South Africa 1. Restoring natural and social capital in Namaqualand

James and Thibaud Aronson post the third of four photo essays on their recent field trip to Namibia and South Africa.

As soon as we crossed over the border from southern Namibia into northwestern South Africa, it was clear that we were looking at a whole different story. We were now in the driest part of South Africa and one of the most sparsely populated. Also, Namaqualand – a winter-rainfall desert of ca. 50,000 km2 – is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world. The area is well known to tourists for the few weeks in August-September (the southern winter), when hundreds of plant species, benefiting from the winter rains, put on an incredible floral display and tapestry of textures and colors, down below your ankles.

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A rich community of toe-high succulents endemic to saline quartz patches . This photo was taken at Douse The Glim, not far south of Garies in southern Namaqualand. Many endemics of the Mesembs (Mesembryanthemaceae) occur here, including the sunken “Silver skin”, Argyroderma delaetii,  Cephalophyllum spissum, and “Redbeads”, Sarcocornia xerophila, a cousin of the cosmopolitan Salicornias. Identification of plants: Sue Milton and Richard Cowling, both of whom we will meet in the next blog post.

 

 

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Argyroderma delaetii, a dwarf, sunken ‘silver skin’, of a genus restricted to the Western Cape, South Africa, in the Knersvlakte Nature Reserve . This photo was taken by Sue Milton in 2014, a much wetter year  than 2016.

All in all, apart from natural history buffs, botanists, and conservationists, not much attention is paid to this poor, rural area. In a nutshell, the rapidly exploitable resources that could be had – copper, timber, and the like – are now long gone. What is left is – to speak bluntly – a lot of poverty and a lot of land degradation. And a lot of biodiversity: indeed the Succulent Karoo region of Namaqualand and southern Namibia is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world.

We met with some of the people making a difference there, working with South Africa’s most iconic environmental program, the Working for-family of government-funded programs, working together to restore natural capital and social capital at the same time.

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Sheep grazing on  abandoned crop land in Namaqualand, near Leliefontein.

The Western Cape, South Africa has had a tradition of rather damaging sheep farming for centuries. But the country as a whole has also had a proud tradition of nature conservation for over a century, which is a lot more than most countries can boast.

However, what is  even rarer is that ecological restoration has been part of the national vocabulary for a generation. A game-changing initiative that moved the country to the next level was a government program launched in 1995, called Working for Water, or WfW.

South Africa was faced with two metaphorical birds. On the one hand, approximately half of its population lived (and unfortunately still does) in poverty. On the other, several invasive non-native tree species had taken over many of the country’s waterways, outcompeting native species, choking river beds, and draining the water tables.

Working for Water was the stone. Every year it hires some of the country’s poorest people –  38,000 in 2015 –  in rural areas in all nine provinces and employs them to remove those noxious woody species. Since its inception, the program has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and provided desirable jobs near home each year. The benefits to people are in fact multiple. Workers are provided with both an income and on-the-job training and capacity-building, with some going on to start their own companies, providing ecological restoration services to private landowners. They also acquire an esprit de corps  and pride in their achievements.

With the same ‘stone’, over 2 million hectares, mostly along water courses, have been cleared of invasive trees and water supply has been notably increased for the associated communities. Finally, the large amounts of timber and vegetable biomass harvested from the invasive trees are used to produce eco-furniture, which is then sold to help finance the program. Research is under way to find methods for producing biofuel from the woody weeds as well as to improve the ecological impact of the effort.

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The small town of Garies, southern Namaqualand. The riverbed is completely dry, but there is enough moisture in the soil to support what may look like natural riparian vegetation. In fact, not a single tree is native. Instead they are Mesquites (Prosopis hybrids) from South America, Salt cedars (Tamarix hybrids), and Australian Wattles (Acacia karroo,  A. cyclops).

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The Australian wattle (Acacia cyclops), one of the worst invasive trees in various habitat types in South Africa.

WfW now oversees over 300 projects across South Africa, and its success has led to the establishment by successive government administrations of several other programs, such as Working on Fire, Working for Wetlands, and Working for Woodlands. The goals are ambitious and together this ‘family’ of Working for- programs exemplifies the emerging understanding that ecological restoration can be a bridge-builder between long-term conservation efforts, and sustainable socio-economic development goals. At a time when protected areas are menaced worldwide by dubious government cop-outs on protected areas, South Africa is a refreshing exception that deserves praise and celebration.

Thanks to introductions set up by our friend Dr. Christo Marais, the number 2 man of WfW, we had a chance to talk to Ronnie Newman, Amanda Bourne, and Halycone Muller from Conservation South Africa (CSA), who work in Namaqualand on restoration projects, in close liaison with SAN Parks (the body that governs South African national parks), and through financing of Working for Wetlands.

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From left to right, Amanda Bourne, Ronnie Newman, and Halcyone Muller at CSA offices in Springbok.

SAN Parks and CSA use funding from a new programme under WFW called Land User Incentive Programme, to hire people to restore degraded rangelands.  CSA and SAN Parks are thus implementing agents for Working for Wetlands in this arrangement, something new in the history of the Working for- programs. The focus of this trio here in Namaqualand is to repair erosion gullies, called “dongas” in southern Africa. These are very often a result of over-stocking and overgrazing by domestic livestock and get continually worse if left unattended. Thanks to this government-funded effort,  workers build beautiful gabions and other structures to slow water flowing downhill, catch sediments and eventually fill the gullies. Most of the gabions are made with metal baskets, or simply dry stones carefully assembled by skilled workers to make low but sturdy walls. However, in some cases, larger gabions are made out of concrete. As Amanda Bourne put it,  “this is about supporting the people who live and work on the land to restore and better manage it.  They are paid at a supplementary rate to undertake restoration on their own land, which will directly benefit their other (mostly agricultural but not only) activities.”

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Working for Wetlands workers building a series of stone retaining walls, near Kamieskroon. In small rivulets like this one the metal baskets of typical gabions are not easy to use and are not deemed cost-effective.

A week later, in Cape Town, we met up with Christo Marais, and with Sarah Frazee, the head of CSA. She told us that they aim at working at critical spots upstream of water points of importance to local communities whose livelihoods are largely dependent on sheep grazing. CSA also provides veterinary services at no cost to participating farmers, and tries to persuade them to reduce their herds and flocks to avoid over-stocking, especially in drought years like the current one. As Sarah put it, 80% of the biodiversity in Namaqualand is associated with wetlands, which makes focusing on their restoration important from a conservation perspective. But, as more broadly throughout South Africa, public-private efforts like this one can effectively address biodiversity, water supply, land erosion, as well as poverty and related social issues at the same time.

From a classical economics perspective, however, ecological restoration work in arid lands is slow, and often hard to justify, since the value of the land for production purposes is so low. However, not just here in the Western Cape, but throughout South Africa, the multiple goals of the Working for- program are being pushed forward and steadily refined.

There has been frequent criticism of the programs and not without cause. In particular, monitoring has not been implemented as well as could have been hoped, though the program has continually improved since its inception, both scientifically and in terms of its impact on ecosystems and people. It will be a long battle to achieve all of its goals, but despite its flaws, it remains one of the absolute best examples worldwide of programs that combine restoration of social and natural capital.

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Six months after the building of the stone walls near Lileifontein, complemented by brushpacking to help build up organic matter, things are looking pretty good.

We close with a mention of the fabled triple bottom line – the holy grail of progressive governments. How to achieve social, ecological, and economic benefits with a single program? Next steps in improving the work of the Working for- programs, according to  Christo Marais, should include: 1) still greater investments in education, capacity-building and outreach to bring all of South Africa’s society on board with the restoration movement, and 2) galvanizing private investment in restoration. The introduction of implementing agencies like SAN Parks and CSA should help with both.

In our next two blogposts, we will report on what some private landowners and three wonderful NGOs, including RENU KARROO and F.O.S.T.E.R. are doing in the Nama Karroo and Thickets biomes.

Namib 2: Large wild animals, fences and farming (with good news about education)

James and Thibaud Aronson post the second of four blogposts on their recent field trip to Namibia and South Africa.

Africa is famous for its megafauna. Most foreign visitors, who only ever see them on safaris inside protected areas, may think that Africa has managed something every other continent has failed at: a harmonious relationship between people and entire trophic chains including large animals. In fact, many if not most interactions between humans and large animals in Africa, just as elsewhere, are conflictual and complex. Nothing illustrates the problem better than fences.

A legacy of European agricultural practices, long fences have become ubiquitous in Africa. They primarily serve to delineate property, control the movements of livestock, and in some cases limit the spread of epidemic diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and bovine TB, and their spread to and from wild animals such a wildebeest and lions.

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A typical small livestock herd in the Pro-Namib.

There are also the other kind of fences, the ones around protected areas, which often serve as effective protection for wildlife.  However, there is no doubt that livestock and veterinary fences have had and still have severe impacts on wild animal populations.

In particular, large mammals tend to range widely in search of food or water. Fences severely restrict their movements, with dramatic effects on populations in drought years. And mammals aren’t the only ones affected: large birds such as bustards suffer lethal collisions with power lines and fences, and tortoises are sometimes killed by electric fences.

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The amazingly camouflaged Rüppell’s bustard (Eupodotis rueppellii), which is endemic to the Namib. Like other members of the bustard family, it occasionally collides with fences.

In Windhoek, we met with Dr. Chris Brown, chairperson of the Greater Fish River Canyon Landscape (GFRCL), a mosaic of diverse properties, from private reserves to working cattle farms united in an association, whose working motto is “What can we do better together?” It is one of five such associations in Namibia today that are part of the NAM-PLACE project, started by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and now supported by the United Nations Development Program.

Dr. Brown is also a director in a Namibian company, Gondwana Collection.  Chris told us “We have a triple bottom line approach to business, with both environment and social investment playing central roles.” The strategy is to buy land in marginal, overworked farming areas, “re-wild it” by taking off the livestock and taking down the fences, and then reintroduce indigenous mammals and reinforce populations that have dwindled. Next, they build lodges to attract medium- and high-end tourists interested in seeing wild nature. Their largest property to date – among 14 throughout the country – is a private, protected area of 130,000 ha on the east side of the Fish River Canyon, which is the largest canyon in Africa.

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The Fish River canyon. The river only flows like this after heavy rains.

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An Aloe dichotoma (Kokerboom in Afrikaans, or Quiver tree), one of the few trees in the southern Namib. In the past, Bushmen fashioned quivers for their arrows from the soft branches, hence the tree’s common name.

We were fortunate enough to spend two nights at one GFRCL partner’s lodge, a 40,000 ha reserve on the western rim of the canyon. This remarkable landscape has been inhabited by humans for millennia, as illustrated by the tools and rock engravings still found throughout, but ill-adapted sheep farming, along with the eradication of many species by white settlers over the last 150 years, had a massive impact on the landscape, which is only now beginning to heal.

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‘Pecked’ rock engraving and associated stone tools near the Fish River Lodge.

Through Chris Brown, we also met Nils Odendaal, CEO of the NamibRand Nature Reserve, which is part of the Greater Sossusvlei-Namib Landscape, another of the five current NAM-PLACE projects. Nils was upbeat, citing serious prospects for addressing conservation and human well-being issues simultaneously. This group focuses on the Pro-Namib, the transition zone between the arid Namib and the more mesic escarpments to the East. Much of the land there was given to white South Africans after World War II as a reward for fighting in the war and for voting for the South African National Party. However, after two generations of unsustainable sheep grazing on these already nutrient- and moisture-poor lands, the area became known as the ‘bankruptcy belt’, when farms began to fail one after the other in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1982, a Namibian businessman bought up a large tract of land and made it into a nature reserve. From this initiative, NamibRand has expanded and now includes 202,000 ha, comprising several properties linked by a common constitution that stipulates, among other things, the removal of internal fences. High-quality, low-impact tourism at ‘ecolodges’ built on concessions inside the reserve provide part of the funds for its conservation activities and “sustainable utilization of its resources”.

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A typical NamibRand landscape. Like most of the country, it has suffered a 4-year drought, which may now finally be breaking.

During our journey, we were able to stay one night at the flagship ecolodge, whose revenues help support an environmental education and sustainable living center called NaDeet (Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust), which aims to contribute to the hugely important task of teaching and capacity-building.

The pro-Namib is of critical importance for animals moving out of the Namib proper during droughts. Therefore the reserve is working on an agreement to take down part of its fences on its border with the massive Namib-Naukluft National Park, allowing mammals such as gemsbok to reach the highlands in times of drought.

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The gemsbok (Oryx gazella), is perhaps the most characteristic large mammal of the southern Namib, and one of the most supremely adapted ungulates to desert living. Despite the drought, about 2000 of them thrive on the reserve.

In sum, these are two remarkable initiatives in two of the driest parts of Namibia. Both focus on large wild animals and high-end tourism. Neither has any direct support from the government, and they both are in difficult, arid lands. On the other hand, the very low human populations limit the potential for social conflict so common around conservation areas elsewhere in Africa.

Unquestionably, one major priority for Namibia is more and better environmental education, in classrooms and, above all, outdoors. Both GFRCL and NamibRand undertake detailed monitoring of the wild animals for which they are the stewards and defenders. They are also stellar communicators for wildlife and nature conservation through all their activities and presence on the internet. But what about training in the science and practice of ecological restoration?

As mentioned in our previous post, we were able to visit the Gobabeb Research and Training Center, in the central Namib, as we noted in our previous post. This Center has been operating continuously for over 50 years, and has produced a large body of research on many facets of the Namib, including hydrology, geology, paleohistory and of course ecology. Since 2012, it houses the NEMRU (Namib Ecological Restoration and Monitoring Unit), headed by Dr. Theo Wassenaar. This group has been doing research on restoration of arid lands in the country and training Namibian students, and lobbying for more research and training in restoration ecology at various universities in the country as well. The Gobabeb Training and Research Internship Programme (GTRIP) a five-month field course now in its seventh year. It is intended for young Namibian scientists interested in the fields of conservation, land and ecosystem management and ecological restoration. Under the guidance of researchers and staff, students have the opportunity to design and implement independent research projects that should “contribute to Namibia’s ability to manage and restore degraded ecosystems”. Posts from the GTRIP 2016 trainees are well worth looking at. Hopefully, this generation of Namibians will be the one to make the difference.

One obvious source of inspiration should be its neighbor, South Africa, which has been doing world-class restoration for over two decades. We spent three weeks on the other side of the border, meeting some of the key people and visiting cutting-edge restoration projects, as we’ll discuss and illustrate in our next two posts.

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This year’s GTRIP students at the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre : Mathias Mwaetako, Fransiska Otto, Ailla-Tessa Iiyambula, and Kauna Kapitango, taken on the dunes south of the Kuiseb River. 15 February, 2016. Photo: Meg Schmitt.

Notes from the Namib 1. An ancient desert in transition

James and Thibaud Aronson post the first of four blogposts on their recent trip to Namibia and South Africa.

For the last trip for our book project on desert trees and restoration in arid regions, we started in Namibia, the only country in the world named after its desert! The Namib desert covers the entire coast of Namibia; it is more than 1500 km long and up to 200 km wide and extends north into Angola and south to South Africa. It is often said to be the oldest desert of the world, estimated by some to have continuously experienced arid or semi-arid conditions for the last 55- 80 million years. Certainly there is good evidence that it has been dry since the mid Miocene (11-16 million years ago). (The Atacama desert, from which we wrote last October, is also very old.  For comparison, the Sahara is less than than 7 million years old, and has experienced several much wetter periods since, some as recent as 10,000 years ago.

