Dams inevitably result in species decline on reservoir islands

Hydropower development is booming, with controversial projects unfolding across the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe.

Though often presented as a green renewable energy option, dams can cause a litany of negative impacts: disrupting the downstream flow of nutrients, interrupting aquatic migration routes and harming fisheries. They flood forests, destroy habitat and increase the release of greenhouse gases as vegetation decomposes. Dams also displace human communities — submerging homes and indigenous territories.

A new study adds another impact to the list, one that is widespread but has so far been overlooked by dam developers: “extinction debt” — the incremental but inexorable loss of species and diminishment of biodiversity over time on islands created by reservoirs.

Hydropower developers have long claimed reservoir islands as quality habitat and as viable conservation areas — both assertions are false, according to the new research.

A global evaluation of reservoir islands

The study, led by Isabel Jones at the UK’s Stirling University, collated biodiversity data from 100 studies of reservoir islands — with time since habitat isolation ranging from 1 to 92 years — at 15 dams in North, Central and South America, Europe, and Asia.

In more than 75 percent of cases studied, dams had an overall negative impact on reservoir island species, affecting factors such as species population density, ecological community composition, and species behavior.

Read the full article on Mongabay

Thousand Island Lake in China, the result of a dam built in the 1950s on the Xin'an River, was one of 15 dams worldwide included in a recent study that concluded that reservoir islands should not be counted as conservation areas by developers. Photo by Bryan Ong on Flickr, under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license
Thousand Island Lake in China, the result of a dam built in the 1950s on the Xin’an River, was one of 15 dams worldwide included in a recent study that concluded that reservoir islands should not be counted as conservation areas by developers. Photo by Bryan Ong on Flickr, under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license
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Dams threaten future of Amazonian biodiversity major new study warns

Amazonia’s surge in hydropower development threatens numerous species with extinction, and puts unique habitats at risk, warns a recent study.

River dolphins, giant otters, turtles, fish, birds and monkeys will all have their habitats altered by hydroelectric dams, with some species likely to be completely wiped out, says an international team of biologists that looked at all impacts associated with 191 existing Amazon dams, as well as the 246 dams being planned or under construction.

What’s more, the researchers identified a network of negative interactions between dam construction, mining, climate change, human migration, and biodiversity and ecosystem services which illustrates how impacts can cascade in multiple, devastating ways.

In environmental terms, the most obvious and direct impact of dams reported by the study are on water flow and connectivity. Nutrients that flow downstream from the Andes are interrupted by dams; flood pulses that form a vital part of many species’ lifecycles are modified by the reservoirs and flow patterns that dams create and control; habitat complexity is lost; and species such as river dolphins become isolated in the stretches of river between hydropower developments, which leaves smaller sub-populations vulnerable to decline.

To read the full article, orginally published on Mongabay, click here.

River turtles in Colombia. Turtles, dolphins and otters are among the aquatic species threatened by dam construction, but risks extend to birds, bats and terrestrial animals too. Photo by Rhett A. ButlerRiver turtles in Colombia. Turtles, dolphins and otters are among the aquatic species threatened by dam construction, but risks extend to birds, bats and terrestrial animals too. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

 

Keeping Amazon fish connected is key to their conservation

Imagine a fish isolated in an Amazonian lake — part of the vast freshwater ecosystem of the Amazon basin, an ever-changing network of rivers, lakes and floodplains that extends to 1 million square kilometers (386,102 square miles).

Now imagine that isolated fish as water levels rise during the wet season, and floodplains vanish beneath up to 15 meters (49 feet) of water. The fish — once restricted by the lake’s edge — swims freely into the flooded forest and mingles with others of its kind from elsewhere.

For thousands of years, isolated fish populations across the Amazon have likewise played a game of musical chairs: intermixing between flooding water bodies, migrating short and vast distances between lakes and along river channels, and then as the waters receded, forming new lake and river populations.

This connectivity — with the genetic mixing it affords — is vital for healthy fish populations, but is extremely vulnerable to changes in the annual “flood pulse” that inundates forests.

