Look at the whale (while we wipe out everything else)

24 04 2014
harpoon trees

Modified from Raeside (Victoria Times Colonist)

I’ve tended to stay out of the ‘cetacean wars’ over the years because of the politics, emotions and vested interests involved, but I find it hard to ignore any longer. I’ve been wanting to write this little essay for some time, and given that we are doing a great job of buggering up the greater biodiversity future of this country, I think the time is right.

For years, Australia has been a champion of the anti-whaling movement, both in terms of its self-righteous, loud-mouth condemnation of whaling nations in its role as global ocean policeman at the International Whaling Commission, and its multi-million dollar financial investment in cetacean research. While this considered in isolation is without doubt a laudable objective (i.e., we certainly shouldn’t be hunting these magnificent marine megafauna), it is one of the greatest environmental wool-pulling-over-the-eyes, look-at-the-silly-monkey political sideshows ever devised.

“Why, Corey, that is a particularly Philistine view of the issues, don’t you think?”, I can metaphysically hear you state. However, do not confound the morality with the politics; I’m certainly focussing on the latter.

The simple fact is that being so vocally anti-whaling, Australian politicians can win easy green votes while doing nothing much at all about the other, real environmental crises unfolding right beneath the noses of their constituents. And easy it is – even the most hard-core, right-wing plutocrat would probably not (publicly) denigrate a government for standing up for the whales. In other words, it’s not a controversial environmental issue. So a little emboldened brinkmanship on the international stage, bolstered by some over-the-top, sensationalist media coverage, and you have a guaranteed recipe to garner faux environmental kudos.

It is a case of brilliant politicking, and absolute deviousness. 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 »

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 »

Better SAFE than sorry

30 11 2011

Last day of November already – I am now convinced that my suspicions are correct: time is not constant and in fact accelerates as you age (in mathematical terms, a unit of time becomes a progressively smaller proportion of the time elapsed since your birth, so this makes sense). But, I digress…

This short post will act mostly as a spruik for my upcoming talk at the International Congress for Conservation Biology next week in Auckland (10.30 in New Zealand Room 2 on Friday, 9 December) entitled: Species Ability to Forestall Extinction (SAFE) index for IUCN Red Listed species. The post also sets a bit of the backdrop to this paper and why I think people might be interested in attending.

As regular readers of CB will know, we published a paper this year in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment describing a relatively simple metric we called SAFE (Species Ability to Forestall Extinction) that could enhance the information provided by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species for assessing relative extinction threat. I won’t go into all the detail here (you can read more about it in this previous post), but I do want to point out that it ended up being rather controversial.

The journal ended up delaying final publication because there were 3 groups who opposed the metric rather vehemently, including people who are very much in the conservation decision-making space and/or involved directly with the IUCN Red List. The journal ended up publishing our original paper, the 3 critiques, and our collective response in the same issue (you can read these here if you’re subscribed, or email me for a PDF reprint). Again, I won’t go into an detail here because our arguments are clearly outlined in the response.

What I do want to highlight is that even beyond the normal in-print tête-à-tête the original paper elicited, we were emailed by several people behind the critiques who were apparently unsatisfied with our response. We found this slightly odd, because many of the objections just kept getting re-raised. Of particular note were the accusations that: Read the rest of this entry »

Navjot Sodhi is gone, but not forgotten

13 06 2011

I woke up this morning to a battery of emails expressing condolences on the tragic passing of Navjot Sodhi. I have to say that his death is personally a huge blow, and professionally, a tragic loss to the fields of ecology and conservation biology. He was a good friend, and a bloke with whom I had some great times. He was someone I could trust.

Many of you will know that Navjot had been ill for the last few months. I was told that at first it was something unidentifiable, then it was suspected diabetes, then the shock – some sort of ‘blood cancer’. I found out today it was one of the worst and most aggressive kinds of lymphoma that shuffled dear Navjot off this mortal coil. And it acted fast.

As I reflect on this moment, I remember all the times I spent with Navjot. I first met him in 1992 in the most unlikely of places – Edmonton, Canada at the University of Alberta where I was doing my MSc, and he his post-doc with Sue Hannon. Many years later, Navjot confessed that he thought I was a complete knob when he first met me, and that’s something we’ve laughed about on many occasions thereafter. Read the rest of this entry »

Classics: demography versus genetics

16 03 2011

Here’s another short, but sweet Conservation Classic highlighted in our upcoming book chapter (see previous entries on this book). Today’s entry comes from long-time quantitative ecology guru, Russ Lande, who is now based at the Silwood Park Campus (Imperial College London).


In an influential review, Lande (1988) argued that

“…demography may usually be of more immediate importance than population genetics in determining the minimum viable size of wild populations”.

It was a well-reasoned case, and was widely interpreted to mean that demographic and ecological threats would provide the ‘killer blow’ to threatened species before genetic factors such as inbreeding and fitness effects of loss of genetic diversity had time to exert a major influence on small population dynamics.

