Damned by nature; damned by man

26 10 2012

I am a forest officer from India. I want to narrate a story. No, my story is not about elephants or tigers or snakes. Those stories about India are commonplace. I wish to narrate a simple story about people, the least-known part of the marathon Indian fable.

Humans are said to have arrived in India very early in world civilisation. Some were raised here from the seed of their ancestors; others migrated here from all over the world. Over the centuries these people occupied every inch of soil that could support life. The population of India today is 1.2 billion. Each year, India’s population increases by a number nearly equal to the complete population of Australia. Such a prolific growth of numbers is easy to explain; the fertile soil, ample water and tropical warmth of India support the growth of all life forms.

Not all numbers are great, however, and big numbers sometimes exact the price from the wrong persons.

This is my story.

I went to work in the state of Meghalaya in north-eastern India. Pestilence, floods and dense vegetation have made north-eastern India a most inhospitable place. Population is scanty by Indian standards. Life does not extend much beyond the basic chores of finding food and hearth. In the hills, far away from the bustle of modern civilisation, primitive tribal families practice agriculture in its most basic form. Fertilisers are unknown to them, so they cultivate a parcel of land until it loses its fertility, ultimately abandoning it to find other arable land. When the original parcel has finally recovered its fertility after a few years, they move back. It is a ceaseless cycle of migrating back and forth – the so-called practice known as ‘shifting cultivation’.  Ginger, peas, pumpkin, brinjal and sweet potato can be seen growing on numerous slopes in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya beside the huts of the farmers built on stilts, with chickens roosting below.

When I reached Meghalaya and looked about at the kind of world I had never seen before, I admit that I found the tribal folk a little strange. They lived in a way that would have appeared bizarre to a modern community. The people did not seem to know how many centuries had passed them by. For me as a forest officer, what looked worst was that that these people appeared to have no comprehension of the value of forests for the planet. They built their huts with wood. They cooked on firewood. Most of their implements were made of wood. A whole tree would be cut and thrown across the banks to make a bridge over a stream. Above all, their crazy practice of shifting cultivation would ultimately remove all the remaining forest.

I decided my main job in this place was to save the forest from its own people, and we enforced Indian laws to preserve the forests.

On one occasion my staff saw a young local man running with an illegally obtained log of wood and started to chase him, waving their guns in the air to scare him. He ran barefoot amid dense bushes a long distance before we managed to apprehend him. I had bruises on my arms and a leech hanging from my armpit drinking my blood by the time the race was over. I admit that in my anger at the time, I wanted to impale the man to the earth at the spot where he had cut down the tree. It was not the leeches and the bruises that angered me. The tree he was carrying was (until quite recently) in perfect condition.

But Meghalaya isn’t populated solely by subsistence-farming villagers – there are also a few successful traders originally from big cities who have settled in this economically depressed region. They dress smartly and speak impeccable English. At the time, I remembered wondering how these more sophisticated types could be maintaining their relatively lavish lifestyles among the poor villagers who walked barefoot in the dense forests. On a couple of occasions I dropped in at the home of a prominent trader.  He hosted me graciously in his beautiful home. I admit that I enjoyed these visits because they were my only link to the civilisation I had become used to prior to moving to Meghalaya. But I never visited the home of any tribal villager, for what could I talk to them about anyway?

Read the rest of this entry »





How to write a scientific paper

22 10 2012

Several years ago, my long-time mate, colleague and co-director, Barry Brook, and I were lamenting how most of our neophyte PhD students were having a hard time putting together their first paper drafts. It’s a common problem, and most supervisors probably get their collective paper-writing wisdom across in dribs and drabs over the course of their students’ torment… errhm, PhD. And I know that every supervisor has a different style, emphasis, short-cut (or two) and focus when writing a paper, and students invariably pick at least some of these up.

But the fact that this knowledge isn’t innate, nor is it in any way taught in probably most undergraduate programmes (I include Honours in that list), means that most supervisors must bleed heavily on those first drafts presented to them by their students. Bleeding is painful for both the supervisor and student who has to clean up the mess – there has to be a better way.

Yes, there are books on the issue (see, for example, Day & Castel 2011, Hofmann 2009, Schimel 2011), but how many starting PhDs sit down and read such books cover to cover? Hell, I can barely get them to read the basic statistics texts.

