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ENVIRONMENTAL EXPLORATION AND PROTECTION

By Umberto Fusini, William Vivarelli, Giorgio Carboni, December 1998
Text editing by Donald Desaulniers, Ph.D.

 


C O N T E N T S


INTRODUCTION

Figure 1: Group of volunteer conservationists during a recent excursion in the Pianoro area.

The protection of our natural environment increasingly requires aid of volunteers. This article describes some of the activities that a group of volunteer conservationists and naturalists can undertake to conserve and protect their environment.

Agriculture, industry, urban development and population growth in numerous countries have significantly affected the natural environment by increasing the demand for non-renewable resources. The trend of economic and industrial growth and its environmental impact is a matter of increasing concern since our modern society will have to deal with the effect of human activities on the environment.

Our planet as a whole faces many environmental problems. Given their magnitude and complexity, many of the environmental problems can be difficult to resolve. While there are many scientists, engineers and specialists involved the study of the environmental problems that face our planet, the size of the task is truly formidable. Ordinary people, however, can also make a significant contribution toward improving and protecting our natural environment. Indeed, many people would like to get involved in protecting the environment. Many would like to have a better understanding nature, but often do not know where to start since the highly specialized fields of study are often out of their reach.

This article describes some of the ways in which you can get involved in environmental conservation and learn more about nature. The methods we describe here are based on field trips organized by a team of volunteers in their local area. The project we describe is based on the experience of a group of amateur conservationists and naturalists over the past 16 years. This group works in Pianoro, Italy, which is a town of approximately 6,000 inhabitants located about 14 km to south of Bologna (Figures 2 and 3). In 1988 this group became affiliated with the LIPU (Italian Agency for the Protection of Birds).

This is the first in a series of articles that will help you to learn more about the different aspects of our environment and how to get involved in environmental conservation.


Figures 2 and 3: Pianoro is a town located
in a hilly area about 14 km south of Bologna
(The area studied by the Pianoro group is
indicated in purple)

 

FORMING A GROUP VOLUNTEER CONSERVATIONISTS

Although there are many ways of learning about the environment, we believe that one of best ways is to get out into the environment. For a group of enthusiasts that share a common interest in nature conservation, excursions into the countryside are one such way to learn about nature. The field trips we propose are not simply fitness walks, but outings that have a specific purpose: observing nature.


Figure 4: Group of volunteer naturalists/
conservationists during a recent excursion
in the Pianoro area.

You do not need to travel to far away exotic places of the world to learn about nature. Indeed, Nature exists all around us and is waiting to be discovered. Wherever you are, Nature is full of wonders and its exploration will undoubtedly turn up fascinating things. Getting to know your local environment is also a way to learn to respect it. The field trips we propose are also an occasion for all to have good time outdoors and to make learning fun.

While the creation of parklands is a good way to preserve our natural environment, we should not content ourselves with this. Rather, we should strive to preserve nature everywhere we can. As pointed out in "The State of the World 1998", the annual report on the state of the planet published by the Worldwacth Institute, " The fate of birds, mammals, frogs, fish, and all the rest of biodiversity depends not so much on what happens in parks but what happens where we live, work, and obtain the wherewithal for our daily lives".

The first step in your conservation efforts should be to form a group of volunteer conservationists. This should not be difficult since many people like to take walks in forests and fields. All you need to do is to assemble some friends who share a common interest in exploring and conserving the environment, then agree on a place to hold regular meetings where you can plan your field excursions.

PREPARING YOUR OUTINGS

During your outings, you will need to study the geography area you wish to explore, the street systems, the economic activities conducted in that area and the characteristics of the natural environment.

GEOGRAPHY, GEOLOGY, CLIMATE: One of the first thing to consider in your nature exploration is the geomorphology or the physical geography of your local area. You should identify the main geographic features such as mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and plains that are in your area. To accomplish this you will need topographical maps of your area. Depending on your area the so called topo maps are available various scales. We suggest you obtain a detailed map at a scale of 1:5,000 or 1:10,000 and one 1:50,000 map that will serve as a regional map. If possible obtain coloured and shaded maps that highlight the relief of the terrain. Otherwise you can colour in blue the bodies of water, the ponds and all other wetlands. You can also try to obtain a geologic map of your area showing the types of rock formations in your area. Also it can be useful to obtain soil map of a map of the vegetation of your region. You should consider what characterizes the climate in your area, the maximum and minimum temperatures, the annual rainfall including statistics on the fluctuations of rainfall over past years.

