientists and activists also suggested several analytical changes to the 2018 synthesis, and speculated such changes might affect the results and conclusions. Published alongside the comment article was a reply by Lee that reanalyzed all the data according to the Jones group's suggestions and found none of the group's assertions were accurate.
According to Lee, forest fire provides significant benefits to owl populations. Lee's analysis indicated significant positive effects in recruitment, reproduction, and foraging habitat selection in burned forest, with reproduction increasing as the amount of high-severity fire increased. Lee explained, "The absence of big negative effects of fire on spotted owls was not surprising because this species has been living with forest fire for thousands of years. The positive effects of forest fires on spotted owls indicate wildfires, including so-called mega-fires, are within the natural range of variability for these forests. The fact that spotted owls have adapted to these types of fires over evolutionary time shows that they have seen this before and learned to take advantage of it. The Jones group is cherry-picking evidence to support damaging logging in the name of fire-risk reduction rather than following the evidence and advocating for more fire to enhance spotted owl habitat." Additionally, burned forests with large patches of high-severity fire are useful habitat that provide significant benefits to many other native species.
Lee's findings run contrary to current perceptions and forest management projects for the spotted owl, which counterfactually insist fire is a threat and that unproven logging treatments are needed. The USDA Forest Service budget is largely devoted to administering and facilitating logging projects, so there are financial incentives for this agency to promote logging on public lands. Lee added, "Thinning and logging intended to reduce fire severity in spotted owl habitat will harm the owl and diverts resources that should be used to save human lives and property. Chainsaws felling trees in our forests' backcountry will not save human lives, only hardening human structures against ignition will save people. In addition to spotted owls, there are many other native plants and animals that thrive in forests burned by high-severity fire. Wildfires create valuable natural habitats that should be protected from damaging management activities like post-fire logging."
Spotted owls occur in western U.S. forests and are one of the best-studied birds in the world. The species is strongly associated with mature and old-growth conifer and mixed-conifer–hardwood forests with thick overhead canopy and many large live and dead trees and fallen logs. Its association with older forests has made the spotted owl an important species for public lands management aimed at preserving the last remaining fragments of our old-growth forests. Research on spotted owls in fire-affected landscapes did not begin until the early 2000s. Much of what scientists previously understood about habitat associations of spotted owls was from studies in forests that had generally not experienced recent fire, and where non-suitable vegetation was a result of logging.
Western forest fires typically burn as mixed-severity fires with each fire resulting in a mosaic of different vegetation burn severities, including substantial patches of high-severity fire. Anywhere from 5% to 70% of the fire area typically burns as high-severity fire that kills most or all of the dominant vegetation in a stand and creates extremely biodiverse snag forests, where standing dead trees, fallen logs, shrubs, tree seedlings, and herbaceous plants contribute to forest structure. Post-fire vegetation processes then proceed according to the pre-fire vegetation, local wildfire processes, seeds from outside the disturbance, and the conditions at the site.
By reviewing past extinction patterns, a new study suggest that herbivores may be at the highest risk of extinction. A team of researchers from the US and UK studied more than 44,000 living and extinct species, specifically looking at their diets. Trisha Atwood, lead author of the study published in Science Advances, said “[we built] a dataset so we could determine which trophic level is at highest risk for extinction.” Many researchers had previously assumed predators had the highest extinction rates because of their extensive home ranges and slow population growth rates, but that wasn’t the case. The team found that herbivores consistently have had the highest risks of extinction, including from the present day to the late Pleistocene. This observed elevated extinction risk for herbivores is ecologically consequential, given the important roles that herbivores are known to play in controlling ecosystem function.
Wild Nature Institute works to protect herbivores like hoofed mammals and elephants in northern Tanzania through the TUNGO program.
