African Mountain Research Times - April 2018

201804 afromont1AfroMont is a communication and networking organisation interested in researching the science-policy and science-diplomacy issues relating to African mountains and sustainable mountain development.

This month's AfroMont news covers a range of topics, from the death of the world’s last surviving male northern white rhino to the need for greater emphasis on the Aichi Biodiversity Targets for African mountain ecosystems. 

Editorial - The world's last surviving male northern white rhino has died after months of poor health

201804 afromont2His name was Sudan and he was 45 years old. He was captured in Sudan in 1975, when he was just two years old, and was taken to Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. The zoo fell into financial troubles and rhinos failed to breed, and Sudan was relocated in 2009 to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County, Kenya, along with two northern white rhino females named Najin and Fatu. Northern white rhinos used to be found in an area spanning Uganda, Chad, southwestern Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some 2000 existed in 1960, according to the World Wildlife Fund, but war and the poaching that funded the fighting drove them to extinction in the wild. Sudan’s death leaves his species one-step closer to complete extinction.

He was put to sleep on Monday 19th March 2018 after age-related complications worsened significantly. His death leaves only two females of the subspecies alive in the world, his daughter and granddaughter. Hope for preserving the northern white rhino now lies in developing in vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques.

A group of scientists are planning to undertake an unprecedented effort to try to keep this animal from vanishing entirely. One of the huge hurdles facing scientists is that the two remaining female northern white rhinos cannot gestate the next generation — one is sterile and the other is not physically capable of carrying a calf full term. The only option to try to retrieve the species is to collect ova from the two remaining females. Those fertilized eggs would then be implanted in a southern white rhino, who would carry the calf to term. Taking eggs from a rhino, though, has never been done, and when scientists take that risk, there is a chance that one of the remaining northern white rhino females could perish — bringing the species to extinction.

Sourced from and

We don’t hear enough about the Aichi targets for biodiversity in Africa’s mountains

For biodiversity targets in the UN Sustainable Development goals (UN SDG), there is mention of existing systems to monitor and conserve biodiversity, notably the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Aitchi Biodiversity Targets. I have not heard much attention actually being paid to the Aitchi Biodiversity Targets for African mountain ecosystems. It seems that the Aitchi Biodiversity Targets and their indicators are very challenging and complex (see

Around the world, biodiversity continues to decline. Biological diversity underpins ecosystem functioning and the provision of ecosystem services essential for human well-being. It provides for food security, human health, the provision of clean air and water; it contributes to local livelihoods, and economic development, and is essential for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, including poverty reduction. In addition, it is a central component of many belief systems, worldviews and identities. Yet despite its fundamental importance, biodiversity continues to be lost. It is against this backdrop that the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, in 2010 in Nagoya, Japan, adopted the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 with the purpose of inspiring broad-based action in support of biodiversity over the next decade by all countries and stakeholders. In recognition of the urgent need for action, the United Nations General Assembly has also declared 2011-2020 as the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity. This crisis is recognized by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), whose members have set ambitious targets to avert ongoing declines in the state of biodiversity by 2020, which is literally just around the corner. These so-called “Aichi Biodiversity Targets” (ABTs) are organized around five strategic goals, with indicators showing the level of progress made towards each target. Currently, measurements of many ABT indicators are just not available (O’Connor et al, 2015). In response to alarming declines, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has set out the ‘Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020’, with a vision is to restore, value and conserve biodiversity for the benefit of all people by 2050.

Monitoring biodiversity with drones and the Australian Epic Duck Challenge

Assessing the accuracy of wildlife counts is difficult, and yet wildlife management decisions require accurate count data. Scientists and ecologists are increasingly using remotely piloted aircraft for wildlife population monitoring and to gather the data they need. However, how do scientists know if the drones produce accurate data? Perhaps even more importantly, how do the data compare to those gathered using a traditional ground-based approach? To answer these questions a group of scientists created the #EpicDuckChallenge that involved deploying thousands of plastic replica ducks on an Adelaide beach, and then testing various methods of tallying them up.

201804 afromont3Scientists deployed hundreds of life-sized, plastic replica seabird colonies, each with a known number of individuals. Add volunteers and the drone! The researchers found that drones do indeed generate accurate wildlife population data – even more accurate, in fact, than those collected the old-fashioned way (which is on-the-ground surveys with binoculars). The drone approach produced counts that were consistently closer to the true number of individuals.

However, even though it proved to be more accurate, making manual digital counts of drone images was still tedious and time-consuming. To address this, the researchers developed a computer algorithm in the hope that it could further improve efficiency without diminishing data quality. The scientists delineated a proportion of birds in each colony to train the algorithm to recognise how the animal of interest appeared in the imagery. They found that using 10% training data was sufficient to produce a colony count that was comparable to that of a human reviewing the entire scene. This computerisation can reduce the time needed to process data, providing the opportunity to cut the costs and resources needed to survey wildlife populations. When combined with the efficiencies drones provide for surveying sites that are hard to access on foot, these savings may be considerable.

