On Friday I had the opportunity to attend a conference held at Texas A&M called “Making Global Connections: Exploring Global Issues.” Topics covered ranged from solar power to social sustainability discussing issues which affect everyone across the globe as well as what we, as consumers, can do to improve conditions for those in other countries on issues we don’t even realize we affect. I chose to attend the conference knowing that in conservation you must include global issues into your management efforts. As much as it would be nice to do exactly what you think would be best for saving a species or ecosystem, you must take into consideration the political, economic and social climate of the region to allow for the implementation of any plan. A region in turmoil’s first priority is its people, not the nature which surrounds it.
Notice I said “nature” and not “environment.” During these talks, there was a clear distinction between the two. When I think of “environment,” I think of nature, ecosystems, wildlife, etc. When all of these speakers spoke of environment and environmental sustainability, they were referring to agriculture, soil content, water availability, etc – very human-centric. Although every topic inevitably referred back to nature, not one highlighted it as being an issue. One speaker, when talking on education in Africa, referred to going on safari during her trip as a way to “replenish your soul.” And, while I completely agree having been on safari multiple times, there was no mention of habitat destruction, endangered species, exploitation of land or pro and cons of ecotourism. During the conference, one attendee even asked the question of “untapped resources” in Africa, referring to the vast areas of untouched terrain of the African landscape. The response was surprising to me. There was no reference to leaving any of the wild to remain wild but rather that an improvement would be finding how to utilize those resources. Most of the other attendees probably didn’t even notice this omission or think of it as being relevant but, as an African wildlife conservationist, I kind of hoped it would be addressed.
A recent study published in the 'Biotropica' journal has revealed that megaherbivores, such as elephants and rhinoceroses, are essential in maintaining the biodiversity of the tropical rainforests of South-East Asia, suggesting they be protected and even reintroduced into areas where have disappeared due to illegal human activity. The megaherbivores’ ability to disperse seeds from the flora they consume far exceeds the abilities of smaller seed-dispersing herbivores, making them an important factor contributing to the structural integrity of the rainforest and the variety found within that type of environment. The tight quarters due to the density of plant species within the rainforest make it difficult for the plants to disperse their seeds themselves so they rely on animals to aide in their dispersal. But plants, such as the mango tree, whose seeds are very large cannot rely on smaller animals to distribute their seeds. Elephants and rhinos are special in that they ingest the whole fruit, seeds and all, and digest them slowly and inefficiently. So, when they poop (it always comes back to poop!), most of the seeds come out and they come out virtually unharmed. This allows them to disperse the seeds across the forests, helping to solve the forest’s own density issue.
The underlying message of the study is to stop illegal hunting. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says that the elephants of South-East Asia are in “danger of extinction” and the two rhinoceros species are “critically endangered”. Elephant and rhino populations world-wide, not just in Asia, are drastically decreasing. The Western Black Rhino of Africa was officially declared extinct on November 10, 2011 with the Northern White Rhino of central Africa “possibly extinct” in the wild and the Javan Rhino in Vietnam “probably extinct” (MSNBC). It is heart wrenching that within the last year we have seen three species of Megafauna go extinct. Every animal has a profound effect on the environment in which they live; otherwise, they wouldn’t have adapted to be there. It’s a shame we have to “discover” why they are important to find it necessary to preserve them.
I am a biologist and my life is crap!