In this post, Sarah M. Durant and Roseline C. Beudels-Jamar write about their article ‘Developing fencing policies for dryland ecosystems’, which is the first Policy Direction article for the Journal of Applied Ecology. Policy Directions are a new article type relating to policy implementation and decision making. The focus of these articles is to inform and improve policy over a wide range of subjects by providing a broader policy context for the topic and relating it to the wider issues around constrained decision making.

You can also read a post from the Executive Editor of the Journal, Marc Cadotte here: ‘To fence or not to fence, that is the question

The Serengeti plains packed with calving wildebeest during their wet season migration is an unforgettable sight for those lucky enough to experience it. The Serengeti migration is the world’s largest remaining large mammal migration, with nearly 2 million animals making an annual perambulation across an ecosystem that is nearly 30 000km2 – substantially larger than one Wales Unit. Now rare, large mammal migrations are thought to have once been a much more widespread feature of the world’s dryland systems. Fencing and human encroachment have resulted in a dramatic reduction in these wildlife spectacles. However, as the Serengeti shows, those migrations that still remain are able to lure flocks of wildlife tourists from across the world, demonstrating their appeal to our human emotions. While we can only speculate as to why these migrations continue to fascinate us, we can be certain of their importance in the productive functioning of dryland ecosystems.Figure 1

With a recent resurgence in calls for more fences, our article on developing fencing policies for dryland ecosystems provides a timely reminder that there is still much we don’t know about the impacts of fencing on wildlife, people, and ecosystems. In our article we provide a framework and research agenda to address these gaps, and develop a better understanding of the impacts of large-scale fencing. We identify six research areas that are key to informing evaluations of fencing initiatives: economics; edge permeability; reserve design; connectivity; ecosystem services; and communities. While all ecosystems are potentially threatened by negative impacts from fencing, drylands are particularly vulnerable, due to the need of both wildlife and people to be able to move across vast landscapes in order to respond to unpredictable rainfall patterns. The research agenda in our article provides an evidence-base to enable better management and policy decisions on fencing in such dryland systems.

Our proposed research agenFigure 2da is welcomed by the Secretariat of the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS), which has become increasingly aware of the threat that large scale fencing interventions pose to our planet’s remaining terrestrial migrations. CMS is the international convention tasked with protecting migratory species. Signed in 1979, and coming into force in 1983, the Convention was established in recognition of the fact that migratory species are blind to national and political boundaries. Thus their conservation requires the international cooperation of all countries harbouring any part of their movement pathways or corridors. The definition of migratory species used by CMS is quite broad and includes those species that are nomadic or have large home ranges, such as many large mammals inhabiting dryland systems. Key to all species covered by CMS is a dependence on international cooperation for their conservation.

In Africa there is a current preoccupation with barrier fencing around reserves as a response to escalating human wildlife conflict. However, CMS has become increasingly aware of an emerging threat from large-scale fencing driven by infrastructure development and border protection. Such fencing initiatives are already having substantial impacts in Asia, and CMS has recently paid particular attention to the negative effects of border fences (between Russia, Mongolia, China) and the Trans-Mongolia railroad, which is fenced on both sides. These extensive border and railroad fences constitute major obstacles to the movements of ungulates such as the Mongolian Gazelle, Goitered Gazelle and Khulan (Mongolian wild ass). In particular, they interrupt the historic east–west migration routes of the Mongolian Gazelle, one of the few remaining large mammal migration spectacles in the world. The erection of such fences, for purposes that are often completely unrelated to wildlife management, constitute serious barriers to migratory movements.Figure 3

In contrast, CMS is aware that fences can be an important tool for the conservation of species of concern. They have been used to protect core areas against overgrazing, such as the extremely arid and vulnerable areas in Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal, which are key to the survival of many species of threatened ungulates. CMS is also concerned about the impact of human–wildlife conflict on both wildlife and on vulnerable livelihoods of marginalised people, and would like to better understand the impacts of fencing, or alternative methods, if used to mitigate such conflicts. Moreover, with increasing encroachment of people into the migratory pathways of terrestrial mammals, fences could be used to protect corridors and allow wildlife to move through landscapes that have been subject to extreme anthropogenic modification. Such fences could even be used to help rewild and re-establish past migratory pathways. Understanding the negative, as well as the positive, impacts of such fencing on non-target wildlife and ecosystem services will be critical to the overall success of such schemes.

Figure 4As a response to our article the Scientific Council of CMS proposes to form a Working Group on “Fencing problems and policies in dryland ecosystems”. As well as interested scientific councillors, the Scientific Council of CMS will invite representatives of the scientific bodies of UNCCD and World Heritage Conventions and scientists active in the field to join the Working Group. The Working Group will use the framework in our article to construct a catalogue of problems and solutions and agree on a set of recommendations. These can eventually be adopted by the Conferences of the Parties of the respective conventions, where appropriate.

If our proposed research agenda and framework is addressed, through the support of CMS and others, the resulting evidence base will enable better evaluation of fencing interventions and facilitate wise decision-making. This is particularly important for the world’s last remaining terrestrial migrations, many of which face serious threats. There is an urgent need to move this agenda forward if we are to secure the protection of those migratory pathways that still remain. It would be a tragedy if the awe-inspiring natural phenomena of large mammal migrations were to be consigned to the history books.