Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Can China Save the Amur Tiger?


Excerpt from "Can China Save the Amur Tiger?" by Richard Conniff

So it’s a little startling to hear Chad Oliver, a soft-spoken silviculturalist who heads the Yale Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, say that when it comes to restoring tigers to their former habitat in Manchuria, Miquelle is taking an approach that’s not just wrong, but wrong in a way that “could lead the Amur tiger to extinction.” The dispute came to a head this summer as the World Bank was drafting a major Amur tiger recovery plan for northeasterm China.

To get tigers back to China, Miquelle, the F&ES team and the World Bank all focus on restoring the population of deer, wild boar and other prey species. A single tiger needs to eat 50 or so ungulates a year to survive. So no ungulates means no tigers, or tigers that are forced to prey on livestock. Oliver, Han and their colleagues want to improve the badly degraded forest so that it produces more of the acorns and pine nuts on which ungulates feed and includes the kinds of open space or cover that different ungulate species prefer. But Miquelle points out that China has yet to take the essential first step of stopping the ubiquitous poaching of ungulates for the dinner pot. Even in the Hunchun Tiger Leopard Reserve on the Russian border, cheap snares made of wire or plastic strips are everywhere. An annual volunteer day has removed 10,000 of them from the reserve since 2001.

“You can do all the forestry treatments you want and not increase prey numbers if poaching is not addressed,” Miquelle told World Bank officials. “On the other hand, if you address poaching as your top priority, ungulates will increase quite dramatically, with or without forest treatments.”

At first glance, the tone of the dispute seems to echo the temperament of the animal. Naturalist lore says that big-predator researchers often take on the fierceness and territoriality of the animals they study. Thus when Oliver and Han first asked for detailed data from the Amur tiger radio-tracking studies, Miquelle declined. Han’s colleagues on the study included Jianping Ge from Beijing Normal University, where Han earned her master’s degree, and Qingxi Guo from China’s Northeast Forestry University. The team, says Miquelle, seemed “interested only in how much they can extract from other organizations for their own relatively narrow interests” and offered little likelihood of collaboration to “maximize conservation impact.” Han protests that the team has, in fact, already collaborated with World Wildlife Fund researchers and would also gladly do so with Miquelle and WCS.

Oliver characterizes it as a clash not so much between personalities, or nationalities, as between environmental paradigms. As zoologists, Miquelle and his allies “may not realize that they are dealing with an outdated scientific paradigm,” Oliver told the World Bank. The preservationist approach, which became widespread in the 1960s, regards all forests as good for wildlife, a dense forest as even better, and all human intervention, particularly in the form of logging, as almost automatically bad. The guiding idea is that forests should be left to grow to their mature climax stage, achieving a more-or-less steady state sometimes characterized as “the balance of nature.”

Oliver is a leading exponent of an alternative paradigm, which also got its start in the mid-20th century. It holds that no such thing as a balance of nature exists. Disturbance and turmoil, in the form of fire, wind, disease and drought, are normal, and the natural result is a mosaic of structures, from open savanna to old growth. A healthy forest is dynamic, not stable, with tree stands of varying types and ages. Many environmentalists now accept this paradigm, at least intellectually. But the preservationist paradigm still has a hold on their hearts, or on the realpolitik corners of their brains. The sticking point for them is that they mistrust the proposed remedies of logging, controlled burning and other forms of active management to make damaged forests healthy again.

But clinging to “the steady-state paradigm” and letting damaged forests simply grow back on their own can be disastrous, says Oliver. In California in the 1970s, for instance, state wildlife officials suppressed fires and allowed bog and grasslands to grow into dense forest. But the lotis blue butterfly, a species endemic to a small coastal area of Mendocino County, needed open space, not forest, and the loss of habitat may have pushed it to extinction. More recently, the predisposition to regard closed forest as the only productive habitat led a wildlife biologist in Florida to assume that the severely endangered Florida panther was a “forest obligate” that would not cross about 300 feet (90 meters) of nonforest habitat. Over the years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relied on the biologist’s data to formulate its species recovery plan and to make development decisions affecting 38,484 acres of panther habitat. Then it turned out that the biologist had simply discarded almost half his radio-tracking data, because evidence that the panthers were using open swampland didn’t fit with his forest hypothesis.

