CC-BY-SA-3.0 AgronBeqiri

Born to be wild in a warming world

Ridden a Tamaraw lately? Then guess yourself lucky, as for this unique experience there are only two options: Either as an old timer fan, exploring Asia’s wilderness in a Tamaraw Asian Utility Vehicle, built by Toyota in the 1970s. Or on the back of its namesake Tamaraw, the Mindoro dwarf buffalo.

What both share is their ruggedness – and their minuscule number of lasting examples. The former lives on in the successor car models Rewo or Innova. The later, and its 350 remaining peers, however, can only be found on Mt. Iglit-Baco in the outback of the Philippine Island Occidental Mindoro, as its name Bubalus mindorensis already suggests. A bit further south, likewise the Indonesian Toyota Kijang shares its design with the Toyota Tamaraw. Yet the name lending Barking Deer Kijang looks quite different to the Tamaraw, the largest land mammal endemic to the Philippines.

The one meter tall and compact Tamaraw is slightly hairier, and has shorter horns than the national animal of the Philippines, the water buffalo Carabao. The Carabao however only dwarfs the Tamaraw a little, both in size and fame. Toyota aside, the Tamaraw is a mascot of a many sport teams, features the TV show ‘Born to be Wild’ and can be found on the old Philippine one-Peso coins.

Nevertheless, this national symbol of the Philippines not only disappeared from the coin but also from the wild. The Tamaraw is now listed as one of the world’s most endangered animals. Still in the early 1900s around 10,000 of these fierce and solitary individuals, truly born to be wild, grazed the tropical highland forests of Mindanao. But this forest has been lost more and more during the last century to farming and high human population growth. Now there is yet another factor in the equation, endangering the iconic animal: climate change – ironically sped up by the emissions of the many Tamaraws and Kijangs on Asia’s roads.

Escaping the final nail in the coffin

Climate change adds to the global challenge of biodiversity conservation. It is threatening individual species – like the Tamaraw – as well as entire ecosystems, with negative consequences for human well-being. Increasing temperatures and altered precipitation regimes already result in distribution changes of species. When it is getting warmer – uncomfortably warm – animals and plants have two escape options to more pleasant climates: Moving polewards, or moving upwards. Both options are very limited for the Tamaraw, once they reached the southern end of their habitat or the peak of Mt. Iglit-Baco. Also drier conditions, as predicted for the Philippines, can make it quite un-intimate for the dwarf buffalo, which appreciates the proximity of waterholes. This is true for many other animals and plants. 20-30 percent of species assessed in a current global review could be wiped of the face of the planet if climate change leads to global average temperature rises greater than 1.5-2.5 degrees – a very likely scenario.

Fury, Adorable and Locking Away Carbon

In order to avoid this scenario and the final nail in the coffin of the Tamaraw and its millions of contemporaries, let’s drill down on what is called mitigation, the reduction of climate change. And a very peculiar contemporary might be able to give an answer how exactly this mitigation can look like.

Slapping the water with their broad furry tail, these adorable semi-aquatic rodents do not exactly seem to be the saviors of the world but they are very busy in trying so. Beavers are doing their bit for carbon capture and storage. ‘The dams they build, and the wetlands produced as a result, lock away a surprising amount of carbon’ says Ellen Wohl of Colorado State University in an interview with the New Scientist. ‘Beaver dams cause water to breach riverbanks, creating areas of wetland known as beaver meadows, which contain large amounts of sediment and organic material. If the dam breaks the meadows dry out, exposing the material to the air and releasing some of the carbon stored within them.’ In her study in the US Rocky Mountain National Park, beavers accounted for 8 per cent of the carbon stored in the landscape.

Albeit not living in Southeast Asia’s landscapes, beavers remarkably show how one species can have a key role in the functioning of a whole terrestrial ecosystem. Combined, these ecosystems sequester about 3 billion tons of atmospheric carbon annually, approximately 30 percent of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions. On the flipside, the current loss of such ecosystems and their species, results in 10 percent of all human greenhouse gas emissions. For these emissions primarily deforestation is to blame, but also other land use change triggering soils and peatlands to relieve their stored carbon – 5 billion tons of carbon in Indonesia’s peatlands alone.