Read the rest of the article on Mongabay.

A South American Leaf Fish (Monocirrhus polyacanthus). More than 2,000 fish species live in the Amazon, the highest fish biodiversity in the world. That diversity has been greatly enriched due to the periodic isolation and intermixing of freshwater species that occurs across the region. Photo © Rhett A. Butler/MongabayA South American Leaf Fish (Monocirrhus polyacanthus). More than 2,000 fish species live in the Amazon, the highest fish biodiversity in the world. That diversity has been greatly enriched due to the periodic isolation and intermixing of freshwater species that occurs across the region. Photo © Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

Eavesdropping on Cameroon’s poachers to save endangered primates

Researchers are using acoustic monitoring to tune into gunshots and track a most deadly predator – Africa’s wildlife poachers.

Cameroon’s Korup National Park is home to elephants, chimpanzees, red colobus monkeys, drill, and a myriad of noisy species, whose squawks, squeals and howls fill the forest air. For more than two years, twelve acoustic monitors were deployed there and recorded every sound covering a 54 square kilometer (21 square mile) area of protected tropical forest.

They were tuned to listen around the clock for just one sound: gunshots.

“Our ultimate goal is to improve the effectiveness of anti-poaching patrols in African tropical forest protected areas,” Joshua Linder, one of the lead scientists working on the acoustic monitoring project, told Mongabay.

Read the full article on Mongabay.

Damming the Amazon: new hydropower projects put river dolphins at risk

A little while ago I wrote about the plight of Amazon river dolphins in the face of dam-building across the region. Here’s the opening few lines, but to read the whole piece please follow the link to the original on Mongabay. A National Geographic photographer kindly let us use some of his pictures, so it is worth a look!

***

A dam-building boom is underway in the Amazon. More than 400 hydroelectric dams are in operation, being built, or planned for the river’s headwaters and basin. Scientists know that tropical dams disrupt water flow and nutrient deposition, with negative consequences for aquatic animals, especially migratory species. But little detailed knowledge exists as to the impacts of dams on specific species, or as to the best mitigations to prevent harm.

A recent study that tries to fill in that knowledge gap zeroes in on Brazil’s river dolphins. It found that as many as 26 dams could negatively impact dolphin populations and their prey.

The research, led by Dr Claryana Araújo of the Federal University of Goiás, Brazil, focused on two freshwater species: the Amazon River Dolphin, or boto (Inia geoffrensis), which is sometimes famously pink; and the Tucuxi (Sotalia fluviatilis).

The river dolphins of South America are charismatic emblems of rainforest biodiversity, and have captured the public imagination. Swimming in rivers, lagoons, and among submerged tree trunks in flooded forests to chase down prey, they can be found as far inland as the upper reaches of Amazonian tributaries, more than 2,600 kilometers (1,615 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean.

To continue reading, click here.

A diamond in the marsh: Saving the Lake Alaotra Gentle Lemur

This article was commissioned by mongabay.com, and the original can be found here: http://news.mongabay.com/2015/08/a-diamond-in-the-marsh-saving-the-lake-alaotra-gentle-lemur/

Climb into a canoe at dawn, paddle into the reed beds of Madagascar’s largest wetland, and with luck you could see a unique primate: the Alaotra Gentle Lemur (Hapalemur alaotrensis). Known locally as the bandro and described by Gerald Durrell as a “honey-coloured teddy bear”, these lemurs spend their entire lives within the cyperus and reed stems of the marsh around Lake Alaotra in Eastern Madagascar.

“What really fascinates me [is] that this lemur species is the only primate that lives constantly on water,” Patrick Waeber, of Madagascar Wildlife Conservation (MWC) told mongabay.com. Waeber, also a lecturer at ETH Zurich, knows the species better than most, first studying their social behavior in 2000. “It was during over 160 sampling hours that I initially came to know this compelling lemur species intimately.”