These results have important implications for a range of species, and are especially relevant for studies on aggregating birds, including seabirds like albatrosses, surface nesting penguins and frigate birds, as well as colonial nesting water birds like pelicans. Other types of animals that are easily seen from above, including hauled-out seals and dugongs, are highly suited to drone monitoring. The nests or tracks of animals, such as orang-utans and turtles, can also be used to infer presence. Additional experiments will be useful to assess the ability of drones to survey animals that prefer to stay hidden and those within complex habitats. Such assessments are of interest to us, and researchers around the globe, with current investigations focused on wildlife such as arboreal mammals and cetaceans.

The research group are still learning about how wildlife reacts to the presence of drones, and more research is required to quantify these responses in a range of species and environments. The results will help to refine and improve drone monitoring protocols so that drones have minimal impact on wildlife. This is particularly important for species that are prone to disturbance, and where close proximity is not possible or desirable.

Sourced from: Jarrod C Hodgson

Hodgson, Mott, Baylis, Pham, Wotherspoon, Kilpatrick, Segaran, Reid, Terauds and Koh (2018). Drones count wildlife more accurately and precisely than humans. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. DOI: 10.1111/2041-210X.12974

Issue Review – We will need to head for the mountains.
Risk of sea-level rise: high stakes for East Asia and Pacific region countries (World Bank report, 2018).

I found this article by the World Bank very concerning, as did the World Bank researchers who wrote it. The article says simply ‘Our research findings are alarming’.  While this dire situation is not about mountains or even Africa, coastal inundation and displacement of millions of lowland people will undoubtedly put pressure on any higher ground or mountains in these countries as people are forced to relocate. The World Bank report confirmed that sea level is rising, and the rise in sea level will continue beyond the year 2100, even if greenhouse gas emissions are stabilized today.  Although expected to rise by at least one metre during this century according to the current scientific consensus, sea levels may even rise by three metres by 2100, in light of the new evidence on ice-cliff instability of the Antarctic (see sources below).

The World Bank study focuses on East Asia and Pacific region, identified coastal areas with low elevation and assessed the probable consequences of continued sea-level rise for eighty-four developing countries, using satellite maps of the world overlaid with data on population growth (assuming that the current locational distribution is unchanged). Including twelve countries – Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, D.P.R Korea, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – the study’s findings indicate that the impact of sea-level rise will be particularly severe for this region. China and Indonesia are the two countries most vulnerable to permanent inundation. More than 32 000 square kilometers of China’s coastal area and more than 23 million people are at risk, if sea levels rise by one meter. With a three-meter rise, these estimates would increase to more than 71 000 square kilometers and 52 million people. The World Bank report goes on to mention a particular study that looked at the risk of storm surge inundation of 393 coastal cities in 31 developing countries in the East Asia and Pacific region.  The study identified Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Yangon, Surabaya, Makassar, and six other cities in the Philippines as among the top 25 cities that may face cyclones with more devastating force. Work is underway to prepare these countries to counter the risks.

Risks for individual countries will differ in magnitude and time phasing. Adaptation measures, including the building of sea walls and plantation of mangroves, must be location specific. Effective management will require detailed knowledge of impacted ecosystems, coastal assets, and human communities, as well as an understanding of their responses to sea level rise (including cyclones and salinization). Also important is resilience planning that anticipates the future reactions of communities as sea levels rise. The abovementioned World Bank reports help create opportunities for identification of the most vulnerable countries and better targeting of resources.


For new evidence on ice-cliff instability of the Antarctic and its implications for the magnitude and time phasing of global sea-level rise, see:


Editor’s Choice

Resources for Aichi biodiversity targets


Earth observation as a tool for tracking progress towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. O’Connor, Secades, Penner, Sonnenscheim, Skidmore, Burgess and Hutton (2015). Remote  Sensing  in  Ecology  and  Conservation. DOE: 10.1002.rsde2.4

Abstract: Biodiversity is continuing to decline. This crisis has been recognized by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), whose members have set ambitious targets to avert ongoing declines in the state of biodiversity by 2020. These so-called ‘Aichi Biodiversity Targets’ (ABTs) are organized around five strategic goals, with indicators showing the level of progress made towards each target. Currently, measurements of many ABT indicators are not available. The Essential Biodiversity Variable (EBV) framework, developed by the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network (GEO BON), attempts to form a coherent and harmonised set of observations of biodiversity. In this paper, we explore the potential role of Earth Observation (EO) as a tool to support biodiversity monitoring against the ABT and EBV frameworks. We show that EO-based measurements are adequate for assessing progress towards 11 out of 20ABTs. In addition, 14 of the 22 candidate EBVs have a fully or partly remotely sensed component and can be considered as Remote Sensing Essential Biodiversity Variables (RS-EBVs). Those with a partial EO component require further in-situ data and/or modelling effort to complete the EBV. While the status of bio-diversity can be assessed with both fully and partly measured RS-EBVs, assessing trends is more challenging, particularly for partly measured RS-EBVs, as coincident time series of EO and supporting data are lacking. A synthetic pathway for developing generic biodiversity indicators using RS-EBVs is proposed.

Other reference sources for biodiversity and ecosystem mapping and assessing

These references were sourced from ‘Earth observation as a tool for tracking progress towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.’ O’Connor, Secades, Penner, Sonnenscheim, Skidmore, Burgess and Hutton (2015). Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation. DOE: 10.1002.rsde2.4

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