Illustrating just how imperiled global migrations are, a 2009 study in Endangered Species Research surveyed two dozen large ungulate species (hoofed animals) known for their migratory patterns, including some well-known species, such as caribou (Rangifer tarandus), American bison, elk (Cervus elaphus), Burchell’s zebra (Equus burchellii), blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) and saiga.
In Eurasia half of the migratory species have been largely ignored by science.
Shockingly, almost all 24 focal species lost migration routes and suffered population declines. Six of the focal species either no longer migrated at all or, in a couple of cases, no longer survived in the wild: the springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) used to form some of the world’s largest migrations; the black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) was nearly exterminated and has relied on reintroduction efforts; the blesbok (Damaliscus dorcas) is not endangered but no longer migrates; the dwindling population of wild ass or kulan (Equus hemionus) of central Asia was cut in half in just 16 years; the scimitar horned oryx (Oryx dammah) is extinct in the wild, but there are plans for reintroduction; and the quagga (Equus quagga) from southern Africa is simply gone.
Part of the problem has simply been a lack of awareness: Researchers found that many of these migrations have been little studied. Although Africa includes the most large-scale migrations, the authors discovered that three migrating species had no publications on their population status at all. In Eurasia half of the migratory species have been largely ignored by science.
Preserving migrations, however, has proven even more difficult than identifying the causes in their decline.
“If we are going to conserve migrations and species, we need to identify what needs to be done: where migrations remain, how far animals move, their habitat needs and location, threats, and the knowledge gaps that needed to be filled,” says Joel Berger with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Montana. “For some of these species, such as the wildebeest and eland in Botswana, threats were identified decades ago. We as a society have made little progress at figuring out how to save migrations.”
Grant Harris of the American Museum of Natural History says that “a large part of this is an awareness issue. People don’t realize what we have and are losing.”
But preserving thousands to millions of individuals will be far from easy. Wilcove and Wikelski write that saving these migrations will pose “unique scientific and social challenges.” How does one approach preserving abundance, rather than settling for simple existence? The writers believe that protecting migrations will require action on the local, national and global level. Those in power will have to change their mind-set and protect a species before its population declines.
However, to date the importance of migrations has not penetrated the policy sphere. Even the world’s most well-known migration—the wildebeest in the Serengeti—is facing an existential threat from a road that could potentially cut off the movement of wildebeest, essentially stalling one of the greatest natural spectacles on Earth. Warnings from the tourism sector, environmental groups and international governments have to date failed to stop the Tanzanian government from proceeding on the road.
“If we are successful,” Wilcove and Wikelski write, “it will be because governments and individuals have learned to act proactively and cooperatively to address environmental problems, and because we have created an international network of protected areas that is capable of sustaining much of the planet’s natural diversity.”
The authors believe it would be well worth the energy and sacrifices required, considering the ecological services provided by these massive movements, the scientific importance of studying the mechanisms behind such migrations, and the perfect wonder of such spectacles. Migrations are a kind of culmination of nature’s potential—once so prevalent across the world, now only surviving in a few aberrant places.
Some great migrations do remain. Although in decline, monarch butterflies still cross international boundaries in astounding numbers. At least for now, some 2 million wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s gazelles travel across the African plains, providing food for many of Africa’s large predators, from lions to hyenas to crocodiles. Caribou still migrate in the thousands across the Arctic tundra. And as recently as 2007 a previously unknown migration was observed in the southern Sudan, with over a million antelopes, including the white-eared kob (Kobus kob), the tiang (Damaliscus lunatus) and the mongalla gazelle (Eudorcas albonotata).
Conservationist and adventurer Michael Fay said of the discovery: “This could represent the biggest migration of large mammals on Earth. I have never seen wildlife in such numbers, not even when flying over the mass migrations of the Serengeti.”
Although on the wane, great migrations still exist: The discovery of a new migration containing a million individuals buoys that point. Now, with proactive attention, great energy and global cooperation, such migrations could not only survive, but thrive. In the future—as in the past—millions of whales, saiga antelopes and even bison could move along migratory routes, completing their ecological role.
Excerpted from Life is Good: Conservation in an Age of Mass Extinction, published in 2011 by Mongabay and available at amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Momentum magazine, Ensia’s predecessor, as “On the Move.”