Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. 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 »





It couldn’t have been us!

29 05 2012

A few months ago I asked Chris Johnson of the University of Tasmania to put together a post on his recent Science paper regarding Australian megafaunal extinctions. It seems that it stirred, yet again, some controversy among those who refuse to accept (mainly archaeologists) that humans could have had anything to do with pre-European extinctions. Indeed, how could humans possibly have anything to do with extinctions?!

Like Corey, I am mainly interested in current environmental problems. But now and then I wade into the debate over the extinction of Australia’s Pleistocene megafauna [editor's note: Chris literally wrote the book on Australian mammal extinctions over the last 50,000 years], those huge animals that wandered over the Australian landscape until about 40,000 years ago.

This is an endlessly fascinating topic. The creatures were wonderful and bizarre – it’s great fun doing work that lets you think about marsupial lions, giant kangaroos, geese bigger than emus, echidnas the size of wombats, and the rest. The cause of their extinction is perhaps the biggest mystery, and the most vexed controversy, in the environmental history of Australia. And for reasons that I will explain in a minute, solving this mystery is profoundly important for our understanding of contemporary Australian ecology.

The latest bit of work on this is a paper that a group of us (including Corey’s close colleague, Barry Brook) published in Science. You can see it here (if you don’t have access to Science, email me for a copy). So far, research on this problem has concentrated on dating fossils to find out when megafauna species went extinct. Several recent studies have found evidence for extinction between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago, which is about when people first came to Australia. But the conclusion that people caused a mass extinction of megafauna has been strenuously criticised, because so far it is based on only a few species with good collections of dates. The critics argue that other species disappeared before humans arrived, maybe in an extended series of extinctions caused by something else, like a deteriorating climate.

This argument over fossils will be with us for a long time. Because finding and dating fossils is such hard, slow work, the fossil record will inevitably give a seriously incomplete picture of what happened. One way around this problem would be to analyse the fossil record using mathematical approaches that take into account the problem of incomplete sampling. Corey is lead author of a recent paper that introduced a great new set of tools for this, and we are part of a group that is currently assembling a complete database of all recent dates on Australian fossils so that we can analyse them using these tools. Stay tuned for the result. Read the rest of this entry »





Eat a feral a week

22 03 2012

© Y. Sugiura

Just a quick post this week about something I’ve been contemplating for a while.

What if every Australian pledged to eat a feral animal a week?

Yes, I know that it’s a bit out of the pitch, and I’m sure not everyone would do it. Nor would it be physically possible for one person to eat an entire camel, buffalo or deer in a week – but hopefully you get the picture.

Why propose this? Australia is quite over-run with feral animals. Some quick stats:

Now we have, of course, many other ferals (cats, rats, foxes, mice), but I don’t think too many people would want to eat them. I have personally eaten feral pigs, camels, buffalo, goats, and red, fallow and sambar deer, mostly from my own research trips or from friends who hunt. Read the rest of this entry »





The evil sextet

18 05 2011

This post doubles as a Conservation Classic and a new take on an old concept. It’s new in the sense that it updates what we believe is an advance on a major milestone in conservation biology, even though some of the add-on concepts themselves have been around for a while.

First, the classic.

The ‘evil quartet’, or ‘four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse’, was probably the first treatment of extinction dynamics as a biological discipline in its own right. Jarod Diamond (1984) took a sweeping historical and contemporary view of extinction, then simplified the problem to four principal mechanisms:

  1. overhunting (or overexploitation),
  2. introduced species,
  3. habitat destruction and
  4. chains of linked extinctions (trophic cascades, or co-extinctions).

Far from a mere review or list of unrelated mechanisms, Diamond’s evil quartet crystallized conservation biologists’ thinking about key mechanisms and, more importantly, directed attention towards those factors likely to drive extinctions in the future. The unique combination of prehistorical through to modern examples gave conservation biologists a holistic view of extinction dynamics and helped spawn many of the papers described hereafter. Read the rest of this entry »





What the hell is a banteng?

21 02 2011

A few years ago (ok, 6 years), ABC‘s Catalyst did a piece on our banteng research programme in Garig Gunak Barlu National Park in the Northern Territory. The show basically talks about the conservation and management conundrum of having a successful feral species in Australia that is also highly endangered in its native range (South East Asia). Do we shoot them all, or legislate them as an endangered species? It’s for Australians to decide.

I finally got around to uploading it on Youtube. I hope I haven’t contravened some copyright law, but I figure after such a lag, no one will care. I await the imminent contradiction from the ABC’s lawyers…

I hope you enjoy.

For the scientific papers arising from the work, see: Read the rest of this entry »





September 2010 Issue of Conservation Letters out

13 10 2010

Conservation Lettersfifth issue (September) of Volume 3 is now out. Some good ones here.

CJA Bradshaw





Conservation research rarely equals conservation

21 07 2010

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

I am currently attending the 2010 International Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) in Sanur, Bali (Indonesia). As I did a few weeks ago at the ICCB in Canada, I’m tweeting and blogging my way through.

-

Yesterday I attended a talk by my good friend Trish Shanley (formerly of CIFOR) where she highlighted the disconnect between conservation research and actual conservation. I’ve posted about this before (see Out of touch, impractical and irrelevantMake your conservation PhD relevant), but this was a sobering reminder of how conservation research can be a self-perpetuating phenomenon and often not touch the people who need it most.

Presenting the highlights of her paper published earlier this year in Biotropica entitled Out of the loop: why research rarely reaches policy makers and the public and what can be done, one comment she made during the talk that really caught my attention was the following (I’m paraphrasing, of course).

