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10.2: Maintaining Complex and Adaptive Ecosystems

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    Even when monitoring data show that an ecosystem is healthy, management is often required to maintain those desired conditions. That is because very few ecosystems are completely free of human influences. For example, rivers and streams carry pollutants far beyond the point of contamination (Section 7.1) and roads acting as firebreaks suppress natural fire regimes. Today, even the most isolated patches of habitats may not be completely protected from the influences of global processes such as climate change. To maintain complex and adaptive ecosystems, conservation biology is guided by four complementary management principles: (1) maintain ecosystem processes, (2) minimise external threats, (3) be adaptive, and (4) be minimally intrusive.

    Maintaining critical ecosystem processes

    Ecologists generally divide ecosystem processes into four disparate yet interdependent categories: water cycling, nutrient cycling (which include the carbon and nitrogen cycle), energy flow, and community dynamics. The linkages between these processes create feedback loops, where changes in one factor may be amplified elsewhere. Maintaining ecosystem processes is thus very important because small, seemingly small, changes can have major impacts on biological communities.

    The water cycle

    The water cycle refers to the distribution of water through an ecosystem, and includes the absorption and distribution of water vapour, rainwater, and surface water in lakes, rivers, and oceans. Since much of the water cycle happens out of sight and is generally associated with large-scale phenomena, such as weather patterns and anthropogenic climate change, land managers sometimes fail to recognize how local factors influence the water cycle. This is a grave mistake; many deadly ecological disasters (e.g. desertification, flooding, and landslides) can be attributed to disturbances to the water cycle at the local scale.

    Outside of ensuring sustainable use of water resources, maintaining vegetation cover arguably plays the most important role in preserving the water cycle at local scales. Plants and their roots enable soil to store and release water, and make these water reserves available for soil organisms, which in turn aid in decomposition of dead plants and animals (Section 4.2.2). In contrast, a loss of vegetation cover increases surface runoff, which leads to deteriorating soil conditions through nutrient leaching and erosion of fertile topsoil. An increasing number of studies have also shown how forest loss can change a region’s climate by reducing rainfall which in turn exacerbates drought conditions (Lawrence and Vandecar, 2015). For example, forest clearing for agriculture has reduced rainfall by 50% over much of West Africa (Garcia-Carreras and Parker, 2011). Many forest restoration programs thus focus on reversing these losses.

    Complex and adaptive ecosystems provide more opportunities for people to benefit from ecosystem services than uniform plantations with single species

    When restoring degraded forests and other ecosystems to repair the water cycle and other ecosystem services, it is important to remember that complex ecosystems with locally-adapted plants are generally the most effective in maintaining the water cycle and other ecosystem services (Burton et al., 2017). There have been cases across Africa where well-intended restoration efforts used fast-growing timber species such as gum (Eucalyptus spp.) and pine (Pinus spp.). While these single-crop plantations may superficially resemble a forest in structure and may even provide some of the same ecosystem services as native plants, some of these fast-growing exotic plants also bring significant environmental harm and negative externalities passed onto local people (van Wilgen and Richardson, 2014). Of particular concern is their role in disrupting local water cycles (Section 7.4.2), ironically the very aspect these forest restoration efforts aim to rehabilitate. The choice of species used for restoration should this be carefully considered to avoid unintended consequences later on.

    The nutrient cycle

    The nutrient cycle involves the cycling of essential nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus through the ecosystem. Like the water cycle, natural vegetation cover plays an important role in maintaining the nutrient cycle. That is because plant roots slow water runoff which, in turn, help soil to retain nutrients dissolved in water. Plants also form a major component of above-ground and below-ground biomass. When dead plant biomass is decomposed along with animal waste products, nutrients previously absorbed through plant roots are released back into the soil and water, where they can once again be absorbed by living plants and other consumers.