Stumped for an answer how to reduce their third highest carbon emissions worldwide, Indonesian decision makers, amongst others, should consider the role of their ecosystems and species very carefully in their policies. Accordingly, the most widespread land-use based mitigation policy is the United Nations’ Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) scheme. This scheme develops ‘win-win’ mitigation policies that are beneficial for both the climate and biodiversity. Especially important for the biodiverse ASEAN region, such win-win is high up on the agenda of the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP) of GIZ, the German development cooperation arm at the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB). The Philippine based Center coordinates conservation and sustainable management of Southeast Asia’s vibrant richness in species.

To Learn How to Learn to Live with Climatic Change

Having seen that species like the busy beaver make an important contribution to climate change mitigation, this is not enough. Supporting the beaver and its peers with win-win strategies can only slow and halter future warming. The currently occurring warming, however, can already be felt with all its consequences, like more frequent storms or droughts. To learn to live with such consequences requires adaptation, complementing mitigation efforts.

To learn how to learn to live with climatic change, another wild creature might shed some light on. The North American Chrysemys picta can tell a story about the need for adaptation. Chrysemys picta is one of many reptile species whose sex is determined by temperature. Eggs in warm nests are likely to hatch as females, while males hatch in cooler nests. In a nutshell, males do not stand a chance in a warmer world, if they happen to be painted turtles. A temperature rise of just around 1 °C is all it would take for the species to become 100 per cent female and earmarked for extinction.

This is very unfortunate for the turtle, as well as all crocodilians, a bunch of turtles and lizards, and some fishes, living in a world about to fail the two degree target. Not to fail too, females adapt: They can shift their nesting dates by about 10 days to ensure their eggs develop at temperatures that produce an even mix of males and females. If that does not do the trick, they might lay their eggs in shadier locations. In case even the shade gets too hot, reptiles need to evolve the ability to cope with warmer conditions. However, climate change is happening so rapidly that an evolutionary response, especially in long-lived organisms, is not likely.

What is true for our little turtle also works for an entire ecosystem. Ecosystems can adapt to a warming world. But only to a slowly and not too much warming world, and only if such systems are healthy. Like the Tamaraw’s encroached highlands, other weakened habitats are just overwhelmed by yet another pressure. Take the decades long overfishing of Southeast Asia’s rich coral reefs, for which climate change could be the literal final nail in the coffin, too. On the other hand, most healthy ecosystems have a rather high natural capacity to adapt to climate change.

A capacity many countries could benefit from, which are now starting to develop and implement adaptation policies to cope with impacts. So far adaptation strategies tend to focus on technological, structural, social, and economic developments, while the linkages between biodiversity and adaptation are often overlooked.

However, ecosystem-based adaptation can be a cost-effective alternative to very expensive measures. Just take the habitat of the painted turtle. In order to adapt to more floods from rivers and wetlands in a warmer climate one could build pricy dams, possibly endangering the turtle and its contemporaries even more and taking away other goods and services like fisheries. Particularly relevant to the poor, such goods and services can be, however, maintained with an ecosystem based adaptation mechanism, while providing the same flood protection. Possible preventive strategies, such as reduced deforestation, afforestation or soil conservation are much cheaper than dams and the like.

And cheaper is the buzz word if we want to stick with economic lingo. Now ‘triple win’ policies are possible: Let’s bring the stories of the conservation of the iconic Tamaraw and Kijang, the mitigation efforts of the busy Beaver and the adaptation of the Painted Turtle together. Unmistakably, links between biodiversity and climate change flow both ways and are interconnected. Only by aligning the conservation of biodiversity with climate change mitigation and adaptation, the world’s species, born to be wild, stand a chance to stay wild. Including our very own species, Homo sapiens.

First published on Saturday, 24 August 2013 18:20, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror