Birds do better when neighbours cooperate | Science Matters | David Suzuki Foundation

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

With so many bad news stories about the environment in the media, it's nice to hear about good news for a change — especially when it relates to international cooperation.

Having Mother Nature in front of the cameras again is a good thing. Environmental problems finally aren't being swept under the rug as they often were for the past decade — they're making headline news. Most of these stories are decidedly grim. But I think that one of the most challenging issues facing humanity this century is not necessarily the problems themselves, but the global cooperation and communication it will take to solve them.

That's because so many of the environmental challenges we face today are global in nature — climate change being the most obvious example. And there are many others. Our planet is facing a biodiversity crisis too. We are losing species at a rate similar to earlier mass extinction events like the demise of the dinosaurs. Saving these creatures is often not a simple task because, as with an issue like global warming, no individual municipality, province, state or country can solve the problem on its own.

Many jurisdictions have attempted to do that using their own species-protection laws, rules and regulations designed independently and in isolation of one another. However, a recent report published in the journal Science shows that cross-boundary cooperation can be more effective for conservation than individual jurisdictions trying to go it alone.

The report, written by a group of scientists with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, used the European Union Council Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds as a test case. The Birds Directive was created in 1979 to build a framework, complete with objectives, which would help conserve all birds throughout the European Union. It was then left to the individual E.U. member states to decide how best to achieve the objectives.

Assessing the success of such programs is often difficult due to a lack of data, but the authors of the report note that in this case they were fortunate to have access to the results of several major inventories on the status and population trends of virtually all of Europe's birds. This allowed them to compare population trends both before and after the Birds Directive and compare those with the population trends of neighbouring countries outside of the European Union and thus not subject to the Directive.

They found that birds listed under the Directive, such as the Eurasian bittern, fared better than did birds that were not listed under the Directive. Populations of bird species listed under the Directive also fared better in member E.U. nations than they did in non-E.U. nations. This led the researchers to conclude that the Birds Directive: "...has brought demonstrable benefits to bird populations in the E.U. and that international policy intervention can be effective in addressing conservation issues over large geographical areas."

In other words, working cooperatively between nations to protect the birds is effective — probably more effective — than individual countries working completely on their own without such a framework to help guide them. This kind of success shows how important cooperation is when dealing with environmental problems. Multi-jurisdictional cooperation can have the best results if we are willing to sit down and work out the details.

Birds aren't the only creatures that would benefit from such agreements. There are all sorts of wide-ranging species, such as salmon, caribou and large carnivores — even trees and other plants — whose habitats cross provincial, state or national boundaries. Many of these species are also endangered and would benefit the most from good-neighbour policies designed with conservation in mind. With proven success stories like the Bird Directive, there's no longer any justification for acting like nature ends at the nearest border.

November 2, 2007