National Parks that are contributing to biodiversity loss and climate change
The concept of national parks originated with Yellowstone formed in 1872. Set aside for public benefit and use, national parks were intended to be preserved in a primeval condition for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration by people for all time. Since their inception in the United States, the concept has spread to many countries, thankfully preventing valued landscapes from development.
As a young biologist in Africa I was privileged to be involved in the management of truly wonderful areas being set aside as future national parks. I believed, and still do, in this ideal. I know I speak for most people who love wildlife, nature and wild places who also share this ideal, but how is it working out in practice? National parks are based on society’s belief that that preservation – essentially leaving things to nature – over large tracts of the land, as well as in seas or oceans, preserves biodiversity in a healthy ecosystem or environment. We believe this is our best known way to ensure pockets of high and pristine biodiversity in all environments. As I said in my TED Talk on global desertification, we were once certain that the world was flat. We were wrong then and we are wrong again. And once more I find this is the case – contrary to our deep beliefs, some national parks are proving to be destructive.
Once more, reality on the ground flies in the face of beliefs. So some explanation is in order because this involves not only the preservation of the animals l love, but ultimately also Homo sapiens, our own species.
Evidence of biodiversity loss in national parks and preserves
In perennially humid environments preservation in national parks works. We see biodiversity rebounding in humid environments, be they forests or marine environments. We have no more powerful way of allowing nature to restore herself, or to preserve intact pristine humid environments. What about most of the world’s land where there are many national parks?
You will ask, surely if there was evidence of any national park losing biodiversity there would be an abundance of peer-reviewed papers published years ago? Any such loss surely would have attracted well-funded research immediately when so many well-staffed large environmental organizations and universities are involved in constant research. The answer is no, there are no peer-reviewed papers to support what I write. As scientists we are first and foremost humans, and like all humans we tend to see what we believe, rather than believe what we see. Society believes preservation universally leads to maintenance or restoration of biodiversity and thus so do institutions and institutional scientists.
Despite millions of annual visitors, thousands of funded researchers, and the watchful eye of our large environmental organizations (WWF, IUCN, TNC, Sierra, Audubon, etc), I can cite no papers – other than my own publication Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment (2016). In such circumstances the best I can do is to provide you with the evidence using many pictures. I fully realize academics call such evidence “anecdotal” and thus not scientific. Anecdotal means stories not confirmed by evidence. I leave you to be the judge using your commonsense as to whether pictures do provide evidence acceptable to most humans, and that what you see could be documented in many ways once people are aware.
National parks ideal in different environments – the brittle environments scale
Environments fall across a scale of brittleness. At the low end of this scale, which we find in perennially humid environments, dead leaves and stems crumple softly in your hand. At the high end the same dead leaves and stems break into fragments in your hand because they are so brittle. At the low end (non-brittle environments) there is a consistent distribution of humidity throughout the year, whether rainfall is low or high – East and West coasts of the U.S. or UK. Going across the brittleness scale the distribution of humidity througout the year becomes increasingly worse, again regardless of whether rainfall is high or low –most of the U.S. and world. It is a scale of humidity distribution not amount of rainfall.
Across the brittleness scale, we see great differences in the effectiveness of the national parks ideal. Toward the low (perennially humid) end preserving, or leaving things to nature, is very successful, resulting in ever increasing biodiversity and stability as mentioned earlier. National parks achieve their ideal and many are the examples in the Americas, Canada, Europe and elsewhere. And such preservation, given time, works extremely well in marine environments. Because we believe this millions of dollars are donated to, and spent by, scientists in large environmental organizations providing documentation and gathering further financial support like a rolling snowball.
A typical example of stability, high biodiversity and contribution to combating climate change in a tropical humid area when preserved – national parks meet our ideal.
But at the higher end of the brittleness scale (seasonally wet then dry) we find the opposite. We must recognize that historically in these regions there were once unimaginable numbers of grazing animals and pack hunting predators which were integral parts of the biological system. In these environments we see that “preservation” in the absence of these keystone species has exacerbated biodiversity loss and land degradation. Soils have become dry and lifeless, contributing to climate change.
Having no papers to cite, let’s look at the evidence – first in the United States and then Africa and the United Arab Emirates.
Chaco Canyon managed by the U.S. National Parks Service in New Mexico
In recent history this was a biologically diverse grassland that supported an irrigation-based civilization despite low rainfall. Now, in a brittle environment, we see serious loss of biodiversity and severe desertification. Noting this degradation, officials have tried to “help nature” with various soil conservation measures which have made no difference.