Most of the world’s poor living off the land are unconcerned about biodiversity per se. As conservationists we should not therefore adopt the typical preamble that biodiversity (e.g., forests) represent the “lungs of our planet” – what people (and especially women) need to know is how biodiversity loss affects “food for my children”.

The paper itself was an interview 268 researchers from 29 countries (of which I was one) about their views on the relevance of their work. Not surprisingly (but amazingly that we were so honest), most respondents stated that their principal target was other scientists, with policy makers and other marginalised groups/local people holding a distant second place. Corporate targets were also pretty rare – I guess we feel as a group that that’s generallly a lost cause.
Neither a surprise was that we generally view peer-reviewed scientific publications as the main vehicle for the dissemination of our results. What was a bit of a surprise though is that we fully admit papers aren’t the best way to trickle down the information (again, more of that brutal honesty); apparently we mainly believe ‘stakeholder meetings’
are more effective (I have my doubts).




Every extra human means fewer animals

8 02 2010

© The Sun

As promised some time ago when I blogged about the imminent release of the book Conservation Biology for All (edited by Navjot Sodhi and Paul Ehrlich), I am now posting a few titbits from the book.

Today’s post is a blurb from Paul Ehrlich on the human population problem for conservation of biodiversity.

The size of the human population is approaching 7 billion people, and its most fundamental connection with conservation is simple: people compete with other animals., which unlike green plants cannot make their own food. At present Homo sapiens uses, coopts, or destroys close to half of all the food available to the rest of the animal kingdom. That means that, in essence, every human being added to the population means fewer individuals can be supported in the remaining fauna.

But human population growth does much more than simply cause a proportional decline in animal biodiversity – since as you know, we degrade nature in many ways besides competing with animals for food. Each additional person will have a disproportionate negative impact on biodiversity in general. The first farmers started farming the richest soils they could find and utilised the richest and most accessible resources first (Ehrlich & Ehrlich 2005). Now much of the soil that people first farmed has been eroded away or paved over, and agriculturalists increasingly are forced to turn to marginal land to grow more food.

Equally, deeper and poorer ore deposits must be mined and smelted today, water and petroleum must come from lower quality resources, deeper wells, or (for oil) from deep beneath the ocean and must be transported over longer distances, all at ever-greater environmental cost [my addition - this is exactly why we need to embrace the cheap, safe and carbon-free energy provided by nuclear energy].

The tasks of conservation biologists are made more difficult by human population growth, as is readily seen in the I=PAT equation (Holdren & Ehrlich 1974; Ehrlich & Ehrlich 1981). Impact (I) on biodiversity is not only a result of population size (P), but of that size multiplied by affluence (A) measured as per capita consumption, and that product multiplied by another factor (T), which summarises the technologies  and socio-political-economic arrangements to service that consumption. More people surrounding a rainforest reserve in a poor nation often means more individuals invading the reserve to gather firewood or bush meat. More poeple in a rich country may mean more off-road vehicles (ORVs) assulting the biota – especially if the ORV manufacturers are politically powerful and can succesfully fight bans on their use. As poor countries’ populations grow and segments of them become more affluent, demand rises for meat and automobiles, with domesticated animals competing with or devouring native biota, cars causing all sorts of assults on biodiversity, and both adding to climate disruption. Globally, as a growing population demands greater quantities of plastics, industrial chemicals, pesticides, fertilisers, cosmetics, and medicines, the toxification of the planet escalates, bringing frightening problems for organisms ranging from polar bears to frogs (to say nothing of people!).

In sum, population growth (along with escalating consumption and the use of environmentally malign technologies) is a major driver of the ongoing destruction of populations, species, and communities that is a salient feature of the Anthropocene. Humanity , as the dominant animal (Ehrlich & Ehrlich 2008), simply out competes other animals for the planet’s productivity, and often both plants and animals for its freshwater. While dealing with more limited problems, it therefore behoves every conservation biologist to put part of her time into restraining those drivers, including working to humanely lower [sic] birth rates until population growth stops and begins a slow decline twoard a sustainable size (Daily et al. 1994).

Incidentally, Paul Ehrlich is travelling to Adelaide this year (November 2010) for some high-profile talks and meetings. Stay tuned for coverage of the events.

CJA Bradshaw

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Conservation Biology for All

26 12 2009

A new book that I’m proud to have had a hand in writing is just about to come out with Oxford University Press called Conservation Biology for All. Edited by the venerable Conservation Scholars, Professors Navjot Sodhi (National University of Singapore) and Paul Ehrlich (Stanford University), it’s a powerhouse of some of the world’s leaders in conservation science and application.

The book strives to “…provide cutting-edge but basic conservation science to a global readership”. In short, it’s written to bring the forefront of conservation science to the general public, with OUP promising to make it freely available online within about a year from its release in early 2010 (or so the rumour goes). The main idea here is that those in most need of such a book – the conservationists in developing nations – can access the wealth of information therein without having to sacrifice the village cow to buy it.

I won’t go into any great detail about the book’s contents (mainly because I have yet to receive my own copy and read most of the chapters!), but I have perused early versions of Kevin Gaston‘s excellent chapter on biodiversity, and Tom Brook‘s overview of conservation planning and prioritisation. Our chapter (Chapter 16 by Barry Brook and me), is an overview of statistical and modelling philosophy and application with emphasis on conservation mathematics. It’s by no means a complete treatment, but it’s something we want to develop further down the track. I do hope many people find it useful.

I’ve reproduced the chapter title line-up below, with links to each of the authors websites.

