On a race to reverse the loss of wetlands biodiversity

By Griffin Shanungu-TBA Alumnus & Programme Coordinator-Zambia Crane and Wetland Conservation Programme (International Crane Foundation)

How do we reverse – even with dwindling resources – the declining trends of wetlands-dependent organisms and their population, while still tackling major threats like invasive species that continue to hamper long-term conservation actions?

Wetlands not only contain a rich array of species but they are vital for human well-being and climate mitigation. This makes conserving wetlands an international priority.  Since 2013 when I attended a Tropical Biology Association course in Kenya, I have continued to delve deeper into the management of wetlands, acknowledging that their health is paramount to life on earth and to human well-being.

However, wetlands are under threat, and invasive species are among the major impediments to effective wetlands’ management across Africa. While we know the effective eradication of invasive species is hinged on well-thought management plans, a lack of long-term investment remains a key challenge in restoring invaded wetlands and sustaining their ecological functions. Involving local communities has been proven to be greatly effective in helping manage invasive species. This strategy also offers an opportunity to raise conservation awareness, and is essential in seeking funds for long-term control actions.

I have successfully employed this strategy in controlling Mimosa pigra (one of the world’s worst invasive species) in Lochinvar National Park in the Kafue Flats wetland in Zambia. Through a partnership involving the International Crane Foundation (ICP) and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), we employed 150 local community members to physically remove Mimosa from 1,075 ha area by June 2019. This represents 41% of the initial 2,635 ha target area at the start of the project in 2018. In addition, the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute and Zambia Environmental Management Agency, granted us permission to use biological control methods further amplifying our approaches, and increasing our successes at controlling Mimosa pigra.

In my 14 years of active wetlands management, I have come to appreciate the role of research in guiding decisions on wetlands.  Research I have done including on large floodplain herbivore, waterbirds, vegetation monitoring, and on invasive species has, for instance, helped me gain better understanding of wetlands health issues, and informed my design of restoration programmes. It has also generated valuable data that I have used to demonstrate the conservation impact of our work. I credit TBA for exposing me to real-world research at an early stage which has really helped shape my career. A key take home message I picked from my course, beyond the research skills, was that it is very important as practitioners to aim for evidence-based conservation. That message remains clear in my mind, and has influenced a lot of the thinking I put in my work, as demonstrated by my successes at the Zambia Cranes and Wetlands Conservation Programme; still under the ICP/EWT partnership.

Thinking ahead, I can say the management of wetlands is not only essential, but is enhanced by ensuring these ecosystems are healthy. Recently, I was appointed by the Zambian Government as the Focal Point for the RAMSAR’s Scientific and Technical Review Panel. I want to use this certainly challenging position to advance the protection of wetlands, in my country and beyond. And in making this commitment, I will seek new partnerships and an integrated approach both in fundraising and in delivering impacts on the ground. To complement these actions, and TBA’s spirit of investing in people for conservation, I also commit to mentor young ecologists so that they can take leadership in wetlands conservation.

My endgame is to ensure that wetlands and their biodiversity are not neglected, and that their benefits are acknowledged, and efforts to restore and protect them are continuously upheld across the African continent.