AR-Australia_planting-trees

Planting trees and restoring ecosystems in Australia

During another wet winter, A Rocha Australia has been getting their hands dirty by planting native plants and nurturing relationships with the communities who care for them.  

Volunteers from A Rocha Australia were invited by Clyde and Rose Rigney – elders from the Raukkan aboriginal community – to help with revegetation events in partnership with Cassina Environmental in South Australia. In June, over 30 people braved challenging weather to plant 1700 seedlings! In August, a smaller group planted 584 seedlings at Mount Sandy and 325 seedlings at Raukkan, this time in lovely sunshine. Alongside tree planting, the Rigneys offered inspiring hospitality, with singing round the fire, hot drinks, delicious food and inspirational storytelling.  

Another planting session was organised by Onkaparinga council staff at Hart Road Wetland, the traditional lands of the Kaurna people. Twenty adults and four children gathered to plant about 380 native plants. Several of these are endemic to South Australia, including Atriplex paludosa, Goodenia amplexans and Thomasia petalocalyx. These plants are not only unique to their particular area, but they are also critical to maintaining biodiversity. 

With their project in Toowoomba escarpment parks, A Rocha Australia goes beyond planting seedlings to protecting mature plants in Queensland. Partnering with Friends of the Escarpment Parks, A Rocha controls invasive weeds at three bushland parks which contain endangered ecosystems. At Redwood Park, A Rocha removes Cat’s claw creeper Dolichandra unguis-cati. This aptly named invasive plant is one of several that smother trees and shrubs, destroying the canopy and harming the ecosystem. Creeper control is slow and labourious work but highly rewarding as mature trees are cut free and seedlings are discovered underneath masses of removed creeper. The vulnerable Black-breasted Button-quail Turnix melanogaster has raised several sets of young under the semi-evergreen vine-thicket (‘dry rainforest’).  

In the eucalypt forest of Nielsen Park, A Rocha volunteers remove other choking weeds, allowing indigenous understory species to establish. And there are already positive results: bird surveys have found that several small bird species persist in the now generous cover of shrubs, including the first ever sightings of the ground-feeding Painted Button-quail Turnix varius in the park! 

Hermit butterfly fieldwork in action - A Rocha France, Courmettes - 2022 July

The Hermit of Les Courmettes

One night in early June, a group of volunteers kitted out with head lamps were on their knees in a field at Les Courmettes, marvelling at the sight of a particular nocturnal caterpillar – that of a Hermit butterfly Chazara briseis.

In fact, two Hermit caterpillars were seen this season! While that may seem a low number, it is actually excellent news, as sightings are very rare. The Hermit is a species about which very little is known, and which is under threat both regionally and nationally in France. The Courmettes team launched a study protocol focusing on the Hermit species as part of France’s National Action Plan on butterflies.

As adults emerged, from mid-July to mid-August, our attention turned to answering such questions as: how big is the population on site? What is the average lifespan of this butterfly? How far does it travel? How does it use the site? We did this through a technique called mark-recapture. The hope is eventually to compile our data with regional (and potentially interregional) data in a population genetics study, finances permitting.

This year we marked 82 individuals – great news for the Hermit population of Courmettes! The next step is to analyse the data, but here are some first observations:

  • Only males emerged in the first week of study; females emerged from the second week. After that, males and females emerged at the same rate.
  • 41% of the individuals were recaptured at least once; some up to six times! Some individuals stayed in the same spot while others travelled further.
  • Individuals captured at the end of the season travelled further than the early individuals.

We even witnessed individuals mating (bonus film here!) – evidence that the cycle of life continues. We still know very little about the host plants the Hermit prefers – come and join us in the 2023 season in our caterpillar hunt!

Photos: Hermit butterfly fieldwork in action – A Rocha France, Courmettes – 2022 July 

Bluespotted Ribbontail Ray

Rays at risk

Rays are a group of fish whose bodies are flattened and have a skeleton made of cartilage – the same material that forms much of human ears and noses. They occur throughout the world except at the poles. Similar to sharks, rays are targeted by fishers and overfishing is causing a global decline in abundance. A recent study found that rays are even more threatened than shark species: using IUCN criterion, 36% of rays are considered threatened compared to 31% for sharks[1]. These beautiful creatures are particularly threatened in the tropics and subtropics, and several find their home in Watamu Marine National Park (WMNP) where A Rocha Kenya assists local managers in protecting threatened ray species.