Let’s look at the Aldo Leopold Forest near Albuquerque:
Parts of this formerly beautiful riparian area alongside the Rio Grande river are promoted by many reputable organizations as a tribute to Aldo Leopold.
Once more we see serious loss of biodiversity and land degradation in this preserved land alongside a major river. I have observed authorities over the past 35 years trying to help nature by planting grasses and trees to no avail. The metal structures are to prevent flood damage, but will exacerbate any flood by holding up debris and slowing water flow past the city resulting in flooding over retaining earthworks. Apparently despite the serious loss of biodiversity we do not even ask “Why do we need to plant grass or trees in a riparian sanctuary?”
Let’s see examples from Canyonlands in Utah:
Once more we see that most biodiversity has been lost leaving a primitive “biological crust” of algae/lichen/moss etc. Areas are closed for recovery – why? And no sign of recovery taking place.
About 35 years ago when I visited Utah I found a large notice explaining to the public that these crusted soils were essential to hold the soil while allowing other plants to establish. Alongside the notice I photographed this interesting experiment (below) done by the same officials. Here they had covered the soil crust with wood chips kept in place by nylon netting held down by branches, in order to try to get plants to establish. Clearly someone doubted their own beliefs but still no plants establishing.
In these parks we find the usual warnings to the public not to even set a foot on the ground for fear of disturbing the crusted soil – which in reality is the last life left as former diversity of plants and other species disappear under preservation ideals.
Lets move over to California, so troubled by desertification and consequent droughts and floods over much of the State:
During a 2015 visit to Torrey Pines near San Diego, one of many preserves in California, I was saddened at the biodiversity loss and land degradation. When I dared to express this on my FB page it resulted in a stream of abuse, denial and ridicule from local experts asserting that I was arrogant to express such concern with no knowledge of chaparral environments (in which I have worked for nearly forty years).
Most violent troubled region in the world
Let’s move over to the troubled middle east (United Arab Emirates) and look at land heavily protected and preserved by Royalty. The intent is to preserve this large area as breeding grounds for houbara bustards, greatly valued as quarry for the Royal falcons in the most ancient of sports.
Yet again we see terrible loss of biodiversity, and once more researchers trying to help nature recover by protecting many bushes. Preservation intended to increase much valued houbara, is I was informed resulting in their decrease, along with most biodiversity. Once plentiful, their numbers are so diminished that many Arabs now travel to Pakistan to hunt houbara.
Let’s break to check your power of observation…
In this area, strictly preserved to sustain houbara, one of the official vehicles drove off the road. What evidence do you see? I hope you can see the increase in new plants establishing where the vehicle wheels passed. It is little observations like this that ideally should lead to researchers asking questions – such observation in the field was the foundation of science in which I was trained, but today we sit most of the time behind computers and accept nothing but papers approved by our peers holding the same old beliefs.
Moving to Africa
First let’s look at the state of wildlife habitat in some local national parks surrounding my home near the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe – areas we set aside in my youth as future national parks because life was so varied and abundant.
Above are views of the degradation of wildlife habitat affecting all species in Botswana’s famous Chobe National Park. Along with the loss of a great many species of grass and other plants there is the inevitable decline of many insects, reptiles, small mammals and birds and of course soil life to sustain all. The green shrubs that you see survive because they are inedible to almost all animals even when starving, while a great many edible species have ceased to exist. While the pictures below taken on the same day immediately outside the park are still in the condition I first visited in 1946.
Let’s look at another formerly beautiful wild area close to my home, the Zambezi National Park:
This formerly beautiful park lies above the famous Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe or South side of the Zambezi river. On the North bank, in the same damaged condition, lies the Livingstone National Park in Zambia.
In my youth, before this land became a national park, the river banks were stable and lined with large trees, shrubs and reeds. Now they are bare and eroding for many kilometers. We often bring visitors training in Holistic Management to witness this tragic and unintended destruction of wildlife habitat, and every year it is a bit worse no matter how good the rains.
What about one of the oldest and largest nearby park – Hwange National Park?
Once more the same destruction of wildlife habitat, loss of biodiversity and great amount of bare soil guaranteeing ever-increasing drought.
When I first joined the Game Department in 1956 the only management advocated was to stop poaching and burn the grass to provide a green flush for game animals. Nothing has changed over the last 60 years despite continuous deterioration and involvement of many scientists, large environmental organizations and governments. Stopping poaching and burning remain the main management measures.