    Unfortunately, vegetation cover, decomposition, and fire dynamics (discussed below) alone cannot ensure a healthy nutrient cycle. Much of Africa is nutrient impoverished because soil nutrients are lost quicker than they are replaced. One of the main causes is unsustainable agricultural practices (Sanchez, 2010), such as farming on sandy soils and in tropical forests. These areas are nutrient-poor, so crop yields are typically low. Because these areas are prone to leaching, a large proportion of synthetic fertilisers added to supplement impoverished soils leaches into groundwater or washes into nearby streams and lakes, threatening water supplies by causing harmful algae blooms and eutrophication (Section 7.1.1). To compensate, the failing farmers may resort to even more unsustainable land conversions (Wallenfang et al., 2015). Careful management of the nutrient cycle is thus critical for both biodiversity conservation and socio-economic well-being, particularly given its importance to food security (Drechsel et al., 2001). To achieve this, there is an urgent need to adopt more sustainable land management practices (Chapter 14).

    Ecosystem processes are linked into multiple feedback loops, so changes in one factor are amplified elsewhere.

    The energy cycle

    Energy flow—a crucial component of ecosystem productivity (Section 4.2.2)—refers to the capture and storage of solar energy by primary producers (photosynthetic plants, algae, and some bacteria), and the distribution of that energy to consumers, detritivores, and decomposers. Although solar energy can appear as an unlimited resource in many ecosystems, the energy available to consumers (i.e. herbivores and carnivores) is limited because only about 10% of the energy obtained at one trophic level is passed on to the next (Figure 10.5). Being at the top of the food chain, apex predators are in a particularly vulnerable position because seemingly small disruptions at lower trophic levels will have a cumulative impact on the energy available to them. Such disruptions may include reduced prey populations (e.g. overharvesting of herbivores, Section 7.2) or foraging disruptions (e.g. a predator needing to walk further to find prey). Research from Southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert has showed that such disruptions, which are amplified by predators’ high-energy lifestyles (it takes a lot of energy to bring down a large ungulate!), may put apex predators such as cheetahs on a downward spiral of energy deficits (Scantlebury et al., 2014). While such impacts may not always lead to direct mortality, these insidious, subtle, and easily-overlooked sublethal impacts compromise individuals’ ability to reproduce, with extinction being the end result. To avoid such a scenario, maintaining energy flow generally involves maintaining complex, species-rich ecosystems so that consumers have ample opportunities to fulfil their energy needs for finding prey, growth, reproduction, and other activities.

    Figure 10.5 A food pyramid of a model savannah ecosystem, showing the various trophic levels and energy pathways. About 90% of energy is lost at each trophic level through respiration and animal waste excretion.CC BY 4.0.

    Community dynamics

    In ecosystem conservation, maintaining viable populations of different interacting species is as important as maintaining important ecosystem processes, such as ecosystem productivity and ecological succession. This focus often falls on maintaining populations that form part of important mutualistic relationships such as pollination and seed dispersal (Section 4.2.5), predator-prey interactions, and even healthy levels of competitive and parasitic interactions (which allow more species to persist). Of interest is the preservation of keystone species and ecosystem engineers, which has an outsized effect on community dynamics (Section 4.2.1). As illustrated in this, and other, chapters, disrupting community dynamics through pollution, overharvesting, or any other threat facing biodiversity (Chapter 5–7), generally leads to impoverished natural communities. Impoverished communities may in turn provide opportunities for invasive species to colonise an area, further perpetuating biodiversity losses. In Chapter 11, we discuss further how populations and species can be maintained.

    Fire Dynamics

    Although fire is generally not considered one of the four fundamental ecosystem processes, it plays such an important role in African biodiversity management, including maintaining the four fundamental ecosystem processes, that it deserves its own discussion. African farmers understand the importance of setting fire to keep cropland and grazing pastures productive; burning existing vegetation releases carbon and other essential nutrients beneficial for plant growth into the environment. Similarly, fire also plays a critical role in the flow of energy, community dynamics, and overall maintenance of fire-dependent ecosystems, such as grasslands, savannahs, and Mediterranean communities. Suitably low intensity fires seldom kill living plants; rather, they encourage seed germination and seedling growth by reducing dead material that may crowd new growth, by exposing bare mineral soil (the substrate required for many seeds to germinate), and by releasing vital nutrients into the soil. This periodic removal of dead material also prevents fuel load accumulation, thereby preventing future fires from becoming destructive. In contrast, without fire, fire-dependent ecosystems will slowly transform into unproductive scrublands suffocated by encroaching woody vegetation (Smit and Prins, 2015). Then, when wildfires do occur (e.g. through human negligence or lightning) the resultant accumulated fuel loads increase the intensity and heat of fires, creating very dangerous and difficult to control scenarios.

