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Protecting Wildlife With Fences Can Do More Harm Than Good, Say Scientists

Protecting Wildlife With Fences Can Do More Harm Than Good, Say Scientists

Whether it’s being used to keep wild animals safe from us, or us safe from them, scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) are urging conservationists to use fencing as a last resort.

The debate about fencing has divided wildlife officials, conservation organizations and scientists, with supporters arguing that it’s necessary to reduce wildlife conflicts with humans, protect endangered species and keep livestock safe from predation or the spread of diseases.

In March 2013, lion biologist Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota fueled the debate when he and 57 co-authors published a study in the journal Ecology Letters arguing in favor of fencing as a tool to help save Africa’s lions after studying lion densities at 42 reserves.

They argued that lions had already lost 75 percent of their habitat and that the population of humans in Africa would only continue to grow leading to further loss, while they predicted that nearly half the unfenced lion populations may decline to near extinction over the next 20–40 years.

The study was later countered by other scientists, who believe fencing can do more harm than good. Opponents raised concerns about how fencing can alter habitats and migration routes, along with raising serious questions about how we decide which species is the most important to save. They also raised concerns about the subsequent problems that come with trying to manage landscapes to benefit a single species.

After weighing the pros and cons of large-scale fencing, scientists from the ZSL and WCS are weighing in and arguing in a new paper published in the journal Science that it should only be used as a last resort.

“In some parts of the world, fencing is part of the culture of wildlife conservation – it’s assumed that all wildlife areas have to be fenced. But fencing profoundly alters ecosystems, and can cause some species to disappear. We’re asking that conservationists as well as other sectoral interests carefully weigh up the biodiversity costs and benefits of new and existing fences,” said ZSL’s Rosie Woodroffe, lead author of the study, in a statement.

While they agree that fencing can have benefits and has helped some wild animals, they believe that segregating wildlife can drastically impact the landscape and make some species more vulnerable to extinction by isolating populations. In some cases fence wire has also ironically become a tool for poachers who steal it and use it to make snares.

Unfortunately, the loss of top predators can be particularly harmful as the impact trickles down through the ecosystem. When it comes to large migratory animals, they don’t just need access to vast areas to support their populations, they need to be able to move freely. Fencing has already been blamed for the drastic decline in wildebeest populations by blocking their migration routes between wet and dry areas.

Along with concerns about habitat fragmentation, the scientists also raised concerns about the need for wildlife to be able to relocate on their own as climate change impacts their environments and access to food and water. They believe fence removal in some places may be necessary in the future.

They also hope that with other measures that will benefit both humans and animals, priorities will be placed on keeping open spaces as connected as possible before anyone decides to turn to fencing.

“A variety of alternative approaches – including better animal husbandry, community-based crop-guarding, insurance schemes, and wildlife-sensitive land-use planning – can be used to mitigate conflicts between people and wildlife without the need for fencing. WCS projects working with local people and government agencies have shown that human–elephant conflict can be dramatically reduced without using fences in countries as different as Indonesia and Tanzania,” said co-author Simon Hedges of WCS.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that whatever is done, it’s going to be expensive.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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78 comments

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11:26AM PDT on Jul 2, 2014

It's a double-edged "fence".

3:40AM PDT on Jun 30, 2014

I hate it when wildlife is fenced in. It seems to defeat the purpose of being wild.

3:05PM PDT on Apr 14, 2014

the plight of wild animals and humanity's inhumane actions is very, very sad and awful. ty for this important article

12:29PM PDT on Apr 11, 2014

They have our same right to live here, humans should leave animals alone and don't destroy everything.

6:10AM PDT on Apr 11, 2014

Hate the idea of fences but if it means that an animal can be kept safe then I have to say we need to protect them. Humans have stolen the habitats of so many wild creatures - I hate the arrogance, the hypocrisy and selfishness of the human species.

2:03PM PDT on Apr 10, 2014

WELL IN THE NATIONAL PARKS, NOT HAVING FENCING WILL NOT STOP THE POACHERS WILL IT! LOOK AT THE RATE OF ELEPHANT DECLINE!!!

10:24AM PDT on Apr 10, 2014

noted

8:09AM PDT on Apr 10, 2014

As a child I remember a trip to a wildlife park. I became fascinated by a lynx in a fenced enclosure walking backwards and forwards, shaking its head from side to side, along the same portion of that fence, over and over again. Now, with an adult head on my shoulders, I know why it behaved like that and I can hate the thought that I ever went there, hate the knowledge that this animal should never have been where it was in such circumstances as it was, hate the behaviours and attitudes of humans that made it so, many years ago...and, looking at the wider picture, I continue to despise the continued and, in some cases, worsening behaviours and attitudes of humans that have seen us drive so many species to extinction or near-extinction as the years have passed. Barbara L is right: as stewards of this amazing home we share we have utterly failed. Fences to enclose those who have learned nothing might just save the rest of us and give those species on the brink one last chance.

5:28AM PDT on Apr 10, 2014

como pueden poner en una balanza el dinero a invertir y la fauna salvaje...dejemos de robarles su habitad!!

5:09AM PDT on Apr 10, 2014

What a shock that the lions of Africa might be extinct within the next 20-40 years unless changes happen.

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