Getting Scale (and Context) Right

Getting Scale (and Context) Right

Imagine standing in a vast grassland, a gently undulating sea of grass underneath a cloudless blue sky. The only sound is the wind howling across the landscape, sending pale yellow stalks rippling in waves. You are tiny, no more significant than one of those blades of grass. This is the Daurian Steppe, the grasslands of eastern Mongolia.

It is the home of the Mongolian gazelle. They roam across an area of 250,000 square kilometers, approximately the size of Oregon. They move continuously across the landscape, following the greening of the grass. However, the location of the best grass changes from year to year, as rainfall patterns vary. A herd of gazelle might visit an area one summer, and not return for ten years. They are nomadic, not migratory. How do you protect enough land to ensure the survival of the species when you can’t predict their location month to month, year to year?

This is the challenge faced by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Mongolia program and other conservationists working in the Daurian Steppe. The task given to myself and two other students in advance of the World Parks Congress was to put together a presentation about Mongolian gazelle for a session called ‘Innovative Protected Area Management.’ One question that congress delegates were trying to answer was, ‘How we can use protected areas to reach conservation goals?’ We wanted to find out, how can you use protected areas to protect a nomadic species such as the Daurian gazelle?

WCS proposes a combination of protected areas, sustainably managed working landscapes, mitigation of linear infrastructure development (roads and fences), and regulated hunting. These management tools may not seem particularly innovative or unusual; in fact, they are being used to conserve migratory species in different contexts around the world – for example, protecting migratory paths of elephants and wildebeests in Tanzania and saving the historic Path of the Pronghorn in Wyoming. However, there are no ‘one-size-fits-all’ conservation solutions. In Tanzania, creating sustainable working landscapes might mean helping pastoral Maasai communities find methods to prevent elephants and other wildlife from entering farms and raiding crops. In Mongolia it involves familiarizing community leaders with legislation regarding community partnerships and coordinating wildlife protection efforts. Every project must be designed to fit the situation where it will be implemented, incorporating social, economic, and ecological conditions.

This doesn’t mean that conservationists can’t learn from and adapt other projects. Last year a Mongolian delegation of government officials and mining industry executives visited the US to hear from the Montana Department of Transportation about their efforts to reduce the impacts that roads, railways, and fencing on wildlife movements. The need for transference of knowledge is one of the reasons that the World Parks Congress occurs – so that directors and managers of conservation areas have the opportunity to hear about projects being implemented elsewhere and to actually speak to the project managers. Conservation challenges such as protecting a nomadic species from habitat loss, fragmentation, and poaching may not require innovative tools – just the creative and contextual application of knowledge and experience learned elsewhere.