Figure 5: Landscape of the Pianoro
territory (Click on the photo to
get a detailed view ).

 

ROADS: Travelling during your excursions will be either on foot or by car. If you travel by car, carefully examine if the roads to get to you study area are accessible to normal road vehicles. With appropriate colours, indicate on the topographical maps the condition of these roads. Note also their conditions on the basis of the slopes, the type of the road-bed, especially in the case of rain, where wash-outs can occur. When travelling on foot you should follow foot paths or trails whenever possible. Often these trails will it will go outside of the mapped areas. Remember that streams are ways to gain access to the wild zones. Often, a great extent of your route will follow the course of streams. In preparing your excursion, verify on the maps the conditions of the trails. Avoid steep slopes and crossing deep rivers etc. On your return trip note the your routes followed on your maps.

As you progress, you will be able to plan your excursions based on your knowledge you will accumulate on the features of the landscape and the conditions of the road and trails.

AN IMPORTANT WORD OF CAUTION:

Excursions in the outdoors may comprise certain risks due to uneven and unstable ground, the presence of dangerous animals or even the possibility getting lost if you are not careful. For these reasons our group has always limited itself to short excursions of a few hours in areas considered to be safe. We advise stay away from areas where either natural or man-made hazards exist. The activities we describe are suitable for adults. Younger people must always be accompanied and supervised experienced adults. In any case, we do not assume any liability for any injuries or damages resulting from the activities presented in this article. Please read the notice presented on this web site.

To help you plan a safe excursion, here are a few suggestions:

- Pay attention to avoiding dangerous places and situations, always think of safety first;
- before setting out, plan your excursion carefully;
- carefully time your activities to avoid having to walk back through the woods or dangerous areas in the dark;
- bring a pocket light in case you have to come back in the dark;
- In your group there should be at least one person who has a good knowledge of the area you are visiting and capable of using a map and compass;
- let people at home know exactly where you are going and when to expect you to return;
- pack some emergency food in case you get lost or need some extra energy for the trip home;
- always carry enough water for the day trip;
- check the weather forecast be leaving and avoid to go out if there is a possibility of rain or snow;
- make sure you are well equipped with the appropriate clothing and footwear in case you get caught in bad weather, like heavy rain or a sudden drop in temperature;
- pack a first aid kit
- at least one member of you group should know how to administer first aid care;
- always seek permission before travelling across private property;
- if you stop to lunch or camp, remember to always leave the area you visit in a better condition than when you found it.

ECONOMIC ACTIVITIES: The economic activities in your study area have a potential of affecting the local environment . During your excursions, note the location of quarries, dumps, sanitary landfills, agricultural zones (cultivated fields, wild fields, grasslands, orchards, etc.), hunting zones, urban and industrial sites. Note also any isolated and abandoned buildings. You should also study how the human population is distributed throughout your region.

NATURAL ENVIRONMENT: Just as it is not sufficient study nature through books, nature excursions alone will not be enough to learn about nature. A combination of theoretical and practical study will make your learning experience more beneficial. These theoretical and practical aspects complement each other. To get the most out your experience, consult books that will assist you in learning more about Nature.

A good way to start is to consult the various guide books, handbooks and field guides that are available in libraries and book stores. There is a wide variety of such guidebooks on topics like rocks, minerals, birds, plants, trees, flowers, mammals, insects and aquatic life. Many of these books are introductory texts that include illustrations or pictures to assist with identification of various species in the field. Some of the more popular texts focus to one particular category of living organism. You should seek out those guidebooks describing the species most likely to be found in the field area you wish to explore. Other books specialize in describing the flora and the fauna of a specific area and yet others are more general and teach to you how identify various animals using tracks and excrements that you may find along your way.

Figure 6: Guidebooks for identifying different species.

If you want to study more closely a particular species, you should consider acquiring specialized books that offer more specific and better illustrations and photographs of the species you are interested in. You need not limit yourself to the recognition of species, but also study how they breed, how they feed and what habitat they live in. We assume that the reader has a basic knowledge of the natural sciences. However, those just starting out in this field should consult some basic introductory biology texts written for high school students.

Being part of a Scouting group such as Boys Scouts or Girl Guides, or a nature-oriented youth club provides a good opportunity to learn several skills that will serve you when you are exploring Nature. Indeed, Scouting groups will usually teach you skills in orienteering and survival techniques. The courses organized by various naturalist associations and groups or societies are also useful.