A truly dedicated group of local environmentalists and widlife lovers meanwhile do sterling work, raising funds to provide water and combat poaching, and rejoicing every time a fire occurs in the park so that the grass will flush green before the rains.
(lion on elephant picture curtesy of Steph Walton)
Meanwhile lions, affected by the lack of prey as species decline, are turning to increasing predation on young elephants. And if we observe the soil around this lion kill, soil which should be covered if biodiversity is to be preserved, we see that it is bare, as is the case all over in this forest far from water.
For brevity I have not included pictures of the serious degradation of wildlife habitat in Kenyan and South African national parks where a similar situation exists.
Official response to public questioning
The tragic deterioration in these parks is noticed by some people, who ask the questions researchers should have asked years before. I often listen as visitors question the destruction of trees particularly – few ever question the bare soil or loss of most species. The trained guides educating the public are generally good naturalists, correctly naming every remaining animal, tree, or bird. Never have I heard any explain the loss of habitat for all species, and none show interest in the management of the land. The professional guides simply (and wrongly) blame the damage on too many elephants, the same view shared by ecologists, biologists, and park managers who train the local guides, and are responsible for management. While the skeletal remains of dead trees invite questioning, few, if any, realize the sheer magnitude of plant and animal life already destroyed but leaving no skeletal evidence. In a few more years when the skeletal evidence of past groves of trees has disappeared, any reference to them will be anecdotal. It will be the norm for park visitors to photograph the few remaining animals and birds in a near desert landscape unaware of the destruction brought about by current management of national parks.
Unless we can achieve greater public education and awareness, then frankly management policies will continue unchanged. It will take a shift in public opinion, from vilifying animal numbers to recognizing that management is the problem, if we are to save them (and of course our own species). Only then will the policies of governments, large environmental organizations and international agencies change.
If you were an elephant?
Taking elephants as an example – imagine yourself as the matriarch of your herd of daughters and their calves. What hope is there for your family?, National parks are in the state we see. You, and not our management are blamed. Inside the parks your family faces all being shot including your calves in a “scientifically supported culling program” – a never-ending process that does not work because management is the problem not you and your family. Wildlife and range scientists in our institutions (major environmental organizations and government/international agencies) have no “solution” but to shoot you and your entire family. They are not acting right now because they fear to carry this out because of possible public backlash. Relocating, sterilization and other suggestions (to limit numbers) even they reject as impractical. So you will face “culling” soon.
Outside the parks your risk being shot on what is called “problem animal control” when you, and particularly the bulls accompanying you, raid crop fields. And of course with the land surrounding the parks also turning to desert leading to poverty, social breakdown and violence we see the reason why lucrative commercial poaching is increasing, supported all too often by corrupt officials. While I am using you as my example, I could be writing in similar vein about pangolins, rhino or many other charismatic species that environmental organizations take note of, while ignoring the vast number of birds, reptiles, animals including insects and plants and the mass of soil life all being destroyed both in and outside the parks.
So as the matriarch of your family, you have spent your long life being responsible for protecting your daughters and granddaughters, all raising calves trying to find adequate cover, feed and water while avoiding poachers, or national parks officials bent on shooting your entire family. What would you pray for?
Frankly you would pray for the same thing I do to save my own, and everyone else’s children and grandchildren, and that is a change in management supported by the millions of visitors to national parks. A change in the same management that results in global desertification, poverty, social breakdown, violence, mass emigration (changing the political face of Europe), wars and climate change. In fact we should all pray, and do all in our power, to somehow rapidly better inform the public so that management and policy development by institutions can become holistic.
What would the land look like where Holistic Management is practiced?
I live half of ever year on Dimbangombe which is land belonging to the Africa Centre for Holistic Management (A local NGO run by a board of trustees – the five local Chiefs and myself being permanent trustees joined by my wife and others).
Dimbangombe enjoys the same basic soils, rainfall, and wildlife as the surrounding national parks pictured above. While many small animals are resident, some larger animals -– mainly elephant and buffalo — move between Dimbangombe and the parks. While there are minor differences among these areas, the greatest difference is the management. The national parks are under what I would call conventional reductionist management (explained in my earlier blogs and in my textbook, “Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment”). In contrast, Dimbangombe, a learning site where people from many countries come to learn, is under Holistic Management.