    Obviously, given the potentially destructive force of fire, land managers who use fire as a management tool must consider many aspects before setting a prescribed burn, also known as a controlled burn. Foremost, to prevent a fire from becoming destructive to natural communities and nearby human developments, burning must be done in a well-planned manner with careful consideration given to the area’s ecology, weather forecasts, and fire-readiness of the site (Goldammer and de Ronde, 2004; Kelly and Brotons, 2017). It is also recommended that prior to burning (or any other conspicuous management operation for that matter), land managers develop a public outreach plan to explain to local people the importance of fire in ecosystems management, and the steps taken to keep them and their properties safe. To further improve community relations and education, South Africa’s Working on Fire program (Figure 10.6) provides scholarships, fire training, and employment opportunities to local youths.

    Figure 10.6 A fire crew from South Africa’s Working on Fire program keeps a close eye on a controlled fire set to keeps the native savannah ecosystem healthy. Photograph by Working on Fire, CC BY 4.0.

    Fire management plans that match natural fire regimes produce the best results for effective ecosystem management. Land managers accomplish this by ensuring that their burn plans mimic the local area’s natural fire season, fire frequency, and flame intensity, while also accounting for management goals and local ecological factors such as rainfall and geology (see e.g. van Wilgen et al., 2010, 2014). The size of each burn area must also be considered. Best practices suggest not burning the entirety of a community at a time; rather, burning only portions of an area allows for more habitat heterogeneity, provides opportunities for non-burrowing animals to take refuge in unburned areas, and maximises ecosystem diversity. Bringing all of these aspects together, scientists working in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area determined that the area would respond best if land managers burn up to 20% of their grasslands annually or biannually (Estes et al., 2006). Similarly, field experiments in certain South African grasslands have found that plant diversity is highest when burns occur every second year, in winter or autumn (Uys et al., 2004). Other ecosystems, such as the Cape Floristic Region’s fynbos, may need to burn only once every decade (Kraaij et al., 2013). However, because of the high density of houses in some fynbos ecosystems, the periodic fires needed for locally-adapted vegetation to persist are often extinguished because of the threat to human settlement (van Wilgen et al., 2012).

    While fire plays an important role in many African landscapes, it is important to note that overly frequent fires can be a threat even to fire-dependent communities. For example, habitat degradation resulting from too many fires in quick succession can leave a natural community vulnerable to invasions by harmful species (Masocha et al., 2011). Overly frequent fires can also prevent seedling recruitment by directly killing vulnerable young plants, and by depleting the seed bank because seedlings do not have sufficient time to mature and set seed.

    Fire-sensitive ecosystems (e.g. tropical forests, high mountains, and peat bogs) must also be managed carefully to avoid fire disturbance, which can lead to habitat loss and edge effects (Chapter 5). One way to accomplish this is to educate farmers living adjacent to fire-sensitive ecosystems on how to safely manage their land with fire. Conservationists also need to be considerate when managing fire-dependent ecosystems adjacent to fire-sensitive ecosystems, as is the case with the unique patches of fire-dependent savannahs—remnants from the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago—that are surrounded by forest within Gabon’s Lobé National Park (Jeffery et al., 2014). Careful fire management, led by good science, is bound to become increasingly important in the future, given that wildfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense under climate change (Pricope and Binford, 2012).

    Minimising external threats

    Human activity cannot and does not need to be eliminated from nature; in fact, the structure and diversity of many of today’s natural landscapes—and to which today’s wildlife are adapted to—are in part the result of past human activities (e.g. Garcin et al., 2018). Today, there are over 7 billion people on Earth, so our impacts are more pervasive than for the majority of history. There is, thus, an urgent need to utilise natural resources in such a way that future generations will also benefit from the ecosystem services that previous generations have left us. This requires a concerted effort from every sector in human society to minimise those threats we impose on the ecosystems around us. This includes preventing pollution, large-scale human disturbances, overharvesting, and habitat destruction (Chapter 5–7).

