19 October 2012

A fungi to be with: Pines, Trichoderma and ECM fungus

The Syrian army are reported to be using cluster bombs on their own people. What makes this weapon more abhorrent than many of the other methods that they have been using? Cluster bombs are very unselective. Once fired there is no way to target them, except at a general area. So the illusion that you are just trying to get the opponent's soldiers is gone and there are a lot of civilian casualties. I couldn't help thinking that we have a similar problem in pest management where the tools that you use to kill the 'bad guys' will also kill the 'good guys'. The pest management tools are usually, also unselective. Drop toxins in a forest and they will do a great job of taking out the rodents and possums but they may also take out the native birds or someone's dog, if you are not careful. That's why much of the current research in wildlife management is in making toxins and traps more species specific. The same concerns occur even if you are not looking at pesky pest mammals.

One such system can be found in growing pine trees. Pinus radiata makes up almost all of the forestry in New Zealand with over 40 million seedlings sold every year. Pines grow very fast in New Zealand, much faster than in their native Californian homeland. Small increases in health and growth of seedlings provides significant gains for growers. One method of getting this advantage is to add a beneficial fungus, Trichoderma, to the cuttings. Trichoderma enhances the health of the seedlings, not least by stopping competing fungi from growing. Many of these fungi are not helpful for the growing pine but there are a group that are very important - the ectomycorrhizae (ECM) fungi. ECM fungi form a close partnership with pine tree roots where the fungi get carbon from the tree and the tree gets difficult to obtain nutrients from the soil via the ECM fungi. Part of the healthy development of the pine seedling is the successful accumulation of a community of ECM fungi. Potentially this is at risk if Trichoderma is used as Trichoderma may not be able to recognise the good fungi from the bad fungi.


A research group at Lincoln University (Hayley Ridgway and Eirian Jones from Department of Ecology, Leo Condron from Department of Soil Science and Rhys Minchin from the Bio-Protection Centre (which formed part of his thesis work) wanted to see how selective Trichoderma is in removing competing fungi from pines. They set up growing conditions that are similar to nurseries and treated some of the pine seedlings with Trichoderma. They also varied the timing of the application of Trichoderma from planting to 3 months after planting. The seedlings were followed over 9 months and then harvested.
Seedling health and size was measured and DNA methods were used to identify the ECM fungi present. These results have been published in a paper published in Annals of Applied Biology.  The good news was that Trichoderma did not seem to affect the ECM fungi that were present. However, the seedlings in the study, in all of the tests, had a very low diversity of ECM fungal species compared with pine forests. Trichoderma is useful in the nursery situation but it would be intersting to see what happens in a more fungally diverse natural situation. So, unusually, here we have a weapon that may not target the 'good guys' as much as the 'bad guys'. Let's hope that we continue to find these methods!

04 October 2012

Communities and African conservation: a chance or a challenge?

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Shakhzoda Alikhanova as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Shakhzoda revisits a Lincoln University research area that looks at community based wildlife management in Africa published in 1999.

"Indigenous knowledge is an integral part of the culture and history of a local community. We need to learn from local communities to enrich the development process." James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank

Lately, the terms “indigenous/ traditional knowledge” as well as “indigenous peoples/communities” have gained much attention in addressing environmental issues of today. What drives us to get back to the roots of knowledge on the environment in such a dynamic world with its ever-increasing ecological challenges? It is not that science fails in resolving certain ecological problems. It is the comprehension of the environment as a complex system of which human beings, among all other species, are an integral part. This kind of perception of the environment is common among indigenous communities and authorities have realised its importance when working with them. However, it seems not to be a simple task when it comes to implementing projects in practice.

Photo by: Simon English

Alexander Songorwa, a former Lincoln University student, carried out research on an attempt to implement community-based wildlife management in Tanzania back in the 1980s and 1990s. The approach was based on offering the local communities ownership rights and management responsibilities over the natural resources. It was intended to create conditions where local communities benefit from sustainable wildlife management by getting actively engaged themselves. In other words, it was an alternative to a "fences and fines" method. However, was the main message of these programs delivered to public at all? Apparently not, as most of the Tanzanian projects failed. Alexander explained it as an inability of stakeholders to cooperate and provoke interest of communities in wildlife conservation. In most cases the projects implemented in different regions of Tanzania basically neglected their principal objective of involving people in decision-making process. This led to the opposite effect. Removing poaching was the issue identified to work with the community in Tanzania, yet, after the community-based approach was introduced, it became even more rampant. Alexander mentions cases when indigenous community members experienced economic and social losses as a result of increase in wildlife populations. For example, documented cases when wildlife caused tremendous crop damage, hence food shortage, in project implementation areas. There were also reported cases of human injuries caused by wildlife. In the long run, the species of great concern (mostly elephants, hippos and buffalo) became pests in the eyes of the local people. In an attempt to protect themselves, their crops, and their livestock and to compensate losses, people resorted to poaching. This became a vicious circle. The results of interviews conducted by Alexander revealed that half of the participants of the projects though that it had not brought many benefits, while those who saw no benefits at all made up 11.3%. However, lack or rather loss of interest in such kinds of projects might have been drawn by non-fulfilment of excessively high expectations of the local people (e.g. additional income generation possibilities, increase of meat supply etc.). Many of them also believed that the aim of those programs was to provide rural aid.
Photo by Tina Troup

The case of Tanzania implies that community support and engagement is crucial for successful implementation of community-based wildlife management projects, but communities will cooperate only if they are motivated to do so. I believe in this case it is rather difficult to blame rural communities for being more interested in additional income generation, rather than in wildlife conservation.

Community-based wildlife management is ideally a partnership of stakeholders, which helps the scientific approach to be adaptive and therefore more effective. However, Tanzanian example proves that how well goals are reached is up to the ability of both parties to listen, learn and cooperate.