  1. Conservation Biology: Past and Present (C. Meine)
  2. Biodiversity (K. Gaston)
  3. Ecosystem Functions and Services (C. Sekercioglu)
  4. Habitat Destruction: Death of a Thousand Cuts (W. Laurance)
  5. Habitat Fragmentation and Landscape Change (A. Bennett & D. Saunders)
  6. Overharvesting (C. Peres)
  7. Invasive Species (D. Simberloff)
  8. Climate Change (T. Lovejoy)
  9. Fire and Biodiversity (D. Bowman & B. Murphy)
  10. Extinctions and the Practice of Preventing Them (S. Pimm & C. Jenkins)
  11. Conservation Planning and Priorities (T. Brooks)
  12. Endangered Species Management: The US Experience (D. Wilcove)
  13. Conservation in Human-Modified Landscapes (L.P. Koh & T. Gardner)
  14. The Roles of People in Conservation (A. Claus, K. Chan & T. Satterfield)
  15. From Conservation Theory to Practice: Crossing the Divide (M. Rao & J. Ginsberg)
  16. The Conservation Biologist’s Toolbox – Principles for the Design and Analysis of Conservation Studies (C. Bradshaw & B. Brook)

As you can see, it’s a pretty impressive collection of conservation stars and hard-hitting topics. Can’t wait to get my own copy! I will probably blog individual chapters down the track, so stay tuned.

CJA Bradshaw

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December Issue of Conservation Letters

11 12 2009

Gemsbok (Oryx gazella) in Namibia

Another great line-up in Conservation Letters‘ last issue for 2009. For full access, click here.





Crap environmental reporting

13 11 2009

EvilWe do a lot in our lab to get our research results out to a wider community than just scientists – this blog is just one example of how we do that. But of course, we rely on the regular media (television, newspaper, radio) heavily to pick up our media releases (see a list here). I firmly believe it goes well beyond shameless self promotion – it’s a duty of every scientist I think to tell the world (i.e., more than just our colleagues) about what we’re being paid to do. And the masses are hungry for it.

However, the demise of the true ‘journalist’ (one who investigates a story – i.e., does ‘research’) in favour of the automaton ‘reporter’ (one who merely regurgitates, and then sensationalises, what he/she is told or reads) worldwide (and oh, how we are plagued with reporters and deeply in need of journalists in Australia!) means that there is some horrendous stories out there, especially on scientific issues. This is mainly because most reporters have neither the training nor capacity to understand what they’re writing about.

This issue is also particular poignant for the state of the environment, climate change and biodiversity loss – I’ve blogged about this before (see Poor media coverage promotes environmental apathy and untruths).

But after a 30-minute telephone interview with a very friendly American food journalist yesterday, I expected a reasonable report on the issue of frog consumption because, well, I explained many things to her as best I could. What was eventually published was appalling.

Now, in all fairness, I think she was trying to do well, but it’s as though she didn’t even listen to me. The warning bells should have rung loudly when she admitted she hadn’t read my blog “in detail” (i.e., not at all?). You can read the full article here, but let me just point out some of the inconsistencies:

  • She wrote: “That’s a problem, Bradshaw adds, because nearly one half of frog species are facing extinction.”

Ah, no. I told her that between 30 and 50 % of frogs could be threatened with extinction (~30 % officially from the IUCN Red List). It could be as much as half given the paucity of information on so many species. A great example of reporter cherry-picking to add sensationalism.

  • She wrote: “Bradshaw attributes the drop-off to global warming and over-harvesting.”

Again, no, I didn’t. I clearly told her that the number one, way-out-in-front cause of frog declines worldwide is habitat loss. I mentioned chytrid fungus as another major contributor, and that climate change exacerbates the lot. Harvesting pressure is a big unknown in terms of relative impact, but I suspect it’s large.

  • She continued: “Bradshaw has embarked on a one-man campaign to educate eaters about the frog leg industry”

Hmmm. One man? I had a great team of colleagues co-write the original paper in Conservation Biology. I wasn’t even the lead author! Funny how suddenly I’m a lone wolf on a ‘campaign’. Bloody hell.

“Aghast”, was I? I don’t recall being particularly emotional when I told her that I found a photo of Barack Obama eating frog legs during his election campaign. I merely pointed this out to show that the product is readily available in the USA. I also mentioned absolutely nothing about whales or their loins.

So, enough of my little humorous whinge. My point is really that there are plenty of bad journalists out there with little interest in reporting the truth on environmental issues (tell us something we don’t know, Bradshaw). If you want to read a good story about the frog consumption issue, check out a real journalist’s perspective here.

CJA Bradshaw





Continuing saga of the frogs’ legs trade

10 08 2009

© D. Bickford

© M. Auliya

In January we had a flurry of media coverage (see here for examples) about one of our papers that had just come out online in Conservation BiologyEating frogs to extinction (Warkentin et al.). I blogged about the paper then (one of ConservationBytes’ most viewed posts) that described the magnitude of the global trade in amphibian parts for human food. Suffice it to say, it’s colossal.

A couple of months ago, John Henley of the Guardian (UK) rang me to discuss the issue some more for a piece he was doing in that newspaper. The article has just come out (along with a companion blog post), and I can honestly say that it’s the most insightful coverage of the issue by the media I’ve seen yet. Thanks, John, for covering it so well. The article is excellently written, poignant and really gets to the heart of the matter – people just don’t know how bad the frog trade really is for amphibian biodiversity.

Short story – don’t eat any more frogs’ legs (you probably won’t be missing much).

I’ve reproduced John’s article below, but please visit the original here.

Why we shouldn’t eat frogs’ legs

In the cavernous community hall of the Vosges spa town of Vittel, a large and lugubrious man, his small, surprisingly chirpy wife, and 450 other people are sitting down to their evening meal. It’s rather noisy. “Dunno why we do it, really,” shouts the man, whose name is Jacky. “Don’t taste of anything, do they? White. Insipid. If it wasn’t for the sauce it’d be like eating some soft sort of rubber. Just the kind of food an Englishman should like, in fact. Hah.”