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Some of the highest dunes in Africa are found at Sossusvlei, in central Namibia. The highest one, ‘Big Daddy’, is just a bit taller than the Eiffel Tower, reaching 325 meters.

The Namib is an exceptionally dry part of the Earth, with the coastal sections hardly receiving any rainfall at all. It does however receive coastal fogs, often for more than 100 days per year, which provide a significant source of moisture. Furthermore, the desert is traversed by 12 ephemeral rivers, which form striking linear oases, with lush riparian canopies. These canopies are dominated in most cases by very large Faidherbia albida trees, that remarkable tree known, among many other names, as Ana tree in southern Africa, and Gao in the Sahel.

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Ana trees along the bed of the ephemeral Kuiseb river, central Namibia.

This tree – which until recently was classified as an Acacia, often shows a very unusual ‘reverse’ phenology compared to most woody plants in seasonally dry areas, as it keeps its leaves during the dry season and drops them in the wet season, when all the other deciduous trees and shrubs are growing new ones. Furthermore, its leaves as well as its pods – which it produces in copious numbers – are highly palatable to animals and high in protein. It is therefore an essential resource both for wild browsers and livestock. And there’s the shade it provides as well, which is a hugely important feature in all desert landscapes. In fact, Ana is one of the most important trees for herders throughout the continent, and is one of the few trees they deem more useful to them standing than cut down. As for the wildlife, these riparian canopies and the food they provide are very important. In fact, they enable some large mammal species, such as the kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), and even rhinoceros and giraffe in the northern Namib, to range into a desert otherwise too harsh to support them.

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A springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) in the shade of giant Ana trees on the banks of the Kuiseb River. This animal is well-known for its pronking behavior: individuals like this can jump up to two meters straight into the air as a display of fitness to discourage predators from giving chase.

Unusual among deserts, and likely because of its age, the Namib is home to a large number of endemic animal species, mainly beetles, reptiles – such as the Wedge-snouted Sand Lizard (Meroles cuneirostris), and birds, including the Dune Lark (Calendulauda erythrochlamys), Namibia’s only endemic bird.

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The Wedge-snouted Sand Lizard. The shape of its nose is not just a funny accident of evolution: it actually allows this lizard to ‘dive’ into the sand to escape its predators. This lizard is also known to perform a ‘thermal dance’, lifting one foot at a time, or lie on its stomach with all four feet in the air, to reduce its contact with the sand that can reach a scorching 70 degrees C (158 F)!

 

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A Dune Lark, in the Namib-Rand Nature Reserve, in the process of building its nest in a hummock of grass. Its name is misleading; this bird actually prefers to live in the swale of vegetated dunes where its cryptic coloring makes it seemingly vanish as soon as you blink.

However, the Namib’s most famous endemic is undoubtedly Namibia’s national plant, the bizarre Welwitschia mirabilis. This is the sole species of the one genus in the venerable – dare we say inimitable? – Welwitschiaceae. This ‘monster’ is the only living member of a lineage more than 100 million years old. At a distance in certain lights you’d think it’s a beached giant squid…. but in fact it’s an ‘underground tree that can live well over a thousand years. Welwitschia is a near-endemic in Namibia as it occurs in southern Angola as well, but its entire geographic range is limited to the Namib Desert.

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Female adult Welwitschia in its habitat. Note how the ends of the leaves dry out over time.

According to Dr. Theo Wassenaar, researcher at the 54-year old Gobabeb Research and Training Centre, this remarkable plant survives for centuries in a hyper arid desert by finding pockets of slightly moist soil in rock fissures. Having excavated more than two dozen plants, and examined their root systems in detail, he says “essentially it appears as if they forage for water, using their roots as scouts and sending in the troops (fine roots) when they find a pocket of moisture. And the differences in moisture can be slight, a few percent at most.”

An additional anomaly is that, although it is very hard to tell at first glance, each plant only has two leaves, gradually torn to tatters by the desert winds and sun. These two gigantic leaves never stop growing during the tree’s lifetime. It also is under threat, sad to say, as we will describe briefly a bit later.

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Adult male Welwitschia in flower.

We traveled through nearly half of Namibia, from Walvis Bay in the center of the country, south to the Orange River on the South African border. And it is a breath-taking drive, because of the geology of this truly ancient desert, and the fact that the area has low population density, and still reasonably healthy ecosystems (except for the livestock fences galore) and large amounts of wildlife.

This state of affairs partly traces back to an inspired Nature Conservation Ordinance promulgated by the government back in 1975, which gave landowners property rights over the game animals on their land, within certain enlightened limits. Before that date, all wild animals, and all profits derived from them, went back to the state. Transferring ownership and the associated profits – from game viewing, trophy-hunting, and meat – to the landowners changed their perspective of wild animals. No longer competitors and predators of their livestock, to be kept out or exterminated, wild mammals became a source of revenue to be ‘cultivated’ and protected. As a result, the populations of large mammal species have seen impressive increases in the country. However, in some cases, this commercial incentive has led to some serious mismanagement. Indeed, some landowners have taken the view there is no such thing as too much game, and some private game farms maintain populations at unsustainably high densities in relatively small areas. Ironically, this can lead to some of the worst cases of overgrazing in the country!

Overall, the good health and integrity of the country’s ecosystems is a fantastic asset, of tremendous value for the nation. And – on paper, at least – the situation is admirable, with nearly 20% of the country in protected areas; since 2011, the entire coastline is protected inside three national parks, something no other country in the world can boast.

Still, the Namib desert and its fauna and flora face various threats, with dams affecting the hydrology of several ephemeral rivers, and a powerful and growing mining sector. In particular, the Welwitschia plains, where the largest southern population occurs, sit on top of a large uranium deposit. Efforts have been made to preserve the Welwitschia populations, and so far only two mines have been operating. But a third is currently being developed, which will be one of the world’s largest, and several other mining licenses may well be awarded if the price of uranium goes up again.

However the relationship of mining to restoration, and the role of the mining sector, are complex here as everywhere. As Dr Gabi Schneider, of the Namibian Uranium Institute told us, uranium mining is very localised, and the mine ‘footprints’ therefore are limited. Mining companies in Namibia have contributed in no small way to advancing the technology and science of arid land rehabilitation in the Namib, and also to research. Among other things they co-fund the Namib Ecological Restoration and Monitoring Unit program at Gobabeb. Uranium activities are governed by a Strategic Environmental Management Plan as well.

Furthermore, feral horses from abandoned tourism initiatives also roam the desert and eat Welwitschia leaves much more aggressively than native browsers do. Theo Wassenaar is working on this, and negotiating with local communities; it is a slow process but the Ministry of Environment and Tourism is also now engaging rural communities on this issue.

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Horse-browsed Welwitschia in Welwitschia wash, near Gobabeb. Photo: Meg Schmitt, Gobabeb Research and Training Centre.

Further south, near the South African border, under the coastal dunes and off-shore, is one of the largest diamond deposits in the world, which have been mined for over a century. While some laudable efforts are being made to restore mine sites on this harsh, windy coast, it is a very difficult task, in one of the driest regions of the world.

During our travels, we met some of the restoration and conservation pioneers in the country, who are taking these vital actions to the next level, and working on more intimately linking wildlife conservation, the policies of both mining and tourism sectors and, in general, environmental education and capacity building. In the next blog post, we will talk more of the prospects and constraint for these initiatives.

Vegetation changes at Shaw Nature Reserve

CCSD scientists Leighton Reid, Matthew Albrecht, and Quinn Long are teaming up with restoration ecologist James Trager and botanist Nels Holmberg to learn how ecological restoration has affected herbaceous plant communities in an eastern Missouri woodland.

What happens to Missouri’s grasses and forbs when you remove invasive shrubs? When you return prescribed fire to a degraded woodland? How do restoration impacts differ for summer-blooming plants and spring ephemerals? For dry hilltops versus mesic hollows? These are a few of the questions that we hope to address with a long-term dataset from Shaw Nature Reserve.

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Nels Holmberg (left) and Quinn Long (right) discuss the finer points of blackberry identification at Shaw Nature Reserve.

Shaw Nature Reserve encompasses 10 km2 of woodlands and glades along the Meramec River in eastern Missouri. Missouri Botanical Garden purchased the land in 1925 when coal pollution in Saint Louis was so bad that it was killing plants; the garden decided to move its collections to the country where the air was pure. Ultimately the city cleaned up, the collections stayed in Saint Louis’s Tower Grove neighborhood, and the property along the Meramec became a nature reserve and popular hiking area.

Like other ecosystems in the Missouri Ozark foothills, Shaw Nature Reserve changed considerably during the last century. Fire, once a regular disturbance, became scarce, allowing junipers to crowd in on the glades. Invasive species, like Amur honeysuckle, spread into the woodlands and created dense, understory thickets.

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Blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) – a late bloomer in the Dana Brown Woods.

Twenty five years ago, Shaw Nature Reserve began to counteract these changes through ecological restoration. Staff and volunteers cleared invasive shrubs and began to periodically burn the landscape.

In 2000, restoration ecologist James Trager and botanist Nels Holmberg designed a study to monitor restoration effects on herbaceous vegetation. Holmberg surveyed 30 transects twice per year from 2000-2012, recording the abundances of more than 360 plant species. Restoration in this area started in 2003, so the first two years of Holmberg’s transects represent a pre-restoration baseline against which we can compare data from the subsequent decade.

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Holmberg’s dataset contains more than 50,000 rows. Thanks to Christian Schwarz for digitizing them!

Recently, we plotted Holmberg’s transects on Google Earth. The images show clear changes since restoration began almost 15 years ago.

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Holmberg’s transects transposed on a 1995 aerial photo of Shaw Nature Reserve – zoomed in on the Dana Brown Woods. This photo was taken in early spring before most trees leafed out. Dark vegetation is predominantly eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Holmberg originally grouped the transects into three classes based on the dominant vegetation.

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Juniper clearing began in 2006. This is what the summer-time forest looked like the year before…

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…and after juniper clearing. By 2006 the Dana Brown Woods had been burned twice with prescribed fires, and a lot of the junipers had been cut out. Compare the open/brown areas in this photo with the solid green canopy in 2005.

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The most recent imagery, from October 2014, shows some fall color. Note that “red oak” mostly refers to upland Shumard oak, Quercus shumardii.

Our plan for 2016 is to analyze changes in understory vegetation composition over twelve years. Stay tuned for more information in this ongoing project!

Reforesting with Figs

 Benjamin E. Smith is a Ph.D. student at George Washington University. He recently completed a field ecology course with the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica, where he worked with CCSD scientist Leighton Reid. When he’s not coring fig trees in Costa Rica, Benjamin studies plant-herbivore interactions in American chestnut.

It was my recent privilege to spend a week at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica where I learned about some amazing properties of fig trees.

The genus Ficus contains over 800 species, which can be found in the tropical to warm temperate regions throughout the world. Where they occur, figs are vital components of their local ecosystems because they provide high quality fruits for many animals. Animals attracted by the delicious figs often carry other plants’ seeds in their digestive tracks and subsequently deposit them below the fruiting fig tree. This can lead to patches of forest with especially high plant diversity.

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Two individuals of Ficus obtusifolia demonstrating the strangler lifestyle (left) and the free-standing lifestyle (right). The individual on the left has overtaken one host tree and is reaching out to claim another. The individual on the right was planted (either by humans or birds) in a fence row.

Some fig species have the ability to resprout roots, branches, and leaves from broken limbs – an adaptation that would be useful in an ecosystem with frequent disturbances, like hurricanes or landslides. Rural people have been utilizing this incredible feat of nature to create living fences for hundreds of years; they simply cut branches from a tree and plant them. Plant a large enough branch, and you’ve got an instant tree.

Instant fruiting trees could be a practical tool for ecological restoration, and there is currently an experiment underway to test this idea. But not all fig species can resprout from cuttings, so in order for this tool to be useful outside of southern Costa Rica, it would be helpful to know which species will resprout and which will not.

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A healthy cutting of Ficus colubrinae. This instant tree was planted in May 2015.

Does wood density predict resprouting in figs?

We sought a way to determine whether a particular fig species would be able to resprout from a limb cutting before actually cutting apart large trees. This would mean only trees whose cuttings will survive would be used and trees that can’t resprout could be left undamaged.

We believed that wood density would be a good measure to figure this out. Wood density can tell you a lot about a tree’s life history strategy. Is it a hard tree that will resist snapping in a stiff breeze? Or is it a softer tree that might break, but then resprout?

To test this, we took core samples from seven fig species and headed to the lab. After a couple days of measurements, we had our data.

Methods

(A) OTS student Orlando Acevedo Charry extracts a core from a Ficus colubrinae. (B) Cores were cut into small pieces. We measured the mass of the water that each segment displaced to determine the wood’s green volume. (C) Next, samples were placed in a drying oven at 106° C for 24 hours. Finally, we measured the mass of the dried samples and divided by the green volume to determine wood density.

The fig species we tested turned out to have pretty similar wood densities. Also, the slight variations in wood density did not correlate with trees’ resprouting abilities. This initially came as a big disappointment, but after taking a second look at our data we started to see a trend that may actually be much cooler.

Results

Wood density was a poor predictor of resprouting capacity (measured by tallying fig cuttings that were planted in April-May 2015; Left), but strangler figs in the subgenus Urostigma performed much better than two free-standing species in subgenus Pharmacosycea.

Fig species come in a variety of forms. Some are rather conventional free-standing trees that grow from the ground up, but others start as seedlings high in the canopy of another tree and send roots down to the ground, gradually strangling their host. Still others are shrubs, climbers, and epiphytes. We found that stakes cut from strangling figs, the ones that initially rely on a host tree, were much more likely to resprout than stakes cut from free-standing fig species. If this holds true, no measurements will be needed in the future. People around the world may be able to tell if a tree will likely sprout from a cutting just by the way it grows.

The Huarango and Algarrobo forests of coastal Peru: rays of hope

James and Thibaud Aronson report from coastal Peru, where they travelled in December, with Oliver Whaley, of RBG Kew.

Yesterday, at our local market here in France, we saw Peruvian avocados. We’d seen them there before, and we don’t buy them. But we’d never really given them more than a passing thought. Now, having come back from coastal Peru, where they are grown, we have a very different outlook.

Passing through much of Peru’s southern coast is perhaps more interesting to geologists than ecologists. The tenuous ecological balance, and its rather checkered history since humans arrived, needs time to reveal its secrets. But the earth’s surface here is simply naked and laid out as for a desert geomorphology text book. An extension of the famous Atacama desert of northern Chile, it is one of the driest places on Earth, with an average annual rainfall of 0.3 mm, or barely more than one tenth of an inch.

Here more than in nearly any other desert, life is almost entirely confined to areas with some amount of moisture. As a result, the few river valleys that come down from the Andes form spectacular green ribbons among the dunes. They carry some water down from the rainstorms high in the mountains but the critical driver here is El Niño. It brings down tremendous amounts of water and sediment once every 6 to 15 years, thereby rejuvenating the whole system, and generating extremely fertile alluvial soils.

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The last remaining stretch of Prosopis limensis riparian forest near Copara, Ica region, southern Peru.

500 years ago, the river valleys were occupied by dense woodlands or veritable forests of Prosopis limensis (local name – Huarango), which is often misidentified as Prosopis pallida, teeming with wildlife in the canopy and understories. Today, most of the Prosopis are gone, the excellent charcoal produced from their wood having been used up to fuel the stream engines of the now defunct coastal railway and, more recently, for fast food chicken restaurants ‘pollo a la brasa’ and millions of barbecue fires in cities and roadside restaurants. Instead, one now sees vast monocultures of asparagus, avocadoes, and table grapes, producing cash crops for the North American and European export markets.

This story of deforestation is in fact almost complete, with nearly 99% of the original vegetation having been removed.

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There once were countless Prosopis trees such as this one, which has probably lived for a thousand years on this sand dune, near Copara.

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Most of them fell to the charcoal burners’ axes, and even though it is now forbidden to harvest firewood from live trees, illegal cutting continues, as seen here, 20 meters from the tree pictured above.

Depressing? Yes, but as engaged ecologists, we were also encouraged that change is happening; there is cause for hope. There are program in community-based restoration led by Ecoan underway in the high Andes, near Cuzco and environs, and science and conservation efforts underway at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s station at Oxapampa.

We were lucky to spend 10 days with Oliver Whaley, from RBG Kew, who has been instrumental in many of the first initiatives attempting to reverse some of the damage done on this arid coast and to find a new path that explicitly includes restoration. Particularly noteworthy is a partnership he’s brokered with the large agroindustry supply chain, including a giant supermarket chain where almost half of the UK buys its vegetables, and which is the destination of a high percentage of the region’s produce.

The agro-industries overcome the lack of reliable rainwater by installing intensive irrigation systems, which although highly efficient, are driving unsustainable expansion even as they produce spectacular crop harvests.

However, the coast also experiences strong winds coming from the coast year-round, which require that rows of trees be planted as windbreaks to shield the valuable crops. Furthermore security hedging today is almost entirely composed of introduced water-guzzling African or Asian exotics. Under Whaley’s in-farm reforestation  program, some producers have begun planting native Prosopis, Parkinsonia, and Acacia trees yielding a mixed forest instead, which provides habitat for wildlife and also improves the neighboring soils through their capacity to fix atmospheric nitrogen in symbiosis with rhizobacteria. They require far less water than introduced trees, and will never become weeds. Agroindustry management has also donated land for restoration corridors, a vitally important undertaking at the landscape scale that has not yet been well-explored in coastal Peru or other drylands.

The Kew Peru team planted 7,000 trees and shrubs of 15 native species derived from the degraded tiny relicts. The results have been nothing short of astounding, with over 70 new native plant species, 45 bird species, various lizards, desert fox and wild guinea pigs recolonizing areas that were nothing but barren soil 9 years ago. (The full results of this work will be published in the spring). Whaley takes a practical and patient view – whereby to nurture back woodland and a cultural re engagement with what nature provides takes time and needs to show results.

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A patch of restored land on the edge of an asparagus field, showing the difference 10 years make. Santiago de Ica, southern Peru.

Whaley and the local NGO, Conservamos por Naturaleza that he helped found and works closely with, is also committed to education and communication, working in Ica, Nasca, and elsewhere, to change people’s perception of the key desert plants such as Prosopis and Capparis, and their ecosystems, and of native biodiversity in general. Cultural reengagement, he argues, is about changing perception from symbols of a rural, backwards environment to be left behind in the wake of progress, to highly useful and valuable trees and woodlands that are part of the local heritage. These ecosystems clearly are worthy of pride, not only for their inherent value, but also because they offer the prospects of  sustainable, profitable agriculture that is also conservation-friendly.

The Huarango Festival in Ica, which focuses on the numerous products that can be extracted from the tree, such as algarrobina, a sweet spread, a sweet drink, high quality honey, ink, and more has been a large success, and is now in its eleventh year. Whaley also works with schools, working to restore small patches of native vegetation inside the school compounds and promoting ecological consciousness through small nurseries and gardening projects.

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Seedlings in a native species nursery funded by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, at the Faculty of Agronomy at the University of Ica.

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Middle school students in their school’s nursery, in a town near Ica, where they grow native species and food crops and have a great time doing it.

The other unique feature of the southern coast is an inland archipelago of sorts, made up of coastal fog oases, or lomas, in Spanish. Fed by the moisture provided by coastal fogs, they rise from the surrounding desert and harbor herbaceous vegetation and in some cases various kinds of trees, all of which show high rates of endemism. Most of the lomas are sadly threatened by mining and other uses today, but Whaley has already succeeded in helping protect the new national reserve of Lomas San Fernando. This and other efforts , such as drone surveys and modelling, are conducted with help from Kew GIS staff, and Whaley’s team in Peru that includes Alfonso Orellana, Consuelo Borda, Ana Juarez and other dedicated workers. They are currently doing the baseline research in two other lomas reserves to help strengthen the case for protected area status.

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The amazing vegetation supported almost entirely by coastal fogs in the Lomas de Atiquipa, home to an endemic very endangered Myrtaceae:  Myrcianthes ferreyrae.

 

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A female Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), in the Lomas de San Fernando reserve, the only place in Peru where this raptor roosts near sea level.

Whaley and his co-workers are also engaged in restoration efforts the tropical northern coast of Peru, where the circumstances are rather different. The north coast receives significantly more rainfall than the south, i.e., about 100 mm per year (!), that is 4 inches. This permits the vegetation to climb out of the river valleys, and in fact, the local Algarrobo (Prosopis pallida and in the extreme North only P. juliflora along with hybrids between the two), and Capparis species, among others, still form true woodlands. Traditionally, the trees were preserved by the local people as their leaves and in particular their pods are remarkably nutritive, and provide prime forage for free-ranging cattle, the peoples’ primary source of income.

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The remarkable woodlands dominated by Prosopis pallida (Algarrobo), in the Pomac Forest Sanctuary, Lambayeque Region, northern Peru.

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The Algarrobo trees have been preserved in large part because they provide excellent forage for the local people’s cattle.

However, a still poorly understood plague, apparently resulting from the combination of a small fly and a fungus, are decimating the woodlands; in some areas over 80% of the Algarrobo have apparently died. Just like in the South, El Niño is paramount in keeping the system healthy and, in particular, no Prosopis seedlings have been seen germinating in the last 50 years, except during El Niño years. What’s more, the next El Niño event is overdue: the last one came in 1997/1998, and now the system appears exhausted. Clearly the system is waiting for the next El Niño, and the long wait appears to have increased the Algarrobo’s vulnerability to the plague.

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Severe Prosopis pallida dieback, near Talara, Piura region.

However, El Niño is coming this year, and according to the climate experts, it’s going to be a big one. As a result, Whaley and his team are scrambling to prepare as many Prosopis seeds as possible, to be sown during or right after the heavy rains. As the trees slowly dying from the plague usually fail to set seed, Whaley and his collaborators fear that much of the soil seed bank is exhausted and this could truly be the last chance for this species in its wild state.

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A seed-ball with 4 native species, including Algarrobo, being prepared at a community nursery, near Salas, Lambayeque region.

Now there is an additional layer to the issue, which asks of would-be restorationists exactly what it is that they are trying to do. There hasn’t been nearly as much deforestation in Peru’s North coast as in the South, so there are still reasonably large tracts of native vegetation left intact. Further, apart from Algarrobo, none of the other five dominant native tree species, including two species of Capparis,  appear to be affected in any way by the plague.  Domestic cattle will also eat the leaves of these other trees and shrubs, though they aren’t quite as good as the Prosopis.

