Managed Relocation: Offering hope to a desperate situation, or ?

During our mid-term class conference we were tasked with presenting the concluding points of our opinion piece assessments in just four minutes. Each of us presented our ideas to our peers and were asked to summarise the ideas of another classmate’s work.

glenny fig 1

Figure 1. Population and climate dynamics 

Will addressed the issues of ‘managed relocation’, the idea that we can relocate individuals to establish new populations outside of where the species is naturally found. This is a widely debated topic within conservation academic  with many arguing that it is equal to ‘planned invasion’ and will inevitably lead to ecological failure.

So why are we considering it as an option? As Will highlighted, this is a potential solution to the impending doom of climate change. Let’s take Will’s example of the UK butterfly species Thymelicus sylvestris. This butterfly is native to the North of England, but due to increasing temperatures, the range in which conditions are suitable for the species to live is moving northwards. Eager to maintain this butterfly’s population, conservation scientists moved many individuals further north and established new populations in a habitat now more suitable for the butterfly’s ecological and environmental needs.

But does this always work? Absolutely not! Introducing an invasive species to an area where it doesn’t naturally belong is risky; there are countless examples of disastrous introductions worldwide. A new species may destroy the existing ecosystem equilibrium potentially reducing the populations of native species. But Will also highlighted that in some cases, introduced species can actually improve present ecosystem conditions, but only if carefully managed!

Will highlighted the example of a species being relocated to improve the ecological functioning of another habitat outside of the relocated species native range. The Mascarene Islands are currently introducing a non-native giant tortoise species to the island to fill the niche of the, now extinct, native giant tortoise population. This is expected to increase overall island productivity and improve ecosystem services.

Benefits Risks
For Ecosystems Potential to improve host ecosystem functioning and productivity if the introduced species is carefully selected and managed
Can fill niches of extinct former species
Potential risk of new invasive species
Potential negative impacts on native flora and fauna
Could be unforeseen consequences
For Species Protects vulnerable species from extinction
Species conservation outside of captivityPotential for reintroduction to original habitat range with decreased warming
No guarantee that introduced species will respond well or succeed in new habitat conditions

If climate change continues at rapid rates the new habitat may also become unsuitable

For People Many wonderful species are saved for future generations to see
Potential to increase ecosystem services
Moral obligation fulfilled to save species damaged by anthropogenic effects
This is costly method of conservation
This could reduce the incentive to tackle climate changeTakes much time and lots of research but we need to act imminently

So why is there so much opposition? Many are arguing that this is counteractive to the original aims of conservation – ‘preserving species and ecosystems in their natural setting’, bringing up many ethical issues. Whilst this is true, managed relocation does occur outside of a species natural setting, Will thoroughly explained why it is his view that managed relocation can aid traditional conservation methods.

Will argued that this method offers us a solution to the issues of a rapidly changing climate. When faced with a choice to lose the species altogether, when existing habitat conditions become intolerable, or relocate the species to a new habitat, using sound ecological modelling techniques, many conservationists would choose the latter approach for the sake of species preservation.

So are we going to experience the second coming of Noah’s Ark? Probably not. At present it is only species such as slowly-maturing tree species are being considered for managed relocation. As Will informed us all, conservationists are careful and thoughtful people (mostly!). The predictive tools and risk assessments used to model species relocation today are so brilliant that we have relocated several species already whilst bringing minimal risk to the host ecosystems.
Success?! Only time will tell.

By Elle Glenny

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