Moving Along: Preserving the Great Wildlife Migrations

by Yee Huang

October 28, 2010

On November 7, the National Geographic Channel is premiering Great Migrations, a seven-episode series that chronicles the movements of animals on every continent, from the magnificent monarch butterfly migration from Mexico to northern Canada to the impressive wildebeest migration across the plains of the Serengeti.

A report by the United Nations concluded that climate change will impact population sizes, species distribution, the timing of reproduction and migration events, and the increased vulnerability to disease and predation. Compounding these effects are additional human-induced changes to the natural environment, including habitat degradation and destruction, water and air pollution, and the spread of invasive species. Of all the organisms on the planet, migratory species are among the most affected by climate change, which has the potential to affect each step of their life cycle.  A Kenyan newspaper recently reported that this year’s wildebeest migration was abruptly shortened, possibly due to the serious drought in Tanzania last year.

Because so many migratory species cross international boundaries, the United Nations recognized the importance of conserving the habitat in each range state through which animals migrate. On June 23, 1979, member states of the United Nations concluded and adopted the Convention of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), also known as the Bonn Convention. It embraces the idea that wild animals constitute a common natural heritage of humankind and should be protected for present and future generations. Currently 114 states are party to the Convention, with an additional 34 states—including the United States—that participate in agreements developed under the Convention framework.

The Convention addresses two categories of migratory animals. Appendix I lists migratory species that face extinction, and states in which these species are found “shall endeavor to conserve and, where feasible and appropriate, restore” the species’ habitats and prevent and mitigate activities that further jeopardize the species. These range states must also prohibit the taking of endangered migratory species. Appendix II includes migratory species that need or would benefit from international cooperation. For these species, the Convention encourages states to sign agreements between and among themselves to protect migratory species. These agreements take a variety of forms, from legally binding treaties to memoranda of understanding. For example, binding treaties exist for the conservation of European bats, African-Eurasian migratory waterbirds, albatrosses and petrels, and gorillas. MOUs exist for certain population of the African elephant, sharks, High Andean flamingoes, and marine turtles in specific geographic regions.

The Bonn Convention has the potential to morph into effective and strong protection for migratory wildlife. However, like many international environmental treaties, it is considered a “sleeping treaty” that has yet to awake to its full potential. Compliance and enforcement are generally lackluster, and it has generally been criticized for its Eurocentric outlook (see Richard Caddell, International Law and the Protection of Migratory Wildlife: An Appraisal of Twenty-Five Years of the Bonn Convention, 16 Colo. J. Int’l Envtl. L. & Pol’y 113 (2005)). In addition, many of the agreements taken under the Convention are in their early stages, making it difficult to assess their effectiveness.

One of the greatest strengths of the Convention, however, is the existing structure for sharing information and expertise. Migratory species are notoriously difficult to study (tracking devices fall off, for example), so what information is collected should be shared among range states. To better use the Convention in the face of climate change, however, states should include climate change considerations into future agreements or MOUs and revise existing agreements. These considerations may capture a host of inconvenient political, economic, and social decisions but must be thoughtfully addressed to preserve this common heritage—wild animals—for present and future generations.

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