The bandro is the largest of the gentle lemurs, weighing a little over 2.5

The Alaotra Gentle Lemur is the only primate that lives exclusively within a wetland habitat. Photo credit Toby Nowlan.

The Alaotra Gentle Lemur is the only primate that lives exclusively within a wetland habitat. Photo credit Toby Nowlan.

pounds. Their dense fur grows grey on face, chest, and ears; a rich brown on head and back. A long tail helps with balance on the floating vegetation of the marsh. The animals live in small territorial family groups, and, as is typical of many lemurs, females are dominant.

People pressure driving decline

With their range extending to just 20,000 hectares (49,421 acres), their population declining, and habitat highly threatened, the species has been classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Their unique ecology and threatened status have also earned them a place on the EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) mammal list, a program run by the Zoological Society of London that “highlights and conserves one-of-a-kind species that are on the verge of extinction.”

“We currently estimate between 2,000 to 2,500 Bandro,” Lance Woolaver told mongabay.com. He is the head of Species Conservation and Research at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Durrell) Madagascar. Durrell initiated some of the first studies of the bandro in the early 1990s.

“Research showed it was endangered and completely dependent on the remaining marsh,” Woolaver said. Back then, the population was estimated to be 11,000 – they have declined by almost 80 percent – and hunting for bushmeat was their greatest direct threat. In an attempt to curb hunting, Durrell reached out to the local people, holding environmental festivals to “engage local communities, discuss the importance of the marshes and demonstrate the uniqueness of the lemur to Alaotra.” This outreach was successful, with habitat loss and fragmentation – which isolates groups of bandro – now overtaking hunting as the biggest problem facing the species.

Jonah Ratsimbazafy, Secretary General of GERP (the Madagascar Primate Group) started working to conserve the bandro in 2003, and still remembers his first encounter of the bandro in the wild. “The first individual/group we saw… for me, was like discovering a diamond,” Ratsimbazafy told mongabay.com.

A young Alaotra Gentle Lemur. Photo credit: Arnaud De Grave.

A young Alaotra Gentle Lemur. Photo credit: Arnaud De Grave.

Ratsimbazafy also serves as the co-vice chair of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group for Madagascar, which has identified Alaotra as one of 33 priority sites for lemur conservation. He explained what drives habitat loss today: “People convert the marsh into rice field, but before doing that, they burn the marsh…. and certainly many bandro are caught in the fire.”

The marshes are burned not only to make way for rice fields, but also to improve access to fishing grounds, which are suffering from invasive plant species encroachment. “A major threat to the marsh and lake comes from an exponential increase in the number of people relying on the lake for fishing,” Woolaver said. Erosion in the lake’s headwaters is also a problem. “The lake’s long-term future depends on managing the surrounding hillsides which, due to deforestation, pour silt into the lake.”

The Alaotra wetland is at the heart of Madagascar’s “rice bowl” region, which produces a third of the national rice harvest. The lake is also a nationally important freshwater fishery. “The Alaotra was once the biggest inland fish supplier, but these stocks are now imperiled,” Waeber explained. In a country of extreme poverty these natural resources are vital in the deepest sense of the word. But exploiting them has a major impact on Alaotra’s biodiversity.

Two of the world’s rarest mammals

Alaotra’s ecological importance is not limited to the bandro. Numerous rare and endemic species inhabit the wetland, including Meller’s Duck (Endangered), and the endemic Madagascar Rainbowfish (Vulnerable). Others have already vanished, such as the Madagascar Pochard (Critically Endangered) and the Alaotra Grebe, which was declared extinct in 2010.

But even as these species struggle for survival, startling new discoveries are being made. In 2004 researchers realized that an aquatic, mongoose-like mammal observed swimming in the marshes was unknown to science. Formally described in the same year that the Alaotra Grebe’s extinction was confirmed, Durrell’s Vontsira (Salanoia durrelli) was the first new species of carnivorous mammal to be discovered in 24 years. And that’s not all. “There is also an undescribed species of mouse lemur probably unique to the marshes of Alaotra,” Woolaver said.