So as is classic for Barry, he came up with his own approach that I like to call ‘La Méthode Brookoise’ (a tribute to another clever jeu de mots). This short-cut guide to setting up a scientific paper is simple, effective and intuitive. Sure, it was designed with ecology in mind, but it should apply to most scientific disciplines. It appeals to most of our students, and we have both been asked for copies by other supervisors over the years. Our original intention was to write a paper about writing papers to flesh out the full Méthode, but that has yet to happen.

Therefore, for the benefit of the up-and-comings (and perhaps to a few of those longer in tooth), behold La Méthode Brookoise for writing papers: Read the rest of this entry »





Wise guys of deforestation

17 10 2012

Through fraudulent permits and similar tactics, organized crime profits significantly from illegal logging. jcoterhals

By Bill Laurance, James Cook University

Illegal logging is booming, as criminal organisations tighten their grip on this profitable global industry. Hence, it comes just in the nick of time that Australia, after years of debate, is on the verge of passing an anti-logging bill.

Illegal logging is an international scourge, and increasingly an organised criminal activity. It robs developing nations of vital revenues while promoting corruption and murder. It takes a terrible toll on the environment, promoting deforestation, loss of biodiversity and harmful carbon emissions at alarming rates.

Moreover, the flood of illegal timber makes it much harder for legitimate timber producers. The vast majority of those in Australia and New Zealand have difficulty competing in domestic and international markets. That’s one reason that many major Aussie retail chains and brands, such as Bunnings, Ikea-Australia, Timber Queensland, and Kimberly-Clark, are supporting the anti-illegal logging bill.

Illegal logging denies governments of developing nations revenue worldwide. Bill Laurance.

Illegal logging thrives because it’s lucrative. A new report by Interpol and the United Nations Environment Programme, “Green Carbon, Black Trade”, estimates the economic value of illegal logging and wood processing to range from $30 billion to $100 billion annually. That’s a whopping figure — constituting some 10-30% of the global trade in wood products.

Illegal logging plagues some of the world’s poorest peoples, many of whom live in tropical timber-producing countries. According to a 2011 study by the World Bank, two-thirds of the world’s top tropical timber-producing nations are losing at least half of their timber to illegal loggers. In some developing countries the figure approaches 90%.

Many nations export large quantities of timber or wood products into Australia. These include Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, all of which are suffering heavily from illegal logging. Many Chinese-made wood and paper imports also come from illegal timber. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been pleading with timber-importing nations like Australia to help it combat illegal logging, which costs the nation billions of dollars annually in lost revenues.

The new Interpol report shows just how devious illegal loggers are becoming. It details more than 30 different ways in which organised criminal gangs stiff governments of revenues and launder their ill-gotten gains.

The variety of tactics used is dizzying. These tactics include falsifying logging permits and using bribery to obtain illegal logging permits, logging outside of timber concessions, hacking government websites to forge transportation permits, and laundering illegal timber by mixing it in with legal timber supplies.

The good news however, is that improving enforcement is slowly making things tougher for illegal loggers.

Accustomed to dealing with criminal enterprises that transcend international borders, Interpol is bringing a new level of sophistication to the war on illegal logging. This is timely because most current efforts to fight illegal logging – such as the European Union’s Forest Law and various timber eco-certification schemes – just aren’t designed to combat organised crime, corruption and money laundering.

The Interpol report urges a multi-pronged approach to fight illegal loggers. A key element of this is anti-logging legislation that makes it harder for timber-consuming nations and their companies to import ill-gotten timber and wood products. Read the rest of this entry »





The Biodiversity Club

11 10 2012

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species uses 5 quantitative criteria to allocate species to 9 categories of extinction risk. The criteria are based on ecological theory (1, 2), and are therefore subject to modification and critique. With pros and cons (3-6), and intrigues (7, 8), the list has established itself as an important tool for assessing the state of biodiversity globally and, more recently, regionally.

We all carry codes of some sort; that is, unique alphanumeric labels identifying our membership in a collectivity. Some of those codes (e.g., a videoclub customer number) make sense only locally, some do internationally (e.g., passport number). Species are also members of the club of biodiversity and, by virtue of our modern concern for their conservation, the status of many taxa has been allocated to alphanumeric categories under different rationales such as extinction risk or trading schemes (5, 9-13). Contradiction emerges when taxa might be threatened locally but not internationally, or vice versa.