Read the rest of this entry »

History and future (of Australian ecology and society)

11 12 2010

I’ve just returned from a week-long conference in Canberra where the Ecological Society of Australia (of which I am a relatively new member) has just completed its impressive 50th anniversary conference. It was a long, but good week.

It’s almost a bit embarrassing that I’ve never attended an ESA1 conference before, but I think I waited for the right one. However, the main reason I attended was that I was fortunate to have received the ESA’s 3rd Australian Ecology Research Award (AERA), and the kick-back was a fully funded trip. My only reciprocation was to give a 40-minute plenary lecture – a small price to pay.

I entitled my talk ‘Heads in the desert sand: why Australians should wake up to the biodiversity crisis’, and I received a lot of good feedback. I talked about the global and Australian trends of biodiversity loss and associated ecosystem services, focussing the middle section on some of our work on feral animal ecology (see example). I then gave my views on the seriousness of our current situation and why some of the fastest losses of sensitive ecosystem services are happening right here, right now. I finished off with a section on how I think Australian ecologists could get more relevant and active in terms of research uptake by policy makers. I hope that the talk will be podcastable soon, so stay tuned.

But that was just ‘my’ bit. This post is more about a quick summary of the highlights and my overall impressions.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Joke’s On Us

30 11 2010


© decostudio.pl

Here’s an idea to garner some appreciation for the dire straits in which humanity finds itself mounting from the global biodiversity crisis. More importantly, I hope that ‘appreciation’ would translate into ‘action’ as a result.

The idea came, as good ideas often tend to, around a table with some mates1,2 and several bottles of wine. The idea got more outlandish as the bottles were emptied, and I have to say I can’t remember many of the finer details (probably a good thing).

But the nugget of that idea is, I think, a very good one. I’d like to hear your opinions about it, and some suggestions about how to make it happen.

(get to the point, Bradshaw)


The idea would be to create an international (televised) comedy festival called ‘The Joke’s On Us‘ where very high-profile comedians would be individually matched to high-profile scientists of various areas of expertise. Let’s say we had a climate change scientist like James Hansen sit down with, oh, maybe Eddie Izzard, the famous and highly regarded Gaia creator, James Lovelock, locked in a room for a few days with Michael McIntyre, tropical deforestation specialist, Bill Laurance, matched with Chris Rock, and that population bomb, Paul Ehrlich, with Robin Williams or Jerry Seinfeld. The possible combinations are endless. Read the rest of this entry »

The Amazing Paul (Mc)Ehrlich

15 11 2010

© CJA Bradshaw

A few years ago when I first wrote about Paul Ehrlich in our book, Tropical Conservation Biology, I quickly became impressed. His track record is, without any exaggeration, truly awe-inspiring. With over 1000 articles published and almost 50 books, the man has been a scientific writing machine for his entire career. He’s also highly influential in the socio-political sphere, and counts among his close friends some of the most politically and scientifically powerful people on the planet. In a word, he’s easily among the world’s greatest living scientists.

Remember, this was my opinion all before I actually met the man. Travelling through central California last year, I was lucky enough to be invited by Paul’s close colleague, Gretchen Daily, to give a talk at their Stanford University lab. It was fortunate that Paul was about at the time and not off promoting his new book or traipsing through the mountains of Colorado chasing butterflies.

We hit it off immediately and it seemed became mates within the space of a few hours. I learnt then that he and his equally famous wife, Anne, were regular visitors to Australia and that he had a particular love affair going with many Australian wines. I invited him to come to Adelaide the following year, he agreed (and importantly, so did the director of the Environment Institute, Mike Young), and it came to pass. Read the rest of this entry »

The bomb is still ticking…

11 11 2010

Apologies for the silence over the last week – it’s been a whirlwind here with Paul Ehrlich visiting The University of Adelaide (amazing for a 78-year old man). In the meantime, Sharon Ede over at Post Growth wrote a great response to the LOLstralian‘s high-school effort to attack Paul a few days ago. Our response is coming shortly, but Sharon’s article is a great precursor.

More than forty years after its publication, the predictions made in Paul Ehrlich’s landmark book ‘The Population Bomb’ are still the subject of debate. Australian think-tank the Centre for Independent Studies (‘Population bomb still a fizzer 40 years on’, The Australian, 8 November, 2010), says Ehrlich’s warnings of dire consequences, including of mass starvation as a result of overpopulation, have not materialised:

“More than 40 years ago, American biologist Paul Ehrlich sketched a doomsday scenario for planet Earth in his book The Population Bomb…Since the publication of the book, the global population has nearly doubled but most of its gloomy predictions have not come true…”

By all means, let’s have a robust debate on population, both at the national and global level. Both are long overdue.

But let’s make it a sophisticated debate, grounded in the science we have available and a thorough understanding of all the issues in play.

According to the United Nations’ Population Division, the global population has increased from one billion in 1804 to over six billion in 2010.

It has taken most of human history to reach one billion people. It took just over a century to add the second billion.

The rate of population growth since then is such that it has taken only twelve years to add the most recent billion people.