EQUIPMENT


- suitable clothing
- pruning scissors
- walking stick
- rucksack with:
- topographic map
- containers for collecting samples (plastic jars with lids, boxes and plastic bags)
- small shovel for digging
- knife
- note-book and pencil
- water
- binoculars
- camera
- at least a member of the group must have with himself:
- a complete first aid kit
- drugs against anaphylactic shock from the insect bites
- a system to cure snakebites
- compass (if necessary)
- radio telephone o transceiver (if necessary)
 
- specific equipment depending on the scope of the excursion. For example:
- net for amphibians
- photographic equipment
- telescope to observe nests of predators
- shovels in order to dig into soil
 

Figure 7: Some of the equipment
used during excursions.

 

While this article is meant for a world-wide readership, it is not our intention to provide specific information for exploring all of the different environments throughout the world. Rather, we present here a description of what we have accomplished in our area that is characterized by a hilly zone in a temperate climate situated at approximately 44 of north latitude in Europe as an example for others who may want to undertake a similar project and adapt it to their particular environment.

During our excursions, we wear clothing that is resistant to spiny bushes. We must wear good hiking boots for walking through streams, for wading in water and on the edge of ponds, for protection from snakebites. Although, we have never had any snake bites in 16 years of excursions, it is prudent to always carry medication for snake bites. Ask a qualified physician what do to in case of snake bites in your area.

The walking stick serves as a support and to pull any spiny branches out of the way and for searching in the brush. The pruning scissors are useful when going thorny bushes and to cut fresh spiny branches.


Figure 8: The pruning scissors are
useful for cutting thorn bushes.

 

Figure 9: View of Peregrine's nests in
the wall of a Pliocene sandstone bed.

Although, in all 16 years of exploring, we never we have had the need for a compass or a radio telephone or transceiver, if you are going out in unfamiliar areas where you may get lost, it is prudent to bring them with you. A set of binoculars is useful especially if you want to observe birds and wildlife. It is a good idea to always carry a camera with you. If the goal of your excursion is for taking pictures, specific photographic accessories could be necessary: flash, tripod, tubes for macro photography, telephoto lenses, etc. You may need other equipment depending on the specific goals of your expedition. An altimeter, calibrated before heading our, can be useful to establish the elevation of the place where you have found something. While it is not indispensable, a global positioning system (GPS), available in many sports shops, can give you reasonably accurate coordinates of a particular site of interest. This will help you locate any sites on a map and can help you orient yourself in case you get lost.

EXPLORING YOUR AREA

Form a group of 2 - 12 people. You will find that some of them will almost always participate while others will participate occasionally. Go out at least once a week. Systematically explore the environment as far as a few kilometers from your home base, especially in the less populated area. In order to avoid damaging rare and fragile plants, be careful not to walk over them or pick them. Take the time to observe and appreciate them.

During our excursions, we often go up the course of a stream where we find a humid and fresh water environment, suited to ferns. Here, we find pools of water where amphibians breed; we find caves, etc. Then we return to the our point of departure by either following the stream or through forests and fields. On other occasions, we go under a sandstone outcrop to observe predators that nest there, then we go to visit some ponds to observe amphibians. Other environments we visit are ravines, marshes, swamps, rivers, cultivated fields, hedges, etc. The type of environment to explore depends on the species you want to observe.

Generally, you should visit your selected environments at least once every season or four times a year. This gives you the opportunity to observe the different species during the different phases of their life cycle. In some cases, it is necessary to return more times at the same place at precise periods to observe a particular phase of the life cycle of a species, while in other cases, a single visit in a year may be sufficient. After a number of excursions, you will know which are the environments you need visit more frequently and which ones you need only check occasionally. The area you cover is therefore defined as the one you can cover in this way. Our group explores an area in the district of Pianoro located 6 to 8 km from town. The region covers and area of than 160 km2 (Figure 3). It is not necessary examine in detail every square meter of this area because the particular habitats you observe are usually representative of the region. Occasionally, our team goes to visit breeding sites of some important species that are as far as 70 km from home.


Figure 10: Group
during an excursion
(Click on photo)

Establish the objectives you wish to achieve. In doing so, you will then focus on selecting the natural areas that are the best suited for your project's objectives. The excursion should not be too long nor too tiring so that you get exhausted or caught in the forest in the dark. Our outings start typically at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and last about 3 or 4 hours. Sometimes, a small group of 1 to 3 people goes out into the country on Sundays or another day of the week for a specific objective. For example to observe the condition of a nest, to release little frogs which we raised at home in the pool from which we had collected the eggs. Some members of our group, who study the nightly-predators go out in the night. They usually visit abandoned cottages where various species of birds have nested as well as other nesting sites in the area.

