The Loss of Big Carnivores is a Big Problem

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The world’s monsters are in danger, and that’s a truly scary thing. Researcher have made a strong case over the last few decades that large carnivores are essential ecosystem managers  whose influence is felt throughout the food web and affects their prey, their competition and plant life (a ripple effect known as a trophic cascade). They rein in herbivores by preying on them and changing they way they act by creating a “landscape of fear” and keep smaller mesopredators in check through competition and intimidation. With tooth and claw, they regulate some of an ecosystem’s many moving parts, almost always for the better.

Large predators are valuable in less obvious ways, too. By killing and controlling herbivore prey, they help reduce competition between wild and domestic herbivores for grazing, keep diseases from spilling over from one group to the other and give plants the chance to flourish, which helps keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. The carcasses they leave behind feed scavengers and cycle nutrients through the food web year-round, and help buffer the boom-and-bust cycle that climates change creates for these grisly resources. They’re also big business for humans, and help drive tourism revenue from Yellowstone to the Serengeti.

While predators’ place at the top of the food chain is important, it’s also precarious. “These are some of the world’s most revered and iconic species,” ecologist William Ripple and a team of researchers say in a new paper on the state of big carnivores. “Ironically, they are also some of the most threatened.” [Read more]

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U.N. is watering the garden (of Eden)

In any history class you’ve ever taken, the first thing you probably talked about was the Fertile Crescent. The half-moon shaped chunk of land in the Middle East, watered by the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris rivers, was the birthplace of human civilization. Today, we associate the area with endless deserts, oil and improvised explosive devices.

But that’s about to change. The endless desert part, anyway. Last Friday, the United Nations announced a plan to restore Iraq’s wetlands (according to some scholars, the site of the Garden of Eden) and list them as a World Heritage Site.

The Iraqi wetlands (saying it over and over doesn’t make the idea seem any less weird, does it?) once covered a tens of thousands of square miles and were home to snakes, lizards, frogs, fish, water buffalo, gazelles, jerboa, birds and tribes of people known as the Marsh Arabs or Ma ˤdān (‘dweller in the plains,” a disparaging name given to them by desert tribes).

Today, the wetlands are mostly decimated. First, fighting during the Iran-Iraq War spilled into the area. Then, in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein began draining the area and diverting water flow in order to expand military access to the land, gain more political control over the Marsh Arabs and flush out rebels after a failed Shia uprising.

When U.S. forces invaded in 2003, only some 400 square miles of marsh remained. Once Hussein’s regime was brought down, locals began destroying the dams that held water back and allowed the wetlands to flood again. Today, more than half the original wetlands have been restored, and thousands of birds and fish, as well as the Marsh Arabs, have returned to the land.

The U.N.’s project, which is being partially funded by Italy, will concentrate providing safe drinking water and renewable energy for the Marsh Arabs, planting reed banks and beds and managing the re-flooded areas to ensure the return of plant life. If all goes well, Iraq could be able to approach the World Heritage Committee for listing in two years.

Image: “Marsh Arabs poling a traditional mashoof in the marshes of southern Iraq.” Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library

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