Building Walls

Building border walls is not a new concept but the impact they have tends to focus on the human element, of how the walls or fences will be used to keep people out, rather than the toll they take on the environment and wildlife. The first time I was introduced to how fences impact wildlife was many years ago while reading Cry of the Khalahari, which touches on Botswana’s veterinary fences that were erected to “stop the spread foot and mouth disease to cattle” and to meet strict EU regulations for the beef trade. The impact these fences had on wildlife was undeniable and brutal “many wild animals including giraffe, elephant, zebra and many species of antelope, became ensnared, cut off from migratory routes and from vital resources.” In short, many species perished as a direct or indirect result of the fences.

Botswana wasn’t the only country to erect fences for the purpose of protecting livestock, Australia put up a fence in the 1950’s to keep sheep safe from predators like dingos and wild dogs. The fence didn’t work out exactly as planned and it ended up also protecting kangaroos which turned out to be more of a problem for sheep due to the fact that they competed with them for pasture.

More recently the effects of the anti-refugee wall between Slovenia and Croatia was studied. The report showed how the barrier is hurting gray wolves, Eurasian lynx as well as possibly threatening brown bears. Suggestions to help alleviate the pressure at the fences includes: using new alternative forms of high-tech monitoring methods that would allow selected sections of a border to remain unfenced while still providing security; more carefully thought out fence alignment that would reduce it effects; and, design that minimizes the chance of wildlife entanglement and death similar to border fencing that has been “retrofitted between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to enable the saiga antelope to pass between the two nations.”

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Habitat fragmentation caused by the fence interrupts gene flow and threatens the already small population of Eurasian Lynx – Image Wikipedia

While the report recognizes that many fences are permanent, it says the role of conservationists is critical and that our knowledge and understanding about border fences and their effect on wildlife needs to be improved. Interestingly it was found that in some cases the fences, “may unintentionally actually help conservation by preventing animals from roaming into countries with low degrees of law enforcement, by creating well-guarded spaces where human impact is minimal and by preventing the spread of wildlife diseases.”

Germany’s Cold War barriers of fences and walls that separated East and West later became an accidental nature preserve and is now part of a green belt that runs through central and eastern Europe. In China the Great Wall was found to have no major effect on wildlife as it was not one solid piece of construction but rather consisted of a series of different builds including mounds of pounded earth which later became degraded from use. However, in specific areas where the wall is truly solid a team of Chinese scientists, who conducted a study of plant species on both sides, confirmed that in these areas it was indeed a physical barrier to gene flow.

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Arizona section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall – Via Northern Jaguar Project – Photo by Jay J. Johnson-Castro, Sr.

Connectivity and wildlife is hot topic these days when it come to urban planning and building roads and freeways, but it is very unlikely that an extension of a wall at at the U.S.-Mexico border would take into account concerns for wildlife, habitat fragmentation, or gene flow for endangered species like the jaguar.  While humans can and will generally find ways around walls, wildlife from snakes and frogs to jaguars, pumas, bob cats and big horn sheep will not be able to move freely. They will be forced to adapt to smaller territories which will ultimately prove deadly to them especially when their access to food, mates and water, is cut off.

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Mountain lion at border wall U.S. Border Patrol – Image Northern Jaguar Project

In 2006 the Secure Fence Act, which was responsible for the 1,000 kilometers of impenetrable barrier along the Mexico–U.S. border, had environmental laws waived for its construction. The impact of these walls on wildlife has been studied along with the effects it has had on the highly endangered ocelot. The solid metal and concrete fence further fragments ocelot habitat and kept the small population in Texas separate from the larger and more genetically diverse population in northern Mexico. Even though there were about 100 openings incorporated in the fence for wildlife they were much to small to allow larger animals like bobcats or coyotes through.

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Ocelot

Wildlife biologist Mitch Sternberg told Nature that “bobcats don’t go out looking for holes in fences as they travel back and forth through brushy habitats. Overall, wildlife connectivity does not exist in these sectors anymore.” It was also noted that there were major shifts in territory due the construction for the 20 bobcats that had been collared and studied. Some simply abandoned their home range and others became trapped on one side of the wall and were eventually killed on highways while looking for new territory.

