Why we need connectivity now more than ever.
By Stephanie Rowe, Ecologist
Connectivity. You may had heard this word being bandied about a lot recently whilst we all settle in for endless video calls and meetings with work colleagues and family members, fragmented across the UK (or indeed the world). But today we are discussing this term as one of the most important conservation concepts, landscape connectivity.
As the human population skyrockets, natural habitats are transformed into masses of urban jungle. Quite simply, animal populations are squandering due to habitat loss, degradation of land and fragmentation.
Why is this a problem?
Fragmentation prevents the movement of wildlife. Movement is needed by wildlife for the most basic needs such as food acquisition, finding a mate to maintain population numbers, and ultimately species survival! Of course, it must be mentioned, that the effects of climate change are adding additional pressure for various species to move locations more so now than ever. Fragmented habitats are increasingly becoming less resilient to environmental pressures.
What is a wildlife corridor?
A corridor can be defined as a strip of land that connects two habitat patches. The connectivity of landscapes enables wildlife to migrate and disperse, and perhaps more importantly, offer an extra response to climate impacts.
Hedgerows, over and under-passes, roadside verges, strips of trees, rivers or river sides could all be considered important green passages. Landscape connectivity, more specifically, the implementation of wildlife corridors, is an established concept proven to be critical to combat landscape fragmentation.
Why are they important?
1. To avoid human-wildlife conflict by providing a safe movement passage.
As human populations grow and spill over into wild habitats, human-wildlife conflict becomes inevitable. Animals are forced into encounters that often lead to their own persecution. Increasing corridor coverage and connecting wild spaces provides a sheltered passage which maintains a space between humans and wildlife. These connecting spaces also allow for animals to shift ranges and establish new territories.
2. To increase already depleted populations.
Wildlife corridors are imperative in the maintenance of population numbers and their genetic diversity. Where habitats are fragmented, animal populations are broken up and sub populations are formed. Essentially, corridors encourage increased gene flow and a reduction in inbreeding.
3. To connect communities.
It has been found that corridors can be a useful tool for motivating communities, where individuals can become immersed in the project at a more personal level. As a landscape scale project, a corridor forces important collaboration between communities, various geographic regions and even across borders.
Some incredible examples:
The Jaguar Corridor Initiative is a large landscape scale conservation project initiated by the Non-Government Organisation, Panthera, in 2008. The project is currently underway, with much emphasis placed upon the initiative understood as a long-term conservation strategy. At present, Jaguars occupy 18 South American states with the corridor initiative having sought protection in 11 of these. The aim of the initiative is to establish protection throughout areas inclusive of the Jaguar’s range, therefore maintaining genetic flow and viable populations.
Initially, core jaguar populations are identified and categorised into JCU’s (Jaguar Conservation Units); a population with access to an ample abundance of prey and stable enough numbers to sustain itself over 100 years. These JCU’s are then further categorised by their ecological importance and potential for dispersal. Perhaps the most important aspect of the project is the identification of these wildlife corridors.
The Jaguar Corridor Initiative is considered an extraordinary example of a conservation project. The project is almost tailored to the species it is focused on conserving; data has been collected on natural routes and occurrence of the Jaguar making real conservation success plausible. One of the main focuses of the initiative is engagement with the communities in which the Jaguar encounters; this unavoidable component is crucial in sustaining the project long-term and allowing for legitimate conservation to happen. These realistic goals make the initiative more credible; population losses are expected but reducing decline is possible.
Since implementation of the project, 11 of 18 states have partnered with the initiative to secure Jaguar corridors, with others close to join up. This goes someway in suggesting the success of this amazing project.
In the Ocean.
North Atlantic Right Whales migrate from calving areas off South Carolina to the Northern waters off Cape Cod and Nova Scotia. Right Whales spend a lot of time near the surface, putting them at risk of ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear.
The National Marine Fisheries Service implemented a protected migration corridor, through a traffic scheme with shipping lanes and designated areas to be avoided. With testament to conservation efforts, there has been a recent trend in population growth of these Whales, although there is still a long way to go for this fragile population.
It is clear that we need to implement good and effective protection for the important natural areas we currently have. If we can connect these indispensable patches of nature, we can make some strides towards slowing the imminent mass extinctions of species.
Its perhaps time to realise the importance of the real connectivity we all need - with nature.
What can you do?
Volunteer for local wildlife charities and trusts. They will often have activities such as hedge-laying where you can get involved in planting trees/ hedges in your local area.
See your garden as a corridor. Allow your garden to become more wild. Let it grow out, mow less, and leave hedges and trees. In the wider scheme of things, they provide an important habitat for many local species!