Outside, the streets are filled with revellers. A funfair is going full swing. The restaurants along the high street are full, and queues have formed before the stands run by the local football, tennis, basketball, rugby and youth clubs.

All offer the same thing: cuisses de grenouilles à la provencale (with garlic and parsley), cuisses de grenouille à la poulette (egg and cream). Seven euros, or thereabouts, for a paper plateful, with fries. Nine with a beer or a glass of not-very-chilled riesling. The more daring are offering cuisses de grenouilles à la vosgienne, à l’andalouse, à l’ailloli. There’s pizza grenouille, quiche grenouille, tourte grenouille. Omelette de grenouilles aux fines herbes. Souffle, cassolette and gratin de grenouilles.

Everywhere you look, people are nibbling greasily on a grenouille, licking their fingers, spitting out little bones. “Isn’t it just great?” yells Jacky’s diminutive wife, Frederique. “Every year we do this. It’s our tradition. Our tribute to the noble frog.”

This is Vittel’s 37th annual Foire aux Grenouilles. According to Roland Boeuf, the 70-year-old president of the Confrererie de Taste-Cuisses de Grenouilles de Vittel, or (roughly) the Vittel Brotherhood of Frog Thigh Tasters, which has organised the event since its inception, the fair regularly draws upwards of 20,000 gourmet frog aficionados to the town for two days of amphibian-inspired jollities. Between them, they consume anything up to seven tonnes of frogs’ legs.

But there’s a problem. When the fair began, its founder René Clément, resistance hero, restaurateur and last of the great Lorraine frog ranchers, could supply all the necessary amphibians from his lakes 20 miles or so away. Nowadays, none of the frogs are even French.

According to Boeuf, Clément, whose real name was Hofstetter, moved to the area in the early 1950s looking to raise langoustines in the Saone river; the water proved too brackish and he turned to frogs instead. A true Frenchman, his catchphrase, oft-quoted around these parts, was that frogs “are like women. The legs are the best bits”.

Hofstetter/Clément would, says Gisèle Robinet, “provide 150 kg, 200 kg for every fair, all from his lakes and all caught by him”. With her husband Patrick, Robinet runs the Au Pêché Mignon patisserie (tourte aux grenouilles for six, €18; chocolate frogs €13 the dozen) on the Place de Gaulle, across the square from the restaurant Clément used to run, Le Grand Cerf. Now known as Le Galoubet, there’s a plaque commemorating the great frogman outside. “As a child I remember clearly him dismembering and preparing and cleaning his frogs in front of the restaurant,” says Robinet, who sells frog tartlets to gourmet Vitellois throughout the year, but makes a special effort with quiches and croustillants at fair-time. “It’s a big job, you know. Very fiddly. But we were all frog-catchers when I was a kid. Now, of course, that’s not possible any more.”

Boeuf recalls many a profitable frog-hunting expedition in the streams and ponds around Vittel. “One sort, la savatte, you could catch with your bare hands,” he says. “Best time was in spring, when they lay their eggs. They’d gather in their thousands, great wriggling green balls of them. I’ve seen whole streams completely blocked by a mountain of frogs.”

Others, rainettes, would be everywhere at harvest time. Or you could get a square of red fabric and lay it carefully on the water next to a lily pad that happened to have a frog on it, “and she’d just hop straight off and on to the cloth”, Boeuf says. “They love red.”

Pierette Gillet, the longest-standing member of the Brotherhood and, at 81, still a sprightly and committed frog-fancier, remembers heading out at night with a torch in search of so-called mute frogs, harder to catch because they have no larynx and hence emit no croak. “They’d be blinded by the light, and you could whack them over the head,” she says.

But those days are long gone. As elsewhere in the world, the amphibians’ habitat in France – where frogs’ legs have been a recognised and much remarked-upon part of the national diet for the best part of 1,000 years – is increasingly at risk, from pollution, pesticides and other man-made ills. Ponds have been drained and replaced with crops and cattle-troughs. Diseases have taken their toll, and the insects that frogs feed on are disappearing too. Alarmed by a rapid and dramatic fall in frog numbers, the French ministry of agriculture and fisheries began taking measures to protect the country’s species in 1976; by 1980, commercial frog harvesting was banned.

These days, a few regional authorities in France still allow the capture of limited numbers of frogs, strictly for personal consumption and provided they are broiled, fried or barbecued and consumed on the spot (a heresy not even Boeuf is prepared to contemplate). There are poachers who defy the ban; two years ago a court in Vesoul in the Haute-Saone convicted four men of harvesting vast numbers of frogs from the Mille-Etangs or Thousand Lakes area of the Vosges. The ringleader admitted to personally catching at least 10,000, which he sold to restaurants for 32 cents apiece.

By and large, though, France’s tough protection laws, enforceable by fines of up to €10,000 (£8,500) and instant confiscation of vehicles and equipment, seem to be working. As a result, all seven tonnes (officially, at least) of frogs’ legs consumed at this year’s Vittel fair have been imported, pre-prepared, deep-frozen and packed in cardboard boxes, from Indonesia.

Needless to say, this does not much please patriotic Gallic frog-fanciers. “We’d far prefer our frogs to be French, of course we would,” laments Gillet. “Especially here in the Vosges. This really is the heart of frog country.”

A Vittel restaurateur, who for obvious reasons demands anonymity, suggests there are still “ways and means” of securing at least a semi-reliable supply of French frogs for those who demand a true produit du terroir, “but it’s really not very easy, and no one here will tell you anything about it. We’d like to source locally, but the law is the law.”