By car, we travel to the starting point. This will be also the return point, unless you have carried some car also to the arrival. From here you will proceed by foot either, along a trail, in a stream bed, crossing fields, skirting mountain slopes, etc.

The focus of your outings will change as the ability and experience of the group will increase. We can define three phases in this learning process:

1^ - acquiring a general knowledge of the environment
2^ - performing more specific activities
3^ - environmental conservation activities, possibly in connection with national and international organizations.

 

ACQUIRING A GENERAL KNOWLEDGE OF THE ENVIRONMENT

The aim of the first phase in this process is to obtain a general knowledge the local environment close to your home base. From the geographic point of view, you can explore any small valleys, forests and plains in your area until become very familiar with the geographic features of your area. Take pictures or do sketches of the more peculiar sites in your area. From the biological point of view, observe describe and document the plant and animal species in your area. Of course, this phase will focus on the more common species in your area. Simply concentrate on the species you encounter during your journeys, which you should learn to recognize.

So, you will have to familiarize yourself with the trees, plants bushes, you observe along the way along with the birds and the other animals. Eventually, you should be able to identify tree using the following clues: leaf, flower, fruit, seed, cortex, shape, color (as seen at a distance). You should be able to identify a particular bird species from its feather found on the ground.

SPECIFIC ACTIVITIES

Figure 11 - Serapias cordigera, a rare
orchid our group discovered in the
Pianoro study area.

In the second year, you will move on to the second phase. What characterizes this phase are more specialized activities. Instead of observing whatever plant or animal species you encounter during your excursions, you should direct your attention to some selected species which you will study in more detail. But what species should you focus on?

A good starting point is to consider the species that are characteristic of your area. Especially any species that are endangered. For example, you may want to focus your studies on a particular group of plants like the orchids or you may want to observe the predators by trying to identify as many of them as you can in your area. You should do this for a complete yearly cycle, to get a good appreciation of their living habits during the phases of their life.

The objective of the second phase is to compile a catalogue of the wildlife species in your area, to collect pictures and possibly drawings or even water colour illustrations of them. You should also note the geographic distribution and the abundance of the population of the different species you are studying. Indicate whether they are abundant, widespread, sparse or rare. Finally, the dynamic features of the population can also be described by noting if the population growing, stable, declining or disappearing.

 

For example, in the Pianoro district our group catalogued 31 species of orchids, 11 species of amphibians, 12 species of reptilians, and more than 80 species of nesting birds. Among the species of birds recorded, we found 5 species of daylight predators and 5 species of night-time predators. We also prepared a collection of pictures of all the species we observed. In addition we published a handbook for the identification of the orchids in our area. The municipality of Pianoro used our work to publish posters of the variety of orchids and wildlife in the district. We also presented a research paper at a national convention on the amphibians and reptilians and were involved in activities to help preserve threatened species in our area.

The second phase of this process can span over several years because you will have to learn to identify and study many of the species of plants and animals in your area as you compile a catalogue of the species, determine their distribution and status, collect pictures, etc. During this phase, you will need to compile all of the pertinent geographic information on your area. Practically speaking, you cannot catalogue every species in your area. Focus, rather only those species that are characteristics of your area. You should pay special attention to the species that are unique to your area. Another suggestion is to prepare a herbarium, which is one of the best ways to do a catalogue the flora in your area.

Our group has been active since 1982 and has completed several data collection projects on the status of the biota in our area. The following is a list of some of our projects:

FERNS
- Our group found a species of fern that was previously not known to occur in our area

ORCHIDS
- compiled a catalogue of the species of orchids in our area
- prepared a photographic description of the species observed
- prepared a geographic distribution of the orchid species
- evaluated the status of the different orchid populations
- discovered 4 species which were not known to occur in our area

AMPHIBIANS
- prepared a catalogue of the amphibian species observed
- compiled photographs of the different amphibians observed
- prepared a geographic distribution of amphibians in our area
- evaluated the status of the amphibian populations
- discovered 2 species which was not ascribed to our land
- observed and documented the decline of some species of amphibians as well as their disappearance from certain areas
- discovered several breeding sites of threatened species
- set up of breeding methods
- breeding of of threatened species (without predators and ensuring water and food)
- reclamation of wetlands that had dried up
- creation of pools to provide amphibians with breeding sites

Figure 12 - The yellow-bellied toad (Bombina pachipus)
found in the study area is a rapidly declining species
of amphibians in this area.

