International Experts Launch First Global Initiative to Map Ungulate Migrations

Published: 7 May 2021

An international team of 91 scientists and conservationists, including from the University of Glasgow, has joined forces to create the first-ever global atlas of ungulate (hooved mammal) migrations, working in partnership with the United Nations’ Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

An international team of 91 scientists and conservationists, including from the University of Glasgow, has joined forces to create the first-ever global atlas of ungulate (hooved mammal) migrations, working in partnership with the United Nations’ Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

The detailed maps of the seasonal movements of herds worldwide will help governments, indigenous people and local communities, planners, and wildlife managers to identify current and future threats to migrations, and advance conservation measures to sustain them in the face of an expanding human footprint.

The Global Initiative on Ungulate Migration (GIUM) was launched with the publication of a commentary titled “Mapping out a future for ungulate migrations,” in the May 7 issue of the journal Science.

“A global migration atlas is urgently needed because there has never been a worldwide inventory of these phenomenal seasonal movements,” said lead author Matthew Kauffman, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “As landscapes become more difficult to traverse, the maps can help conservationists pinpoint threats, identify stakeholders, and work together to find solutions.”

Year after year, migratory ungulates must pound their hooves across vast areas of the planet to find food, escape harsh conditions, and breed. The movements are as diverse as the species themselves, which include Mongolian Gazelles and Saiga in Asia, Wildebeest in the Serengeti, Guanacos in South America, Arctic Caribou and wild Reindeer, Mule Deer and Elk in North America, Red Deer in Europe, and many more.

Migratory ungulates are an essential part of natural ecosystems and provide much of the prey for the world's carnivores.  The migrations also contribute to local and regional economies through harvest and tourism, and are woven into the culture of numerous communities. 

Unfortunately, many ungulate migrations are in steep decline due to human disturbances like roads, fences, and other types of development.

For example, the current migrations of Mongolian Gazelles, where individuals roam over hundreds of kilometers, are sharply constrained by border fences and new railroads. Over the last few decades, researchers in Kenya's Kajiado County have witnessed the near collapse of the migrations of Wildebeest, zebra, and Thomson's Gazelle due to unplanned roads, fences, and other infrastructure.

In some cases, migrations have been lost even before they have been documented, highlighting the magnitude of the conservation challenge.

Under the CMS Central Asian Mammals Initiative (CAMI), guidelines were developed to remove barriers to migration along the Trans-Mongolian Railway or make existing infrastructure more wildlife-friendly for species such as Khulan, Mongolian Gazelles, and Goitered Gazelles.

The new atlas will help decision-makers plan and implement additional infrastructure projects to mitigate or eliminate their barrier effects.

Dr Grant Hopcraft, from the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, said: ”Migrations are incredible. Many people are familiar with scenes of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest migrating in the Serengeti, however these epic long distance movements of animals were once a very common occurrence around the world. Many species of hooved animals continue to migrate, but their movements are becoming more and more difficult as human infrastructure expands into new environments.

“One of the goals of the Global Initiative for Ungulate Migrations is to map the locations and routes of all terrestrial migrations. Conservation scientists are discovering new migrations all the time which suggests there are still many migrations that we know nothing about. The tragedy is that we are losing migrations almost before they are discovered, which raises the importance of understanding when and where these animals are moving so we can plan ecologically sensitive approaches to development.”

Thomas Morrison, Research Fellow at IBACHM, added: We’ve got these amazing tools for tracking and mapping wildlife. The bigger challenge now is one of collective policy action: how do we protect the critical habitat and corridors needed to ensure migrations can continue in the future.

“Our research in East Africa shows the increasingly difficult task that ungulates face when migrating through landscapes dominated by humans.

“Our work on the Serengeti wildebeest, for instance shows the importance of accessing good grazing and water, while evading the world’s highest density of lions and Nile crocodiles.  Human infrastructure and landuse changes has blocked access to these resources for some species whose populations have now crashed.  The few well protected migrations remind us what untamed nature looks like.”

CMS Executive Secretary Amy Fraenkel said: “The global atlas is a very important initiative that will help further the conservation of these unique animals.

“We are pleased to support this work and to have a powerful new tool to share with our Parties and partners to enhance their efforts to protect migrating herds around the world.” 

Migratory animals depend on different habitats to feed, breed, and rest. If their movements are restricted, the survival of entire populations is at stake.

Climate change alterations to the distribution of water, snow, ice and plant green-up further complicate how the migratory herds time and navigate their seasonal movements.  The global atlas of migration will help decision-makers prioritize which areas along migration routes to conserve in order to safeguard the diverse benefits they provide to humanity.

The effort builds on numerous conservation successes that were made possible through mapping of migrations. Around the world, actions such as protected-area expansion, road-crossing structures, and working-lands conservation initiatives have been catalyzed by tracking the actual migration routes of the herds.

But development and barriers are expanding in many of the landscapes required by migrating herds. The scientists and conservationists involved in the initiative hope that detailed maps of migrations around the world will spark similar conservation actions to sustain wildlife migrations.

To coordinate this large effort, the international team has partnered with the United Nations Secretariat of CMS to create the Global Initiative for Ungulate Migration (GIUM).

An environmental treaty of the United Nations, CMS provides a global platform for the conservation and sustainable use of migratory animals and their habitats. This unique treaty brings countries and wildlife experts together to address the conservation needs of terrestrial, aquatic, and avian migratory species and their habitats around the world.

The new global initiative hosted by CMS will utilize the latest GPS tracking technology, mapping software, and data-sharing platforms, combined with local and indigenous knowledge. The team will also endeavour to map lost migrations, and document local and historical knowledge of animal movements. 

The very few migration maps assembled today already underscore that protected areas are far too small and scattered to protect the wide-ranging movements. At the same time, these maps highlight how numerous landowners and communities have stewarded the working landscapes that animals traverse. For example, the cultural traditions and identity of the Inuit and Tlicho in Canada are deeply rooted in migratory caribou. Maps that display migration data together with the human connections and livelihoods associated with these same landscapes help advance sustainable conservation.

The launching of the GIUM is timely given the increasing international focus on protecting biodiversity.  A new UN global strategy on biodiversity known as the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework is expected to be agreed to this year. CMS Parties have singled out the importance of ecological connectivity, including animal migrations, as a key priority for the new framework.  

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First published: 7 May 2021

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