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Earth Day – Climate Crisis

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

How DSWF supported projects are impacted by the climate crisis.

All of the ground-based projects that DSWF supports are suffering from the impacts of climate change.  Below are just a few examples of the profound challenges that they are dealing with, which have disastrous consequences for wildlife and human alike.

Image credit: John Harris

In Thailand, the impacts of climate change, including sustained drier and hotter periods, have led to a significant increase in the frequency and severity of forest fires.  This is further exacerbated by fires deliberately started by villages to clear undergrowth which they believe stimulates mushroom growth, which are now increasingly likely to burn out of control.  The fires are destroying the forest structure so all that remains are invasive grasses, palms and bamboo. These do not provide a deep root system required for water retention and consequently flash floods have become an issue, along with drought during the dry season.  Villagers are increasingly vulnerable to this flooding and have less access to the forest products they rely on, and the forests are no longer ideal habitats for tigers and their prey. Our project partners on the ground are working with communities to increase awareness of their impacts on the forest and to encourage and incentivise more sustainable practices, and to set up community initiatives on reforestation and to restore watersheds to mitigate some of these destructive climate impacts.

Our project protecting tigers in Siberia is also suffering from an increase in extreme weather events as a result of climate change.  In recent years, summer months have seen more intense fires and a lengthening fire season, and catastrophic floods caused by unprecedentedly severe storms, made even worse by the impacts of the fires.  Winter conditions are also increasingly uncertain, with more frequent warmer and snowless summers but with abundant snowfall in other years.  This increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather is terrible for tigers, and even more deadly for many of the prey species they rely on to survive, such as several species of deer which are very vulnerable to climate impacts.

Image credit: Snow Leopard Trust/ SLCF – Kyrgyzstan

In Mongolia, where our ground-based partners work to protect snow leopards, there have been significant changes in rainfall patterns in the South Gobi area, with 2021 and 2022 being very dry.  Temperatures have also increased here much faster than the global average, and once fertile land is increasingly lost to desertification.  Snow leopard prey such as ibex and argali are increasingly forced to move to higher altitudes to find better grazing, meaning the snow leopards must follow them, often to less suitable and smaller habitats.  Local herders have also been forced to move their livestock to pastures at higher elevations, up to 300 kilometres away from their homes in some instances.  Domestic sheep and goats are increasingly in direct competition with snow leopard prey for good grasses, and as wild prey populations of ibex and argali decline, snow leopards are more likely to predate on livestock and then suffer from retaliatory killings.  This is disastrous not only for the big cats but also for local herders and the communities they support, who contribute so little to climate change but who are most vulnerable to its impacts.

In another of our projects that protects snow leopards, in Kyrgyzstan, the impacts of climate change are just as bleak and disastrous for the cats and local people alike. Lack of water due to reduced rain and snow, rapidly decreasing glaciers, and record-high temperatures are increasing the frequency and severity of mass die-offs of wildlife. In 2022, the Sarychat Ertash Nature Reserve estimates that approximately 900 argali and 500 ibex died as a result of an unprecedented heatwave, dramatically reducing the snow leopard’s prey base.

How DSWF is tackling the climate crisis 

DSWF helps to protect 178,000 square kilometers of wildlife habitat across Africa and Asia. These habitats vary enormously and include savannahs, wetlands, deserts and rainforests. In addition to protecting the endangered wildlife which live there through anti-poaching patrols, our support is vital for the protection and restoration of these habitats, crucially important as competition for land and natural resources intensifies.  

Image credit: Chimpanzee Conservation Center

The importance of habitat protection

Protecting these habitats is crucially important in tackling climate change.  The forests we help protect, ranging from the tropical forests of south-east Asia to the boreal forests of Siberia, are hugely important carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide that would otherwise further contribute to the climate crisis.

As well as contributing on a global scale, habitat restoration provides huge benefits to communities by helping them adapt to and cope with the impacts of climate change. For example, in Guinea our partners on the ground have planted over 6,000 trees in previously degraded areas, helping reduce the impacts of flooding, reducing soil erosion, and stabilizing the water cycle, providing clean water for local people.  Similarly, in Uganda our project partner’s program to plant indigenous trees in watercourses has made a significant difference in improving soil quality and water retention.

The role of wildlife

Protecting wildlife also helps the fight against climate crisis in some surprising ways.  Forest elephants play a huge role in shaping the ecosystems they live in.  Elephants, with their huge appetites, thin out vegetation and reduce the number of small trees, helping in turn encourage the growth of taller trees with a wider diameter, which have a greater capacity to store carbon.  Research by the International Monetary Fund has shown that a single African forest elephant can increase the carbon storage of African rainforests by 9,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per kilometer.  The carbon value of a single forest elephant is estimated by the IMF to be $1.75m.  Projects funded by DSWF help protect elephants and their habitats across Africa and Asia, including in Thailand, India, Vietnam, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. 

Elephants are just one of many keystone species who play this crucially import role of ‘ecosystem engineer’.  Large herbivores in particular help increase carbon stocks in soil, roots and plants by dispersing seeds, managing vegetation through grazing and browsing, and fertilizing the soil.   They can also reduce the risk of forest fires by browsing on vegetation that could potentially cause out of control fires, and trampling gaps in the bush which act as firebreaks. 

Image credit: Gareth Thomas

Education and community engagement is key

Education is key in helping people, especially future generations, understand the importance of the climate crisis and what they can do to help prevent it.  Children who take part in our immersive eco-camps in Mongolia learn about the impact climate change is already having on their home region, and gain a greater understanding of ecosystems, ecology and other topics related to conservation and protecting the environment.  In eco-camps we support in Kyrgyzstan, children are also given the practical skills to take climate action by being taught to plant trees, giving them a positive and personal attachment to their local nature.

In Zambia, our ground-based partner’s conservation club curriculum and Wildlife Discovery Centre have an equally strong focus on giving children an awareness of climate change issues.  The local curriculum does not teach children about the climate and environmental issues, so this fills a very important gap. Evidence shows that the children who take part in these education programs have a greater understanding of climate change and environmental issues and become advocates for climate action within their family and wider communities.

Image credit: Game Rangers International

DSWF funded education and community projects also help people understand their own impacts on the environment and natural resources, and crucially, provide them with alternative livelihoods that are not based on natural resource extraction. For example, in Guinea, communities living near our project area traditionally burn the forest to facilitate hunting, honey collecting, and wild fruit harvesting, contributing to biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. We are supporting a beekeeping project that is providing a more profitable and sustainable alternative to the harvesting of wild honey, and a gardening project to give local people easy access to nutritious fruit and vegetables, further reducing the impact on the forest.  Developing positive relationships with the communities also means they are now more likely to report illegal logging activities in the forest, leading to a significant reduction.

Renewable technology used by our projects

Increasingly, the projects we support on the ground are starting to use low carbon and renewable technologies to further reduce their climate change impact.  The facilities in the Shamshy Nature Reserve in Kyrgyzstan where our summer eco-camp programs are held are powered by solar.  In Zambia, our project partners use solar and hydro power across all their facilities, a bio-digester at the Wildlife Discovery Centre, and they offset their remaining carbon footprint.  They have also provided over 60 households in the local community with solar power.  In Uganda, where we work to protect lions and elephants and many other species in Murchison Falls National Park, ranger stations are also increasingly powered by solar.  In Vietnam, our project partners have cut out the use of single use plastics entirely across all of their operations.

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Andrew White
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

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