Landscape dynamics of the Ustiurt plateau under environmental and social change

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Life Sciences


A landscape approach to conceptualising the relationship between humans and their environment is now recognised as crucial to understanding the complex dynamics of social-ecological systems under environmental and social change. If we are properly to predict the interactions between environmental change and human well-being in a highly dynamic system, and manage for sustainability, then these feedbacks must be properly understood, particularly if new policy interventions are to be robust to future change. The Ustiurt system provides an unusually good case study for examining these issues. A biodiversity offset scheme is in the pipeline, a prerequisite for which is an understanding of the effects of climate change on landscape dynamics and the population dynamics and movement of the flagship species; the migratory saiga antelope. There has been substantial and quantifiable environmental and social change but the system itself is relatively homogeneous; a rangeland with a single dominant wild ungulate. Projections of future change exist, and there is existing understanding of the saiga's ecology and movement patterns in relation to rangeland dynamics. The overall aim of the research is to contribute to understanding of the role of biodiversity offsetting in landscape management, in a changing world. The objectives are: - To analyse the determinants of rangeland condition over the last 30 years, linked to environmental and social changes in the region. - To use data on individual saiga spatio-temporal movement patterns to examine mechanisms by which climate warming and landscape change could influence saiga movement patterns - To develop spatially explicit models of landscape dynamics and saiga movement patterns. - To use these models to predict the effects of climate change and gas exploration on rangeland condition and saiga distribution and to explore the impacts of potential biodiversity offsets. - To analyse the uncertainties and ecological and economic trade-offs involved in biodiversity offsetting in the region, and provide policy advice to stakeholders based upon these analyses The project addresses the fundamental and globally urgent issue of the inter-relationship between humans, animal populations and their environment at a time of environmental change; and is relevant both to the Climate Systems and Biodiversity themes of NERC, as well as to the LWEC programme. It examines the effects of climate change and human activities on a migratory species, casting light on the drivers of animal movement. It also addresses the issue of biodiversity offsetting, an approach which is gaining popularity without a strong methodological basis. Intellectually, therefore, it stands at the cutting edge of biological and interdisciplinary research. This case study is a particularly stark and interesting example of the interrelationships between environmental change, species conservation and landscape management policy in the past, the near and far future. There is also an unusually high degree of stakeholder involvement from governmental and industry sectors, which will be mediated by the project partner FFI, as the leader of a major project to promote sustainable landscapes in the region. Hence this project will have the potential directly to influence both government policy and CASE partner activities in the region.


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