But the fact that the Foire aux Grenouilles – not to mention the rest of France, and other big frog-consuming nations such as Belgium and the United States – now imports almost all its frogs’ legs has consequences that run deeper than a mere denting of national gastronomic pride. For scientists now believe that, just as with many fish species, we could be well on the way to eating the world’s frogs to extinction. Based on an analysis of UN trade data, researchers think we may now be consuming as many as 1bn wild frogs every year. For already weakened frog populations, that is very bad news indeed.

Scientists have long been aware that while human activity is causing a steady loss of the world’s biodiversity, amphibians seem to be suffering far more severely than any other animal group. It is thought their two-stage life cycle, aquatic and terrestrial, makes them twice as vulnerable to environmental and climate change, and their permeable skins may be more susceptible to toxins than other animals. In recent years, a devastating fungal condition, chytridiomycosis, has caused catastrophic population declines in Australia and the Americas.

“Amphibians are the most threatened animal group; about one third of all amphibian species are now listed as threatened, against 23% of mammals and 12% of birds,” says Corey Bradshaw, an associate professor at the Environment Institute of the University of Adelaide and a member of the team that carried out the research into human frog consumption that was published earlier this year in the journal Conservation Biology. “The principle drivers of extinction, we always assumed, were habitat loss and disease. Human harvesting, we thought, was minor. Then we started digging, and we realised there’s this massive global trade that no one really knows much about. It’s staggering. So as well as destroying where they live, we’re now eating them to death.”

France is the main culprit: according to government figures, while the French still consume 70 tonnes a year of domestically gathered legs each year, they have been shipping in as many as 4,000 tonnes annually since 1995. Besides popular, essentially local events such as the Foire aux Grenouilles, frogs’ legs are mostly a delicacy reserved for restaurants with gastronomic pretensions; one three-star chef, Georges Blanc, has at one time or another developed 19 different recipes for them at his celebrated restaurant in the Ain village of Vonnas, baking and skewering and skilleting them in everything from cream to apples.

Belgium and Luxembourg are also noted connoisseurs, but perhaps surprisingly, the country that runs France closest in the frog import stakes is the US. Frogs’ legs are particularly popular in the former French colony of Louisiana, where the city of Rayne likes to call itself Frog Capital of the World, but are also consumed with relish in Arkansas and Texas, where they are mostly served breaded and deep-fried. Bradshaw has a picture on his blog of President Barack Obama tucking with apparent gusto into a plate of frogs’ legs.

The world’s most avid frog eaters, though, are almost certainly in Asia, in countries such as Indonesia, China, Thailand and Vietnam. South America, too, is a big market. “People may think frogs’ legs are some kind of epicurean delicacy consumed by a handful of French gourmets, but in many developing countries they are a staple,” Bradshaw says.

Indonesia is today the world’s largest exporter of frogs by far, shipping more than 5,000 tonnes each year. Some of these may be farmed, but not many. Commercial frog-farming has been tried in both the US and Europe, but with little success: for a raft of reasons, including the ease with which frogs can fall prey to disease, feeding issues and basic frog biology, it is a notoriously risky and uneconomic business. Frogs are farmed in Asia, but rarely on an industrial scale; most are small, artisan affairs with which rural families try to supplement their income.

The vast majority of frogs that end up on a plate are harvested from the wild. Bradshaw and his colleagues estimate that Indonesia, to take just one exporting country, is probably consuming between two and seven times as many frogs as it sends abroad. “We have the legally recorded, international trade figures, but none of the local business is recorded,” Bradshaw says. “It’s back-of-an-envelope work. That’s what’s so alarming.”

The scientists’ biggest concern, he says, is that because of the almost complete lack of data, no one knows in what proportion different frog species are being taken. If, as they suspect, some 15 or 20 frog species are at any given moment supplying most of world demand, the consequences could be catastrophic. For while overharvesting for human consumption may not in itself be quite enough to drive a frog species to extinction, combined with all the other threats frogs face it certainly could be.

“The thing is, it isn’t a gradual process,” Bradshaw warns. “There’s a threshold, you cross it, and the whole thing crashes because you’ve just completely changed the composition of the whole community. There’s a tipping point. It’s exactly what happened with the overexploitation of cod in the North Atlantic. And with frogs, there’s no data, no tracking, no stock management. We really should have learned our lesson with fish, but it seems we haven’t. This is a wake-up call.”

Back in Vittel, Boeuf says he had no idea frogs were in such trouble. “They’re an endangered species here, I know,” he says. “That’s why we have to be careful, and we are. But if we can buy them in such quantities from Indonesia, surely it must be all right. They’re being careful there too, aren’t they?” Sadly, it would seem they are not. And all for a few greasy scraps of limp, bland flesh.

People say frogs taste like a cross between fish and chicken. In fact, they taste of frog: in other words, precious little bar the sauce they are served in.





Climate change’s ugly cousin – biodiversity loss

17 05 2009

uglybaby…nobody puts a value on pollination; national accounts do not reflect the value of ecosystem services that stop soil erosion or provide watershed protection.

Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North (UK), Co-chairman, Global Legislators Organisation‘s International Commission on Land Use Change and Ecosystems

Last week I read with great interest the BBC’s Green Room opinion article by Barry Gardiner, Labour MP in the UK, about how the biodiversity crisis takes very much the back seat to climate change in world media, politics and international agreements.

He couldn’t be more spot-on.

I must stipulate right up front that this post is neither a whinge, rant nor lament; my goal is to highlight what I’ve noticed about the world’s general perception of climate change and biodiversity crisis issues over the last few years, and over the last year in particular since ConservationBytes.com was born.