    Major strides have been made in recent years towards achieving these goals. Governments are updating laws to safeguard the environment, industries are refining recycling and waste disposal methods, new techniques are being developed to remove pollutants from the environment, and individual citizens are becoming more aware of their individually small but collectively significant impacts on the environment. We should be proud of the progress being made and continue to strive for improvements. But one external threat that requires greater attention and understanding is invasive species.

    Controlling invasive species

    Invasive species degrade and destroy natural ecosystems by outcompeting native species, disturbing ecosystem processes, and altering the physical environment (Section 7.4). Limiting these harmful impacts can be particularly challenging since exotic species that establish themselves in a new area can build up such large numbers, become so widely dispersed, and be so thoroughly integrated into ecosystems (i.e. naturalised) that eradicating them entirely would be extraordinarily difficult and expensive, or as in the case of tickberry (Lantana camara) perhaps even impossible (Bhagwat et al., 2012). This is not only a problem facing conservation biology, but also agriculture, where invasive species often spread from one farm to another, forestry, where invasive species are spread between saw mills and along logging routes, and fisheries, where native resources are outcompeted, sometimes up-ending an entire local industry. The impact of invasive species on farming communities is particularly severe—they lose tens of billions of dollars each year while trying to combat deteriorating grazing lands, reduced crop yields, and escalating pest control expenses. One study from South Africa calculated that invasive plants result in financial losses of US $646 million each year—this figure would have been US $5 billion if invasive species control measures already implemented were absent (de Lange and van Wilgen, 2010). Consequently, a range of stakeholders have invested considerable resources in combatting invasive species.

    The most important step in preventing biological invasions is to prevent the initial establishment of problem species. This requires educating people about the dangers posed by invasive species.

    Because invasive species are often very hard to eradicate once established (Figure 10.7), the foremost step in avoiding invasive species’ harmful impacts is to avoid opportunities for new invasions (Section 7.4.1). This requires raising awareness across all levels of society about the dangers posed by invasive species, both to the natural world and to agricultural and natural resources systems. There is also a need for citizens, scientists, and industry to monitor for potential and known invasive species, and promptly implement intensive control efforts to stop establishment and spread. The Global Register of Introduced and Invasive Species ( is a free, online searchable source to facilitate these tasks, by providing information about the impact and control of invasive species. Governments can also partake in efforts to control invasive species. While most African countries screen agricultural imports for pests, countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, take this task particularly seriously, with trained officials screening each visitor (and returning residents) and package for hitchhiking species before they cross those countries’ borders. Lastly, it would require increased dialogue between conservation biologists and land managers to make a careful and thorough assessment prior to the deliberate introduction of a new species, even if thought of as beneficial.

    Figure 10.7 Data on the control of invasive species in South Africa have shown that the larger the infestation (a function of time passed since establishment), the more resources are required for eradication. For that reason, it is critical to avoid establishment of invasive species in the first place, and to respond promptly once new invasions have been discovered. Also shown is the effort required to eradicate three species of Australian wattle (Acacia spp.), based on extent of invasion. After Wilson et al., 2013, CC BY 4.0.

    Despite best practices, not all invasions can be prevented, and for those that do occur, an early detection and rapid response strategy offers the best chance to limit harm. This usually involves raising awareness of potential invasive species to ensure biologists and other stakeholders will recognize a new invasion, efforts to screen for such species on a regular basis, and implementing direct attack approaches, such as using herbicides, pesticides, or mechanical control once detected. While addressing a new invasion as soon as possible, it is also important to consider and contain the risks each direct attack approach carries. For example, herbicides and pesticides carry a risk of killing non-target native species via pesticide drift (Section 7.1), while mechanical control may cause disturbances such as trampling, undue soil disturbance, and even pollution.

