The Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published earlier this month was a sobering read. Three-quarters of the land on our small planet has now been significantly altered by human actions, and 1 million species are threatened with extinction. However, tucked away at the back was a list of some of the actions that can and do work in helping to save species – including ‘translocations’. Conservation translocation is a term used to describe the moving and releasing of species where the primary goal is a conservation benefit – the best known examples are reintroductions – returning a species to an area from which it has disappeared.
There are a range of methods in the conservationist’s toolkit that can be used to help a threatened species such as habitat restoration, designating and managing special sites, and putting in place effective legal protection. Conservation translocation tends to get used when these options might not be enough on their own. Translocating species is usually not easy, and projects can require ecological expertise, animal husbandry or plant cultivation skills, consultations with stakeholders, communication skills and so on. And of course resources are needed, in terms of both people and money.
All of this means there are risks associated with such projects, in biological and socio-economic terms. The reintroduction of a predator, for example, may present real and perceived risks to people’s livelihoods, whereas the reintroduction of a plant to a woodland is unlikely to be so contentious, but could involve addressing extremely complex biological requirements.
The good news is that the art and science of conservation translocation are improving all the time, and there are internationally agreed guidelines produced by the IUCN. In Scotland we’ve developed some pioneering approaches now being copied by other countries. A ‘Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations’ has been produced, the first of its kind in the world – put together by the National Species Reintroduction Forum which includes representatives from the land management as well as the conservation sectors. The reintroduction to Scotland of species such as red kite, white-tailed eagle and Eurasian beaver, and the reinforcement of the south Scotland golden eagle population, have received a lot of media attention. These projects have demonstrated some of the challenges in trying to bring back a species but at the same time taking account the effects the reintroduction might have on the people who now have to live with them.
However there are many other fascinating Scottish projects that have received far less fanfare – for example, reintroductions of woolly willow, alpine sow-thistle, freshwater pearl mussel, pine hoverfly, vendace and others. And we now export our species too! Ospreys, pine martens, and beavers have all been provided to other countries for their own conservation translocation projects.
More radical ideas are now being considered, such as ‘assisted colonisation’ which involves moving species to places where they have not previously been recorded. Assisted colonisation could help species with poor dispersal abilities that are running out of climate space as our environment changes. Indeed, we’ve already tried this in Scotland by moving a rare mountain-top lichen to other mountain tops.
The threat to our biodiversity is now critical. Conservation translocation is, ultimately, a desperate measure – but one that is likely to be used more and more. However, by using the type of best practice approaches we’ve developed in Scotland, the chances of success, in terms of the species themselves but also for the people that live with them, can be much improved. It’s a small win at the global scale, but one worth celebrating.