Rapid declines of large mammal populations after the collapse of the Soviet Union

Poster Bragina by Roberta Kwok

When a country goes into economic freefall, the resulting chaos can trigger a host of environmental changes. Wildlife regulation often falls by the wayside, and poaching rises — but activities such as logging may drop. “Thus, socioeconomic shocks may hinder or help conservation,” researchers write in Conservation Biology. In the case of the 1991 Soviet Union collapse, which was it? The team studied population trends for 8 mammal species in Russia, including deer, bears, lynxes, and grey wolves. For data, they turned to the Russian Federal Agency of Game Mammal Monitoring’s records. That database contains annual tallies for mammal species, obtained by methods such as counting tracks in the winter and surveying hunters. The researchers studied data from 1981 to 2010, covering the decade before the collapse and the two following decades. cobi12450-sup-0001-figureS1-part1 Moose, brown bear, and wild boar population growth rates dropped significantly in 1992-2000, the team reports. For instance, the number of wild boar fell by half from 1991 to 1995. Poaching and weak wildlife protection likely contributed; many people also abandoned their farms, leaving fewer crops for the animals to raid. Meanwhile, grey wolves flourished, probably because population control measures dropped off. In the last decade of the study, all the mammal species except Eurasian lynx and wild reindeer were on the rise. By that time, forests had begun to grow back on abandoned farmland and may have provided new habitat for some animals. None of the mammal species were endangered, but their populations were still thrown out of whack by the economic meltdown. “[E]ven abundant species may need careful monitoring during times of turmoil,” the authors warn. “Times of socioeconomic shocks can be critical periods for wildlife and may warrant special attention by conservationists.”

Source: http://conservationmagazine.org/2015/01/did-the-soviet-union-collapse-harm-wildlife/ cobi12450-sup-0002-figureS1part2 Abstract: Anecdotal evidence suggests that socioeconomic shocks strongly affect wildlife populations, but quantitative evidence is sparse. The collapse of socialism in Russia in 1991 caused a major socioeconomic shock, including a sharp increase in poverty. We analyzed population trends of 8 large mammals in Russia from 1981 to 2010 (i.e., before and after the collapse). We hypothesized that the collapse would first cause population declines, primarily due to overexploitation, and then population increases due to adaptation of wildlife to new environments following the collapse. The long-term Database of the Russian Federal Agency of Game Mammal Monitoring, consisting of up to 50,000 transects that are monitored annually, provided an exceptional data set for investigating these population trends. Three species showed strong declines in population growth rates in the decade following the collapse, while grey wolf (Canis lupus) increased by more than 150%. After 2000 some trends reversed. For example, roe deer (Capreolus spp.) abundance in 2010 was the highest of any period in our study. Likely reasons for the population declines in the 1990s include poaching and the erosion of wildlife protection enforcement. The rapid increase of the grey wolf populations is likely due to the cessation of governmental population control. In general, the widespread declines in wildlife populations after the collapse of the Soviet Union highlight the magnitude of the effects that socioeconomic shocks can have on wildlife populations and the possible need for special conservation efforts during such times.

Reference: Bragina, E.V. et al. 2015. Rapid declines of large mammal populations after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Conservation Biology doi: 10.1111/cobi.12450. Access to the paper (free download): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12450/abstract

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