31 July is World Ranger Day. World Ranger Day commemorates rangers killed or injured in the line of duty and celebrates the critical work rangers do to protect the world’s natural and cultural treasures. Each painted rock is a memory in honor of a ranger killed in the line of duty. Wild Nature Institute honors a ranger's memory with our Rangers Rock giraffe rock.
Wild Nature Institute stands with the International Ranger Federation and PAMS Foundation to thank and celebrate all of the world's rangers for sticking their necks our to protect giraffes and other precious wildlife -- sometimes losing their lives in defense of species other than themselves. They are true heroes in a world where we desperately need such people. We thank the world's rangers from the bottom of our hearts.
In 2018, Wild Nature Institute commissioned a local gospel choir to record the song Tuwatunze Twiga, which means “let’s protect giraffes.” The song describes how giraffes are beautiful and God tells people to conserve giraffes, but that giraffes are threatened by poaching. The song was played on a major radio station servicing the Tarangire-Manyara region, every day for the entire months of December (2018) and January (2019).
To document community perceptions of giraffes and whether they were influenced by the Tuwatunza Twiga song, James Madeli of the Wild Nature Institute in Tanzania administered short surveys of randomly selected community members before and after broadcast of the song. We are excited to announce the new report prepared by Madeli and our colleagues Alex Ocañas and Dr. James Danoff-Burg of The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. Ocañas and Danoff-Burg are experts in the human dimensions of conservation, and helped us design the survey questionnaire and analyzed our survey data. This report documents the impacts of this conservation media project on perceptions of giraffes by community members.
The report revealed some interesting information that will improve Wild Nature Institute’s giraffe conservation messaging in the future. In summary, the data showed:
Our results indicate that the song appealed to people’s religious beliefs, and suggest that in the future we could leverage these beliefs to improve our conservation messages. We will be including this project in an upcoming book to be edited by Dr. Derek Lee and Dr. Monica Bond of Wild Nature Institute called Tarangire: Human-Wildlife Coexistence in a Fragmented Ecosystem.
Please see the full report for details. We thank all of our donors for supporting our giraffe conservation projects in Tanzania – we could not do this work without you. Thank you to James Madeli whose hard work in the field generated these data. Thank you also to Alex Ocañas and Dr. James Danoff-Burg for doing an excellent job on this important report, and The Living Desert for being our long-term conservation partners.
What a day! The longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, a day to thank our dads for all that they do in our lives, and a special day to celebrate giraffes! We wish you all a wonderful day.
With our partners we are running the world's largest #giraffe #research and #education program helping people and giraffes thrive together.
30,000 kids reached
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Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Como Park Zoo & Conservatory
Save The Giraffes
Greater Sac Chapter of American Association of Zoo Keepers - AAZK
Zoo Miami Conservation & Research
Penn State Eberly College of Science
The Living Desert
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden
Tarangire Safari Lodge
Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute-TAWIRI
Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA)
We welcome Emmanuel Lyimo to Wild Nature Institute's Team Twiga. Emmanuel is a laboratory scientist at the Nelson Mandela African Institute for Science and Technology in Arusha. He extracts DNA from our giraffe dung samples for our research on population genetics. We are honored and excited that Emmanuel has joined our team.
June 9, 2020
A new study by an international team of scientists from the Wild Nature Institute, University of Zürich, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the University of Konstanz, and Pennsylvania State University showed that communities of giraffes living in proximity to human settlements have a tell-tale signature of disturbed social networks. While many of the most charismatic animal species are social, the effects of human-caused disturbances on the social relationships of wild animals has rarely been studied. The authors applied state-of-the-art social network analyses on 6 years of observations from more than 500 wild adult female giraffes to reveal that human proximity is correlated with weaker and more exclusive relationships with fewer individuals among giraffes. The study, published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, provides the first robust evidence that humans modify social structure in this iconic megaherbivore.
