Can farming actually save threatened species?

Editor’s Note: New research is looking at how Blue Cranes are colonising a new ecosystem — farmland in the Western Cape. The removal of fynbos seems to play a role, which correlates to the view that cranes don’t like bushy ground, and hence why Verloren Valei was more attractive to them when cattle were used to keep the grass low. Read more here.

Blue cranes on Verloren Valei (Photograph: Geoff Lockwood)

As human development and global change accelerate, natural ecosystems are under immense and ever-growing pressure. In some cases, ecosystems are altered to such an extent that they can be considered novel. Intensively farmed areas are an example, and these novel ecosystems affect biodiversity. As conservation biologists, we anticipate this would spell disaster for wildlife, particularly threatened species, but this isn’t always true.

We have seen this in the case of South Africa’s National Bird, the Blue Crane (Anthropoides paradiseus). In the 1990s, alarms were raised as this species was declining rapidly in their natural range, the eastern grasslands and the Karoo, due to grasslands being degraded and transformed for agriculture and forestry and other threats such as poisoning and powerline collisions. Interestingly, however, on the other side of the country, in the Western Cape wheatlands, Blue Cranes responded to agricultural transformation in a remarkably different way. In the early 1900s, when people began clearing fynbos (generally unsuitable habitat for Blue Cranes), Blue Cranes started to move into the Western Cape. Since then, the population has boomed in this area. Today, 50% of all Blue Cranes in the world are found in this novel ecosystem.

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