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Photo Credit: Andrea Turkalo
by Rachel Penrod and Dr. Michelle Gadd
International borders hold significant weight in determining the activities of the people within them, and the state of the habitats and species they surround. The study of borders created by human societies and their ramifications is a subject for anthropology, not conservation biology. Yet conservation cannot be achieved successfully without a full understanding of how artificial boundaries interact with the wildlife whose ranges fall across them.
The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is typical of an animal that does not acknowledge international boundaries. Elephants once occurred in virtually all of sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, elephants inhabit 37 African countries. Elephant distribution is influenced by the availability of food and water, by security in protected areas, and even by social relationships among elephants. Individual elephants may move hundreds of miles from season to season, and their home ranges can extend more than 7,700 miles2 (2,000 kilometers2). In a given year, a single elephant may move from a low-lying wetland to a high, arid plateau. These essential movements take elephants from park to park and country to country, with no regard for boundaries.
But their conservation status and level of protection varies wildly from country to country. In some places, these animals are secure and well-protected, while in others, they are constantly at risk from poaching. Management policies also vary from one country to its neighbor, with some allowing trophy hunting and others strictly forbidding it. Some countries have locally high elephant densities and are under pressure to cull animals to prevent habitat degradation. Other countries have severely diminished elephant populations due to decades of war, civil unrest, or weak law enforcement and are seeking to reintroduce elephants from elsewhere.
Elephants are also hunted for their meat. Internationally, they are desired for the ivory of their tusks (which are actually large incisor teeth). At the same time, elephant habitat is rapidly changing, subject to the transformations that accompany human population growth and economic development. Add to this the challenges of a changing climate; elephant food plants may shift north or south, elephant home ranges may move accordingly, and they may be forced to use migration paths or to recolonize parts of their former range. The parks arbitrarily designated for them may no longer contain ideal habitat, and the elephants may have to move elsewhere to survive.
This story is not unique to the elephant. Take the situation described here and repeat it a thousand times, or ten thousand times, across the globe. Repeat it as many times as there are species that historically ranged across the barriers separating people with different laws, customs, and languages. Or, perhaps more challenging, repeat this situation as many times as there are species affected by far-ranging environmental damage, particularly when it is caused by countries outside the species’ range. Now, step into the shoes of a government agency attempting to work successfully across these borders and you will begin to understand the magnitude of the challenge we face in conserving wildlife internationally.
Photo Credit: Joe Milmoe
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Without Borders program cannot redraw human boundaries to coincide with ecoregions, nor can it resolve the political differences that exist among countries, states, or communities whose borders affect wildlife. But we can work with local people to help them see beyond borders, beyond politics, and beyond culture when they look at the animals that share their habitat. We can support the efforts of these people and those of experts working for our partners in the conservation community, large and small, to create ways for both people and wildlife to thrive.
The Wildlife Without Borders species programs, many of which are driven by congressional acts mandating conservation of certain important species, fight the acute “five alarm fires” of conservation. But Wildlife Without Borders recognizes that if we invest all of our resources in fighting fires, we will never address the long-term issues underlying conservation problems. The Wildlife Without Borders regional programs complement the species programs by addressing core problems having to do with human capacity building, increasing the capability of people to effectively address conservation issues in the habitats within which they live. You don’t build human capacity overnight, but it has to be part of any solution.
The United States can’t do this alone. For this reason, the Wildlife Without Borders global program works through international accords, and with global institutions, to address cross-cutting conservation issues collaboratively. So far, the Wildlife Without Borders species, regional, and global programs have worked with nearly 600 partners, while providing more than $90 million for wildlife conservation beyond our own borders.
Rachel Penrod, outreach coordinator for the FWS Division of International Conservation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Michelle Gadd, Africa program officer in the FWS Division of International Conservation, can be reached at email@example.com.
For more information on Wildlife Without Borders, please visit our webpage at www.fws.gov/international/DIC/dic_home.html
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