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Bobcat at US-Mexico wall. Image via Triggerpit.com – Photo: ILCP photographer

In 2014 a report was released that stated the fence had little to no impact on human travel and most native species, however it had a great impact on pumas and coatis. While pumas had greater capability to roam farther in search of territory the fence meant there were less of them. With regards to coatis who are unable to move home ranges easily, researchers concluded that this could lead to a “possible collapse in their populations”. It also pointed to the fact that any impact the wall had on the behavior and populations of pumas and coatis could have serious implications for those species with whom they interact.

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Coati – Image The Dodo – Jamie McCallum University of Bristol – U.S. Mexico Border

It is estimated that the border wall has the potential to impact 111 endangered species, 108 species of migratory bird, four wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, and an unknown number of protected wetlands.

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Puma – Image The Dodo – Jamie McCallum University of Bristol – U.S. Mexico Border

El Jefe, the male jaguar who caused a stir of excitement when captured on trail camera in  2016 along the Arizona side of the border, would undoubtedly be cut off from any females attempting to come from Mexico. Even though a possible new jaguar has been photographed in the U.S. it is not considered enough to help re-establish the species. Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity told EcoWatch that “walls don’t stop people from crossing the border, but Trump’s plan would end any chance of recovery for endangered jaguars, ocelots and wolves in the border region.”

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El Jefe, is believed to have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border before making his home in Arizona. (Conservation CATalyst/Center for Biological Diversity)

In December 2016 a conservation plan was released for the jaguar, a species that was systematically exterminated in its former historical habitat, by the USFWS in which they hoped to work more closely with Mexico. The plan, which is supposed to “make it easier for agencies and organizations in the U.S. and Mexico to align their efforts at restoring jaguar habitat along the border” includes keeping corridors intact so the cats can move back and forth freely. The proposed wall along the entire 2,000 mile border with Mexico would essentially be the end to the jaguars recovery in America. It would also be an ecological disaster—ripping populations and fragile ecosystems apart. Louise Misztal, biologist and executive director of conservation non-profit Sky Island Alliance in Arizona tells Motherboard that “wide-ranging mammals like mountain lions, bears, jaguars, ocelots, need to be moving between these different mountain ranges to get to food resources and water.”

Saving predators like jaguars go beyond a feel good story about bringing an endangered species back from the brink – they like other apex predators are invaluable in their ability to help regulate, naturally, other species and the ecosystem in which they reside. When apex predators disappear from the landscape trophic cascades, the top-down regulation of ecosystems by predators which is an essential aspect of ecosystem function and well-being, are disrupted.

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Camera trap data from Arizona found that the wall did not prevent illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States, but wholly stopped wildlife movement. Toad looking through the metal bars of part of the existing border wall. Credit: Anonymous. Image –  Seeker by Dan Millis

A number of groups and organizations have released statements opposing the proposed wall including the National Wildlife Federation and Panthera. Jesse Lasky, an assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University told Live Science that “If Trump’s wall is built, it could push endangered animals and native animals with small habitats over the edge…and If the populations on the border start disappearing, the functioning of these ecosystems could be reduced.” Bryan Bird, director of the Southwest Program for Defenders of Wildlife tells Seeker that “fences are only appropriate directly adjacent to urban areas and should not be used in wildlife corridors or other ecologically sensitive areas” and, alternative monitoring devices, which minimize the impact on wildlife, such as “virtual high-tech fencing options like unmanned aerial vehicles, motion-sensors, laser barriers and infrared cameras ” should be employed to provide security.

In addition to what the wall means for wildlife, the construction of it will have a further impact on human health and the planet as it has the potential to release about “2 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

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The U.S.-Mexico border is the largest human construction that has been made to divide two countries since the great wall of china.” US-Mexico wall arial – Image via Triggerpit.com – Photo: ILCP photographer

It is widely accepted that it is a negative prognosis for wildlife and ecosystems when man-made barriers are introduced, unfortunately even with this knowledge border walls and fences are on the rise. Wildlife at the current U.S.-Mexico border wall has been documented acting confused and stressed due to their daily routines being disrupted and, without further environmental impact studies, or incorporating designs in fences that allow animals to move through, researchers will not know the extent of damage or long-term implications. Along with undoing decades of conservation efforts and work any new fences will increase the number of species at risk by further isolating them on either side, pushing wildlife like the jaguar and ocelot even more precariously close to extinction while degrading our ecosystems in the process.

