Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ex-situ conservation and conservation for the rest of us

Ex-situ conservation means protecting animals outside of their native habitat. This can include moving groups or populations of species to areas outside of their native range where they may have more success. It may mean bringing animals to zoos and trying to breed them in captivity to increase population numbers and/or genetic diversity. One example of ex-situ conservation is work the National Zoological Park is currently attempting to increase the number of cheetahs in captivity. The National Zoological Park are breeding cheetahs housed both at the zoo itself and at The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia and trying to pair genetically valuable individuals. Many zoos have connections with field researchers, institutions, parks, reserves, and other sites across the world. These partnerships allow zoos to not just educate and inspire the local public and visitors but to be involved in projects that directly conserve species and areas through funding, providing training, acting as an area where orphaned wild animals unable to be released back to the wild can live, etc. The next time you visit a zoo, see if they have any programs that you can support or if your admission ticket goes towards any of these programs.
A former pet, this sifaka female now lives at a park

So what can and should you do, as a reader not living in Madagascar or other diverse and threatened areas of the globe?

Thankfully there are many things you may be able to do, and not all of them are terribly expensive or involve huge life changes. While donating to reputable organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is definitely an option, so is volunteering at your local zoo or for organizations such as WWF. You may even be able to find a volunteer opportunity that is virtual, so no matter where you live you can make a difference. Check out VolunteerMatch and search for opportunities there.

One step that absolutely anyone can take is simple awareness when it comes to purchasing products. Ordering that beautiful hand carved statue from Africa may seem like a great way to support the country, but where is that wood coming from? Was it sustainably harvested? Or are you accidentally contributing to deforestation? These same rules apply when you're traveling. It may seem like a great idea to purchase that unique souvenir, but you should know what materials it is made of and where those materials came from. It's easy to forget the impact our purchases can have when we support an industry that is clearing say the Amazonian rainforest or other endangered and unique habitats. You should be wary of where your wood comes from, your spices, your coffee, your chocolate, etc. It may involve a lot of research upfront, but eventually you will easily recognize the coffee that you learned comes from clear cutting forest in South America or Africa.
Farming even along the hillside

One of the largest contributors to deforestation of a very biodiverse area is the palm oil industry. Palm oil is planted all across Indonesia and Malaysia in areas that were once forested. Palm oil is in cosmetics, processed foods, shampoo, vegetable oil, popcorn, biofuels, and much, much more. 90% of palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, where deforestation is out of control and palm oil plantations are the leading cause. Plantations take the place of the habitat of orangutans, Sumatran rhinos,  Sumatran tigers, clouded leopards and other species. Roads cut for logging allow poachers to enter the forest, killing animals for the skins, capturing animals for the pet trade, and killing them for use in traditional medicine. Palm oil is an ingredient in so many items, and it is honestly not the easiest item to cut from your life, but it is well worth it. To learn more, start by checking out these websites, Rainforest Action Network, WWF, and the Orangutan Project.

In Madagascar, deforestation is a huge threat to wildlife. Forests are cleared for rice fields that feed Madagascar's growing population. They are cleared for charcoal production. Forests are also cleared for timber, some of which is highly valuable and is exported to be sold in international markets. In the south, where I worked, the unique and beautiful spiny forest has been replaced by sisal plantations. Sisal is a fiber that is used in baskets, ropes, clothing, etc. Many of these issues are internal, but you can be mindful of where your wood comes from to ensure you're not buying items made from unsustainable, Malagasy timber. If you travel to Madagascar, many of the souvenirs made for tourists are made out of unsustainable items.

If you're a student, consider joining groups at your school or university that focus on educating others about conservation and/or raising money for specific causes. If no such groups exist, start one yourself. I started a division of Jane Goodall's Roots and Shoots program at my undergraduate university. Roots and Shoots is aimed at young people across the world who want to make a difference. I am happy to hear that the division of Roots and Shoots at my university is still alive and trying to make a difference.

Sponsor a cutie like this one

You can also virtually adopt a gorilla or a lemur or many other animals through organizations such as WWF, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the Duke Lemur Center, and others. Or you can become a member and donate regularly to a cause. You can also purchase or sponsor your own section of the rainforest. If this seems like too much of a monetary commitment, you can show your support by promoting certain nonprofits and causes through your online activities, such as Facebook pages, Twitter, putting a link to an organization you care about in your email signature, and etc. 

Instead of taking a vacation to Paris or Disney World, take a vacation to Costa Rica and support local national parks and eco friendly tourist hotels. Or better yet, volunteer in some place warm and tropical for a vacation.  Earthwatch is a great organization that pairs volunteers with scientists, so that you can travel by yourself or even with your family and work alongside a researcher, learning and aiding a project. Volunteer vacations are becoming increasingly popular.

Visit somewhere off the beaten path and volunteer while you're at it
The main thing we can all do is educate ourselves on conservation issues and share our knowledge with others. The more people aware of the trouble that unsustainable logging causes or of the damage palm oil production does, the more people available to stop using these products and/or to demand viable alternatives. The more people aware that it's possible to take an exciting vacation where volunteering is a part of the trip, the more people who will try it. There's plenty to learn and this post is only the tip of the iceberg. I recommend spending some time on WWF's site, Googling Madagascar and deforestation issues there, and researching anything else from this post that caught your interest. The more you know, the more potential you have to make a difference. Conservation biology is an inherently depressing field, as being aware of the many hurdles wildlife across the globe encounter means realizing the long road ahead. It may seem like there is not much one person can do, but remember that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

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