Six ray species and one guitarfish, which are technically rays, inhabit WMNP based on A Rocha’s research over the past 10 years[2]. The Shark Conservation Fund provided resources to study these species in more detail this past year, including education and livelihoods work among local fishers outside of WMNP.

Four methods were used to study these species: baited remote underwater video, timed swims, beach walks, and SCUBA surveys. Three of the rays were either Endangered or Critically Endangered and one species is considered Data Deficient with this study helping to better understand its threatened status. Rays were most often found in sandy and seagrass habitats, indicating the importance of these often-overlooked areas in WMNP where the focus has frequently been on coral reefs. Education events in eight local schools and among ten community groups helped children and adults better understand the beauty and value of these amazing species.

Cruzinha

Water woes

Tourist brochures of the Algarve in Portugal are full of the dazzling blue of the sea and multitudes of swimming pools for those who prefer to stay free of sand and salt. But any impression of abundant water is false. Water is an acute issue here and the impacts are starkly apparent at Cruzinha, A Rocha Portugal’s field study centre on the Alvor Estuary.

The ponds and reed bed are dry, the citrus orchard planted decades ago may not survive the summer, and there is barely any rainwater in the cistern. Humans at Cruzinha may not miss the usually abundant mosquitoes, but the creatures that depend on mosquitoes for food suffer from the scarcity. Tinder-dry, the risk of wildfires is ever present.

A Rocha has been in this little corner of southwest Portugal since 1983. Our long-term presence means changes to climate, biodiversity, air, soil and water have been carefully observed and deeply felt. For the team at Cruzinha, the situation can be hard to bear, particularly as it continues to be exacerbated by seemingly mindless agricultural policies – for example, approval of a rash of new avocado plantations which will drain the already dangerously low water table.

However, the atmosphere around Cruzinha’s big old oak table at mealtimes is cheerful as people share stories of their doings: the Waxbill team are excited to report catching an impressive 15 the previous night, there were otter tracks in the transect surveyed that morning and many beautiful moths in the trap below the house. Volunteers tackled invasive species in the garden and a board game is planned for after dinner.

There is no doubt the water situation is dire, but A Rocha has always chosen to live hopefully, in worship and obedience to God, creator of all. In a parched and dusty landscape, roots must go deep. Have no doubt, the A Rocha Portugal team have deep roots of faith. When the rain finally comes, they will still be holding on.

Guillaume de Vaulx, Atif al-Mays, Colin Gibson and Damien Boustani

How God provided in Lebanon (once again!)

When it came time for Colin and Audrey Gibson to retire from their posts at A Rocha Lebanon, they launched the search for a new national director. Guillaume de Vaulx and Damien Kasper both received a message from a common friend encouraging them to go for the role. One position, two friends. Was this a case of letting the best man win? Or was there another way? They decided to apply as joint directors, two heads in one body. The Gibsons and the Board agreed to this creative plan, and the good Hydra of Lebanon was born!

Even for two, the tasks were many and at the Nature Park project in the Bekaa Valley, there was pressure from the local mayor to open the site as soon as possible. Damien and Guillaume immediately set out to ensure the ongoing building works were completed and to make much needed improvements to the irrigation system as, already, some of the recently planted trees and shrubs were dying. A board member – an architect by profession – had volunteered to supervise the building works, but what to do about the irrigation system? In the face of a collapsing economy and the regular delays of life in Lebanon, the situation felt hopeless…

That is, until the surprising and wonderful arrival of Noha.

At 5pm, Guillaume received a text from an Egyptian phone number: ‘Hi Guillaume, I am Noha. I was your student in the philosophy class in 2013. I’ve heard you are doing something connected to the land in Lebanon. It sounds exciting. I am in Beirut now – can we meet?’ They met at 10pm the same day and it turned out Noha was now working on environmental policy and water issues. She asked a friend in London to produce some maps and she and Guillaume got to work.