A live-trapped Durrell's Vontsira just after release. Photo credit BioCensus.

A live-trapped Durrell’s Vontsira just after release. Photo credit BioCensus.

So far, little is known about the cat-sized Durrell’s Vontsira. It has physical adaptations to its aquatic habitat such as enlarged paws, which distinguish it from its forest-dwelling relative, the Brown-tailed Mongoose (Salanoia concolor). Knowledge of its population – estimated at fewer than 465 individuals – and its behavior is gradually accumulating thanks to weekly marsh patrols established by Durrell to monitor the bandro, the Vontsira, and illegal activities. “Camera-trapping and live-trapping have also been trialed and work well with this species,” Woolaver added.

With such low population densities, seeing either the bandro or the Vontsira in the dense marsh grasses requires a great deal of luck. What are the chances, then, of witnessing an interaction between two of the rarest mammals in the world?

“I was lucky to encounter a Salanoia [Vontsira] with one of my bandro groups back in 2000,” Waeber recalls. “The group consisted of three adults and two juveniles. The Salanoia was targeting the little ones. The adults shushed them up a cyperus to be out of reach by the carnivore. At the same time, the three adults surrounded the attacker and charged it continuously. After some minutes, annoyed by the continuous attacks, the carnivore gave up and went off.”

The global significance of Alaotra’s biodiversity was recognized in 2003, when the entire 722,500 hectare (2,790 square mile) watershed was designated a Ramsar site – recognized under the Ramsar Convention, an international wetland preservation treaty. In 2007, with the help of Durrell and other NGOs, the region was afforded further protection by the creation of a community-managed New Protected Area.

“Despite these protective designations, burning for conversion to agricultural land-use (i.e., rice production) is steadily and rapidly reducing the amount of potential lemur habitat,” Waeber said. About 6 percent of marsh habitat is lost every year.

“Marshes can recover from burning,” Waeber continued, but “because the frequency and number of fires are increasing, the chances of proper recovery of the marshes is decreasing.”

Community based management

Finding a way to balance people’s needs with the conservation of biodiversity is the key conundrum facing organizations working in the region. “Alaotra is one of Durrell’s core conservation zones in Madagascar, and the challenges there really exemplify the issues faced by conservation projects in Madagascar,” Woolaver said. “A major conservation challenge is to ensure secure livelihoods for these local communities that want to sustainably manage the lake and marshlands.”

Durrell's Vontsira, formally described in 2010, was the first new carnivorous mammal to be discovered in 24 years. Photo credit Lance Woolaver.

Durrell’s Vontsira, formally described in 2010, was the first new carnivorous mammal to be discovered in 24 years. Photo credit Lance Woolaver.

Durrell’s early efforts to engage local communities provided the foundation for community-based management of the marshes. Durrell was instrumental in the establishment of 28 community associations which now manage 90 percent of the 23,000 hectares (56,834 acres) of marsh that remain.

A pioneering participatory ecological monitoring project was also developed, which provided communities with improved education, food security and access to clean water. “This program collected distribution data on biodiversity, and also improved relationships with local communities and encouraged them to protect the marsh,” Woolaver said.

More recently, Durrell has been providing capacity-building support for the establishment of the New Protected Area. “We want to make sure that the New Protected Area becomes a tool for sustainable management of the marsh and lake, by local communities themselves,” Woolaver explained. Durrell’s other priorities include making sure the boundaries of the protected area are clear, with “rebuilding of law enforcement and the trust between local communities and authorities” and “continuing to work with local communities to ensure good fishing management, and improved agriculture yields.”

Alaotra Gentle Lemur. Photo credit: Alice Smith.

Alaotra Gentle Lemur. Photo credit: Alice Smith.

“In order to do this we do need significant levels of engagement and long-term financial support from major development organizations and donors,” Woolaver said.

