The wellbeing connection
Soya and beef from South America, timber from Russia, fish from China – in an era of globalization, Western Europe has become a market for animal and plant products from all over the world. But in addition to these tangible goods, far away ecosystems also supply intangible cultural services that do not appear in any trade balance sheet. For example, African ecosystems are seasonal homes to many species enjoyed by European birdwatchers. These less tangible ecosystem services— like the pleasure people experience when watching their favorite birds in the wild—are difficult to measure. A team of researchers set out to tackle this challenge. They identified the regions outside Western Europe that support the habitats of some of Europe’s much-loved species. Their findings reveal that Germany and the Netherlands benefit from services flowing from threatened ecosystems in low income countries. In light of their findings, which were published in Ambio this month, the researchers say the financial responsibility for protecting these ecosystems must be more fairly distributed.
Large, charismatic birds like the black stork and the common crane are extremely popular in Germany, and not just among ornithologists. Every year, hordes of people head outdoors with binoculars to watch the cranes' migration. In some parts of the country, this event has even become a significant tourist attraction. But in many cases, for people in Western Europe to enjoy natural phenomena like these, the conditions need to be right somewhere else. A number of popular European bird species migrate across the Mediterranean to spend the winter in Africa, where many countries do not have the resources to ensure species conservation.
“The birds we see along the Dutch coast and in German forests can be easily affected by changes in land use and climate in Africa,” said Stanford Natural Capital Project postdoctoral researcher Roy Remme, an author on the paper. “If their African habitats aren’t protected, we may see decreasing numbers of birds for people in Europe to enjoy.” When wildlife lovers experience enjoyment, relaxation, or inspiration from watching migrating species, their overall wellbeing is positively impacted. Migratory birds also serve important roles in European ecosystems; when their numbers decrease, it can impact both ecological functioning and psychological wellbeing.
Experts refer to such close interconnections between humans and ecosystems in distant regions as “telecoupling.” So far, research into how these relationships function and what consequences they have for the supplier at one end of the world at the consumer at the other has mostly focused on agricultural and forestry products that are relatively easy to measure.
When it comes to intangible ecosystem services like mental health, the situation is more difficult. The effect that nature has on human wellbeing is hard to quantify and therefore not much is known about this form of telecoupling. "There have only been a few studies so far, and they focus on individual species," said Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) environmental scientist and lead author Dr. Matthias Schröter. “For example, they looked at the links created by the giant panda between its native habitats in China and zoos all over the world.”
For this work, the research team wanted to know which regions of the world people in Germany and the Netherlands depend on to be able to enjoy wildlife. The team aimed to take a broader look at the phenomenon by including as many animal species as possible. They analyzed data from two online platforms where German and Dutch bird lovers post their sightings.
Besides birds, people in Germany and the Netherlands also have an interest in more exotic species that they may never encounter themselves. “Charismatic species like lions, elephants, and pandas have value to many people simply through the fact that they exist,” said Schröter. To identify these valued species, the researchers combed through 40 annual reports from major conservation organizations such as Naturschutzbund Deutschland (NABU) and the Dutch branch of World Wildlife Fund. “We worked under the assumption that the species mentioned here are particularly popular and have high societal relevance,” explained Schröter.
The team identified 108 birds and 22 mammals of high popularity in Germany. Amongst the top five were the common crane, the white-tailed eagle, the osprey, the northern lapwing and the black stork. The tiger followed in sixth place as the first mammal on the list. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, the African elephant topped the list of 127 birds and 39 mammals.
The researchers then identified the regions outside Europe whose ecosystems support the highest numbers of Europe’s favorite species. “Almost half of the popular animals among German conservation organizations spend at least part of their lives in distant countries,” said Schröter. Nearly 60% of the species important to German birdwatchers spend time in other countries. The African savannah and scrubland south of the Sahara are particular hotspots for German species. In the Netherlands, forests and grasslands in eastern Europe and central Asia also play a key role.
“When you take a closer look at these regions, you notice two trends,” Schröter explains. First, these are habitats that are heavily influenced by humans, only a small portion of which are protected. Less than five percent of the German species hotspots are located in national parks or other reserves with similarly strict species protection regulations. Second, the regions are also significantly lower-income than Western Europe. In the regions important to Germany’s top species, for instance, the average annual income is $1,424 per capita.
Looking forward, the team has identified ways in which the research can inform decision making, like being integrated into the targets for the International Convention on Biological Diversity. “For one thing, we can use findings like these to support more effective and better coordinated conservation efforts," said Schröter. "But it also raises questions of justice." The researchers say developing nations are not adequately compensated for providing the ecosystem services that benefit wealthier countries.
“The current system is inequitable. We need to find ways to financially support ecosystem conservation in these critical natural areas. There is opportunity and demand here for governments to step up and fill this need,” said Remme. “We’re benefitting from ecosystem services that are flowing across country borders, so our responsibilities must also extend beyond those borders.”
This press release is adapted from an original release from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research.