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Restoration conservation thoughts on Earth Day

On Earth Day–April 22–we have a special opportunity to reflect on our shared home, the planet that gives and supports life to all of us and all other species.

Humans have come a long way on this giant spinning rock hurtling through space–and we may still have a very long way to go. But we won’t be able to carry on if we manage to destroy the life-support systems that Earth gives us: air, water, food, ambient temperature to keep our warm bodies from freezing or over-heating.

So Earth Day is a good time to remember how much the world means to us–because if the planet fails us there is no other world to which we can go.

Obvious to most of us by now is that we must change our ways, to slow down if not stop the activities that are stressing Earth’s life-giving systems. Increasingly apparent is the need to set aside large portions of the planet to conserve biodiversity and as much of the earth’s wilderness as we can. Those are the areas where Earth can sustain the systems that give us life.

Because so much of the world is already degraded and stressed we must do more than simply set aside no-take zones. We have to start figuring out how to repair what’s been damaged. It’s called restoration conservation. 

Two projects on opposite ends of the planet demonstrate how difficult it is to reverse human destruction of ecosystems. The lesson is clear: It is a lot easier to protect and conserve the natural world while the natural world is stuill functioning, than to try to reconstruct it after it’s been destroyed.

The two restoration projects are not related, other than that they are both the subject of National Geographic television documentaries airing this month.

In American Serengeti, premiering on the National Geographic Channel in the U.S. on Earth Day, the focus is on an ambitious plan to restore a large swathe of the American prairie to what it was before we fenced it off, divided it with roads, shot out all the large animals (and many of the smaller ones), dammed its rivers, contaminated its air and water.

Now the American Prairie Foundation is working to create and manage a prairie-based wildlife reserve that, when combined with public lands already devoted to wildlife, will protect a unique natural habitat, provide lasting economic benefits, and improve public access to and enjoyment of the prairie landscape.

In Africa’s Lost Eden, which aired a few days ago in the U.S. on the new Nat Geo Wild channel, the story is about an even more challenging initiative to restore the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.

Once a jewel of the African wilderness, Gorongosa became ground zero in two civil wars. All but a handful of the large savannah animals were slain for food. It’s a place where the very few remaining animals flee in panic at the first echo or glimpse of a human.

Now, in an endeavor headed by an American entrepreneur, Greg Carr, the struggle is on to rebuild Gorongosa. The plan involves importing big animals like elephants and rhinos from neighboring South Africa, teaching local people the basics of conservation stewardship, resurrecting tourist amenities from rubble.

Carr’s vision for Gorongosa is to restore the park to its pre-war glory, creating a large and thriving sanctuary for Africa’s wildlife that can also be the center of a flourishing tourism industry that will create a livelihood for surrounding communities and put Mozambique, one of Africa’s poorest countries, on the vacation map.

Reintroducing bison to the American prairie or elephants to Gorongosa is not a simple matter of releasing a few breeding individuals and letting nature take its course.

It turns out that when ecosystems are badly disturbed there are enormously complex and subtle dependencies that have disintegrated. Trying to stitch them back together involves a multidisciplinary approach and a lot of expertise, and probably also a lot of luck.

You appreciate this in the television documentaries when you see how many scientists are involved in the many different niches of the ecosystems they are trying to restore, and the kinds of challenges they are up against.

Animals have to be collared with radio-tracking transmitters so that their whereabouts and safety can be monitored. Scientists and veterinarians have to intervene to ensure that the animals eat, forage and breed as they should. And then there is the problem of managing the relationship with adjacent human communities who don’t take kindly to marauding wolves, lions, or elephants.

In both parks the conservationists do heroic work, often having to manhandle enormous animals in conditions that can be extremely dangerous for humans and wild beasts alike. When a giant elephant panics and runs out of Gorongosa into the surrounding settlements, the park wardens struggle valiantly to bring him back, with a tragic outcome.

In both the American Prairie Foundation’s project and the Gorongosa venture there are encouraging signs of progress. There is hope that the ecosystems will recover, because there have been successes elsewhere.

Marine sanctuaries, for example, have demonstrated that fish stocks can recover fairly quickly from overfishing and become nurseries to restock the oceans outside the reserves.

In a wildlife park in South Africa, Pilanesberg, three decades ago cattle ranches had all but destroyed the natural environment. Today, after a massive reintroduction of African animals and careful stewardship, Pilanesberg is teeming with all the big savannah mammals, as well as thousands of species of birds, reptiles, insects, and plants.

The world has shown that it will spring back, if we give it a chance.

Posted by David Braun