Climate change is arguably the pre-eminent challenge facing the conservation of wildlife and wild places. Global warming threatens the integrity of marine and terrestrial habitats and interrupts natural cycles such as migration and hibernation.
WCS China is addressing this challenge to ensure the long-term success of our conservation efforts. We work on the ground with communities that depend on natural resources to help them find mutually-beneficial solutions to relieve the stress on fragile ecosystems. We also work closely with governments and corporations to reduce the human footprint on ecosystem balance both at the local and global scale.
Warming has already begun to affect wildlife by shifting species’ ranges, altering the timing of seasonal events, decreasing snowpacks and streamflows, increasing lake and stream water temperatures, and melting glaciers. As China and the rest of the planet continue to warm, the conservation of diminishing water sources will likely become a major focus for local communities and public land managers. Other anticipated changes include the expansion of severe wildfires, increased drought frequency and severity, increased plant and wildlife disease outbreaks and insect infestations, and the degradation of vulnerable habitats, all with major implications for wildlife. There is a growing need for conservation actions now to help offset inevitable changes in landscapes and wildlife populations.
The Tibetan Plateau in China has been experiencing the most intense climate-change related effects in recent years. WCS is severely concerned that these can have a dramatic impact not only on unique ecosystem of the Plateau, but also on the watersheds which China, South and Southeast Asian countries depend upon. We have serious concerns that Tibet will experience climate change to a greater degree than much of the rest of the planet. Because of its sensitivity, there is high probability that the subsequent alteration to water and vegetation regimes will result in a relevant disruption of the ecosystems and human livelihoods in the region.
WCS China is developing management guidelines for conserving priority landscapes and species in light of rapidly changing climate by:
- Detecting and understanding the consequences of climate change for wildlife. We do this by conducting research on the projected and observed vulnerability of particular habitats, ecosystems and wildlife species to climate change, as well as the capacity of those species and systems to cope with climate-driven impacts.
- Promoting capacity building training to local authorities, nature reserve officers and community leaders to collect and report accurate data about climate, vegetation and wildlife.
- Working with local, regional, state and national natural resource managers and private landowners to identify and prioritize critical wildlife sites, and to implement wildlife conservation and land management strategies that increase ecosystems' resilience from climate change.
- Encouraging public authorities to set up core and buffer zones, as well as migration corridors that allow wildlife and the resources they rely on to move and persist as climate changes.
- Developing adaptive management guidelines and selected species as biological indicators for the effects of climate change. This will facilitate the decision-making of government authorities on wildlife management based on multiple scenarios.
- Providing climate-change information in a readily usable form to policy-makers and local management authorities.
The Wildlife Conservation Society and TibetIn 2006, WCS launched a three-year project funded by ECBP (EU-China Biodiversity Programme) with the objectives of gathering baseline biodiversity and social data, and building the capacity of nomadic herders, government staff at different levels, and research institutes in the project area, thereby empowering their participation in the development and implementation of a coordinated ‘Changtang Region Landscape Conservation Management Plan.’ Through this project WCS has developed strong partnerships with the local agencies responsible for natural resource management, including the Tibetan Academy of Agriculture and Animal Sciences and the Tibetan Forestry Bureau.
WCS has helped gather the first baseline data on wildlife of the Tibetan Plateau. However, local capacity remains insufficient to properly manage this enormous alpine grassland and monitor wildlife and other biota on the Plateau, data critical to monitoring the effect of climate change on this fragile ecosystem, and developing adaptive management prescriptions to mitigate threats to the region’s globally unique assemblage of endangered species.
Global climate models project that Tibet, owing to its dual characteristics of aridity and extremely high elevation, is likely to experience an amplified response to climate change – potentially one of the greatest responses outside of the polar regions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections for Tibet forecast that mean temperature will increase by 4–5°C by the end of the 21st Century, while significant increases in annual precipitation accumulation will occur across much of the landscape. Because of Tibet’s aridity and elevation, the region’s fragile ecosystem has an enhanced environmental susceptibility to even subtle changes in temperature and rainfall regimes.
Observations from the past several decades support the conclusion that Tibet is already experiencing significantly the warmer temperatures and increased precipitation consistent with model projections. An average temperature rise of 0.32°C per decade has been registered since 1961, well above the global mean (~0.1°C per decade) and approximately six times greater than much of the rest of mainland China (0.05–0.08°C per decade). Intensified seasonal melting has accelerated glacial recession, increased river flows and caused lake levels to rise. Satellite observations indicate vegetation biomass has increased over southern portions of the plateau since 1985, and these increases are strongly correlated with temperature and precipitation increases. Changes in vegetation biomass may lead to modifications in wildlife distribution and influence migration patterns (e.g. changes in grazing patterns and a possible increase in the number of livestock), likely resulting in greater conflict between livestock and wildlife.
Climate change is also causing glacial retreat in this region, which is impacting the hydrological processes in the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding regions. For example, the Baishui Glacier has been receding at a rate of over 250 meters a year over the last two decades, increasing river runoff by more than 5.5%. Glacial retreat has also caused rising lake levels in the areas with large coverage of glaciers, which can have severe impacts on grasslands and villages near the lakes. The full extent of both short-term effects such as increased run-off and rising lake levels, and likely long-term effects that may dramatically affect timing and levels of runoff for the headwaters of some the most important rivers in Asia (including the Mekong, Indus, and Brahmaputra) are unknown. However, they are likely to have widespread environmental and economic impacts throughout the enormous downriver watersheds that extend across much of South and Southeast Asia.
These trends are likely to increase conflicts between human activities (such as breeding livestock) and wildlife, as well as the risk for interbreeding and genetic contamination with alien species. This includes diseases unknown to local wildlife, such as those that can be shared between livestock and the wild ungulates.
Ultimately, climate change is threatening with extinction many species that have low resilience to habitat disruption, fragmentation, resources competition and alien diseases.