Protecting Animal Migrations

06/29/2010 01:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you've ever visited East Africa to see the Great Migration, you will have likely been struck by two things: first, a sense of wonderment as thousands of animals move in a faithful cycle across great expanses of uncharted land. Second, a concern that it will not continue. Currently 1.8 million wildebeest and zebra make their way across East Africa, following grasses whose freshness depends on the rainy season. Equally extraordinary migrations occur the world over among populations of salmon, butterflies, birds -- even dragonflies. Sadly, most are critically threatened by human development and changes in climate. The changes to these migrations have diminished animal populations, which depend on such patterns of movement for survival. If population loss among species continues, there will be equally devastating ecological and economic consequences for mankind. Protecting animal migrations must soon become a priority: A worldwide regulatory body should be established to monitor the populations and migratory success of animals that travel beyond national boundaries. It should ensure that countries, companies and individuals who threaten to either destroy or profit from migrations should be taxed as a means of economically supporting the efforts it will take to regulate and protect current migratory patterns.

David Wilcove, in his book "No Way Home: The Decline of the World's Great Animal Migrations," explores migratory patterns among all types of animals whose patterns are currently threatened and explains why it is so critical to protect them, both from an economical and ecological standpoint. For example, Wilcove argues, salmon are one of the most important gifts to the agricultural community in the Pacific Northwest: After having migrated back up river to spawn, salmon inevitably die and decompose, releasing critical amounts of nitrogen and other nutrients into the river water, which in turn seeps into the land. Salmon nitrogen has been measured as one of the most nutritive components in grapes growing in Napa Valley vineyards. But the decline in salmon populations due to pollution and warming water is staggering. In order to preserve their existence, companies that pollute into critical river beds, like the Cowlitz or Colombia Rivers, should pay a tax that could go towards efforts to preserve and bolster salmon populations. Additionally, agricultural entities, restaurants and individuals who buy or fish for wild salmon in that area should be taxed for the privilege.

Bird migration has also been critically affected by climate change in the last few years. Birds rely on signals from the sun to start their journey back North in the early spring. Unfortunately, the sustenance they rely on to fuel their journey is no longer appearing in conjunction with their flight. Because temperatures have been rising successively, caterpillar larvae have been appearing earlier in the first months of spring: by the time birds make their migration, many of these critical sources of protein and fat have already flown away -- either as butterflies or moths. Because birds rely on a fixed signal to begin their journey, it is virtually impossible for them to coordinate their voyage with their food source. A nearly 50% decline in many bird species has been noted in the last few years. Indeed, a 90% decline in populations of Pied Flycatchers in the Netherlands has been attributed to these alternating cues and their consequences. Without birds, the health of our forests and ecosystems is severely compromised. Clearly, it is impossible to say who exactly should be accountable for rising temperatures, but taxes could easily be imposed on cities and companies that erect impassable high rises, cell phone towers and electrical wires as well as airports, which are all highly disruptive to bird flight paths. Individuals who hunt birds should pay an annual fee towards their protection, and hunting gear should include a small tax that could support conservation. Birders should also be asked to pay a small tax on gear, seed and other bird watching equipment.

The Great Migration in Africa is a beautiful example of how nature and humanity can live in tandem: in 2008, approximately 1.5 million people visited Kenya and Tanzania, most of them eco-tourists. Clearly, preserving the migration is critical to both the ecology and the economy of both countries, yet Tanzania has recently begun reconsidering the creation of a road directly through the northern end of the Serengeti National Park. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, "... the proposed road would sever a critical corridor for the annual migration of hundreds of thousands of wildebeests and zebra, which has been rightly called one of the 'greatest spectacles on earth'." The road would be subsidized by the Chinese Government, making it as much a political as ecological and economic issue. This situation highlights the importance of a globally-based, nation-neutral conservation organization dedicated to preserving global migrations. In the meantime, alternate roads have been proposed by the African Wildlife Foundation. In an ideal world, the Tanzanian and Chinese governments would both be taxed for the creation and use of the road in order to ensure that such a large manmade structure not impede critical animal movement. The Kenyan and Tanzanian tourism industries should also contribute to the creation and maintenance of a multinational conservation organization that could ultimately help protect both wildlife and economic interests.

As Mr. Wilcove asserts, animals are worth more alive than dead. A disruption in migration would surely signal the beginning of the end of many species, and the hidden cost of such a risk is one that the planet cannot afford. Resources that may seem limitless are, in fact, finite, and responsibility to the world's ecosystems must quickly become a top priority if the degradation of habitats and the altercation in behavioral patterns is to change. We owe species whose patterns are threatened enough to create funds for the study and preservation of migrations worldwide: after all, as Wilcove reminds us, the thousands of miles these animals journey is the ultimate act of faith.