Individuals a population to conserve make

28 11 2012
Unique in its genus, the saiga antelope inhabits the steppes and semi-desert environments in two sub-species split between Kazakhstan (Saiga tatarica tatarica, ~ 80% of the individuals) and Mongolia (Saiga tatarica mongolica). Locals hunt them for their meat and the (attributed) medicinal properties of male horns. Like many ungulates, the population is sensitive to winter severity and summer drought (which signal seasonal migrations of herds up to 1000 individuals). But illegal poaching has reduced the species from > 1 million in the 1970s to ~ 50000 currently (see RT video). The species has gone extinct in China and Ukraine, and has been IUCN “Critically Endangered” from 2002. The photo shows a male in The Centre for Wild Animals, Kalmykia, Russia (courtesy of Pavel Sorokin).

In a planet approaching 7 billion people, individual identity for most of us goes largely unnoticed by the rest. However, individuals are important because each can promote changes at different scales of social organisation, from families through to associations, suburbs and countries. This is not only true for the human species, but for any species (1).

It is less than two decades since many ecologists started pondering the ways of applying the understanding of how individuals behave to the conservation of species (2-9), which some now refer to as ‘conservation behaviour’ (10, 11). The nexus seems straightforward. The decisions a bear or a shrimp make daily to feed, mate, move or shelter (i.e., their behaviour) affect their fitness (survival + fertility). Therefore, the sum of those decisions across all individuals in a population or species matters to the core themes handled by conservation biology for ensuring long-term population viability (12), i.e., counteracting anthropogenic impacts, and (with the distinction introduced by Cawley, 13) reversing population decline and avoiding population extinction.

To use behaviour in conservation implies that we can modify the behaviour of individuals to their own benefit (and mostly, to the species’ benefit) or define behavioural metrics that can be used as indicators of population threats. A main research area dealing with behavioural modification is that of anti-predator training of captive individuals prior to re-introduction. Laden with nuances, those training programs have yielded contrasting results across species, and have only tested a few instances of ‘success’ after release into the wild (14). For example, captive black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) exposed to stuffed hawks, caged ferrets and rattlesnakes had higher post-release survival than untrained individuals in the grasslands of the North American Great Plains (15). A clear example of a threat metric is aberrant behaviour triggered by hunting. Eleanor Milner-Gulland et al. (16) have reported a 46 % reduction in fertility rates in the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) in Russia from 1993-2002. This species forms harems consisting of one alpha male and 12 to 30 females. Local communities have long hunted this species, but illegal poaching for horned males from the early 1990s (17) ultimately led to harems with a female surplus (with an average sex ratio up to 100 females per male!). In them, only a few dominant females seem to reproduce because they engage in aggressive displays that dissuade other females from accessing the males. Read the rest of this entry »

Improving the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

23 11 2012

RSPO – don’t be guilty of this

Laurance & Pimm organise another excellent tropical conservation open-letter initiative. This follows our 2010 paper (Improving the performance of the Roundtable on Sustainable Oil Palm for nature conservation) in Conservation Biology.

Scientists Statement on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s Draft Revised Principles and Criteria for Public Consultation – November 2012

As leading scientists with prominent academic and research institutions around the world, we write to encourage the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to use this review of the RSPO Principles and Criteria as an opportunity to ensure that RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil is grown in a manner that protects tropical forests and the health of our planet. We applaud the RSPO for having strong social and environmental standards, but palm oil cannot be considered sustainable without also having greenhouse gas standards. Nor can it be considered sustainable if it drives species to extinction.

Tropical forests are critical ecosystems that must be conserved. They are home to millions of plant and animal species, are essential for local water-cycling, and store vast amounts of carbon. When they are cleared, biodiversity is lost and the carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that drives climate change.

Moreover, tropical areas with peat soils store even larger amounts of carbon and when water is drained and the soils exposed, carbon is released into the atmosphere for several decades, driving climate changei. In addition, peat exposed to water in drainage canals may decay anaerobically, producing methane – a greenhouse more potent than carbon dioxide.