GERP, the Madagascar Primate Group, also focuses on supporting people who rely on the wetland for their livelihood. “We work with the local communities in the form of collaboration, but not dependence,” Ratsimbazafy emphasized. “We know that their involvement to the success of the project is crucial, so we provide training in farming/handcraft techniques, good governance, patrol activities, and monitoring of bandro and the habitats, for instance.”

Weekly patrols monitor endangered species and illegal activity in Alaotra. Photo credit: Durrell.

Weekly patrols monitor endangered species and illegal activity in Alaotra. Photo credit: Durrell.

Eco-tourism and conservation training come to Alaotra

On the eastern shore of the lake, near the town of Andreba, lies Parc Bandro, a protected area of 80 hectares (198 acres) managed by MWC. “With the consent of the community, we have built Camp Bandro to allow visitors to stay overnight, [and] to be at the lake and in the marshes by sunrise. This is the prime time for lemur watching,” Waeber explained.

A night at the Camp, followed by a dawn canoe excursion in search of the Parc’s roughly 170 bandro, will set you back just under $7. “The underpinning idea is to show the Andreba community the link between conservation… and the increased numbers of tourists.”

Unfortunately, as Waeber acknowledges, the logistical difficulties of reaching the area mean that few tourists make the journey. “Tourism in Madagascar works fine for only less than a handful of national parks which generate the majority of revenue…. [A]t Camp Bandro, we have had in the past years on average between 50 to 80 tourists.”

MWC has also been looking to the future. Training the next generation of Malagasy conservationists is a priority. Working in collaboration with both Durrell and GERP, MWC will enable 10 Malagasy students to undertake Master’s research on the bandro’s ecology and conservation.

Celebrating World Environment Day in Alaotra. Photo credit: Durrell.

Celebrating World Environment Day in Alaotra. Photo credit: Durrell.

An environmental education program aimed at primary school children and teachers has also been developed, with 3,000 comic books entitled Arovy fa harena (Protect because it’s worth it) distributed to schools so far. “The children experiencing environmental education are clearly more aware of the lake biodiversity,” Waeber said.

A cooperative solution to preservation

Increasing engagement with local communities is crucial, but they alone will not determine the fate of the Alaotra. Much of the destruction of the marsh is driven by people outside the region.

“Lack of law enforcement has led to land-grabbing by powerful people, most of whom are not even from the local communities around Alaotra,” Woolaver explained.

“That is why we try to find ways to empower the local communities,” Ratsimbazafy said. Furthermore, he thinks the law should be applied equally to all.

“In a complex socio-ecological system such as the Alaotra, conservation needs to engage with a multitude of actors,” Waeber contends. “We also need to bring our conservation efforts to the attention of the actors of change; the policy and decision makers.”

Reeds in the Alaotra marshes, habitat for the Alaotra Gentle Lemur and Durrell's Vontsira. Photo credit: Lance Woolaver.

Reeds in the Alaotra marshes, habitat for the Alaotra Gentle Lemur and Durrell’s Vontsira. Photo credit: Lance Woolaver.

To this end, Waeber and Madagascan collaborators have launched the AlaReLa (Alaotra Resilience Landscape) project, to help resource users and decision-makers “find a balance between conservation and development, and thereby improve the adaptive capacity of Alaotra‘s social-ecological landscape.”

When it comes to the outlook for Alaotra’s people and biodiversity, there is optimism. But secure livelihoods, financial support, and political will are all needed for the region to thrive. “As long as the people depending on the marshland system are struggling to make a living, the ecosystem is at high risk to reach a point of no return,” Waeber warned. “Bridging cultural, ecological and agricultural values and needs will be key to conserving the bandro and other species such asSalanoia durrelli.”

“The two species can be saved from extinction, it isn’t too late by any means,” Woolaver concluded. “All of the knowledge, experience and techniques have been developed and are there to save the bandro and Vontsira, but a major concentrated and integrated effort requiring financial support will be required.” And if these flagship species can be saved, the rest of Alaotra’s biodiversity can be saved alongside them.