Therefore, some might say that this is just a natural transition occurring within an ecosystem, and it would be foolish, or even a case of trying to play God, to attempt to save the Prosopis at all costs. However, Whaley thinks differently, and we agree with him. The Algarrobo, like the Huarango, is a remarkable tree, fantastically well adapted to its environment, capable of living 1000 years of more, and clearly the keystone species of the riparian and related ecosystems where it occurs.

It forms remarkable canopies, and in areas where it is absent, we did not see the other tree species present produce anything like it, rather forming a much more open low savanna. Further, it has been a pillar of the various civilizations that have existed in the area for the last 4000 years. Therefore, Whaley is not yet ready to just let it go…

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A thousand-year old Prosopis pallida in the Pomac Forest Sanctuary, possibly the oldest of its kind still alive in northern Peru…

 

Hill of Honey: Forest Recovery on Madagascar’s Central Highlands

This post was co-written by Leighton Reid and Chris Birkinshaw after a three-day field trip in the tampoketsa with Cyprien Mandriamanana and Jeannie Raharimampionona.

A narrow, paved road winds north from Antananarivo through a high, windswept plain. It is the wet season, and the hills are green and close-cropped, but in the long dry season the landscape burns black. Orange rivers wind through the valleys, muddied by massive erosion. Here and there are thin strips of riparian forest, chock full of endemic species.

The biggest chunk of remaining forest is Ambohitantely, Malagasy for “hill of honey”. Ambohitantely encompasses 1,800 ha of humid forest (about three times the size of Saint Louis’s Forest Park). We visited the reserve to observe natural forest recovery in one of the few places it can still be seen on Madagascar’s Central Highlands.

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Ambohitantely: the last large tract of forest on Madagascar’s Central Highlands. Ten kilometers to the northwest is Ankafobe, a much smaller forest fragment managed by a local community with assistance from Missouri Botanical Garden.

Forest transition feedback

Why is forest recovery so rare in the Malagasy highlands? Madagascar’s Central Highlands are currently undergoing a complete ecological transition, from forest and wooded savanna to grassland. The degradation cycle often starts when people cut forest trees to extract wood for timber and charcoal production. Small-scale cutting opens the canopy, dries the forest floor, and creates debris, all of which increase forest vulnerability to annual wildfires that sweep across the grasslands during the eight month dry season. C4 grasses quickly colonize the burned land, inhibiting forest recovery, and creating ideal conditions for future fires. The reason that Ambohitantely has natural forest recovery for us to observe is because reserve staff maintain a wide fire break for more than thirty kilometers around the reserve.

Our guide at Ambohitantely took us on a hike through several areas where forest had once been cleared and burned but where fire had been excluded for 15 or 25 years, allowing the forest to begin to recover. Frankly, the vegetation was uninspiring. Low shrubs and forbs were scattered through a matrix of C4 grass (mostly Aristida), but trees and tree seedlings were nowhere to be seen outside of the forest (where they were abundant). By tropical forest standards, this looked slow. But for natural forest recovery on the Central Highlands, it’s hard to imagine a better situation than being protected from fire and immediately adjacent to the largest remaining tract of forest.

Ambohitantely forest edge

After 25 years of recovery, forest edges were sharp. Tree seedlings were almost totally restricted to forest, and grasses dominated the ground layer just outside.

Our main interest in Ambohitantely was to compare natural forest recovery there to our observations at another forest fragment, Ankafobe, 10 km northwest. For the last decade, MBG has partnered with a local community to preserve a thin, riparian forest containing several critically endangered plant species. Community members constructed a fire break and have begun to restore the surrounding hillsides by turning over the orange clay and planting fast-growing legumes to develop the soil.

Ankafobe hillside with Schizolaena

A degraded hillside at Ankafobe; the remnant forest is down the hill to the right, near the edge of the photo. The tree at the top of the hill is Schizolaena tampoketsana, a critically endangered microendemic in an endemic Malagasy plant family (Sarcolaenaceae). It is a remnant forest tree that likely escaped repeated fires by being nestled in a deep, protective gully. The multi-stemmed shrub in the foreground is actually a large tree species, Brexia montana, which has likely resprouted many times from a well-developed root system.

Some of our comparative observations were promising. We were happy to find examples at Ambohitantely where recovering land dominated by heather and blueberry seemed to have continued developing into a more diverse thicket, including Nuxia capitata, Psiadia altissima, and Razafimandimbisonia minor. At Ankafobe, we had worried that the heather growing in some areas signified poor soil conditions and possibly arrested development.

Overall our visit left us with more questions than answers. We hope to answer at least a couple of them over the coming years.

  • Why is natural forest recovery so slow on the Central Highlands?
  • Has it always been this slow?
  • Are Malagasy tree species poor pioneers because of their long, relatively stable evolutionary ecological history?
  • Is there any way to make Malagasy trees grow any faster on the degraded grasslands?1
  • Are the fire-stoking C4 grasses introduced from east Africa rather than being native species?
  • If so, when?
  • Is the soil too far gone to ever recover?
  • How important were now-extinct seed dispersers and grazers, like 200-kg lemurs and elephant birds?

Ambohitantely cloud cover

Although Ambohitantely is the only remnant forest fragment of any size, we learned recently that it may not be a perfect reference system for Ankafobe. For one thing, Ambohitantely is slightly higher and farther east, which results in considerably greater cloud cover during the dry season. This probably ameliorates the harsh conditions outside of the forest, at least a little. Shown here is cloud frequency from May – October, taken from NOAA MODIS satellite imagery. Thanks, Michael Douglas!

References

Goodman, S.M. & Jungers, W.L. 2014. Extinct Madagascar: Picturing the Island’s Past. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Pareliussen, I., Olsson, E.G.A. & Armbruster, W.S. 2006. Factors Limiting the Survival of Native Tree Seedlings Used in Conservation Efforts at the Edges of Forest Fragments in Upland Madagascar. Restoration Ecology 14: 196-203.

1Two datasets (one from our team and one from Pareliussen et al’s [2006]) suggest that NPK fertilizer, even in relatively small doses, reduces native tree seedling performance. It is unclear whether this is because of toxicity (a direct effect) or because other plants, like shrubs, are better able to utilize the nutrient pulse and then compete more strongly against the native tree seedlings (an indirect effect).

El Niño’d: tropical field research when climate won’t sit still

Steve Roels is a PhD candidate in the Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University. His research asks how trophic cascades interact with tropical forest restoration. When not in Panama, he enjoys documenting biodiversity and restoring native vegetation on his own 6.2 acres of Michigan.

Tropical field biology has a lot of uncertainty built into it. The scientific community is still barely scratching the surface of tropical biodiversity and the immense complexity of biotic interactions (relationships between organisms). Biologists, myself included, often get lulled into thinking of the tropical climate as a stable abiotic backdrop that lies behind the great drama of biotic interactions. But what happens when those abiotic conditions change abruptly and dramatically?

The current El Niño event in the Pacific is now regarded by meteorologists as one of, if not the, strongest El Niño events ever recorded. The North American media understandably focuses on how El Niños affect our continent; usually wetter West Coast winters and dryer, warmer Midwest winters. What many North Americans don’t realize is that El Niño events have their most profound effects on Pacific countries in the tropics.

El Niños are one extreme of a much larger climate pattern, the Southern Oscillation. The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is an erratic seesaw of Pacific surface water temperatures from warm to cool (La Niña events) and back again. Temperature swings from one extreme to the other occur every few years (on average about 5) and “the switch” is often flipped very abruptly, shifting ocean currents, air pressure, and precipitation throughout the eastern Pacific. It is important to keep in mind that ENSO events are not “bad” per se, just different, and that creates biological winners and losers.

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Strong El Niño conditions in the eastern Pacific during my field season. Image from: www.ncdc.noaa.gov.