Case in point: my good friend and colleague, Professor Barry Brook, started his blog BraveNewClimate.com a little over a month (August 2008) after I managed to get ConservationBytes.com up and running (July 2008). His blog tackles issues regarding the science of climate change, and Barry has been very successful at empirically, methodically and patiently tearing down the paper walls of the climate change denialists. A quick glance at the number views of BraveNewClimate.com since inception reveals about an order of magnitude more than for ConservationBytes.com (i.e., ~195000 versus 20000, respectively), and Barry has accumulated a total of around 4500 comments compared to just 231 for ConservationBytes.com. The difference is striking.

Now, I don’t begrudge for one moment this disparity – quite the contrary – I am thrilled that Barry has managed to influence so many people and topple so effectively the faecal spires erected by the myriad self-proclaimed ‘experts’ on climate change (an infamous line to whom I have no idea to attribute states that “opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one”). Barry is, via BraveNewClimate.com, doing the world an immense service. What I do find intriguing is that in many ways, the biodiversity crisis is a much, much worse problem that is and will continue to degrade human life for millennia to come. Yet as Barry Gardiner observed, the UK papers mentioned biodiversity only 115 times over the last 3 months compared to 1382 times for climate change – again, that order-of-magnitude disparity.

There is no biodiversity equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (although there are a few international organisations tackling the extinction crisis such as the United Nation’s Environment Program, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the International Union for Conservation of Nature), we still have little capacity or idea how to incorporate the trillions of dollars worth of ecosystem services supplied every year to us free of charge, and we have nothing at all equivalent to the Kyoto Protocol for biodiversity preservation. Yet, conservation biologists have for decades demonstrated how human disease prevalence, reduction in pollination, increasing floods, reduced freshwater availability, carbon emissions, loss of fish supplies, weed establishment and spread, etc. are all exacerbated by biodiversity loss. Climate change, as serious and potentially apocalyptic as it is, can be viewed as just another stressor in a system stressed to its limits.

Of course, the lack of ‘interest’ may not be as bleak as indicated by web traffic; I believe the science underpinning our assessment of biodiversity loss is fairly well-accepted by people who care to look into these things, and the evidence spans the gambit of biological diversity and ecosystems. In short, it’s much less controversial a topic than climate change, so it attracts a lot less vitriol and spawns fewer polemics. That said, it is a self-destructive ambivalence that will eventually come to bite humanity on the bum in the most serious of ways, and I truly believe that we’re not far off from major world conflicts over the dwindling pool of resources (food, water, raw materials) we are so effectively destroying. We would be wise to take heed of the warnings.

CJA Bradshaw

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Tropical Turmoil II

8 03 2009

In August last year I covered a paper my colleagues (Navjot Sodhi and Barry Brook) and I had in press in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment entitled Tropical turmoil – a biodiversity tragedy in progress. The paper is now available in the March 2009 issue of the journal (click here to access). We were also fortunate enough to grab the front cover (shown here) and have a dedicated podcast that you can listen to by clicking here about the paper and its findings. I encourage ConservationBytes.com readers to have a listen if they’re interested in learning more about the woeful state of tropical biotas worldwide, and maybe some ways to rectify the problems. The intro to the podcast can be viewed by clicking here.

CJA Bradshaw





Rare just tastes better

11 02 2009

I had written this a while ago for publication, but my timing was out and no one had room to publish it. So, I’m reproducing it here as an extension to a previous post (That looks rare – I’ll kill that one).

As the international market for luxury goods expands in value, extent and diversity of items (Nueno & Quelch 1998), the world’s burgeoning pool of already threatened species stands to worsen. Economic theory predicts that harvested species should eventually find refuge from over-exploitation because it simply becomes too costly to find the last remaining wild individuals (Koford & Tschoegl 1998). However, the self-reinforcing cycle of human greed (Brook & Sodhi 2006) can make rare species increasingly valuable to a few select consumers such that mounting financial incentives drive species to extinction (Courchamp et al. 2006). The economic and ecological arguments are compelling, but to date there has been little emphasis on how the phenomenon arises in the human thought process, nor how apparently irrational behaviour can persist. Gault and colleagues (2008) have addressed this gap in a paper published recently in Conservation Letters by examining consumer preferences for arguably one of the most stereotypical luxury food items, caviar from the 200-million-year-old sturgeon (Acipenser spp.).

Sturgeon (6 genera) populations worldwide are in trouble, with all but two of the 27 known species threatened with extinction (either Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered) according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Despite all 27 species also having strict international trade restrictions imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (Gault et al. 2008), intense commercial pressure persists for 15 of these at an estimated global value exceeding US$200 million annually (Pikitch et al. 2005). The very existence of the industry itself and the luxury good it produces are therefore, at least for some regions, unlikely to endure over the next decade (Pala 2007). What drives such irrational behaviour and why can we not seem to prevent such coveted species from spiralling down the extinction vortex?

Gault and colleagues addressed this question specifically in an elegantly simple set of preference experiments targeting the very end-consumers of the caviar production line – French connoisseurs. Some particularly remarkable results were derived from presentations of identical caviar; 86 % of attendees of luxury receptions not only preferred falsely labelled ‘rarer’ Siberian caviar (A. baeri) after blind tasting experiments, they also scored what they believed was caviar from the rarer species as having a higher ‘gustative quality’. These high-brow results were compared to more modest consumers in French supermarkets, with similar conclusions. Not only were unsuspecting gourmands fooled into believing the experimental propaganda, subjects in both cases stated a preference for seemingly rarer caviar even prior to tasting.