Noha and Ibrahim (our Syrian volunteer) digging out the old irrigation network

By 6am the next day, Guillaume and Noha were on their way to Mekse with a presentation to explain the solution to the municipal authorities. And now the reservoir is full and the roses are blooming! Two other new volunteers, Philip and Sylvie, plan to make an inventory of the wild flowers present in the park and use the data to update the WildLebanon site. Give thanks with us for these arrivals and please continue to pray for A Rocha Lebanon in this exciting new chapter.

Pictured: Guillaume de Vaulx, present joint-director of A Rocha Lebanon; Atif al-Mays, chief of Mekse municipality; Colin Gibson, the previous director of A Rocha Lebanon; Damien Kasper, present joint-director of A Rocha Lebanon

Photo 2 – Noha and Ibrahim (our Syrian volunteer) digging out the old irrigation network

Black-breasted_Button-quail_male_inskip

Bringing back the Black-breasted Button-quail

2021-2030 is the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration – a global call to heal our planet and A Rocha projects around the world are making a significant contribution.

In Australia, A Rocha is working with Friends of the Escarpment Parks (FEP) Toowoomba at Redwood Park – a 243-hectare property on the eastern slopes of the Great Dividing Range – to tackle invasive weeds that threaten to destroy endangered ecosystems like the semi-evergreen vine thicket by climbing and smothering the trees. On the forest floor, it can become difficult for ground-foraging animals and birds to feed, like the nationally vulnerable Black-breasted Button-quail Turnix melanogaster. This button-quail has a characteristic feeding habit: it turns on alternate legs as it scratches in the leaf litter to make a circular feeding scrape. Fresh scrapes are a good indicator that button-quail are present in the area.

In late 2020, a small team of A Rocha Australia volunteers started working alongside FEP to control major weeds at Redwood Park. Every month, they have been working at the site to weed out the invasives in the vine-thicket. The benefits for button-quail have sometimes been immediate, with fresh feeding scrapes being seen throughout the weeded areas the following day. Remote cameras have also confirmed that the button-quail are breeding in the park!

The challenge now is to complete weeding in a sizeable section of the scrub and establish a longer-term plan to maintain the habitat for button-quail and other animals.

Photo: Black-breasted Button-quail (Aviceda, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Elephants on farmland - ARIn

The risk of mortality for elephants and humans

The Bannerghatta-Hosur Landscape in southern India, a region stretching from Bannerghatta National Park to the North Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary and Hosur scrublands, is a critical zone for elephant migration. Urbanization and habitat loss here forces many elephants to travel through human settlements and agricultural lands, which inevitably increases human-elephant conflicts. Sometimes, that means death.

A recent study by A Rocha India concluded that there were 153 human and 69 elephant mortalities reported in the region between 1980 and 2020. Using records on elephant deaths and deaths of humans by elephants collected from Forest Department records, newspapers and scientific publications, they have examined the reasons behind variations in casualties.

For instance, the majority of human-elephant conflicts took place in September when crops are close to harvesting and elephants are more likely to venture onto farmlands in search of food.

Human deaths occurred when farmers attempted to protect their crops. For example, many farmers set illegal electric fences around their land to deliver a lethal voltage to raiding elephants. As a result, electrocution was the main cause of elephant mortality.

In this part of India, many villagers do not have access to a toilet. The majority of the human casualties recorded in the study took place early in the day or after dark in accidental encounters between elephants and people relieving themselves in the forest or collecting firewood.

A Rocha India has been working for many years to protect elephants and educate farmers living around Bannerghatta National Park. The study not only demonstrates just how complex an issue this is, but also the significance of A Rocha’s work here.

Read the paper: Ranganathan, Ekadh & Krishnan, Avinash. (2021). Elephant and Human Mortality in the Bannerghatta-Hosur Landscape, Southern India. Gajah 54. 30-33.

Photo: © A Rocha India

Brooksdale property (AR Canada)

Votes on land use around the Tatalu (Little Campbell River)

A Rocha Canada’s Brooksdale Environmental Centre is set on an 18-acre property – a living lab of forests, a threatened river system, organic gardens and heritage houses. This unique combination of sensitive wildlife habitat and agricultural land makes this British Columbia centre a place where critical environmental issues are researched, addressed and solved.

