By John Burton, WLT Founder CEO
I’ve just returned from a week’s holiday. But while it was a great break, it did raise conservation issues and brought home how seemingly intact, but unprotected areas are being degraded on an ever increasing scale.
We spent a week on the coast of Greece, near the Albanian border, an area I have visited several times, the first time being as long ago as 1963. Development is rampant along the coast, but as soon as one drives in land, it is apparent that Epirus (the province of N W Greece) still has a lot of forest and other semi-natural habitats. A highlight for me was encountering a very large (and consequently old) tortoise — Testudo marginata.
The downside was the massive amount of drainage for agriculture of some of the finest wetlands in Europe. The remnant — some of which are still quite large, showed what had been lost. While we did see dalmatian pelican, it was a bit late in the year for storks and many of the other wetland species, but it was also apparent from the algal blooms, that the run off from the intensively cultivated surrounding arable fields, was causing pollution from fertilisers, and almost certainly more insidiously, pesticides.
The really depressing feature was the almost complete lack of insects. Where were all the mosquitoes? I remember seeing great clouds of insects surrounding every street lamp when I visited back in the 1960s. Now there were virtually none. And sitting at the bottom of the lamps would often be a green toad. And the hotels and tavernas would have geckos scampering around the walls and ceilings at night. I didn’t see a single one. The coast resorts were virtually completely insect free.
And driving around Greece in the 1960s, shrikes of several species were a common sight., perched on overhead cables, feeding mostly on large insects. This time I saw only a handful of shrikes.
There are several explanations for all this. First must be pesticides. Second, everywhere now has electricity, and light pollution is rampant — presumably drawing in nocturnal insects to their death for miles around.
Even in the nature reserves in the wetlands there were hardly any mosquitoes — and these were not so long ago (in my lifetime) the malarial swamps of Europe.
Much as I enjoyed my holiday in Greece, it was a truly scary experience — if insects have declined to this extent, there is no surprise that insectivorous migratory birds are in such steep decline. Add to this the destruction of the environment, on a similar scale in other parts of the world, and there is little to be optimistic about. Yet, as an organisation WLT has to remain optimistic.
Supporters sometimes ask whether their donation of £25 will really make a difference, and although we simply don’t know what will happen to the areas we help protect in 100 years time (bearing in mind climate change and other factors outside of our control), we can at least guarantee that donations are used to purchase and permanently protect wildlife areas. What this means is that the land you, the donor, helps buy, will be managed for the benefit of wildlife and guarded against intrusions in perpetuity, with the needs of local communities taken into account.
With more and more wildlife facing extinction, WLT’s mission must remain the same: To help our local partners safe guard as much wildlife habitats as possible, as quickly as possible, before it is too late.