Fences snare wildlife fleeing warming climate

Mongolian gazelle entangled in wire on Mongolia–Russia border.
Image: G. Sukhchuluun

As border fences proliferate across Europe and elsewhere, humans face mounting risks – and so does wildlife fleeing the impacts of climate change.

LONDON, 3 July, 2016 – The world is becoming sadly familiar with the sight of thousands of desperate refugees – escaping bombing and violence in countries like Syria – being pressed against border fences erected to separate countries in Europe and further afield.

Less recognised is the effect these thousands of kilometres of newly-installed border fencing is often having on wildlife.

But climate change does not recognise borders, and nor do the birds or animals migrating across their territories.

A study by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research estimates that between 25,000 and 30,000 kilometres of fences and walls now run along the borders of various countries in Europe and Central Asia.

Much of this is of very recent construction and has led to what the researchers describe as “a dramatic reduction in the permeability of borders for wildlife, as well as people.”

Driven further

Changes in climate, including rising temperatures and an increase in flash flooding and droughts, mean that wild creatures in many regions are forced to roam ever-larger ranges to find food and water. 

The study says the fences are a significant threat: “The long-term consequences are a low viability of wildlife populations, and a reduction in their ability to respond to climate change.”

It says the period from the early 1980s to the beginning of this century was generally a time when borders were coming down and international, transboundary agreements were being forged. The Cold War was ending, the Soviet Union was being dismantled, and there was more international cooperation.

“This led to a diversity of actions, including global efforts to reduce pollutants, prevent the ozone hole from expanding, and halt climate change.”

The European Union was a key driving force in transboundary cooperation. But over recent years, partly in response to security concerns arising from the 9/11 attacks in the US, border controls and fences had been strengthened.

Political strains

In 2015, with the influx of refugees into Europe from Syria and elsewhere, hundreds of kilometres of fences were built – “with no environmental impact assessments concerning their design or placement.”

The UN and other bodies warn that as the world warms, many millions of people will  become climate refugees, trying to migrate to Europe and elsewhere.  

In late 2015 Slovenia erected a razor-wire security fence along large parts of its 670-km border with Croatia to stop refugee flows through its territory.

The study says the fence is likely to have considerable unintended consequences for nature conservation: the territory of rare and endangered species such as the brown bear (Ursus arctos), the grey wolf (Canis lupusand the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynxwill be severely restricted. More inbreeding could occur as adjacent wolf populations are shut off from each other.

The researchers found similar border security measures being imposed elsewhere. As political tensions between Europe and Russia grow, the newly independent Baltic states are considering erecting fences along their borders with Russia and Belarus.

“For the last 15 years . . . the global trend has been for an unprecedented increase in barriers preventing wildlife from moving across borders”

In parts of Central Asia, particularly in areas round Afghanistan, “border fences have been retained, re-established, reinforced or newly erected, leading to increased mortality and fragmentation of wildlife.”

Most of the 4,700-km border between Mongolia and China is fenced: this severely restricts the movement of the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus) and other animals such as the Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa). 

As climate change causes temperature and weather variations in these regions, wildlife could find it has nowhere to escape to look for food and water.

The study says governments and conservation bodies should be more aware of the impacts of imposing border walls and fencing.

“It is somewhat ironic that for the last 15 years, while conservation biologists have been largely promoting transboundary management and celebrating localised examples of fence removal, the global trend has been for an unprecedented increase in barriers preventing wildlife from moving across borders”, says the study. – Climate News Network

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