A big decision was made by Metro Vancouver recently concerning the 600 acres surrounding the centre. Unfortunately, the vote went as anticipated: the board voted 82 to 52 in favour of moving Surrey’s plan forward to amend the regional growth strategy, allowing servicing to come down into South Campbell Heights to accommodate ‘employment use’ of these lands. One member said it was the most intensely debated, longest, and toughest decision made by the Metro Vancouver Board in the last 10 years!

‘An incredible group of people, some old friends and some new to us, spoke in opposition with insight, clear evidence, professionalism, personal experience, creativity and conviction,’ says David Anderson, the Brooksdale Centre Co-Director. ‘It was an outpouring of love for creation from a diverse group. Several Metro board members fought hard for conservation with eloquence and with a significant degree of courage, as it was a political risk for some.’

So what’s next? ‘Well first, we take a bit of rest,’ continues David, ‘allow ourselves to feel grief and some righteous anger, and name and celebrate hard work well done. And then we re-group with our partners, connect with some of the seasoned board members who were allies, and make a plan for how to engage the process going forward that will span years.

Thank you for your prayers, networking, letter writing, social media sharing and encouragement.’

Currently the best way to support the Tatalu is to subscribe to the A Rocha Canada e-news and sign the petition to stay informed.

Magnus Kopman and Peter Harris Falsterbo

Migration and momentum in Sweden

Photo: Peter Harris with Magnus Köpman at Falsterbo

The autumn bird migration over Falsterbo in Sweden is spectacular – millions pass overhead in a matter of days. It was during a migration watch here in the early 1980s that A Rocha was first dreamed up, and this year, founder Peter Harris returned with a group of birding friends, many linked to A Rocha in the Netherlands.  

Arne Mörnerud leads the A Rocha work in Sweden and set up a series of meetings and events for Peter and some of the group. They spent time with their partner organization at Hyllie Park, which comprises two schools and a care home for the elderly. After good discussions with the CEO, it is hoped that A Rocha’s influence will not be limited to the ongoing ecological transformation of the grounds but could be mainstreamed into what is now a sizeable organization, and not least have an impact on their investment policies. They were also glad to welcome several A Rocha members from other parts of the country including Magnus Köpman who first visited Cruzinha in the early 1990s. 

They also travelled to Knislinge to see Anton and Mirjam Flood who moved onto a farm there a year ago, when Anton began working at the nearby adult education college as chaplain. Peter writes, ‘Anton and Mirjam are advancing plans for a creation care track for students similar to other pathways through the syllabus and they have a clear vision for establishing an A Rocha community based locally. Things are moving fast and all of us spent a great evening together with friends from the area to talk about A Rocha’s commitments and the possibilities for future work together.’  

In this short clip, Anton talks about his hopes for a closer relationship with A Rocha. For more information about A Rocha in Sweden please visit https://arochasvanner.se 

Shea butter workers - A Rocha Ghana

Greening businesses in Ghana

In Ghana, as in many places around the world, consumers are demanding greener, cleaner products and services, even if it means paying more. That’s why A Rocha Ghana, working in collaboration with IUCN Ghana, is engaging with companies across the country to help them respond.

Businesses in Environmental Stewardship Network (BESNet) provides a platform for businesses across Ghana to contribute to environmental sustainability and biodiversity conservation. Through training workshops and webinars, companies are being equipped and informed on how best they can value nature through their practices and decision-making processes.

Currently, the network includes close to 30 companies: from multinationals like Guinness Ghana, to small-scale businesses like Werlan Farm.

‘BESNet introduced us to the need to value natural capital in our business,’ says Ruth Kaweh Allan, the owner of Werlan Farm. ‘Through it we learned that protecting the land, the insects, the trees, and all living organisms on it would contribute to sustainability. We intensified our organic farming practices. Instead of pesticides we are using homemade concoctions with neem oil, pepper, onion and some spices to control pests and diseases. We also use farmyard manure to provide nutrition across the farm.’

The Green Corporate Star Award offers special recognition to businesses that demonstrate a particular commitment to environmental sustainability through their operations or by supporting environmental projects.

In time, the BESNet team hopes to develop more resources and tools that businesses can use to ensure their practices are environmentally friendly, as well as support them to develop environmental sustainability policies.

Through BESNet, A Rocha Ghana is demonstrating that it is possible to do business and protect the environment.