Now let’s look at what could be. These pictures, taken at the same time as those in the nearby national parks above, illustrate the amazing regeneration of habitat for all life.
Dimbangombe river banks:
This typical view of the land along the river shows some places heavily impacted and others less so, but all with good soil cover late in the dry season awaiting rain that will almost all soak into the soil. Plants and leaf litter cover over 98% of the surface of the ground.
The grassland a bit further from the river – nicely grazed late in the dry season with abundant soil cover to ensure healthy response to rain and maintain the mass of soil life that is so vital for all other life.
While these two pictures are of sites with good soil, not all of the land has improved so rapidly – particularly where soils were seriously damaged and are now very shallow.
Some of the land (as shown above) was almost totally bare (like the parks) for many years before management changed. Now, this formerly bare ground has annual grass cover slowly transitioning to perennial grass cover. Annual grasses are those that establish, grow and die all within the same year, while perennial grasses live for many years with far deeper root systems.
Preserving bare areas for wildlife:
What surprises visitors to Dimbangombe is to see us now preserving small selected areas of bare ground. Here is one of these sites. Many species –- impala, kudu, zebra, giraffe, sable, waterbuck, elephant, lion, leopard, wild dogs, hyenas, and birds — frequent these small protected areas, which are important to them for dusting, licking soil, or simply loitering. The fresh broad elephant track is clearly visible.
Remnants of the old crusted soil:
Initially, following many years of past reductionist management large areas of the land were dominated by crusted soil (similar to the crusted soils in Utah described earlier) and readily available for teaching purposes. We now have run out of such sites because of the widespread regeneration of all vegetation and life. This picture shows an example of the old hard-capped algal crusted soil that I protect by my home to be able to show visitors. The soil remains crusted no matter what the rain, and no plants grow, just as illustrated previously in Utah where great effort is made to never disturb such crusted soil devoid of life.
We are not yet free of problems.
In the past, a veterinary fence, installed to control the spread of cattle foot-and-mouth disease, kept out elephants and buffalo, and so we had none of these large creatures. Today, we share these animals with the parks, with hundreds of them coming and going at any given time. Unfortunately, we cannot successfully manage the full complexity with such mobile animals until management changes in the surrounding land, including the National Parks, such that elephants in particular have ideal habitat all over this vast area of millions of hectares of land. Because management all around us remains reductionist we, too, are experiencing destruction of mainly three tree species. Until all animal management is holistic, and our national parks look like Dimbangombe, we can only protect mature trees as you see here.
A collar of spiked tree protector mesh to prevent elephants ring-barking the tree. We look forward to the day when all management is holistic and such devices are no longer needed. These effective protectors were kindly donated by Kurt Oriol (www.arbor-shield.com)
Clearly there is irrefutable (not anecdotal) evidence of severe habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity, in both the U.S. and other national parks in brittle environments under present management.
The idea of national parks is not flawed and the original high ideal is, I believe, attainable starting just as soon as public opinion supporting the large highly funded environmental organizations insists on management changing. Doing so will not detract from the national parks ideal, but will ensure its success. Not changing while simply seeing our wonderful parks continue to deteriorate and lose biodiversity is not a serious option.
In Africa, this crisis is more serious than it might appear because we rely on such parks (and new, cross-border super “Peace Parks”) to preserve our diversity of wildlife. To truly save wildlife in the wild and not zoo-like environments, the most important rule of management is to ensure the maintenance of habitat. Stable productive habitat is vital for all life including humans. Reductionist management in a holistic world is failing us and all the creatures dependent on us.
I need to make it very clear that no one — least of all the authorities managing these parks, or any environmental organizations, or any eco-tourism companies — are to blame. After all, who do we blame for not flying before the Wright brothers flew? These authorities work for institutions which are sensitive and responsive to public opinion, which can change if there is greater understanding of how we got to this crisis. I appeal to you to help by not remaining apathetic, but spreading and sharing such information. What is seen as counter-intuitive can be understood and appreciated the moment we open our eyes and minds and question our beliefs, and all is easily documented in many ways acceptable to academics once there is a will to do so.
As we think of our national parks, let us remember the public purposes for which they were set aside: to be preserved in a primeval condition for the benefit of all. If we change nothing in the management of those parks which are on brittle landscapes, I submit that the degradation we see there will continue and worsen. On the other hand, a restoration of the biological function which out of ignorance we have withheld from those lands would serve as a noble rededication for those public lands.