A steady-state approach could also be catastrophic for Amur tiger recovery in northeastern China, according to Han, Oliver and their co-authors. The region experienced intensive logging from the 1890s up through the end of the Cultural Revolution. The result is that most forests there are now young and dense, a tangle of pencil-thin saplings crowded together with shrubby undergrowth, says Han, who surveyed the forests on foot and supplemented what she saw with analysis of official inventory data and satellite imagery.

A regimen of thinning and controlled burning would dramatically accelerate the move away from the current dense and depopulated habitat, according to Oliver. Freeing up overcrowded oaks and pines would help them grow faster, resulting, after as little as five to 10 years, in increased production of acorns and pine nuts. Clear-cuts would provide critical savanna habitat. “If we do nothing,” says Oliver, “the dense forest will still be there after 50 years.”

Unfortunately, no studies exist to say how many ungulates different forest structures in the region could support or how that would affect the Amur tiger’s recovery there. Han hopes to gather that data with a pilot project through China’s State Forestry Administration, equivalent to the U.S. Forest Service. Based on data from other tiger populations, she and her co-authors assume that the current dense forest structure supports about 6.1 ungulates per square kilometer. For a hungry Amur tiger, that translates into a minimum home range of 288 square miles (745 square kilometers)—about 14 times bigger than the city of New Haven. By contrast, the tiger could get by with about half that home range in a complex forest, combining mature trees with a healthy understory, which would support 14 ungulates. Open habitat would support 41 ungulates. From a tiger’s perspective, that’s almost seven times as much food as in dense structure, enabling it to thrive in a home range of just 43 square miles (112 square kilometers)—about two New Havens.

Han’s proposed pilot study would affect an area of about 71 square miles (185 square kilometers), meaning “you’d have trouble finding it” in the overall forest, says Oliver. But the study needs tiger and ungulate experts, like Miquelle, to help plan the best mix of open space with closed forest, or of hiding cover and browsing cover. “Do you want long, winding clear-cuts, or do you want a big square clear-cut?” Oliver asks. The first might be suitable for prey species that like to stay close to an edge, so they can run back into the forest. The second might be better for species that like lots of open space so they can see a threat in time to get away.

The Siberian Tiger Project has accumulated a rich database on the different habitat needs of tiger prey species—too rich, in truth, to support the idea that Miquelle is simply following an outdated environmental paradigm. He acknowledges, for instance, that “Sika deer and roe deer are associated with broken forests/grassland/agricultural complexes,” so the treatments being proposed by the F&ES team “would presumably help them.” But red deer are a more important prey for tigers, and for them, says Miquelle, “Mature oak and Korean pine forests are needed—not thinned forests and savannas.”

Pending the outcome of pilot studies, the World Bank team endorsed “targeted measures to help create a more diversified and interlaced forest structure,” along the lines proposed by the F&ES team.

The issue may not be the paradigm itself but skepticism that China can bring off an active management regimen in away that actually benefits wildlife. Miquelle worries, for instance, that new openings in the forest will create habitat not for deer but for domestic livestock. Even in Hunchun Tiger Leopard Reserve, local people graze their cattle “right up to the border with Russia.” And if officials are already failing to keep livestock out of a relatively small protected area, then “how are you going to keep cattle out of a multiple-use forest? In such a scenario, you will be investing millions to improve grazing conditions for domestic livestock.”

But to Oliver, this is like saying: “We don’t believe the decision-makers can do it right, so we’ll tell them it is not scientifically sound to do.”

To read the full article on
Yale Environment Journal

9 comments:

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