Effects of humans on social structure of wild animal populations has not been widely studied
For social animals, including species such as elephants, lions, and giraffes, social behaviour is critical for survival and reproduction. Recent studies on laboratory populations of birds have suggested that disturbances to social groups can precipitate changes to the social structure of those groups, which then has consequences on how the groups can perform at tasks that are important for survival—such as feeding together. As humans continue to encroach on the land used by wildlife, there have been conservation concerns arising from the resulting human-wildlife conflict, such as killing of elephants and poisoning of lions. However, the increasing contact between animals and humans could also have indirect, but profound, impacts on populations that are not directly persecuted by humans. Scientists know little about the effects on wild animal social relationships from subtle or indirect disruptions caused by human presence and encroachment into natural habitats.
Field research in Tanzania yields new insights into giraffe social relationships
“Detecting signals of natural versus human-caused influences on social relationships among wild animals is challenging,” noted Monica Bond, Wild Nature Institute scientist, research associate at the University of Zürich, and primary author of the study. “It requires large-scale studies of individually identified animals across numerous social groups living under different environmental conditions.” Individual giraffes can by identified by their unique and unchanging spot patterns. Over a period of 6 years, Bond and her research collaborators collected photographic identification data spanning 540 adult female Masai giraffes inhabiting a large, unfenced landscape in the Tarangire Ecosystem of Tanzania—an environment that features varying levels of anthropogenic (human-caused) disturbances. Bond’s team documented that the female giraffes in Tarangire live in a complex multilevel society, with individuals preferring to associate with some females while avoiding others. The result of these preferences are discrete social communities comprising 60-90 females with little mixing among the communities, even when these share the same general area. “This study reveals that social structuring is clearly an important feature of female giraffe populations,” noted Dr. Barbara König, professor at the University of Zürich and co-author of the study.
In Tanzania, giraffes are tolerated by humans because they do not create conflicts with farmers or livestock. “Despite the public tolerance and hunting restrictions, Masai giraffe populations have declined 50% in recent years,” stated co-author Dr. Derek Lee, Wild Nature Institute scientist and associate research professor at Pennsylvania State University. Several reasons have been suggested, including illegal poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation, lion predation on calves when migratory herds decline, and changes in food supply. Disruption to social systems also may be a contributing factor in population declines, but until now, anthropogenic effects on social structure of giraffes were unclear.
Using one of the largest-scale metapopulation networks ever studied in a wild mammal, the research team revealed that giraffes living closer to traditional compounds of indigenous Masai people exhibit weaker relationship strengths and more exclusive social associations. “This result signifies a disrupted social environment based upon previous experimental research,” noted Dr. Damien Farine of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour at the University of Konstanz, and senior author of the study. “The patterns we characterise in wild giraffe’s response to proximity to humans reflect the predictions from experimentally disrupted social systems.”
Near traditional human settlements called bomas, fuelwood cutting can reduce giraffe food resources, and groups of giraffes are more likely to encounter livestock and humans on foot, potentially causing groups of giraffes to split. However, human settlements might also provide protection from lions and hyenas which are fewer near bomas, and in other research the team found that groups of female giraffes with calves tended to occur closer to bomas, and giraffe communities closer to bomas produced more calves per female. “It seems that female giraffes face a trade-off between maintaining important social bonds and reducing risk to their calves near these traditional settlements,” stated Bond. She suggests that traditional pastoralist livelihoods do not necessarily pose a significant risk to giraffe population persistence as long as care is taken not to cause excessive disturbance.
The study’s results imply that human presence could potentially be playing an important role in determining the conservation future of this megaherbivore. Further, the study’s leading-edge methodology highlights the importance of using the social network approach to reveal otherwise hidden potential causes of population declines. “The effects of ever-increasing anthropogenic pressure on wildlife populations are determined by complex interactions of individuals with their social, biological, and physical environment,” said Arpat Ozgul, study co-author and professor at the University of Zürich. “Our study highlights the importance of characterising these complex interactions accurately for gaining much needed insight into population responses to environmental change [or anthropogenic pressure].”
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