Switching focus from biodiversity to ecosystem function to conserve developing landscapes

My new position with The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) involves some exciting research in northern Republic of Congo and Tanzania to develop a planning framework emphasizing a spatially-explicit scenario analysis approach to conservation and economic development planning, in partnership with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), World Resources Institute (WRI) and Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) and with support from USAID.

Historically, conservation has been mostly a reactive discipline. Similarly, land-use planning as a tool for achieving conservation outcomes has often been reactive as well, focused often on saving the charismatic species and ecosystems we know most about. As problems such as proposed infrastructure developments or relaxed land clearing laws arise, the conservation sector initiates a new planning process to assess impacts and identify solutions. This piecemeal and reactive approach to conservation planning is insufficient to addresses the complex realities and rapidly emerging conservation challenges presented in many landscapes today. We now recognize that conservation needs to identify and address the full range of issues and societal goals across the landscape if it is to be successful – from economic and infrastructure development to growing awareness of the importance of maintaining intact functioning ecosystems to ensure future human health and services. These issues are linked in complex ways – ecosystem functions such as water provisioning are essential not only to economic activities such as crop production but also to ecosystem and wildlife survival, and inefficient water management can have cascading effects on ecosystems and human health.

One example of this is The Great Ruaha River, which is the life blood of the Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania, which ceased to flow for the first time in living memory during the dry season of 1993; this drying-up has continued every year since, with the period of non-flow increasing to several months. Most people living in and around the Park have noticed a decline in native wildlife such as elephants, giraffe and antelope over the same time. Outside the Park, researchers and land use planners are concerned that during this time yields of maize, the staple crop in Tanzania, also significantly declined.Coincident with the continuing drying up of the Great Ruaha River, numerous programmes of agricultural “improvement” of smallholder irrigated rice schemes have been undertaken in the upper catchment, and more development is planned over the coming years. If we don’t acknowledge and account for water processes when planning both conservation and development in this region, the consequences on human livelihoods as well as wildlife in the future are likely to be severe.

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Rainfall and water access are critical to the persistence of biodiversity in Tanzania.

Despite a clear need to explicitly address multiple goals for maintaining functioning and productive systems that provide for wildlife and human needs, a recent review that I led published in Biological Conservation discovered that conservation plans fail to account for the range of economic development or other objectives across the landscape, nor do they address the critical ecosystem functions essential for achieving these aims (Tulloch et al. 2016). For example, three quarters of the peer-reviewed and grey conservation planning literature that we reviewed identified that representing ecological processes was an important issue for spatial conservation plans, but less than one fifth dealt explicitly with how to do so.  Almost half of the studies identified that incorporating multiple objectives, landscape processes (e.g. water availability, resource dynamics) and socio-economic needs is critical but did not do so due to poor information on these factors.

In our research in Republic of Congo and Tanzania we ask the question: How can multiple objectives related to economic needs be accommodated without degrading key conservation habitat, functional processes and ecosystem service delivery areas?

tnz workshop 1To address this question, the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group (ABCG, a consortium of all the major NGOs working in tropical Africa) began running stakeholder workshops in 2016 to bring people together and begin to understand the major drivers of landscape change in this region. This year, I am running several of these workshops in Africa, and just returned from a successful workshop facilitated by AWF and WCS in Mbeya, southern Tanzania. Over 2 days we introduced stakeholders from 14 organisations in southern Tanzania to spatial conservation planning and identified key goals for economic development, maintaining ecosystem services and function predominantly related to water access and quality and carbon storage, and conserving biodiversity. The stakeholders came from 15 organisations including NGOs, government ministries, and national and local land use planning agencies. By bringing together the key stakeholders early in the process, we were able to map out the multiple objectives for conservation as well as development in the landscape. This ensures that our analyses and maps of current and future priority locations for conservation and agricultural production are informative and useful.

The challenges that we face are numerous – conservation priorities currently fall far down in the list of immediate issues such as poverty alleviation, water shortages, declines in crop yields (possibly linked to poor water management as well as climate change), and human access to health and education services. To achieve conservation goals we need to focus on these key issues, and the conservation framework that I am working on allows multiple objectives to be incorporated that link explicitly back to the vital ecosystem processes that influence the success or failure of economic development. In Tanzania we hope to provide a framework for supporting decisions about where to conserve key biodiversity features, ecosystem processes and services, whilst enabling economic development related to agriculture and alternative livelihoods.

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