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The Power of Connectivity

Published:
September 11, 2020
Updated:

If there ever was a time to rethink how we as humans are interacting with the natural world, it is now. We are at a crossroads with a stark reality before us: climate change and global warming on the rise, a current pandemic and a startling decline in biodiversity worldwide. As we begin to rebuild our economies in a post-covid (or with-covid!) world, re-imagining our environmental agenda and reworking conservation and climate change-mitigation into development plans will be our best shot at creating a future that truly sustains life on earth.

Why do we need biodiversity?

The term ecosystem services refers to the benefits that humans gain from healthy ecosystems which are essential for our survival. This includes fresh water, pollination, soil fertility for food production, nutrient cycling, oxygen through photosynthesis, carbon storage and climate regulation and buffering. We may not always realise it, but we cannot survive on this planet without the basics of fresh water, oxygen, food and at times a buffer from the harsher elements. Each species plays its part in maintaining healthy ecosystems and while the loss of one species may not seem severe, it weakens the whole and continued biodiversity loss compromises the entire system. Life, including humans, cannot continue on planet Earth without healthy, functioning ecosystems.

The single-biggest threat to biodiversity is loss of habitat.

As the human population grows, wildlife is squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces. This fragmentation is highly problematic for the integrity of wildlife populations as it reduces the gene flow between individuals and puts increased pressure on the areas where animals are ‘allowed’ to continue their existence. Furthermore, with climate-change becoming an increasing threat,wildlife becomes even more vulnerable in these confined areas with nowhere else to go.

Fragmentation of habitats is highly problematic for wildlife. Image by Dr M.W. Atkinson ©

How can we protect our biodiversity?

A key conservation method to counter the loss of biodiversity is the establishment of wildlife corridors or connectivity zones between core wilderness areas. While there are different kinds, the main premise is joining or connecting wilderness areas allowing for the natural movement of wildlife through human-occupied landscapes and structures. This means that animals have the opportunity to find new mates, move when conditions are unfavourable and also give areas rest from constant grazing or browsing, allowing the soil and vegetation to regenerate.

In 2019, a paper was published by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), Guidelines for conserving connectivity through ecological networks and corridors, which outlines recommendations to include connectivity zones and corridors into development plans. As stated in the paper,

 "The science underpinning connectivity conservation clearly supports that larger, well-connected areas are more likely to maintain biodiversity and ecological integrity. Given the current biodiversity and climate crises, there is an urgent need to restore and sustain ecological connectivity among and between protected areas, OECMs (Other EffectiveArea-based Conservation Measure) and other intact natural areas. By connecting these areas with each other, it is possible to arrest and reverse ecosystem fragmentation. Well-connected ecosystems support a diversity of ecological functions including migration, water and nutrient cycling, pollination, seed dispersal, foodsecurity, climate resilience and disease resistance."

It’s all about creating “wildlife corridors”

Wildlife Corridors connect areas of wilderness, increasing the space available to wildlife and thus improving biodiversity. But HOW do we create these corridors?  In a blog written by Integrate Sustainability, definitions for different corridor types were described, which gives us a clear idea of available options when it comes to conservation development.

1. Corridor Causeways

Wildlife Corridors were originally seen as lines or stretches of vegetation that link two or more larger areas of vegetation. These typically link areas over some man-made structure such as a fence or road. They are usually quite narrow and this is potentially a disadvantage as it may prevent animals from using the corridor if there is a predatory threat. Think of a lion hanging out next to a corridor waiting for antelope to cross! That said, they provide an easier solution in areas where there is limited space for connectivity - a wildlife corridor ‘bridge’ over a highway may be narrow and linear but is better than no connection at all!

A wildlife corridor in the Netherlands. Image byJoop van Houdt/Rijkswaterstaat

2. Connectivity Zones

These are similar to wildlife corridor causeways but are larger or wider. This greater area increases the success of the corridor and decreases the associated risks. Understandably the same logic applies - the more space animals have to move, the healthier the populations and ecosystem.

3. Ecological Linkages

These connect areas through large patches of vegetation. They are often non-linear and may not always connect completely. However, their proximity still provides enough habitat and coveragefor animals to move.

Ecological linkages: The European Greenbelt: connecting wildlife through agricultural andother man-altered landscapes.

Removing fences is a great way to open wildlife corridors

To integrate these ‘corridors’ into future development plans will give our natural ecosystems and the services they provide a fighting chance. The lowest hanging fruit in terms of connectivity is the removal of barriers to wildlife wherever feasible; including the removal of fences. One of the most successful, recent examples of this in South Africa was the removal of the 27km western fence of the 14,500ha Thornybush Game reserve, opening it up to theTimbavati Game Reserve and Kruger National Park in 2018. Similarly in the early 1990s, fences were dropped between both the Sabi Sand Game Reserve and theTimbavati Game Reserve to the Kruger National Park.

The establishment of the original veterinary western boundary fence of the Kruger National Park in 1950s had a devastating impact on the migratory animals such as zebra and blue wildebeest which died in their thousands against the fence as they attempted to make their way to the foothills of the Drakensberg mountain range to the west of the Kruger National Park. Although the dropping of fences to the west of the KNP did not completely restore migratory movements, it did allow for a bounce back in population numbers and for the animals to move into important grazing areas along the perennial river systems such as the Sand, Sabi and Olifant Rivers. It is an apt example of where the benefits outweigh the risks. The Sabi Sand Reserve, Timbavati and Thornybush reserves are well-known for their incredible wildlife sightings. We have some amazing itineraries based in these areas which you can check out here.

Challenges to wildlife corridors/ connectivity

Finding common ground between public, private and commercial sectors is part of what makes the progress of opening corridors, tough. Many conservationists in Southern Africa, for example,dream of connectivity between the Kruger National Park (and the Greater Kruger National Park) to the Blyde Conservancy to the west. This would allow movement of animals from the drier eastern region of the park to the foothills of the mountains and important river catchment areas. The region to the west of the Kruger National Park is made up of residential, rural and farmland, which makes this dream challenging.

Another challenge is that human-wildlife conflict is already a prominent issue. Having charismatic, yet potentially dangerous animals such as elephant, buffalo, lion, hippo and leopard close by to human settlements make options such as wildlife corridors slightly more complex. Corridors would need to be incredibly secure both from a wildlife-human conflict and poaching stand-point. Expanding areas for wildlife needs to bedone with both the socio-economic and conservation-economy taken into account. By taking a more holistic approach to development -  one that incorporates long-term and short-term goals and includes economic development for the people of the area -  the creation of conservation-based strategies that reduce biodiversity loss and support ecological infrastructure whilst being mindful to the potential climate variances and subsequent challenges thefuture hold, we can create a more integrated development plan that benefits all.

Elephants using an under-highway pass in Kenya. Image by JasonStraziuso/AP

As John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist and early advocate for National Parks in the USA, once said:

When one tugs at a single thing in nature he finds it is attached to the rest of the world.

We are as much as part of earth’s ecosystem as all other creatures and re-connecting to that is goingto be a huge part of our awakening. There is no doubt that challenges lie ahead of us, but there are solutions too and through connecting with each other, connecting to nature and connecting nature itself, there remains hope.

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