How humans have changed the desert’s biodiversity

Words & Pictures by Scott Latham

Humans have been affecting the biodiversity of habitats throughout the world at an alarming rate over the past few decades. We only have to look at the state of our oceans and the plastic waste to realise the impact of our actions. It’s been spoken about many times.

We’re damaging planet earth with overpopulation, poor habits, and disregard for nature. We can’t sustain nearly 8 billion people, where does our waste go? How much more habitat do we need to destroy? And when do we realise that we are ultimately forcing ourselves into extinction?

Look deeper and even in areas where we think we’re not making an impact we find that in fact, humans are changing the biodiversity of species upon even the harshest landscapes.

“What reason would a scavenging corvid have to be in the driest desert in North America?”

As I sat with protected species ecologist, Garry Smith, on the car park of Barkers Dam within the park, our presence was graced by a Raven. The bird sat less than 5 meters from us without a care in the World.

Being from the UK this was a grand experience, as Ravens are few and far between. Without, mentioning the fact they are seriously difficult to get close to.

But what reason would a scavenging corvid have to be in the driest desert in North America, and the hot waterless landscape of the Mojave Desert?

As we researched further, we found that the number of ravens has exploded in recent years. Partly due to their ability to thrive in developed areas.

As humans moved into the desert for recreation and hiking they introduced new sources of food and water for ravens. Such as illegal landfills, unsecured dumpsters and trash bins, roadkill, man-made ponds and irrigation systems.

Booming desert communities offered the ravens plenty of places to nest. Billboards, telephone poles, bridges and buildings, and of course littering to name a few.

With more people – came more ravens.

With a keen appetite for hatchlings, it made a serious dent in the population of endangered desert tortoises.

Ravens are everywhere in the Mojave Desert. Fifty years ago, these large black corvids were relatively uncommon in this hostile environment. Nowadays, Raven populations are soaring, up 700 percent in the West Mojave Desert alone over the past 25 years.

Ravens are now abundant, year-round residents of the Mojave.

Found only within the desert’s fragile ecosystems of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of South West American and Northern Mexico the Desert Tortoise populations are rapidly diminishing; and in some places, they have disappeared altogether.

Desert tortoises have lived in the deserts of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah since the Pleistocene and history shows that they have survived alongside humans, in particular, the indigenous Aha Makhav (Mohave) native American tribes, in the Mojave desert for over 10,000 years with little to no impact on their ecology.