by Jacoba Poppleton

Consider the rolling landscapes and distant horizons of the Bandipur National Park and Tiger Reserve in southern India, where subsistence pastoralists herd their cattle into the wildlife reserve. This wild rangeland, and others like it is becoming increasingly vulnerable.

At face value, the rangeland is simply the scene for the distribution of resources—where food for the grazing animals, profit for the herders, and manure for the rangeland is produced and recycled. The situation, however, is more complicated than that.

Rather than being a simple exchange of nutrients—food for pastoral animals, fertilizer for the rangeland—this practice is actually removing nutrients from the rangeland and negatively impacting the ecosystem.

On the reserve pastoralists collect manure from grazing animals, and instead of letting it decompose naturally and fertilize the delicate ecosystem, the manure is collected, dried and exported for organic fertilizer on coffee plantations in the Indian highlands. This income allows villagers around Bandipur to purchase cheap industrial fertilizers for their own crops and get by with an attractive profit. But this practice is unsustainable; nutrients are effectively mined from the rangeland in the wildlife reserve with long-term negative consequences. The effect: demand for organic coffee in developed countries can cause rangeland degradation and dependence on industrial fertilizers in a less developed country.

Like the stripping of nutrients from the rangelands of Bandipur, global-scale problems are damaging other economically depressed regions. According to USU researcher Johan du Toit, “Those who depend on the rangeland for survival are traditionally an economically depressed and marginalized group.”

At least 40 percent of the Earth’s surface fits within the classification of “rangelands,” a natural habitat for humans and animals; recently these rangelands began to change. Social, economic, climatic and ecological factors are causing damage of rangelands around the globe.

“The degradation of rangelands is a global issue,” said du Toit. “With problems as large as this, the solution must also be large. We must better understand the changes on the global scale in order to find a solution.”

To promote an understanding of the major issues affecting the Earth’s rangelands, the Zoological Society of London and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society commissioned du Toit, department head of wildland resources in USU’s College of Natural Resources, to serve as editor of Wild Rangelands: Conserving Wildlife While Maintaining Livestock in Semi-Arid Ecosystems.

“It is because rangelands are degrading at such a rapid rate that this book was written,” said du Toit. “Our resources, including animals and people who rely on them, are declining in most rangelands outside of well protected areas.”

In addition to changes brought about by livestock production and over-hunting of wildlife, the discovery and utilization of energy resources are impacting the wildness of rangelands. For-profit drilling for fuel and the cultivation of food-crops for biofuel production, then, only exacerbate the problem as global warming brings further change around the globe.

The fifteen chapters in Wild Rangelands, especially one by du Toit on the management gap that arises on rangelands because livestock production and wildlife conservation operate differently, offer examples of how well managed rangelands could help sustain other ecosystems too.

Take, for example, the bush-meat problem in the forests of Ghana. Most of the 20 million residents of Ghana live near the coast and have long relied on fishing as a source of employment and of protein. But foreign fishing fleets, subsidized by the European Union, have increased their harvests from the Gulf of Guinea twenty-fold since 1950.

The fish are consumed by Europeans; what remains is left for the people of West Africa. As protein supplies decline, the result is an increased consumption of bush-meat, with severe consequences for forest wildlife resources.

“Unfortunately, without an international agreement that will regulate the fishing activities of foreign fleets, especially those subsidized by the European Union, efforts to stop the consumption of bush-meat are futile,” said du Toit.

Alternative sources of protein need to be found to reduce bush-meat consumption, a problem because sustainable and efficiently networked livestock production systems remain underdeveloped in the rangelands of West Africa.

“Conserving wildlife in West Africa requires an integrated program that covers marine waters, forests and rangelands, and that operates across institutional levels to address the nutritional demand for protein as well as the long-term requirement for sustainable livestock production in West African rangelands,” said du Toit.

Wild Rangelands grew out of discussions at a 2006 conference hosted by the Zoological Society of London about how to deal with these issues of rangeland conservation. Scholars from that conference worked with colleagues to present case studies from each of the continents of the world, while leading specialists from a range of disciplines synthesized the information and identified common themes.

“Wild Rangelands allows for a discussion of the challenges of conserving wildlife while maintaining livestock communities in ecosystems considered wild, that is, areas without complete human control,” said du Toit.

“There is no silver bullet solution to tackle the challenges facing the rangelands and the lives they support,” said du Toit. “However, it is my hope, and the hope of contributors to the book, that by engaging in a conversation about what is at risk, we can positively influence the futures of the world’s rangelands.”

“The degradation of rangelands is a global issue. with problems as large as this, the solution must also be large. We must better understand the changes on the global scale in order to find a Solution,” said Du Toit