In central Panama, where I research bird communities in forest restorations, El Niño conditions generally bring warm coastal waters and drought. I say “generally” because each El Niño is like a snowflake—there are some basic patterns, but every event is unique. This El Niño is sticking to the pattern: central Panama is currently experiencing a severe drought and creating headaches for many of my colleagues at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). The drought has played havoc with the frog biologists, who are waiting for mating frogs, who have, in turn, often been waiting for rain. Coral researchers are scrambling as abnormally warm waters cause coral bleaching. However, some scientists view this El Niño as an opportunity because it could be considered a proxy for future climate. The El Niño is compounding the warming effects of global climate change, putting 2015 on track to be the warmest year on record. A friend of mine who studies tree physiology and water use in forest restorations says she is getting great data. After all, a key challenge for restoration ecology is deciding what we restore to. An ecosystem that tries to match what was formerly present? Or one that will continue to thrive in an uncertain future?

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The Agua Salud restoration site. The blocks of vegetation in the landscape are different experimental tree planting treatments. Lake Gatun, part of the Panama Canal, lies in the haze on the horizon. Lake levels are anticipated to drop to record lows this dry season.

The effects of current El Niño on my own research are difficult to assess. I study trophic cascades (basically, ripples in food webs) at STRI’s Agua Salud forest restoration project, especially focusing on birds, insects, and trees. I conducted an experiment this past July-August, which is normally the heart of the wet season, but was instead a historic drought. How this drought effected tree growth, insect populations, and bird behavior—all components of my study—is hard to say. Prior research on ENSO effects on trophic relationships is limited (it’s hard to plan research around an unpredictable and irregular event!) but some long-term studies have found large ENSO effects on food webs in Panama and Chile.

When I returned to the United States after my field season and talked with my research advisor about the uncertainty the El Niño brought to my study, she said, “You’re going to hate me for saying it…” I replied, “I already know what you’re going to say.” Maybe I need to do the experiment again next year.

Dhofar: Oman’s vertical fog oasis on the edge of the unknown

James and Thibaud Aronson report from Dhofar, in southern Arabia. This remarkable region is a biogeographical and historical crossroads at a critical moment of change.

The Sultanate of Oman doesn’t figure on most people’s mental map. But once told that it sits on the southeastern rim of the Arabian Peninsula, between Yemen to the west, and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to the north, they may visualize an endless sea of sand with pack camels ambling towards an oasis dotted with date palms. A large part of the country – which is half the size of France – does look like this and is part of the fabled Empty Quarter of Arabia – Rub al Khali.  But we have come here to see Dhofar, the monsoon-affected and heavily wooded fog oasis that harbors some of the most unexpected and spectacular landscapes and ecosystems in arid lands worldwide.

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One of the beautiful landscapes of Dhofar, southern Oman, in the remote Wadi Ahjawt.

From mid-June to mid-September, every year, Dhofar is thoroughly drenched by the southwesterly monsoon – khareef in Arabic. Not what you expect in a desert region! The steady stream of drizzle and fog, aka “horizontal precipitation”, during this period recharges hundreds of springs and temporary rivers (wadis in Arabic), supporting dense, lush woodlands and forests on the south-facing slopes, dominated by large and varied trees more typical of east and north-east Africa. This constitutes a giant vertical oasis of sorts, but as the monsoon goes over the ridgetops, it is stopped by the hot desert winds coming from the interior and the vegetation transitions to a sparse desert scrub in a matter of meters, in one of the best illustrations of an ecotone – or ecological frontier – imaginable.

The stark contrast between the slopes which receive the monsoon fogs, and the plateaux beyond the escarpments, where the moisture is stopped by the desert wind. Djebel al Qamr, near the Yemeni border.

The stark contrast between the slopes which receive the monsoon fogs, and the plateau beyond the escarpments, where the moisture is stopped by the desert wind. Jebel al Qamr, near the Yemeni border.

It is there, right on the threshold of the desert, that are found the Boswellia sacra trees that produce the finest frankincense in the world. This tree resin was one of the most prized commodities in ancient times, throughout Asia, Europe, and Arabia, and it is still highly prized today for many uses, including incense, ritual ceremonies, bath oils, and perfumes.

A wild Boswellia sacra tree in Wadi Aful.

A wild Boswellia sacra tree in Wadi Aful.

Indeed, two thousand years ago, Oman was the meeting point for maritime traders and spice caravans, who traded between the Mediterranean region, east Africa, India, and China. They came to Dhofar to buy the Frankincense harvested by the Jibbali tribes of the escarpments, who to this day manage the Boswellia trees in a sophisticated agro-forestry system, where the ownership of each tree is carefully recorded. You can read about this in detail in Gary Nabhan’s excellent book, Camels, Cumin and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey.

Moreover, as one would expect in such a major historical crossroad, there are many intriguing questions here, for those with an interest in human ecology. For example, Wadi Hinna, connecting the coastal foothills east of Salalah and Jebel Qara, hosts a beautiful population of very old baobab trees, as well as equally ancient tamarind trees. Are they relicts, the last remnants of once much larger populations, or were they brought here as seeds or young transplants by traders and returning travelers hundreds of years ago? Together with our colleagues at the Oman Botanic Garden, we are working on a study of these and other enigmatic trees of Arabia, on which we will report more in due course.

Ancient baobab trees (Adansonia digitata) in Wadi Hinna, eastern Dhofar, the only population of the species found in Oman.

Ancient baobab trees (Adansonia digitata) in Wadi Hinna, eastern Dhofar, the only population of the species found in Oman.

Equally ancient Tamarind trees (Tamarindus indica) in Wadi Hinna,

Equally old tamarind trees (Tamarindus indica) in Wadi Hinna,

and in Wadi Ahjawt. These are often the sign of ancient human settlements.

and in Wadi Ahjawt. Both these trees are often found near ancient human settlements.

Besides its value for traders, Oman’s geographic position also makes it a genuine biogeographical crossroad for fauna and flora. Indeed, thanks to the monsoon, the humid slopes and wadis of Dhofar may be home to one of the last remnants of a belt of seasonally dry tropical forest that once stretched from sub-Saharan Africa to India, but which was almost entirely severed as Arabia became drier. Indeed, among the 900 species of plants found there, Dhofar hosts quite a few species whose nearest relatives – or populations of the same species, are more than 1000 km away, across the Red Sea in Africa or otherwise found only in India, Pakistan and Iran. There is also quite a large number of plants that are unique to the region, with over sixty endemic species and 2 genera endemic to Dhofar.  For animals, it is also a haven for many species, such as the critically endangered Arabian leopard, and the fascinating Arabian chameleon.

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The beautiful desert rose (Adenium obesum, Apocynaceae), which is in fact related to the common oleander.

The beautiful desert rose (Adenium obesum) which is related to the common oleander.

The Arabian chameleon (Chamaeleo arabicus), found only in Dhofar and southern Yemen.

The Arabian chameleon (Chamaeleo arabicus), found only in Dhofar and southern Yemen.

However, despite its lush appearance, Dhofar’s vegetation is not doing well, for many reasons. This – like much of the world – is a region in transition. Over-grazing is worse than ever. Throughout the Middle East – and Africa, it is a sign of status for a man to have a large herd of animals. However, many Omanis today actually hold sedentary jobs in the cities and simply employ shepherds – often from Bengal, Pakistan or Bangladesh – to look after their livestock for a very small wage. Further, they feed the animals fodder, which is subsidized by the government and which is of dubious value long-term. This enables them to maintain their herds at unsustainably large numbers, and as they roam over the slopes, the cattle, goats and camels graze the vegetation well past the threshold of sustainability. As a result, in many areas, you will see trees with no leaves under 3 m (the height camels can reach), with additional branches cut, bent and often broken to bring them within reach of the domestic animals, and an understory cropped to less than one cm above ground level.

