Reviving and restoring our ecosystems, in support of World Environment Day 2021
World Environment Day - a United Nations initiative - falls on Saturday June 5.
This year its mission is to raise awareness of the ways in which humans can revive and restore ecosystems.
Bristol Zoological Society’s Director of Conservation, Mr Brian Zimmerman, explains how this year’s World Environment Day theme ties in closely with the Society’s strategic aspirations, and why it has never been more important to be a part of #GenerationRestoration.
BZ: There’s no doubt the world we live in has taken the brunt of a growing, more demanding population. We lead busy lives; often requiring us to travel by vehicle, to purchase produce that can be consumed quickly, and to build more housing and infrastructure to cope with an increasing population.
While this is going on, our precious ecosystems -- such as ponds, rivers and forests, and all the living creatures within them -- are either having to adapt or are being completely eradicated.
But it’s not too late. There are ways -- some quite small -- that we can all work to protect the ecosystems that we rely so heavily on. These include understanding potential threats, by being more considerate in our actions and by taking responsible measures to restore what is under threat or at risk of being taken away.
The following are some examples of the conservation efforts that I oversee, both here in the UK and across the world, which are helping to do just that.
Silent plight beneath the surface
Living beneath the surfaces of UK chalk streams are some of the country's most threatened native species.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing they exist. However, a creature which once flourished has now seen a 70 per cent decline in numbers since the 1970s and is at risk of becoming completely extinct from Great Britain in the next 20 years.
Endangered white-clawed crayfish are under threat of extinction due to the spread of invasive North American signal crayfish, which compete for food and habitat and carry crayfish plague -- a disease which is deadly to the native species and can be spread by humans on wet wellington boots, walking boots, fishing tackle and nets.
Not only do they have the threat of the invasive species, their ecosystem is also threatened by habitat fragmentation and pollution.
In response to this decline, in 2008 we set up the South West Crayfish Partnership, alongside other organisations such as the Environment Agency, Cefas, The Wildlife Trusts and Buglife, to help turn around the plight of the species.
Through captive breeding in our very own hatchery at Bristol Zoo Gardens, to establishing ark sites in the South West, combined with a strong communications strategy and an invasive crayfish control programme, we have been able to rear and return more than 5,000 of the indigenous white-clawed crayfish to UK waterways.
Our work continues and we have recently completed the restoration of an old, overgrown pond at Bristol Zoological Society’s Wild Place Project to provide a safe, new habitat for these endangered crayfish to breed.
We are proud that we have now established 19 safe refuge or ‘ark sites’ for native white-clawed crayfish across the south west of England. These steps are critical in ensuring the long-term survival of this species.
There are many ways in which you can help us to stop the spread of invasive plants and animals from one water body to another, by ensuring you check, clean and dry all equipment, as well as shoes and clothing that have been around waterways.
Around 5,800 miles away, in one of the world’s most important hotspots for biodiversity, a team from Bristol Zoological Society is currently focusing their efforts on reforestation -- to protect threatened species in north-west Madagascar.
Among those threatened species include lemurs that live in trees planted to provide shade for cacao plantations. When no longer required, the cacao trees are cut down to make way for new plantations -- removing much-needed habitats.
Bristol Zoological Society has recently been awarded funding to continue our work to protect species which live in the trees, and allow us to continue evaluating reforestation efforts inside the Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park, our long-term field site.
This year we hope to use this funding to create a permanent tree nursery to grow saplings and help establish natural corridors for lemur species such as the blue-eyed black lemur and Sahamalaza sportive lemur, which are nearing extinction.
These new tree corridors will allow lemurs to move between the forest fragments within the national park, leading to an increase in the size of the habitat and allow the growth of lemur populations.
It’s hard to imagine that the woodland paths we explore today in the UK would have once been trodden by species such as brown bears, wolves and lynx.
As we moved through the centuries, a range of ‘exotic’ creatures inhabited our canopied ecosystems but, as the world developed, their numbers dwindled until they eventually became extinct in the UK.
Woodlands, similar to those at Wild Place Project, covered Britain thousands of years ago but have been steadily cut down for building, housing, fuel, growing crops and making paper. Today ancient woodlands – described as having existed continuously since 1600 or before – are home to many threatened species and cover only two per cent of the UK.
Ancient woodland is one of the richest habitats for wildlife in the UK, providing a home for hundreds of species of animals and plants.
In order to protect what remains, we need to inspire the next generation about the importance of this unique habitat. We believe that the best way to do this is to immerse people in these woods and show them the amazing diversity that is at stake.
Rewilding efforts in the UK aim to inspire people about the now-extinct native species that we once had, while encouraging them to protect the woodland and wildlife we have left. This is showcased in the woodland habitat at our Bear Wood exhibit at Wild Place Project.
Bear Wood opened in 2019 and is home to European brown bears, Gemini, Albie, Neo and Nilas, who share their woodland home with four wolves just as they would in the wild. A family of lynxes and two wolverines also live beneath the trees in Bear Wood, in separate areas of the exhibit.
A little makes a huge difference
Time is precious and resources are tight, but there are simple ways in which you can contribute towards the theme of this year’s World Environment Day:
It doesn’t matter whether you have a garden, a balcony or a windowsill -- you can still take care of nature. Lots of plants attract insects, including bees, which play an important role in pollination and benefit from nectar-rich flowering plants.
Search for local community groups that are focusing their efforts on reviving ecosystems. These might include community garden groups, frog patrol groups, tree planting groups, ocean conservation groups, beach cleanup crews and climate action groups
Pick up rubbish on your travels and dispose of it correctly, recycling wherever possible
Be considered in your shopping habits by avoiding purchasing food packaged in plastic and by looking at the ingredients in your produce
Purchase locally-produced food and products to reduce your carbon footprint
Purchase organic products whenever possible to reduce dependence on harmful pesticides
Avoid any cleaning products that display the symbol showing them to be harmful to aquatic life
Stop your pet cats and dogs from disturbing or killing wildlife by keeping them under control at all times
If you have a garden consider adding a wildlife pond. Freshwater habitats, no matter how small, support incredible biodiversity that also benefits land-dwelling animals and insect-feeding birds like swifts and swallows
Clean your clothing and shoes after walking outdoors
Turn off your electric sockets when not in use
Collect water in water butts and only water your plants in the evening
Come and visit us at Bristol Zoo Gardens or Wild Place Project. Both attractions are run by Bristol Zoological Society, which is a conservation and education charity and relies on the generous support of the public not only to fund its important work at both zoos, but also its vital conservation work and education and community outreach programme.
Bristol, Clifton & West of England Zoological Society Ltd. Registered office: Bristol Zoo Gardens, Clifton, Bristol, BS8 3HA. Company registered in England, number 5154176. Charity registered number 1104986.