Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Preserving Dryland Ecosystems

     While there are treaties and international campaigns to save wetlands and forests, grassland and desert preservation has been accomplished on a national and regional basis.  Some countries, including the United States, Russia, Mongolia and China, have set aside large areas of deserts, but grasslands are still considered prime grazing and farmland, an impediment to their protection.  An international treaty such as the Ramsar Convention on wetlands protection (see Aquatic Ecosystems chapter) would help protect many remarkable and unique grasslands and deserts.  Many have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the World Cultural and Natural Heritage Convention for their "outstanding universal value" and/or Biosphere Reserves by the Man and Biosphere ProgrammeThis has provided an incentive for protection, although unprotected land rarely receives such designations, which tend to be given to national parks or reserves.

      The 1994 Convention on Desertification, a treaty drafted by the United Nations, attempts to slow the current trends turning grassland and shrub into desert.  The treaty was negotiated at the urging of African nations attending the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that requested funds for environmentally sustainable agricultural practices based on traditional methods in dryland areas (Pitt 1993).  The United Nations estimates $10 billion to $22 billion will be needed annually over the next 20 years to finance the rehabilitation of land and arrest the desertification processes (Simons 1994).  This treaty is one of the first to mandate cooperation with local communities and design methods incorporating input from local people.  In late 1996, the Convention went into force, although the United States still had not ratified it.  Estimates of the funding needed to slow the expansion of deserts rose to $43 billion by 1996. 

      One positive development is the designation of the Great Gobi National Park of southwestern Mongolia.  The United Nations Development Programme, as part of a worldwide project financed by the Global Environment Facility organization, established a Mongolian biodiversity program with help from the Mongolian government (Possehl 1995).  The United Nations agency has helped finance the park, one of the largest in the world, by funding the salaries of rangers who patrol on camels (Possehl 1995). The park is dotted with oases greened by poplar and tamarisk trees, waterholes and shrub vegetation.  It has been divided into two sections that cover over 17,000 square miles.  This commitment to conservation on the part of such a poor country is extremely laudable.

      The Convention on Biological Diversity, drafted at the Earth Summit in 1992, has provided funding for the purchase of drylands and grasslands through the Global Environment Facility, a financial institution created at the Summit (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  Through this institution and other international funds, areas of biological importance have been protected, but much money has been wasted on expensive consultants and projects that did not preserve diversity (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  The help of private organizations and more novel approaches to land preservation are needed. Conservation International, an organization that carries out biodiversity studies and helps protect areas rich in species, found that seven of 25 biodiversity "hotspots," covering all types of ecosystems, were mainly dryland areas; they include the Cape Floristic Province and Succulent Karoo of South Africa, Southwest Australia, California Floristic Province, the Brazilian Cerrado, Central Chile and the Mediterranean Basin (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  They are especially rich in plants, with 61,373 native vascular species.  They also harbor large numbers of endangered birds and mammals (Mittermeier et al. 1999). 

     These hotspots once covered 5,266,009 square kilometers, 30 percent of the entire land area.  One region not included above, the Caucasus area between the Black and Caspian Seas of Central Asia, is part grassland and part temperate forest (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  All of these ecosystems have been drastically reduced from their former size.  The Mediterranean Basin's original dry ecosystems once covered 2,362,000 square kilometers, but they have been reduced to 110,000 square kilometers, 4.7 percent of the original area; only 1.2 percent remains of the Brazilian Cerrado (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  None of these ecosystems is more than 27 percent of its old size.  Only 154,408 square kilometers ‒ 3 percent ‒ of the original 5,266,009 square kilometers are protected; these areas represent 7 percent of intact portions of these ecosystems (Mittermeier et al. 1999).

      While this seems to paint a dark picture of grassland and dryland preservation, much good is also being done.  The identification and biological surveys of these areas of high diversity are major first steps.  Many of these regions have been ignored both by conservationists and the nations where they are found.  Once governments are informed of the biological importance and threats to these regions, many begin to set aside national parks and reserves. 

      The designation of reserves of temperate grassland and dryland by governments such as the United States, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Mongolia, Russia, Central Asia and China has protected portions of these ecosystems being destroyed by livestock grazing, agriculture and new human settlers.  Some of the largest of these reserves have been set aside to preserve the Asian steppe.  In addition to Tibet's Chang Tang Reserve, the Chinese government set aside a 6,000-square-mile area, the Taxkorgan National Reserve, an international sanctuary where Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and China meet (Goddard 1995). 