In the journal Biological Conservation, a recent paper (14) has echoed the problem for the seagrass Zostera muelleri. This marine phanerogam occurs in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, and is listed as “Least Concern” (LC) with “Stable” population trend by the IUCN. Matheson et al. (14) stated that such status neglects the “substantial loss” of seagrass habitats in New Zealand, and that the attribution of “prolific seed production” to the species reflects the IUCN assessment bias towards Australian populations. The IUCN Seagrass Red List Authority, Fred Short, responded (15) that IUCN species ratings indicate global status (i.e., not representative for individual countries) and that, based on available quantitative data and expert opinion, the declines of Z. muelleri are localised and offset by stable or expanding populations throughout its range. Read the rest of this entry »





Tropical protected areas still in trouble

8 10 2012

© P. Harris

There’s nothing like a bit of good, intelligent and respectful debate in science.

After the publication in Nature of our paper on tropical protected areas (Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas), some interesting discussion has ensued regarding some of our assumptions and validations.

As is their wont, Nature declined to publish these comments (and our responses) in the journal itself, but the new commenting feature at Nature.com allowed the exchange to be published online with the paper. Cognisant that probably few people will read this exchange, Bill Laurance and I decided to reproduce them here in full for your intellectual pleasure. Any further comments? We’d be keen to hear them.

COMMENT #1 (by Hari Sridhar of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore)

In this paper, Laurance and co-authors have tapped the expert opinions of ‘veteran field biologists and environmental scientists’ to understand the health of protected areas in the tropics worldwide. This is a novel and interesting approach and the dataset they have gathered is very impressive. Given that expert opinion can be subject to all kinds of biases and errors, it is crucial to demonstrate that expert opinion matches empirical reality. While the authors have tried to do this by comparing their results with empirical time-series datasets, I argue that their comparison does not serve the purpose of an independent validation.

Using 59 available time-series datasets from 37 sources (journal papers, books, reports etc.), the authors find a fairly good match between expert opinion and empirical data (in 51/59 cases, expert opinion matched empirically-derived trend). For this comparison to serve as an independent validation, it is crucial that the experts were unaware of the empirical trends at the time of the interviews. However, this is unlikely to be true because, in most cases, the experts themselves were involved in the collection of the time-series datasets (at least 43/59 to my knowledge, from a scan of references in Supplementary Table 1). In other words, the same experts whose opinions were being validated were involved in collection of the data used for validation.

OUR RESPONSE (William F. Laurance, Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Susan G. Laurance)

Sridhar raises a relevant point but one that, on careful examination, does not weaken our validation analysis. Read the rest of this entry »





Hades, fossilised fat-parrot shit and threatened bats

4 10 2012

WTF? © P. Bendle

Sounds like a Monty Python sketch, doesn’t it? But no, it’s about the wonderful complexity of ecology.

An interesting, and very weird paper just came out in Conservation Biology co-authored by my friend and colleague, Prof. Alan Cooper at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD).

Here’s what they have to say about it.

Ancient dung from a cave in the South Island of New Zealand has revealed a previously unsuspected relationship between two of the country’s most unusual threatened species.

Fossilised dung (coprolites) of a now rare parrot, the nocturnal flightless kakapo, contained large amounts of pollen of a rare parasitic plant, Dactylanthus, which lives underground and has no roots or leaves itself. The pollen suggests the kakapo was formerly an important pollinator for the threatened species, known as the Hades flower or wood rose. Researchers from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at The University of Adelaide, and Landcare Research and the Department of Conservation in New Zealand report the discovery in the journal Conservation Biology.

Read the rest of this entry »





Why do conservation scientists get out of bed?

1 10 2012

Don’t be distracted © motivatedphotos.com

I have, on many occasions, been faced with a difficult question after giving a public lecture. The question is philosophical in nature (and I was never very good at philosophy – just ask my IB philosophy teacher), hence its unusually complicated implications. The question goes something like this:

Given what you know about the state of the world – the decline in biodiversity, ecosystem services and our own health and welfare – how do you manage to get out of bed in the morning and go to work?

Yes, I can be a little, shall we say, ‘gloomy’ when I give a public lecture; I don’t tend to hold back much when it comes to just how much we’ve f%$ked over our only home, or why we continue to shit in our own (or in many cases, someone else’s) kitchen. It’s not that I get some sick-and-twisted pleasure out of seeing people in the front row shake their heads and ‘tsk-tsk’ their way through my presentation, but I do feel that as an ‘expert’ (ascribe whatever meaning to that descriptor you choose), I have a certain duty to inform non-experts about what the data say.

And if you’ve read even a handful of the posts on this site, you’ll understand that picture I paint isn’t full of roses and children’s smiling faces. A quick list of recent posts might remind you:

And so on. I agree – pretty depressing. Read the rest of this entry »








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