    Controlling invasive species that have become established will require substantially more resources and manpower to combat than those detected early on. Even so, it is still worth initiating control measures as early as possible since harm and resource needs will only escalate over time. To overcome these impediments to invasive species control, the South African government established an exemplary model, the Working for Water program, in 1995. Working for Water has three goals—poverty relief, water conservation, and invasive species control—which it accomplishes by combining invasive species control with job creation and social upliftment (van Wilgen and Wannenburgh, 2016). Specifically, the program hires and trains unemployed people to eradicate water-thirsty invasive shrubs and trees across South Africa; some of the removed plants are subsequently sold as firewood at local markets at a profit for the participants. In its first 20 years, the program has created over 227,000 person years of employment and treated over 28,000 km2 of invasive species (Figure 10.8). Hopefully programs, such as these, will inspire more governments to act to restore degraded ecosystems to their previously healthy state.

    Figure 10.8 Members of South Africa’s Working for Water program mechanically removing invasive Australian wattles (Acacia spp.). To make sure the wattles don’t grow again, the stumps are also treated with a herbicide. Photograph by Christo Marais/Department of Environmental Affairs, CC BY 4.0.

    Another method to manage established pests is biological control, also called biocontrol. Biocontrol typically relies on one or more natural enemies from an invasive species’ original range to control the pest in its introduced range (Section 4.2.7). One of the main benefits of biocontrol is that it ensures cost-effective, long-term, area-wide control of an invasive species, beyond the capabilities of chemical pesticides and mechanical control. Biocontrol also allows for opportunities to control invasive species that are hard to manage with chemical pesticides and mechanical control (at least without significant additional harm to the environment), such as submerged aquatic weeds (Coetzee et al., 2011). Third, biocontrol agents are highly host-specific, thereby eliminating the impact that chemical pesticides and mechanical control have on non-target organisms. Lastly, an effective biocontrol agent ideally eliminates the need for chemical pesticides and mechanical control, thereby reducing threats such as pesticide pollution (Section 7.1) and ecosystem degradation (Section 5.1).

    Biocontrol does have some drawbacks. Primary among them is the significant upfront investment required, as candidate species first need to be found, and then extensively tested for host specificity and potential interactions with native wildlife before being released. Biocontrol also requires careful monitoring after release to determine effectiveness as well as to carefully check for impacts on non-target native species. This monitoring needs to be conducted over the long term, because biocontrol agents typically require several years before they establish self-sufficient colonies in the wild and might only then show signs of unintended impacts. Because alternative methods for controlling invasive species can also kill biocontrol agents (causing conflicting results and wasted resources), additional coordination is required before applying biocontrol and alternative pest management strategies simultaneously in the same area. Lastly, there is no guarantee that a biocontrol agent will be effective. For example, the tickberry continues to thrive despite the release of over 40 biocontrol agents (Zalucki et al., 2007). But when successful, the long-term savings from these upfront investments are generally well worth it. One study in Benin found that biocontrol of water hyacinth required a US $2 million upfront investment, but the resultant water quality improvements increased local incomes by US $84 million per year (de Groote et al., 2003). Another study from South Africa estimated a net gain of 50–3,500 times the investment, depending on the specific biocontrol agent used (de Lange and van Wilgen, 2010).

    Several very successful biological control programs have been implemented in Africa over the past century. Most famous is the rescue of the cassava crop (see Box 4.3). Another successful biocontrol program, implemented across much of the continent, has reduced Kariba weed (Salvinia molesta) by over 95% within just a few years (e.g. Mbati and Neuenschwander, 2005; Diop and Hill, 2009; Martin et al, 2018). South Africa has been particularly active in the research and introduction of biocontrol agents. From 1913, when South Africa started controlling invasive cacti with hemipterans, to 2017, a total of 93 biocontrol agents have been released for the control of 59 invasive species (Zachariades et al., 2017).

    While the most popular biocontrol agents generally involve insects, disease-causing pathogens can also be used for biocontrol. Feline panleukopenia virus (also known as feline distemper) was highly effective in managing a feral cat population that caused the extirpation of seabirds on Sub-Antarctic Marion Island; some birds are now even returning as breeders (Bester et al., 2002). In an effort to reduce the use of chemical pesticides on food crops, efforts are also currently underway to find fungal pathogens to control introduced pests impacting African crops, including pea leafminers (Liriomyza huidobrensis), originally from South America (Akutse et al., 2013), and banana weevils (Cosmopolites sordidus), originally from Southeast Asia (Akello et al., 2008).