Alaotra Gentle Lemurs are threatened by the loss of their wetland habitat as it is burned to make way for rice fields. Photo credit Toby Nowlan.

Alaotra Gentle Lemurs are threatened by the loss of their wetland habitat as it is burned to make way for rice fields. Photo credit Toby Nowlan.

Myanmar faces new conservation challenges as it opens up to the world

This article was written for mongabay.com, and you can read the original version here.

For decades, one of Southeast Asia’s largest countries has also been its most mysterious. Now, emerging from years of political and economic isolation, its shift towards democracy means that Myanmar is opening up to the rest of the world. Myanmar forms part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, and some of the largest tracts of intact habitat in the hotspot can be found here. With changes afoot, conservationists are looking to Myanmar as the best hope for protecting biodiversity in the region.

Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have undertaken an analysis of the environmental threats facing the country, recently published in AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment. By reviewing previous studies and analyzing potential changes in the climates of ecosystems across the country, the scientists have identified the primary conservation challenges facing the nation.

Fishing on Inle Lake.  Photo by Rhenda Glasco.Fishing on Inle Lake. Photo by Rhenda Glasco.

“For many years, Myanmar’s isolation has served to protect the biodiversity which has disappeared from many other regions in Southeast Asia,” said WCS’s Dr. Madhu Rao, lead author of the study. “Things are now changing rapidly for Myanmar, which will soon experience increasing economic growth and the myriad cascading effects of climate change on its forests and coastlines. The opportunity to protect the country’s natural heritage with a strategic and multi-faceted approach is now.”

Myanmar has extremely high biodiversity and a wealth of natural resources. In the north, Himalayan foothills extend down to forested valleys that are home to tigers, elephants, and rare birds. Mountains and plateaus give way to the central plains, and the great Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) river flows south, through a fertile valley, to a delta rich with mangroves and swamps before reaching the Andaman Sea. Some of these ecosystems, such as the lowland tropical forests and mangroves, are critically threatened elsewhere in the region. Myanmar is home to numerous endemic species, such as the white-browed nuthatch (Sitta victoriae), Myanmar snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus strykeri), Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota), and Burmese roof turtle (Batagur trivittata). In total, 233 globally threatened species are found here, 65 of them classified as Endangered, and 37 critically so.

However, the country’s large extent of intact habitat is relative to the extreme habitat loss seen in neighboring countries. Myanmar has not escaped habitat destruction, and in fact has suffered some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. From 1990–2005, 18% of all forest area was lost to logging, much of it illegal. The lowland forests are most likely to suffer further future losses, as pressure on natural resources increases; commercial logging, agricultural expansion, and conversion to rubber and oil palm plantations are the main threats identified by the study.

“Location
Location of Myanmar (inset) within mainland Southeast Asia. Credit: Rao M. et al, 2013.

The scientists highlight weak environmental safeguards and low investment in conservation as two of the key factors that could make Myanmar especially susceptible to the effects of rapid economic development and climate change. Currently, overexploitation of both plant and animal species for subsistence and trade, along with habitat degradation and loss, are regarded as the primary threats to biodiversity in Myanmar. With international investments expected to increase dramatically in the near future, the authors anticipate “far-reaching negative implications for already threatened biodiversity and natural-resource dependent human communities.”

Myanmar’s system of protected areas is currently insufficient to safeguard biodiversity, with few large areas under protection, according to the researchers. In addition, the system as a whole does not represent the biological and geographic diversity within the country. Limited resources, both technical and financial, are to blame. However, Rao is hopeful that these issues can be overcome: “Myanmar is in a good position to begin addressing key technical and financial constraints – especially given the level of support that is being offered to the country by external entities. The time is right to fill policy gaps related to biodiversity and protected area management.”

“Given the current trajectories of economic interest in Myanmar, urgent conservation priorities include the need to expand and strengthen the existing protected area system, strengthening the legal and policy framework related to biodiversity and protected areas including the development of effective environmental safeguards and bolstering institutions responsible for protected area management,” Rao told mongabay.com. When examining the potential impacts of climate change, the scientists reached similar conclusions, advocating the protection of large, connected areas to “allow species or communities to track changing habitat conditions through space and time.”