Palm oil production continues to increase in the tropics, and in some cases that production is directly driving tropical deforestation and the destruction of peatlandsii. Given the large carbon footprint and irreparable biodiversity loss such palm oil production cannot be considered sustainable. Read the rest of this entry »

Essential predators

21 11 2012

© C. Hilton

Here at, My contributors and I have highlighted the important regulating role of predators in myriad systems. We have written extensively on the mesopredator release concept applied to dingos, sharks and coyotes, but we haven’t really expanded on the broader role of predators in more complex systems.

This week comes an elegant experimental study (and how I love good experimental evidence of complex ecological processes and how they affect population persistence and ecosystem stability, resilience and productivity) demonstrating, once again, just how important predators are for healthy ecosystems. Long story short – if your predators are not doing well, chances are the rest of the ecosystem is performing poorly.

Today’s latest evidence comes from on an inshore marine system in Ireland involving crabs (Carcinus maenas), whelks (Nucella lapillus), gastropd grazers (Patella vulgata, Littorina littorea and Gibbula umbilicalis), mussels (Mytilus edulis) and macroalgae. Published in Journal of Animal Ecology, O’Connor and colleagues’ paper (Distinguishing between direct and indirect effects of predators in complex ecosystems) explains how their controlled experimental removals of different combinations of predators (crabs & whelks) and their herbivore prey (mussels & gastropods) affected primary producer (macroalgae) diversity and cover (see Figure below and caption from O’Connor et al.). Read the rest of this entry »

Protected areas work, but only when you put in the effort

15 11 2012

Apologies for the delay in getting this latest post out. If you read my last one, you’ll know that I’ve been in the United Kingdom for the last week. I’m writing this entry in the train down from York to Heathrow, from which I’ll shortly begin the gruelling 30-hour trip home to Adelaide.

Eight days on the other side of the planet is a bit of a cyclonic trip, but I can honestly say that it was entirely worth it. My first port of call was London where I attended the Zoological Society of London’s Protected Areas Symposium, which is the main topic on which I’ll elaborate shortly.

But I also visited my friend and colleague, Dr. Kate Parr at the University of Liverpool, where I also had the pleasure of talking with Rob Marrs and Mike Begon. Liverpool was also where I first observed the habits of a peculiar, yet extremely common species – the greater flabby, orange-skinned, mini-skirted, black-eyed scouser. Fascinating.

I then had the privilege and serendipitous indulgence of visiting the beautiful and quaint city of York where I gave another talk to the Environment Department at the University of York. My host, Dr. Kate Arnold was simply lovely, and I got to speak with a host of other very clever people including Callum Roberts, Phil Platts, Andy Marshall and Murray Rudd. Between the chats and real ales, mushy peas, pork pies and visits to the Minster, I was in north English heaven.

Enough of the cultural compliments – the title of this post was the take-home message of the ZSL symposium. There I gave a 25-minute talk summarising our recent paper on the performance of tropical protected areas around the globe, and added a few extra analyses in the process. One interesting result that was missing from the original paper was the country-level characteristics that explain variation in protected area ‘health’ (as we defined it in the Nature paper). After looking at a number of potential drives, including per-capita wealth, governance quality, environmental performance, human population density and the proportion of high conservation-value protected areas (IUCN Ia, Ib, II and IV categories), it came out that at least at that coarse country scale that only the proportion of high conservation-value protected areas explained any additional variation in health. In other words, the more category Ia, Ib, II and IV protected areas a country has (relative to the total), the better their protected areas do on average (and remember, we’re talking largely about developing and tropical nations here). Read the rest of this entry »

A posthumous citation tribute for Sodhi

6 11 2012

I’m sitting at a friend’s house in Sydney writing this quick entry before jumping on a plane to London. It’s been a busy few days, and will be an even busier next few weeks.