The psycho-sociological implications of perceived rarity are disturbing themselves; but Gault and colleagues extended their results with a mathematical game theory model demonstrating how irrational choices drive just such a harvested species to extinction. The economic implications of attempting to curb exploitation as species become rarer when the irrationality of perceived rarity was taken into consideration were telling – there is no payoff in delaying exploitation as more and more consumers are capable of entering the market. In other words, the assumption that consumers apply a positive temporal discount rate to their payoff (Olson & Bailey 1981) is wrong, with the demographic corollary that total depletion of the resource ensues. The authors contend that such artificial value may drive the entire luxury goods market based mainly on the self-consciousness and social status of consumers able to afford these symbols of affluence.

The poor record of species over-exploitation by humans arising from the Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968) is compounded by this new information. This anthropogenic Allee effect (Courchamp et al. 2006) provides a novel example mechanism for how small populations are driven ever-downward because low densities ensure declining fitness. Many species may follow the same general rules, from bluefin tuna, Napoleon wrasse lips and shark fins, to reptile skins and Tibetan antelope woollen shawls. Gault and colleagues warn that as the human population continues to expand and more people enter the luxury-goods market, more wildlife species will succumb to this Allee effect-driven extinction vortex.

The authors suggest that a combination of consumer education and the encouragement of farmed substitute caviar will be more effective than potentially counter-productive trading bans that ultimately encourage illegal trade. However, the preference results suggest that education might not promote positive action given that reluctance of affluent consumers to self-limit. I believe that the way forward instead requires a combination of international trade bans, certification schemes for ‘sustainable’ goods that flood markets to increase supply and reduce price, better controls on point-of-origin labelling, and even state-controlled ‘warning’ systems to alert prospective consumers that they are enhancing the extinction risk of the very products they enjoy. A better architecture for trading schemes and market systems that embrace long-term persistence can surely counteract the irrationality of the human-induced destruction of global ecosystem services. We just need to put our minds and pocketbooks to the task.

CJA Bradshaw

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Even Obama eats frog legs

3 02 2009

As the seemingly never-ending media blitz covering our paper describing the massive world trade in frog legs continues, I came across a very poignant example of how ubiquitous the trade in frog legs for human consumption really is.

Even one of the most powerful men in the world eats them. Need we say more?

© S. Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

© S. Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Actually, I will say three more things: (1) We need a lot more investment in research to quantify the effects of this trade on threatened frog populations, (2) I wonder if Mr. Obama, his chef, or the restaurant owner had any idea what species or what country the frog in question came from?, and (3) if you still think cooked frog legs is a minor epicurean oddity enjoyed only by slightly eccentric French gourmets, think again.

CJA Bradshaw

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss II: frog legs

1 02 2009

I couldn’t resist this. Given the enormous response to our soon-to-be-published paper in Conservation Biology entitled Eating frogs to extinction by Warkentin, Bickford, Sodhi & Bradshaw (view post How many frogs do we eat?), I just had to put these up. Enjoy this subclass of biodiversity loss cartoons for what they are worth.

CJA Bradshaw

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Throw another roo on the barbie

21 11 2008

Following a previous post on ConservationBytes.com extolling the environmental virtues of eating more kangaroo and less beef (Beef is Bad; Skippy is Better), here’s an article from the Melbourne Age by David Sutherland (reproduced below):

LAST week only one of my five local butchers could sell me kangaroo. And that was frozen, not fresh. One said he occasionally got it in if people requested it. Another directed me to a butcher several suburbs away. Another said he didn’t sell roo because they moved too fast and he couldn’t catch them.

The only roo meat I could buy fresh within five kilometres of home was at a Coles supermarket. Supplied by South Australian game meat wholesaler Macro Meats, it was packed like any other supermarket meat. The difference was the spiel written on the back of the container.

It detailed the health and environmental advantages of eating kangaroo meat, including the fact that kangaroos produce lower levels of greenhouse gases than cattle and sheep.

In Professor Ross Garnaut’s final report on tackling climate change, he said that the carbon benefits of eating kangaroo meat could be one of Australia’s great contributions to the global problem.

But it would seem that producers believe consumers are reluctant to eat kangaroo and need to be convinced otherwise. Could it be the “skippy syndrome” – a dread of munching on a national emblem? Or a lasting stigma from the days when roo was considered dirty and only fit for pet food? Regardless, there’s no doubt kangaroo as a food continues to battle an image problem in some quarters.

Interesting then that, according to recent government figures, roo meat is experiencing steady growth. A national report, Consumer Attitudes to Kangaroo Meat Products by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, released in February, found that 58.5% of respondents had tried kangaroo meat and that men were more likely to consume it than women. Sales of roo meat through Coles have increased by 9% over the past financial year.

It’s largely home cooks who are driving the boom.

Paula Mauriks runs Auscroc, a game meat wholesaler based in Melbourne. When she started the business 10 years ago, kangaroo made up a tiny proportion of her business. But five years later it started to take off, and in the past 18 months Mauriks says sales have tripled, mainly due to roo’s popularity in home kitchens.

“We used to sell more to restaurants, but now wholesale has taken over as the biggest market,” she says. “New butchers, chicken shops and other specialist meat retailers are coming to us all the time looking to source kangaroo meat.”

Mauriks believes people’s increased willingness to try new foods has contributed to improved sales for kangaroo meat products.

“Most people know by now that kangaroo is low in fat and high in iron, and quite a few of those are willing to see if they like the taste,” she says. “Then it becomes a matter of educating people how best to cook it so they enjoy it and come back for more.”

Kangaroo Cookin’ (Wakefield Press), a cookbook comprised solely of recipes using kangaroo meat, was the first kangaroo cookbook. From soups and pastas to char grills, stir-fries and one-pot dishes, the 88 recipes in this deliberately down-to-earth book illustrate the versatility of this often-underrated meat.