The effect of large, essentially uncontrolled herds of camels and other browsers on an Omani landscape.

The effect of large, essentially uncontrolled herds of camels and other browsers on an Omani landscape.

Note the 3m high browse line, marking the limit of the camel’s reach into the tree canopy and the all but extinguished understory.

Note the 3m high browse line, marking the limit of the camel’s reach into the tree canopy and the all but extinguished understory.

Farmers then go further by breaking higher branches to bring them within reach of the animals. This technique, which can be applied with varying degrees of care, is illustrated here with a particularly unsustainable example.

Shepherds then go further by breaking higher branches of trees, in this case the dominant species Anogeissus dhofarica, to bring them within reach of domestic animals. This technique, which can be applied with varying degrees of care, is illustrated here with a particularly regrettable example.

When the animals are kept out, as we saw in a few fenced off plots maintained by the Department of Forestry, you see instead rapid regrowth of tall native grasses, often over a meter high, hopping with insects and birds, in amazing contrast to the silent, rocky moonscape outside the exclosure. This is actually an interesting problem, from a restoration perspective. Indeed, as recently as the 1980s, parts of Dhofar were dominated by tall grasslands, the easternmost extension of a habitat type more characteristic of East Africa. These are the ecosystems most affected by the increasing grazing pressure and today they are all but gone. However, according to Dr. Annette Patzelt, Director of the Oman Botanic Garden, it is likely that these grasslands were anthropogenic, and only arose following local clearing of woodland and forest. Therefore, did they exist for long enough to become an integral part of the Dhofari landscapes, which would make them a valid target for restoration, or should they instead be abandoned, to focus on the woodlands they replaced?

The only way to prove the effects of livestock on a landscape is to keep the animals out. The result speaks for itself.

The only way to prove the effects of overstocking livestock on a desert landscape is to keep the animals out. In Dhofar, the result speaks for itself.

Dhofar faces other problems as well, such as rampant road building and urbanization. But it is conceivable that better policies relating to further development could be implemented and accepted with relative ease.  This issue of livestock, however, is a systemic problem pertaining to people’s perception of themselves and their relationship to land, which is a lot more complex to address and change.

One ray of hope is the terrific work in education and outreach being done by the team at the Oman Botanic Garden, who are documenting the flora and vegetation of the whole country and tracking its changes over recent times. They are also learning how to propagate hundreds of native species that have never before been cultivated as they prepare a monumental desert park and garden that will demonstrate all the ecosystems found in the country and help Omanis to better understand the richness of their country’s natural heritage. It is a first step for desert ecosystem restoration, which is emerging not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world.

Post-Mine restoration, the Gondwana Link, and SER Australasia – helping Australia transition towards a restoration culture

In their fourth and last report from arid Australia, James and Thibaud Aronson discuss promising approaches and programs squarely facing the conservation issues that threaten western Australian ecosystems.

Nothing is simple these days: everything is subject to trade-offs. For example, take Australia’s mining industry. The country has long drawn on its enormous mineral wealth, which sustains a significant part of its economic growth. But this takes a huge toll on biodiversity. Kingsley Dixon, with whom we spent a week in the field, helped us understand the situation, and noted that the miners do not have a very good track record of cleaning up after themselves. Today, there are around 50,000 abandoned mines in Australia – sad testimony to the boom and bust pattern that seems to characterize all too many extractive industries everywhere.  However, the pioneering work of Kingsley and his colleagues and students, in the areas of seed science, conservation biology, and restoration ecology, is helping advance the science and technology of restoration. This is difficult business under any circumstances, but especially so in a biodiversity hotspot. He is also extremely active in trying to persuade the mining industry and Australian government to do more and do it better in these areas.

Dr. Kingsley Dixon with a Eucalyptus leucophloia. Pilbara region, Western Australia.

Dr. Kingsley Dixon with a Eucalyptus leucophloia. Pilbara region, Western Australia.

The Mt Whaleback mine has been producing iron ore for nearly fifty years. The pit is half a kilometer deep and 5 kilometers long, and growing. Kingsley Dixon and his team are now involved in a project to restore parts of the site.

The Mt Whaleback mine, in Western Australia, has been producing iron ore for nearly fifty years. The pit is half a kilometer deep and 5 kilometers long, and growing. Kingsley Dixon and his team are now involved in a project to restore parts of the site.

This photo, taken on the other side of the mine, shows the first step of restoration. This involves reshaping the slopes, from the steep ones seen on the right, to gentler ones on the left, which are suitable for planting. This has already cost 1 million dollars.

This photo, taken on the other side of the mine, shows the first step of restoration. This involves reshaping the slopes, from the steep ones seen on the right, to gentler ones on the left, which are suitable for planting. This has already cost 1 million dollars. (And, make no mistake, just about every plant growing on the slopes on the right are exotic invasives.)

Happily, despite the complexity and the obstacles, a few Australian conservation organizations are also engaged in ecological restoration – whether at the site level, or much broader scales.

Many people told us that Australians are truly proud of their unique natural heritage, and the “outback”; it only remains for the government to play a larger role, and support those who are already working towards sustainability and a restoration culture.

One of the largest players is the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), linked in a small way to the US-based organization, The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The AWC is making significant investments not only in land acquisition for conservation but also conservation research and outreach to the public.

Another example of an outstanding initiative is the 13-year old Gondwana Link, a unique and inspiring venture in the southwest. Indeed, they aim to create a biodiversity corridor 1000 km long, spanning 8 different ecosystem types. We spent several days with Keith Bradby, Chief Executive Officer of Gondwana Link, as well as Mike Griffiths, recently posted to Kalgoorlie, and veteran consultant and restoration practitioner US- born Justin Jonson, learning about the wonderfully exciting work of this coalition. They work both by acquiring pristine fragments, as well as degraded land which they restore, to provide connections between patches of habitat protected in national parks. But even more than their goals, it is their approach that is unique. Instead of coming in and telling everyone who isn’t a conservationist they they’re wrong and evil, they work with the miners, and the farmers, and the various NGOS, to achieve a vision of the landscape where humans and biodiversity can co-exist. For more information, see the chapter on Gondwana Link in Paddy Woodworth’s book Our Once and Future Planet , the first book to present the world-wide scene of ecological restoration to the general public.

The gorgeous Great Western Woodlands, near Norseman, Western Australia.

The gorgeous Great Western Woodlands, near Norseman, Western Australia.

They also have a strong commitment to work with Aboriginal Traditional Owners, of both the Ngadju and Noongar peoples. Aboriginal Australians represent only 3% of the national population of 24,000,000, but finally, and bit by bit, justice is being done. Following the 1993 Native Title Act, and 18 years of shameful litigation, Aboriginal Australians are at last being granted “native title” in their own land, and control a growing percentage of Australian outback. On these recovered lands, some communities are trying to reconcile their truly ancient traditions with sound ecological management appropriate to the new lifestyles they have taken up, and the future they desire for themselves.

Another remarkable actor is the 400 – strong Australasian chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SERA), led by its chair Kingsley Dixon. The challenges they face are daunting, but important and encouraging steps forward are being taken and the network is successfully raising money and doing projects. If one’s government is not helping, after all – as is the case with the current administration in Australia, social networks – of people and institutions – are the key. As we noted in our blogpost from Jordan, last April, another source of hope is the Ecological Restoration Alliance of Botanic Gardens.

To conclude, as Paul Hawken notes in Blessed Unrest,

If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart.

What unnamed movement? He was referring to the thousands of independent non-governmental groups of people working for joint environmental and social change – not one or the other, but both.

As we discovered, in Australia there are plenty of clear-eyed people in conservation and restoration who do have a heart and who are working for what we would call a restoration culture for the 21st century. There: that’s a name then for the unnamed movement of this century that Hawkins referred to.