REPTILIANS
- compiled a catalogue of the reptilian species in our area
- compiled a photographic description of the reptilian species

Figure 13 - Whitetrot (Sylvia communis).

BIRDS
- compiled a catalogue of the bird species in our area
- compiled a photographic description of the bird species
- participated in a monitoring program on the nesting birds of the Province of Bologna where our study area is located.

SWALLOWS
- compiled a catalogue of the swallows in our area
- compiled pictures and documentary movie on swallows of the Pianoro area
- documented a 40% drop of the occurrence of swallows in our area compared to the mean value for the last 20 years
- research into the reasons of the drop in swallow population

 

DAYTIME-PREDATORS
- compiled a catalogue of the species
- compiled photographs of these predators
- documented the geographic distribution of these predators
- evaluated the status of the predator populations
- documented important fluctuations in the population of Montagu's Harrier - examined the reason for the drop the population: The decline was found to be due mainly to the harvesting of the corn fields in there area where these predators nest and to poaching of other birds upon which they prey. The recovery of the predator population was accomplished by pointing out the nests to the farmers who were advised to avoid them when harvesting their corn and to the overall reduction of the cultivated surfaces last years.
- For the Peregrine falcon, we observed a decline due to the poaching eggs and chicks by poachers and to the increase in eggs shell fragility caused by the increased use of insecticides in the area. The populations of Peregrine falcons has recovered after measures were taken to guard the nesting zones by volunteers and after a reduction in the use of the insecticides when cultivation in this area was phased out.

Figure 14 - Montagu's harrier (Circus pygargus).

 

NIGHTTIME-PREDATORS
- compiled a catalogue of the species
- compiled photographs of these predators
- evaluated the status of the populations

- we observed a rapid decline of the Barn owl population, the cause of which is yet to be determined. We suspect that my be linked to the decommissioning of old buildings.

SMALL MAMMALIANS
- compiled a catalogue of the species based on the examination of the droppings or vomiting of night-time predators
- compiled photographs of these small mammalians

From what we just presented, you may note that, even if there are well established and funded organizations working on the flora and fauna, often a group of voluntary naturalists working in the field is able to make useful observations. In fact, may official scientific organizations do have not have the funding or human resources to continually maintain environmental monitoring programs. However, groups of volunteers can provide make significant contributions to updating the environmental database of information on their area. They are often best suited to conduct surveys of their local area and report the status of threatened species in their area. They can also report any the signs of declining species. Finally they can contribute to reversing some of these trends by getting involved in community based action focused on environmental conservation.

 

Figure 15 - Long-eared owl (Asio otus).

LABORATORY

During your excursions you can collect plant samples, dead insects, skeletons of small vertebrates, snake skins, etc. At home, you can examine these samples with the aid of a stereoscopic microscope with the aid of tools such as tweezers, scalpels with interchangeable blades of different shape, small scissors, pipettes, etc. In order to describe the objects you have collected, you should have the appropriate drawing material and photographic equipment including macro photography. If you like to collect natural samples, a piece of cabinet with a glass cover or glass-covered display boxes of different sizes will be useful. Typical objects for these collections are plant samples, droppings, branches covered with lichens, abandoned nests, insects pupae shells, dead insects, small skeletons of vertebrates, pellets, mollusk shells, etc. Avoid to collecting alive animals.

 

Figure 16 - Observation of natural specimens
collected during our excursions.

We strongly advise you of NOT to perform anatomical dissections on dead animals because you could contract serious diseases like the rabies or other infections. Often dead animals are infested with parasites that are looking for a new host and you could be just what they are looking for. Instead, limit your examination to the external aspects of the animal at the place where you have found it. Always wear disposable latex or plastic gloves whenever you handle any potentially dead creatures to avoid infection. Try to understand what caused the animal die there. Verify if they were shot by hunters, killed or injured by traps or predation by other animals, or if it was run over by a car. In certain countries, states or provinces you should report any dead game animals or large mammals to the local wildlife conservation authorities to assist them in the management of the local fauna. In fact, reporting to the appropriate agencies is important for them to determine as soon as possible the presence of any contagious diseases in the area.

Do not attempt to collect any samples of dead animals or to bring them home because they may be infectious and harmful to you, your family and your pet dog or cat. Instead, mark the location of the sample. If you want to report it to the conservation authorities, give them the exact co-ordinates of the siting and they may note it or even dispatch trained professionals who will collect the carcass.