I met with Paul and Anne Ehrlich yesterday (who are visiting Australia) and we finalised the first complete draft of our book – I will keep you posted on that. In London, I will be meeting with the Journal of Animal Ecology crew on Wednesday night (I’m on the editorial board), followed by two very interesting days at the Zoological Society of London‘s Protected Areas Symposium at Regent’s Park. Then I’ll be off to the Universities of Liverpool and York for a quick lecture tour, followed by a very long trip back home. I’m already tired.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share a little bit of news about our dear and recently deceased friend and colleague, Navjot Sodhi. We’ve already written several times our personal tributes (see here, here and here) to this great mind of conservation thinking who disappeared from us far too soon, but this is a little different. Barry Brook, as is his wont to do, came up with a great idea to get Navjot up posthumously on Google Scholar.
Read the rest of this entry »

Toothed conflict

1 11 2012

Left: An Anatolian shepherd (a Turkish breed improved in the USA) guiding a herd of boer goats whose flesh is much appreciated by people in Namibia and South Africa. Right: A cheetah carrying a radio-transmitter, within a project assessing range movements of this feline for the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Cheetahs refrain from moving close to the herds when the latter are looked after by the guardian dogs. Photos courtesy of Laurie Marker.

Another corker from Salva. He’s chosen a topic this week that’s near and dear to my brain – the conservation of higher-order predators. As ConBytes readers will know, we’ve talked a lot about human-predator conflict and the inevitable losers in that battle – the (non-human) predators. From dingos to sharks, predator xenophobia is just another way we weaken ecosystems and ultimately harm ourselves.

Rural areas devoted to livestock are part of the natural landscape, so it is inevitable (as well as natural) that predators, livestock and humans interact in such a mosaic of bordering habitats. However, their coexistence remains an unresolved conservation problem. 

When two species, people, political parties, enterprises… want the same thing, they either share it (if possible) or one side eliminates the competitor. The fact that proteins are part of the diet of humans and other carnivore species has resulted in a trophic drama that goes back millennia. Nowadays, predators like eagles, coyotes, lions, wolves and raccoons are credited for attacks on cattle and poultry (and people!) in all continents. This global problem is not only economic, but interlaces culture, emotion, policy and sanitation (1-4). For instance, some carnivores are reservoirs of cattle diseases and contribute to pathogen dispersal (5, 6).

Management options

Managers of natural resources have implemented three strategies to handle these sorts of issues for livestock breeders in general (7). Those strategies can be complementary or exclusive on a case-by-case basis, and are chosen following cost-benefit assessments and depending on the conservation status of the predator species involved. (i) ‘Eradication’ aims to eliminate the predator, which is regarded as noxious and worthless. (ii) ‘Regulation’ allows controlled takes under quota schemes, normally for pre-defined locations, dates and killing methods. ‘Preservation’ is applied in protected areas and/or for rare or endangered species, and often requires monitoring and measures set to prevent illegal harvest or trade. Additionally, many livestock breeders receive money to compensate losses to predators (8).

Many experts now advocate non-lethal (preventive) measures that modify the behaviour of people, livestock or predators (2, 7). The use of livestock-guarding dogs is one of those preventive measures (9). As an example, Laurie Marker (director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund) et al. (10) studied the use of 117 Anatolian shepherds adopted by Namibian rangers between 1995 and 2002 (Fig. 1). In this African country, cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) selectively forage on small-sized cattle and juveniles. Despite this feline being protected nationally, Namibian laws authorise rangers to shoot cheetahs in situations of risk to people and their properties, with more than 6,000 cheetahs having been killed in the 1980s alone (11). Through face-to-face interviews, Marker found that since the arrival of the Anatolian shepherds, > 70 % of the rangers perceived a pronounced reduction in cattle mortality (10). Although, the use of livestock-guarding dogs has worked out fine in many places worldwide, it is no panacea. In many other instances, the dogs dissuade some predator species and not others from harassing the livestock, or are only effective in combination with other measures (7, 9). Read the rest of this entry »


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