Wetland systems, an important habitat for both wildlife and local communities, have already been degraded and are likely to suffer further from mining and hydroelectric development. The authors recommend the development of strict regulatory frameworks to limit their effects.

“The key to mitigating impacts of extractive industries is to develop and implement strong Environmental Impact Assessments and ensure that safeguards are adequately built into policies,” Rao said.

The study’s climate change analysis revealed that Myanmar is expected to experience high exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather events, as well as a range of impacts on human communities and biodiversity. The overall assessment predicts that sea level rises and storm surges will threaten coastal and estuarine ecosystems, changes in rainfall and temperature patterns will result in increased flooding and drought, and species’ ranges will shift to follow fluctuant habitats.

1004myanmar3
A new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society examines the potential implications of growing economic development and climate change on the biodiversity of Myanmar, home to wild places such as the Hukaung Valley. Photo courtesy of WCS Myanmar Program.

“The short and long-term impacts of climate change will aggravate existing threats to biodiversity in Myanmar through direct mechanisms and indirectly, through impacts on humans and their dependence on the products and services produced by terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems,” the authors write.

James Watson, WCS’s Climate Change Program Director and co-author of the study, adds, “the threat of climate change implies the need to embrace ecosystem-based strategies that will enable people to be resilient and allow species to survive. With sensible planning, the people of Myanmar can aim to protect the key ecological services that will provide an important buffer for the likely effects of climate change that are already occurring.”

Recognizing the needs of local people and ensuring their involvement with conservation projects is vital. The authors state that greater engagement of local communities is an “essential requirement,” and that “appropriately designed conservation laws and land use policies are crucial to clarify how local communities can legally manage and benefit from natural resources.”

Rao explained further that “establishing clear zones for community use with their participation is not only important to ensure access of resources by communities but also helps spatially separate core areas without human use that could potentially act as source areas for wildlife. Ensuring local communities have tenure over their lands through clear land titles is an important mechanism to provide access to resources and simultaneously preventing the overexploitation of natural resources.”

What’s more, local people can be powerful advocates for their country’s biodiversity.

“There is a growing and dynamic group of civil society groups that are concerned with environmental issues and conservation,” Rao said. “Many of these have been organized around the threat of large, poorly planned infrastructure projects. Organizations such as Burma Rivers Network and the Dawei Development Association are increasingly sharing information and organizing the general public to be more informed and to participate in local and national decision making.”

The Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, Myanmar.  Photo by Rhenda Glasco.
The Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, Myanmar. Photo by Rhenda Glasco.

Furthermore, tourists are rediscovering Myanmar, and responsible ecotourism may offer an additional route to biodiversity conservation.

“Ecotourism can only offer conservation benefits if the ecotourism activity is well designed with mechanisms in place that involve strong linkages between ecotourism revenues and biodiversity conservation. Involving local communities in ecotourism and making explicit linkages to conservation targets can ensure benefits,” Rao said. “WCS is currently working with local communities in Mandalay to develop a community based ecotourism project linked to conservation of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.”

Although the study emphasizes the range of challenges facing Myanmar, it also highlights the great opportunities that exist to safeguard human livelihoods and biodiversity if action is taken. “Leaders of the Myanmar government have a chance to transform their country into a model for sustainable development,” said Joe Walston, Executive Director of WCS’s Asia Program. “Saving Myanmar’s natural wonders for posterity will rely on filling knowledge gaps and correctly anticipating the responses of environment and people in a changing world.”

Paper: Rao M., Htun S., Platt S.G., Tizard R., Poole C., Myint T., Watson J.E.M. 2013. Biodiversity conservation in a changing climate: A review of threats and implications for conservation planning in Myanmar. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment. DOI: 10.1007/s13280-013-0423-5