A tool of fundamental importance to the amateur naturalist is a diary or note book in which to record all your observations during your excursions. In this notebook, you should record the date your observations were made. These records will help you later to compile a calendar of the natural events you observe and will be of great help in the later years to orient your observation activities according to the period of the year.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION AND PROTECTION

The third phase of this project involves activities that focus on protecting the threatened species in your area. These activities actually take place during the exploration activities of the second phase. It is while we are observing the environment that the idea of the activities to protect the environment comes up. The planning of such activities requires a thorough knowledge of the species you want defend as well as the environment in which they live. For this reason, it is advisable to you seek the aid of professional biologists or conservationists who already work on this field.

The activities that are part of the environmental protection activities are :

- monitoring plant and animal species
- conducting research on the causes of the possible species decline
- conservation activities like preparing artificial nests for birds and water puddles for amphibians
- habitat restoration which benefit several species
- creation of protected zones or conservation areas

MONITORING OF SPECIES

Monitoring species serves to determine the status of the populations. These types of surveys are very important because make it possible to follow the statistical trends of the populations during the course of several years. Let us first distinguish between a census, which is a precise measurement and an evaluation which is an approximate approach at population monitoring.

Unfortunately, a census is rather difficult to conduct for the amateur naturalist because it requires one to follow detailed procedures or protocols, which you need to know before you can apply it. The amount of the species that should be monitored is large and the area to be surveyed may be extensive. For these reasons, biologists and naturalists working in this field often require of the assistance of volunteer naturalists in monitoring populations. In some countries, groups of volunteers are used in this task, whose work is valuable and indispensable. Unfortunately, in most countries the data on the status of the wildlife populations are very scarce and insufficient to establish any trends.

The evaluation of the status of the populations is a less precise operation than the census, but it is nonetheless important to monitor health of the species. If you cannot conduct a census, you should at least attempt an evaluation. The evaluation is done by comparing the estimated number of the subjects of a given species from year to year. For example, if in a year you observe a some thirty frogs of a certain species and the year after you only register six, even if you do not know the precisely total number of individuals, this will alert you a possible decrease in population. Then with this information it may be possible to establish if there is an actual decline in the population. Thus the evaluation and the more importantly, the census are important tools to detect these species that are in difficulty and to direct the necessary resources to their conservation.

If your group attains a suitable size and has a sufficient motivation, you can consider conducting a formal census rather than an evaluation. To do this you should contact professionals who monitor the fates of different species in your area. Further ahead we describe how this is also possible to conduct through the INTERNET.


SEARCHING FOR THE CAUSES OF THE DECLINE OF SPECIES

To be effective in protecting threatened species, it is important to identify the problems that are affecting them. Try to determine what is causing the decline of a threatened species even tough it may be very difficult to do so. It may be helpful to distinguish between regional versus and local factors. The regional factors are those that affect large areas like a whole country, a continent or even the globe. Regional factors are studied by numerous searchers throughout the world. You should seek out published articles on these topics. As for the local factors, which are limited to your local area, try to determine them by yourself, possibly with the help of local experts. Sometimes some of these factors can be quite simple. For example, special regulations allowing hunting out of season of certain species has contributed to the disappearance some species of birds and of other animals in our area.

CONSERVATION ACTIVITIES

Figure 17 - The alpine newt (Triturus alpestris)
breeding site reclaimed after it was backfilled.

Conservation work refers to activities designed to eliminate or at the very least, mitigate the factors causing the decline of one or more species. For amphibians, the new cultivation methods that have been implemented in our area have eliminated many of the drains and ponds from the countryside, have proven to be detrimental to these creatures. Under these conditions, periods of drought become more critical than usual because these species can disappear of from wide areas. Herbicides and pesticides are also detrimental for amphibians. Often, and even because of natural events, wetlands become filled with sediment, usually silt. In several humid zones, the water dries up before the larvae of the amphibians have completed their metamorphosis. Digging pools, even small one, is very beneficial to the amphibians. It is also useful to dredge the sediment from an old pond to restore it. Not only do amphibians take advantage of these changes but several bird species take advantage of artificial nests.

Before starting any work of this type, you should obtain the permission of the land owners. Moreover, if you are planning of projects larger than a few square meters, take care to consult the environmental or wildlife conservation agencies in your area before dredging a pond or any body of water since there may be specific laws and regulations governing this type of activity. In some areas you may even be required to conduct an environmental impact assessment, conduct public hearings and obtain a permit before your can proceed with the project.