Gary Hunt and his wife Janine have been selling kangaroo meat from the Chicken Pantry at Queen Victoria Market for almost 12 years. Their pepper-marinated kangaroo has always been the strongest seller in their roo range, but in the past couple of years other products and cuts have started to take off.

“We’ve noticed lots of people buying kangaroo who are advised by their doctors to lower their fat intake or increase their levels of iron,” says Hunt. “Many more women are buying it these days.”

Mornington Peninsula butcher Greg Goss, from Greg’s Family Gourmet Butchers, has been selling meat for more than 40 years and has noticed the recent interest in kangaroo meat.

“Two years ago we did well to sell 5 kilos in a month,” he says. “Now we’re probably selling 100 kilos in that same time.”

Goss sees sales of roo meat increase in spring, summer and autumn, and spike as fine weekends loom, which he puts down to the lure of outdoor cooking.

“Kangaroo comes up beautifully on the barbie,” he says, “seared on the outside and pink on the inside.”

Here’s hoping some of my local butchers read the market too, and order in some fresh for this weekend.





Conservation Scholars: Bruce Campbell

19 11 2008

This series on ConservationBytes.com takes a page out of our book Tropical Conservation Biology (Sodhi, Brook & Bradshaw) – therein we produced a series of ‘Spotlights’ describing the contributions of great thinkers to conservation science. Each highlight of a Conservation Scholar includes a small biography, a list of major scientific publications and a Q & A on the person’s particular area of expertise.

Our sixth Conservation Scholar is Bruce Campbell

Biography

I was trained as an ecologist, going into ecology because of the enthusiasm of a mentor who really believed in the ability of individuals to make a difference in the world. But after moving to Zimbabwe and initiating work in the tropical savannas, where humans have had an impact for 1000s of years, I found that a purely ecological perspective limited my ability to grapple with complex conservation issues. So I branched out into resource economics, and into institutional arrangements for common property management – I did this by reading basic texts, but more importantly, by working closely with some world-class resource economists and sociologists – they were important in shaping my career. For about twenty years I focussed mainly on African tropical woodlands and savannas, but then joined the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Indonesia, and started work in the humid tropics on three continents. CIFOR, with sites throughout the tropics, offers a wonderful environment for in-depth cases studies combined with synthesis based on a global perspective. Now at Charles Darwin University [Editor's note: Prof. Campbell has recently returned full time to CIFOR although he still collaborates with colleagues at Charles Darwin University], I have started work on Aboriginal natural resource management, while still working with teams of researchers in some 20 developing countries. My work currently covers household economics (can natural resources lead to pathways out of poverty?), conservation and development dynamics (can there be win-win situations for forests and livelihoods?), and common property management (can collective action and community-based management lead to improved outcomes for forests and livelihoods?).

Major Publications

Questions and Answers

1. Is big industry such as logging companies, or expanding human populations the more important threat to tropical ecosystems?

This depends on the context – but in general I believe that population, especially local population is not a major driver. Colleagues and I work in the Brazilian Amazon, in the forests of central Africa and in Indonesian Borneo. In the Amazon site the most important threat relates to the expansion of commercial agriculture (soya beans and livestock), resulting in considerable forest loss. In Central Africa forest is not really being lost – but the bush-meat trade for expanding urban populations, is impacting negatively on biodiversity. At the Indonesian site forest destruction is driven by logging companies and those issuing the permits. Context, context, context…

2. Why is the bush-meat trade, an ancient human activity, no longer sustainable in many tropical areas?

The scale of hunting is now much higher than before – to supply the expanding urban markets. But I should also note that areas far from roads (and there are many of those) are not that severely impacted. But as roads further penetrate into the forest, bush-meat exploitation will follow.

3. In what way can small-scale enterprises, which rely on the exploitation of tropical forest products, be beneficial to conservation?

Many conservation agencies will spend considerable resources to improve the livelihoods of those living in and around protected areas. Small-scale enterprises can be used to build good will among local people towards conservation areas. Where local people value a particular enterprise and want it to be maintained, they can themselves institute management measures to ensure sustainable harvest. Some of the best examples of this are in southern Africa where wildlife hunting is proving a win-win situation for people and conservation (but even there, context is important – some schemes will not work because of a number of factors, e.g., too many people, too few prized hunting animals, discord in communities).

4. How can cross-disciplinary co-operation and facilitation in conservation be made to work given the lack of incentives for such teamwork from bureaucracies?

I think there are a number of success factors for cross-disciplinarity. Questions posed by conservation biologists that require expertise from another discipline don’t generally provide enough excitement to that other discipline. To engage other disciplines in any real sense, one must invite resource economists, sociologists, etc. to the initial meetings where the research questions are defined. Respect is key – with the different languages and approaches of different disciplines it is easy to find fault – there must be a high degree of mutual respect in a team. To build respect and derive common visions about the research requires time. There are bureaucratic hurdles but I think these can be broken down by committed teams.

5. How is the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) being effective in changing policy and having an on-ground impact?

CIFOR has a very conscious approach to achieving impact. This can be broken down into five elements. 1) Understanding where impact is possible and getting focus on a few topics. 2) Building impact strategies so that one clearly understands, for each programme of work, the kinds of research that will be produced, who the users of that research will be, what formats are needed for the research outputs, and what processes need to be engaged with (e.g., if impact is sought at the international convention level, how do we interface with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity?). 3) Building partnerships with agencies that are crucial for the uptake of the research. 4) Making sure that there is time and budget for the necessary processes and products after the formal research is completed (e.g., media campaigns, policy briefs, key stakeholder meetings).

CJA Bradshaw

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(with thanks to Navjot Sodhi, Barry Brook, Ward Cooper, Wiley-Blackwell and Bruce Campbell for permission to reproduce the text – buy your copy of Tropical Conservation Biology here)








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