    The most effective pest control programs use an integrated pest management (IPM) approach that relies on using multiple control methods either simultaneously or in succession.

    Some of the most effective pest control programs use an integrated pest management (IPM) approach that relies on using multiple pest control methods described above either simultaneously or in succession (van Wyk and van Wilgen, 2002). Strategic planning to coordinate best practices can also help offset some of the costs of invasive species control (Rahlao et al., 2010) and ensure that important pest sources are not missed (van Wilgen et al., 2007). When considering the best method to control an invasive species, it may also help to consider how our own actions inadvertently encourage invasive species. For example, an over-reliance on synthetic fertiliser has been shown to cause eutrophication (Chislock et al., 2013) and encourage growth of aquatic invasive plants (Coetzee and Hill, 2012; Bownes et al., 2012).

    Even though the impacts of invasive and other exotic species are generally considered negative, they do occasionally provide some benefits. For example, Australian pines (Casuarina equisetifolia) have been planted widely throughout Africa for timber, charcoal, and to stabilise eroding lands. Some people harvest invasive species to eat or to sell; examples include water hyacinth (Figure 10.9), prickly pears (Opuntia spp.), and Mediterranean mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis). The latter has also become an important food source for the African black oystercatcher (Haematopus moquini, NT) (Kohler et al., 2009). Similarly, nearly 18 species of diurnal raptors, including four globally threatened species, nest and roost—sometimes in colonies numbering thousands of individuals—in stands of invasive Australian gum (Eucalyptus spp.) trees (Allan et al., 1997; Jenkins, 2005). Many birds also favour fruits produced by invasive plants, such as the tickberry and syringa (Melia azedarach); this however allows those plants to spread even further. Because they reproduce so fast, water hyacinth has been investigated as a resource for producing bioenergy (Güereña et al., 2015). A ground spider (Prodida stella, CR), endemic to the Seychelles and threatened by sea level rise (Gerlach, 2014), was first described from specimens collected on Australian pine, and may thus persist on trees further inland as their original range is submerged by rising sea levels. Nevertheless, assessments generally show that costs incurred from invasive species outweigh the benefits (Mwangi and Swallow, 2008). It is thus important to consider whether native species can fulfil the same functions in those cases where benefits of invasive species are touted.

    Figure 10.9 Turning an undesirable weed into a cash crop: entrepreneurs from South Africa to Lake Victoria and Nigeria (pictured) have developed alternative income streams by training members of their communities in how to make handcrafts from invasive water hyacinth. Photograph by MitiMeth, CC BY 4.0.

    Adaptive management

    In decades past, ecosystem management in Africa was generally conducted following a laissez-faire (i.e. hands-off) approach where natural processes were allowed to follow their own course, with interventions only implemented when subjectively deemed absolutely necessary. While this passive management style may have worked in an era when ecosystems were less fragmented by roads and fences, and the impact of pollution and invasive species transported along rivers and streams were limited. But maintaining healthy ecosystems (especially small ones) through limited action is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s human-dominated world. Leaving concerns unattended may seem fine in the short term, but such neglect can create problems that are very difficult to contain later on. For this reason, it is increasingly necessary to actively manage ecosystems not only to achieve conservation goals, but even to just avoid degradation of current conditions.

    A major challenge of active (and reactive) conservation management is that nature consists of thousands of interacting components and feedback loops. Because it is impossible to fully understand how these different components interact, management strategies are typically implemented with an incomplete understanding of how interventions may impact broader ecosystem processes.

    Management actions that draw from experimentation and prior experiences often deliver the desired results. However, despite good intentions and careful consideration, some interventions may later give rise to a cascade of unintended consequences that run counter to overall conservation goals. South Africa’s Kruger National Park provides a good example. Conservation managers here once thought they could better protect the local wildlife by fencing the Park and constructing artificial waterholes at regular intervals, a policy that was implemented primarily in the 1960s and 1970s (Smith et al., 2007; Venter et al., 2008; van Wilgen and Biggs, 2011). But instead of providing conservation benefits, the fences blocked dispersal routes, which caused grazing herbivores to be increasingly sedentary around waterholes, leading to overgrazing. The increased availability of surface water also allowed elephant populations to increase to a point where they became a threat to other taxa, particularly large fruit-bearing trees such as baobabs (Adansonia digitata). The construction of artificial waterholes in arid sections of the Park saw an expansion of plains zebra (Equus quagga, NT) and common wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus, LC) distributions, which in turn also attracted more lions into these arid areas. This increasing grazing competition and predation pressure caused populations of four locally rare antelopes to fall by 73–88% between 1986 and 2006, prompting fears of imminent extirpations of these iconic species in one of Africa’s premier protected areas.