Paper Wildlife

For your caturday viewing pleasure – a miniature world of paper wildlife with an important message.

From the National Geographic Short Film Showcase: “Paper predators and prey spring to life in this visually stunning short from directors Dávid Ringeisen & László Ruska. An ordinary desk and typical office supplies are the backdrop for this micro-universe that carries the macromessage of wildlife conservation. While humans are left out of the piece, their impact is still present in a discarded cigarette butt that sparks an imaginary forest fire and an overflowing wastebasket that pollutes a fantastical rolling-chair river. This piece is part of the filmmakers’ MOME thesis project, the animation department at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest, Hungary and was created for WWF Hungary.”

Click here or on image to view video

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Image: National Geographic. Short Film Showcase: Step Into a Miniature World of Animated Paper Wildlife

Gorongosa Reborn

The National Geographic Live Lecture season will be soon be wrapping up in Toronto and so far the series has been great. Gorongosa Reborn: A Cameraman’s Journal with Emmy Award-winning natural history cinematographer Bob Poole, has been the one lecture I have been looking forward to most since the series line up was announced last year.

The lecture centers around Bob’s recent six-part PBS/Nat Geo International series ‘Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise’, in which he has documented the come back of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park.

Gorongosa has been referred to as one of Africa’s most treasured national parks that in its heyday was home to thousands of animals including some 6,000 elephants and about 500 Lions. Scores of people, including international celebrities, once flocked to the park to view its prolific wildlife up until civil war broke out in 1977. By the time the war ended, in 1992, the wildlife in the park had been all but wiped out, and what hadn’t been destroyed by the war trophy hunters managed to finish off. After the dust had settled in the mid-90’s, the park was surveyed again – they counted a mere 100 elephants. Almost all of the large grazers as well as the predators were gone from the landscape.

Thankfully things were set to turn around for the better, and the rehabilitation of the park officially began when the Gorongosa Restoration Project created a 20 year public-private partnership with the Government of Mozambique to jointly manage the park. Then in 2007 lions were photographed for the first time since 1960 at the ‘Lion House’, wildlife was very slowly and cautiously beginning to return.

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Originally built as a tourist camp on a floodplain, the ‘Lion House’ was abandoned due to flooding in the rainy season and later taken over by Lions who were often seen lounging on the roof– Photo by Whitney Leonard/Gorongosa.org

Bob Poole had already spent two years living and filming in Gorongosa and was eager to take on the PBS project, he tells Mother Nature Network that the experience fulfilled a life-long dream for him “I was able to combine my passion for animal conservation with my love of documentary filmmaking.” He goes on to say that Gorongosa is a prime example of what can be done and that is possible to reverse the damage humans have caused, that with effort, “nature can be saved.” A rather positive and hopeful message at a time when we are bombarded almost daily with much of the opposite.

Bob’s love of the park and enthusiasm for his work is infectious, his story telling and passion translates in person and on-screen for an informative and at times very entertaining presentation. It is guaranteed to leave you wanting more, if not determined to visit the park for yourself one day.

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Bob Poole films sunrise over the floodplain. Photo credit Gina Poole – Gorongosa.org

Gorongosa Reborn: A Cameraman’s Journal is for anyone who loves wildlife, Africa, conservation and the idea that people can come together to fix what was once broken if we choose. Among other things you can expect to hear about elephants who haven’t forgotten the war; species reintroduction and breeding programs; and of course the come back of the parks great predator – lions.

Having been very fortunate to visit Gorongosa the presentation brought back great memories, especially the excitement of being in the park knowing the history and seeing what was being done. In particular, it is was wonderful to hear a mention of one very special lioness called Tripod, who at 15 years old is still going strong.

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View of Tripods back leg where she lost part to a snare. Image © Tori Dileo

She lost part of one of her legs to snaring and managed not only to survive but to hunt, raise cubs and remain a vital and successful part of her pride. In a way her strength and resilience is very symbolic of Gorongosa and the parks potential for the future.