      Debt-for-nature swaps, in which a portion of a nation's debt is paid by a private conservation organization such as The Nature Conservancy, in exchange for the protection of land (generally in a national park), have been negotiated in several countries.  Many of the countries harboring great biodiversity are also among the poorest, saddled with debt they are unable to pay, the result of loans made by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, among others, for projects such as large dams and timber extraction that often despoiled the land.  A debt-for-nature swap preserved a large park in Brazil's Cerrado.

      Ecosystem protection, a relatively new concept just now gaining acceptance, may become a major means of protecting the Earth's diversity.  Reserves often fail to protect wide-ranging species that migrate out of them, and isolation may cause key ecological components of an ecosystem to die out, causing a biological collapse.  In the United States, an organization of biologists and conservationists has urged protection of the Yellowstone Ecosystem, a mosaic of savannah, temperate forest and mountain environments surrounding Yellowstone National Park.  The size of the park does not allow movements of its wildlife outside the park, such as the migrations of American bison (Bison bison), dispersal of grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) or the reintroduced gray wolf (Canis lupus), because cattle ranches and other private property now surround the park.  Another even more ambitious proposal aims to link Yellowstone with other federal lands in the United States and Canada north to the Yukon, purchasing private lands where necessary, to create a wide corridor of undeveloped land.  This would allow herd migrations and movements of carnivores to link them with other populations, while protecting the environment and species diversity.  Such programs would help ensure permanent conservation of the region.  A similar proposal in southern Africa would create a vast park system, stretching from southeastern South Africa north to Kenya, so that wide-ranging grazing animals and their predators could migrate freely.

      The benefits to society of such preservation are significant.  Ecotourism has a potential to make such projects pay for themselves.  This industry is growing astronomically and yields far more income than consumptive uses of nature, such as trophy hunting, logging and mining.  Likewise, use of video cameras in parks and reserves connected via satellite to the Internet for pay-per-view has emerged as a potentially enormous source of income for the funding of biological studies, national park expenses and land preservation.

      Many organizations and scientific bodies have made great steps within the past decade to alert the public about the need to preserve these threatened grassland and dryland ecosystems.  Books on the beauty and wild fauna and flora of the Serengeti, Tibet's steppe, and America's prairies, as well as films and television programs, are educating people about these beautiful areas.

      Lady Bird Johnson, wife now-deceased former President Lyndon B. Johnson, initiated a program of planting wildflowers along the nation's highways.  Traditionally, endless miles of clipped grass lined United States highways with cultivated flower beds in places.  In much of the country this has not changed.  Mrs. Johnson convinced the Department of Transportation to set aside less than 1 percent of the highway tax funds to be devoted to the planting of native wildflowers, and helped found the National Wildflower Research Center, which is dedicated to conservation and education (described in detail in Wildflowers Across America (Johnson and Lees 1993).  The dazzling display of Texas wildflowers the Center has helped conserve draws tens of thousands of visitors from around the country.  This work has directed attention to the conservation of native wildflowers, an important step to encourage protection of their ecosystems as well.

      Within the past decade, the protection of remaining grassland, as well as its restoration, has taken hold in the United States, sponsored by states, private organizations and the federal government.  Many student projects have involved propagation of native grassland plants for restoring these habitats.  The establishment of the country's first tallgrass national park has been a recent highlight of these trends.

      Worldwide, a similar effort is needed to restore these magnificent habitats.  Grasslands have been "so massively transformed by the hand of man that one is hard put to find any landscapes in them that match the original,"  and if "ever a biome needed a champion, it is the grassland", Warwick Tarbotoni once said (Africa--Environment & Wildlife, November 2000).  The rich variety of plants and animals native to grassland and shrubland ecosystems is being preserved in parts of the world as more people gradually see these environments not as grazing land for livestock or potential farmland, but as vital to the preservation of diversity of their region.

     To preserve dryland from overgrazing by livestock, new approaches are being explored.  Portions of Saudi Arabian desert have been fenced off from livestock on an experimental basis, and native plants reemerged from long dormancy, covering the sand in green.  Much of this region (and the Sahara) is sandy desert; herds of camels, sheep and goats owned by nomadic people are allowed to graze year-round, eliminating the seedlings that attempt to regenerate.  In an innovative approach to helping desert people survive without destroying deserts in the process, several villages in southern Africa have agreed to fence their livestock and stop gathering wood for firewood. They will use methane gas fuel generated from animal dung for their cooking and heating needs.  These villages have also been supplied with electricity from solar roof panels and small wind turbines.   Without furnishing a solution to the needs of desert inhabitants who depend upon their livestock, one cannot expect these people, many of whom live on the edge of poverty and hunger, to preserve desert vegetation.  Solar collectors, solar-powered stoves, technology to produce methane from livestock dung and information on water conservation should be provided by international conservation organizations and governments through foreign aid.

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