    Despite good intentions, conservation activities may give rise to unintended consequences that run counter to overall conservation goals. Adaptive management can reduce further harm.

    While it is hard to escape the looming threat of unintended consequences harming biodiversity, their impacts can be mitigated. One of the first steps involves setting management goals and objectives through close working relationships with a wide variety of stakeholders, including local people (Box 10.3) and scientists who can provide additional insights into the local social-ecological context within which land managers operate. Also important is developing a monitoring protocol that enables land managers to assess whether conservation goals are being met. When monitoring shows that management actions are ineffective or detrimental, it is absolutely critical to be willing and able to integrate this improved understanding into revised management strategies. This process, whereby new knowledge gained through repeated cycles of learning is used to revise and refine conservation strategies and management goals, is known as adaptive management (Venter et al., 2008; van Wilgen and Biggs, 2011). Rather than punishing management errors, adaptive management embraces the idea that we live in a complex world, and that management strategies frequently need be revised to account for new knowledge, shifting priorities, and even evolving societal values. Some of the best adaptive management plans explicitly mandate regular (e.g. every 5 years) reviews, where management strategies, goals, and objectives are formally reviewed and updated.

    Box 10.3 Environmental Governance in the Serengeti Ecosystem

    Alex Wilbard Kisingo

    College of African Wildlife Management,

    Mweka, Tanzania.

    The greater Serengeti ecosystem of Tanzania (Figure 10.C) represents one of the most biologically productive ecoregions in the world. In recognition of its biological importance, much of this ecosystem is safeguarded under a mosaic of government, private, and co-managed protected areas, as well as community conserved areas (Kisingo, 2013a). Among these protected areas is the world-famous Serengeti National Park, as well as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

    Figure 10.C A map of the greater Serengeti ecosystem, showing the location of the major protected areas in the region. Map by Alex Kisingo, CC BY 4.0.

    The various governance models that dictated human actions in the colonial, post-colonial, and contemporary eras have had a profound effect on the ecosystem’s conservation outcomes (Polasky et al., 2008; Sinclair et al., 2008). During most of the colonial period and immediately after Tanzania gained independence in 1961, management of the ecosystem was in the hands of government, which followed a fortress conservation approach (i.e. “fences and fines”). This included evicting traditional peoples from their ancestral lands, restricting the use of wildlife and other natural resources, and imposing heavy penalties on those on the wrong side of wildlife laws. This approach severed the link between people and nature, creating an atmosphere of hostility and resistance to conservation initiatives amongst the local communities. The results have been increased subsistence and commercial poaching, human encroachment into wildlife habitats, and a general lack of community support for conservation (Kisingo 2013b). As a result, Tanzania has seen its wildlife populations reduced and migratory corridors blocked, while invasive plant species are spreading and human-conservation conflicts are intensifying.

    In contrast to this counter-productive approach, involving local people in decision making and implementation can enhance attainment of conservation and social outcomes. Such an involvement can occur through training and employment in conservation enterprises, developing social infrastructure through conservation-related financing, and improving a democratic governance space through increased awareness and capacity building (Kisingo 2013a). This socio-economic transformation, where local communities experience the benefits of conservation activities first-hand, can even create a positive feedback loop where local people not only reduce their dependence on protected wildlife resources for survival, but also become inspired to initiate their own grassroots conservation initiatives.