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Tripod resting and waiting for one of the males off to the side. – Image © Tori Dileo

While Gorongosa is a story of hope and transformation the park and its wildlife face threats from poaching and snaring; illegal mining and logging; human settlements inside the park; and, the potential of conflict caused by political instability. However even with these challenges, the good news is the park is currently open for business and by supporting tourism there you are helping the park, its restoration, local communities and wildlife. I hope to be able to go back again one day and would recommend it for anyone who is looking for a truly magical and unique place in Africa to visit.

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Meeting Bob Poole after the lecture at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall.

If the story of Gorongosa intrigues you be sure to check the National Geographic Events page to see when Gorongosa Reborn is coming to your city. For those in the U.S. you can catch the full episodes of Bob’s series ‘Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise’ online at PBS.

When Sharing is Not Caring

For anyone who lives in the USA – this is a very important wildlife Action Alert. I hope that you will take a few minutes to contact your Senator to ask them to oppose The SHARE Act or Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act.

The SHARE Act (H.R.2406) revises a variety of existing programs to expand access to, and opportunities for, hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting. This is backed by the NRA as well as Safari Club International and will be devastating to already vulnerable wildlife. Among other things it will open up land to hunters where currently no hunting or trapping is allowed.

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The SHARE Act – When ‘Sharing is not Caring’

Animals 24/7 “The National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, and allied hunting industry lobbyists on February 26, 2016 advanced closer than ever before, in eight years of trying, to push through Congress an omnibus package of special favors for trophy hunters, pack hunters, ivory dealers, and users of lead ammunition…The SHARE Act provides enhanced access to public lands while limiting punitive regulations promoted by ‘animal rights’ extremists. The bill now heads to the U.S. Senate.”

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Elephants Family – Amboseli national park, south Kenya. – Image Benh LIEU SONG – Flickr

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, writes in the Huffington Post that the “SHARE Act is not at all about sharing or any sort of peaceful coexistence, but rather about killing an increasing number of nonhuman animals (animals) in places where they should be and have been relatively safe, namely, on public lands. The Act also allows the use of traditional ammunition, containing lead, which of course is bad for the environment.”

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“Why is protecting animals ‘extreme,’ while wanting to kill them is not?” – Marc Bekoff

Marc Bekoff goes on to say that enjoying the great outdoors does not need to involve killing and there has to be some areas where “animals can live in peace and safety and where people who frequent these areas can also enjoy nature in peace and safety.”

The SHARE Act is a death sentence for countless animals and is bad for the environment.

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Image – Wikipedia

From the Animal Welfare Institute some of the provisions included in the bill:

  • Prevent the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Agriculture from regulating lead—a potent and dangerous neurotoxin—in fishing tackle and ammunition. An estimated 10-20 million animals die from lead poisoning each year in the United States after ingesting lead shot, bullet fragments, and sport fishing waste.
  • Take the unprecedented step of defining trapping as a form of hunting. This would open up more federal lands to the setting of steel-jaw leghold traps and other body-gripping traps that pose grave risks to public safety, wildlife, and even companion animals.
  • Declare that millions of acres of public lands are automatically open to hunting and trapping without any scrutiny. Public land managers seeking to disallow these activities in order to protect wildlife, habitat, and the public would face huge bureaucratic hurdles.
  • Compel the National Park Service to allow private hunters to shoot bison in Grand Canyon National Park as part of its management plan.
  • Halt the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to protect elephants from poaching and to curb the demand for ivory.
  • Allow the importation of polar bear carcasses. This provision rewards hunters who raced to kill polar bears for trophies before their listing under the Endangered Species Act. Granting waivers such as this sets a dangerous precedent and signals to trophy hunters that they can flout the law.
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Polar Bear in Churchill Canada – Image Wikimedia Commons

There is still time and hope, please share with family and friends to help wildlife. Ask your Senator to oppose the SHARE Act today. Find and contact your U.S Senator HERE

For more on the SHARE Act please read “U.S. House Gives Stocking Full of Gifts to Most Extreme Factions of the Hunting Lobby