Conservation activities can proceed over long periods of time. In any case, you must carefully plan your conservation projects. In fact, even with the best of intentions, it is possible to cause a mess of it if you are not careful. For example, you observe a little pond that quickly dries causing all of the tadpoles in it to die. Taken with enthusiasm to reclaim the pond, you call a bulldozer to excavate soil and create a pool with a few hundred cubic meters of water. At the beginning all seem fine and the amphibians breed. One day you discover common goldfish in the pond. The red fishes are feeding on the eggs and larvae of the amphibians. The amphibians do not breed any more because they are being eaten by the fish. You consider removing the fish, but it is much too difficult because the pond is much too large.


Figure 18 - Artificial puddle created for amphibians.

The next time, you will dig a shallow pond, so it can dry up at the end of the summer, when the amphibians will have completed their transformation. In this manner, fish will leave as the pond dries up. Next spring the amphibians will have a good habitat to breed. In hindsight, dig only a little pond such that it will be possible to drain all the water to displace the fish. To avoid this type of situation, you need experience you should consult get advice from professionals or experts in the field of conservation.

Some may argue that the goldfish should have the same rights to a good habitat as amphibians. It is necessary consider that goldfish are not indigenous to this area, but they are likely put in the ponds by fisherman or weekend tourists who want get rid the goldfish they just won at the local county fair. This is also why we observe the proliferation of exotic turtles in some area and which are predators for the amphibians. The removal of goldfish, exotic turtles and other foreign (allochtonous) species from the ponds is justifiable from a conservation perspective. Local or indigenous fish already have at their disposal rivers, streams, lakes and do usually not need these ponds. Never release goldfish or other exotic animals in a natural body of water, rather bring them to your local environmental organization or animal protection society.


ENVIRONMENTAL REMEDIATION

During your excursions your may come across abandoned objects like household-electric appliances, sinks, toilet basins, tires, even automobiles. Unfortunately many people have little respect for the environment and they use it as a rubbish bin. You should note the location of these abandoned objects and organize a field trip to collect and dispose of this refuse. This is also an excellent to help preserve Nature.

 

Figure 19 - Collecting abandoned rubbish in the environment.


HABITATS RESTORATION

Among the more important activities to defend living creatures in nature are the those dealing with the restoration of natural habitats. These operations consist in a reconstruction of natural habitats to provide opportunities to several living species to settle in a particular area. These activities require consent of land owners and of the local environmental authorities. Activities of this type include reforestation and the creation of wetlands.

CREATION OF CONSERVATION AREAS

In exploring your environment, you may come across areas that are particularly beautiful or precious as a natural heritage site and that merit to be protected from human activity. You can try to protect these zones by designating them as parks or conservation areas. To obtain this, you will usually have to form a committee of citizens to promote the proposal and organize the administrative and legal aspects of the project.

FUND RAISING

Many countries have enacted laws that ensure funding for environmental conservation activities. Sometimes these laws are not well known and the funds remain unused. In Pianoro, we have introduced a plan to develop environmental conservation activities and promote tourism in the territory known of three valleys, that includes our district. The funding we requested is provided by a national agency and an European one. With the funding, we have developed a program for the reforestation of the area, the reclamation of fluvial areas and wetlands, to improve natural habitats and to favour the movement of wildlife among the parklands of this land. We also plan to have a network of the nature trails including observation stations for naturalist activities, improved the archaeological sites and local museums. We believe these measures will help promote farm-holidays and eco-tourism in this area.

INTERNET RESOURCES

The INTERNET has become an important means of communication even among naturalists and conservationists. On the world wide web (WWW), you can find numerous references to associations of naturalists, discussion groups like newsgroups and mailing lists devoted to the environmental education and the conservation of birds, amphibians, reptilians, etc. Through the Internet, environmental organizations coordinate teams of volunteers to conduct valuable research efforts dedicated to nature conservation like the monitoring of different species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptilians and insects. On the WWW, you can also find protocols for the conducting environmental monitoring programs. Meetings have also been organized on the WWW in which the different groups displayed their work.

NETWORKING AND COLLABORATIONS

The exchange between different groups of volunteers and other environmental organizations working in the field of conservation are important because they promote the exchange of ideas, techniques and working methods that can be beneficial to all. As the volunteer groups progress in their activities they gain more knowledge and experience. Their exploration activities evolve and become more sophisticated as new challenges arise. These volunteer groups also become experts of sorts who have gained valuable experience on their particular area. It is therefore important that volunteer groups maintain close contacts with universities and research institutes. The importance maintaining these contacts is not only to have access to the expertise we lack, but to share with the professional research community the information and experience of amateur naturalists and conservationists working in the field. Finally, maintaining links with professional or university research groups will broaden your perspective in the field of nature conservation.