    In 1989, nearly 30 years after Tanzania gained independence, some attempts were made to empower local people in the governance of the Serengeti ecosystem. The first major step in this regard involved developing the Serengeti Regional Conservation Strategy (SRCP), which encouraged the creation of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs, see Section 14.3) as a means for local people to gain direct benefit from conservation (Kisingo, 2013a). This was followed by the establishment of the Ngorongoro Pastoral Council in 2000, to include pastoralist communities living in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) in decision making and protected areas management. Then, in 2003, the Ikona and Makao Community Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) were established as a first step towards the co-management of wildlife in the Serengeti ecosystem.

    Unfortunately, despite good intentions, these initiatives only had a limited impact in empowering local communities. An important reason for this failure was a general incompatibility between local policies and national legislations, notably a legal framework that favoured a top-down approach to decision making over the wishes and values of local communities. In the NCA, communities were more involved in the provisioning of scholarships and socio-economic assistance, in effect surrendering decision making power to government authorities. Local communities thus either never had a real seat at the table during the development and implementation of management strategies, or lost what little they had over time (Kisingo, 2013a). It should thus not come as a surprise that management of the Serengeti ecosystem generally presents mixed results in terms of conservation and social outcomes. Although wildlife populations are still better off in government protected areas when compared to WMAs, neglecting these community conserved areas (which function as critical wildlife corridors) undoubtedly also negatively impacts wildlife in government protected areas.

    To be more effective at meeting conservation goals, there is an urgent need to adapt and reengineer ecosystem governance structures in the greater Serengeti ecosystem. Involving more stakeholders, particularly local people, would be an important first step. This involvement should be honest and transparent. Instead of calling one or two community representatives to a workshop to secure a rubber-stamp, start by gathering input from a wide variety of stakeholders and make an effort afterwards to show how that input was considered in final plans. In this way, even those who do not get what they want will at least know that they were heard, and hopefully understand why their desires were not met. There is also an urgent need for capacity building, to develop conservation management expertise among members of local communities, rather than the current over-reliance on outside experts who do not understand local dynamics. This could start small: community members can, for example, be involved in anti-poaching efforts through the use of Village Game Scouts (VGS), a strategy that reduces operational costs in tandem with boosting local incomes. The most promising and eager scouts can then be provided with additional professional development opportunities. Empowering local communities in this way, and enabling them to benefit from conservation activities, will provide opportunities for a wider variety of people, beyond just foreign tourists, to understand how conservation actions can support and benefit livelihoods. This will result in social outcomes that are desired by local communities, and in return, conservation authorities who then gain local support for future actions.

    Being minimally intrusive

    While adaptive management often necessitates active management, it does not embrace a philosophy of intervention for its own sake. If managers try to maintain their land by intervening in every aspect in nature, conservation will become inhibitively expensive, especially as the costs of managing unintended consequences escalate. Rather, effective adaptive management plans generally embrace a philosophy of “management by exception” (Venter et al. 2008), whereby interventions are implemented only when certain pre-determined thresholds of concern are exceeded, or when monitored trends suggest that those thresholds will soon be exceeded. (For examples of such thresholds, see van Wilgen and Biggs, 2011).

    Thinking back to the example from Kruger National Park, discussed above, when it became clear the four species of antelopes were on their way to extirpation, a research program was initiated to identify the causes for these population declines. Based on this research, park managers decided that the best way forward was to close the majority of the artificial waterpoints, and move some antelopes to a predator-proof enclosure where they can safely breed (van Wilgen and Biggs, 2011). To reverse the damage caused fences, park managers also prioritised re-establishing free movement of animals by removing these fences between the park and some adjacent properties (Venter et al., 2008). While lion and zebra populations subsequently moved out of the Park’s arid region as hoped, and elephant populations stabilised, numbers of the four antelope species remained stubbornly low. This prompted park managers to evaluate whether the resources invested in these locally rare but globally common ungulates could be better spent on globally rare species occurring in the park, such as black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis, CR). In other words, they adapted their threshold of concern from focussing on locally rare species to prioritising globally rare species (van Wilgen and Biggs, 2011). This decision remains controversial, even among park managers concerned about the potential loss of genetic diversity within the four ungulates. But adaptive management allows for shifting priorities; park managers may very well revisit their decisions if and when the park’s rhinoceros are secured, and funds are freed up for other activities.

    This page titled 10.2: Maintaining Complex and Adaptive Ecosystems is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.