Our group also has felt the need keep contacts such as these. We have contacted professors of the university of Bologna and researchers working in specific fields as biologists, entomologists, herpetologists and geologists. In this way, we have obtained information on specific topics for we have returned the favour by providing data collected in our area. We have also obtained the collaboration of university students in biology and in natural sciences. In our activities, university students find an interesting occasion for directly observing what they are studying and to do practical field research also. This network of connections is important for it gives an impetus to the local groups of amateur naturalists which, in addition to exploring their local environment, will disseminate their knowledge of their surroundings through slide shows, presentations, documentaries, pictures expositions and the publication of articles in local periodicals.

This network of connections is important for giving greater impulse to the local naturalistic group which, beyond the explorations of the environment, will carry out an activity of diffusion of knowledge of the surrounding land and a work of environmental education through slide projections, documentaries, exposition of pictures, publication of articles on local periodicals.

Once your group will have acquired a certain level of experience and operating ability, you should collaborate with national and international organizations working on the environmental conservation and protection. Some of these organizations are concerned only with a specific category of living organism, like birds or ducks while others are interested in general environmental issues.

The most prominent and best known of these organizations is The World Conservation Union or IUCN. It is also the oldest as it was founded in 1948. The IUCN mission statement is simple: "Our Mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable".

The IUCN comprised 900 member institutes and organizations concerned with environmental issues all over the globe. Of its six commissions, the Species Survival Commission (SSC) is concerned with the survival of the species. It collects the data supplied from several groups of scientists and volunteers and compiles the well known " Red Lists ", the directory of the state of health of the organisms living on our planet.

The living species classified up to now number about 1,800,000, but the organisms yet to be classified are estimated at between 4 and 40 million. Clearly even the best organization, with the assistance of a great deal of volunteers cannot hope not monitor all these species. For this reason, IUCN concentrates its attention on the vertebrates (birds, mammalians, reptilians, amphibians, fishes) regarding them as indicators of environmental health even for species that are lower in the evolutionary chain. The IUCN also monitors certain plants and some invertebrate species. Considering that vertebrates comprise about 50,000 species, the work ahead is truly formidable.

In any case, following the lead and direction of these international organizations render the work of a group of volunteers much more fulfilling, effective and useful to all.

There are some organizations for the protection of the nature which are present in the Web:
The World Conservation Union - IUCN - http://www.iucn.org/  (see also to the commissions and the tematic activities)
Biodiversity Conservation Information System - BCIS - http://www.biodiversity.org/
The Worldwatch Institute - http://www.worldwatch.org/
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center - http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/default.htm (national)
The Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force - DAPTF - http://www.open.ac.uk/OU/Academic/Biology/J_Baker/JBtxt.htm
North American Amphibian Monitoring Program - NAAMP - http://www.mp1-pwrc.usgs.gov/amphibs.html (national)


CONCLUSION

Considering the fragility of our natural environment, it increasingly recognized that efforts to conserve and protect our natural heritage are important as economic development itself. We described how a group of volunteer naturalists have developed a better knowledge of their environment and actively participate in its conservation by joining forces with professional organizations which help coordinate the efforts of local groups of volunteers.

The group of volunteer naturalists we described can become a local centre of environmental education that can contribute to disseminate the love and the respect for the nature necessary to face the ecological challenges of future.

The exploratory activities in the local countryside provide a good opportunity to get out into nature. The activities we describe offer anyone with a sincere interest in the environment to contribute to the collective body of knowledge on our environment just like professional naturalists.

Just as sport hunters love to get out into nature, we encourage sport hunters to consider these nature excursions as a means to appreciate the benefits of wildlife conservation. Sport hunters have a remarkable knowledge of the environment and can contribute to conservation efforts in their local area.

Our hope is that groups of volunteer naturalists like the one we describe here will increase in number and contribute to attain a sustainable balance between the natural environment and human activities on our planet.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Gerald Durrell. Alfred A. Knopf; A practical Guide for the Amateur Naturalist; 1992; New York. ISBN 0-394-53390-9. This is an excellent source book and practical guidebook for the beginner amateur naturalist.

Figure 20 - View of the terrain in the Pianoro study area.

Figures: 3, 4, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19 = W. Vivarelli
Figures: 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 10, 16, 17, 18, 20 = G. Carboni


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