The moderate UN scenario is for a population of 9 billion by 2050 – that’s within the lifetime of many of us. Read the rest of this entry »

Wolves masquerading as sheep: the fallout

29 10 2010


© New Zealand Films


Well, we’ve managed to stimulate quite a lively conversation after dropping the Open Letter about Scientific Credibility and the Conservation of Tropical Forests regarding the questionable tactics employed by Alan Oxley and his industrial lobbyist organisations.

Mr. Oxley has responded with vitriol, hand-waving, red herrings and straw men, and failed to address even a single one of our accusations. I am particularly amused by his insinuation that we, the proven scientists, don’t know what science is – but that he does.

Below I reproduce Mr. Oxley’s reaction to our original letter, followed by our response.

I’ll let you, the reader, decide who is most reasonable.


There is too much pseudo-scientific hype today about environmentalism and forestry and not enough fact.

I put this double-barrelled question to the Group of 12 scientists who have rather laboriously wandered over the work of World Growth: What biodiversity is expressly protected by a global cessation of conversion of forest land to other purposes and how is that biodiversity scientifically measured? And let’s have some technical response, not political blather. Read the rest of this entry »

Yangtze River, colossal dams and famous scientists

23 10 2010


© CJA Bradshaw


Apologies for the silence over the last week – I’ve been a little preoccupied with some business in China. I’ll devote an entire post to my recent trip there (actually, I’m still there – Beijing to be precise), but I thought I’d just explain my absence and provide a little post to sate you until next week.

It’s worth mentioning that I had the enlightening experience of travelling down the Yangtze River between Chongqing and Sandouping last week – this is the area that was flooded by the world’s largest hydro-electric project, the Three Gorges Dam. This is my fourth trip to China and I’ve usually come away with the adjective ‘big’ describing pretty much everything I see here (big agriculture, big population, big pollution, big hotels, big cities…); however, in this case, ‘big’ doesn’t even come close. It’s bloody massive, and the ecological devastation (not to mention the 1.3 million people it displaced) is hard to describe in words. Sure, there are beautiful bits left (see the accompanying photo), but most of the damage is under water and along the banks of the mighty (and now, a lot mightier) Yangtze River. Read the rest of this entry »

The balancing act of conservation

1 10 2010

Image via Wikipedia

Navjot Sodhi & Paul Ehrlich‘s book, Conservation Biology for All, has just been reviewed in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. I’ve blogged about the book before and our contributing chapter (The conservation biologist’s toolbox), so I’ll just copy the very supportive review here by Rosie Trevelyan.

Conservation Biology for All is a textbook that aims to be a one-stop shop for conservation education. The book is packed with information, is wide ranging, and includes most emerging issues that come under the umbrella of conservation biology today. Sodhi and Ehrlich have brought together a total of 75 experts from many disciplines to provide a smorgasbord of up-to-date conservation concepts and case studies. Leading conservation biologists contribute to every chapter either as authors of the main text or of the boxes that give real life examples of the conservation issue being covered. The boxes add hugely to the information included in each chapter, and many are well worth returning to on their own. Read the rest of this entry »

China’s insatiable lust for tropical timber

4 04 2010

If you’ve been following ConservationBytes.com for the past few weeks, you’ll know that William Laurance was in town and gave a fantastic set of talks (download podcasts here). As a parting gift, he put together a brief post on one huge aspect of the tropical deforestation crisis we know face. Thanks, Bill.


I greatly enjoyed my recent visit to the University of Adelaide, and especially want to thank my host, Corey Bradshaw, for showing me a wonderful time there.

Corey asked me to contribute a brief blog for ConservationBytes.com and so I thought I’d highlight a paper in Science last week by my old friend Jianguo “Jack” Liu at Michigan State University. In his paper China’s road to sustainability, Jack describes the battle to improve environmental sustainability in China–a battle that is not progressing very well, all factors considered.

China’s explosive economic growth and environmental deterioration is also affecting other countries, especially those with timber, minerals or other resources that China wants. Today, more than half of the timber shipped anywhere in the world is destined for China–some 45 million m3 per year, an incredible total. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Amplify’ and ‘Lungs’ – William Laurance podcasts

1 04 2010

William Laurance has been here at the University of Adelaide for the past 4 days and has just left. He had a marathon talk-fest while here, and a very full social calendar. I bet he’s happy he’s back home so he can wind down a little.

Just a quick post to provide the links to the podcasts of his two public talks: “Amplify your Voice” and “Lungs of the Planet”, plus a radio interview he did yesterday on ABC.

The first public talk was split into two parts:

  1. How to be more prolific: strategies for writing and publishing scientific papers
  2. Further ways to maximise your scientific impact- interacting with the popular media and how to promote yourself

Part 1 MP3

Part 1 Slideshow

Part 2 MP3

Part 2 Slideshow

The other main talk ‘Lungs of our Planet’ was also in two bits (a more academically orientated one on Monday, and the public lecture on Wednesday):

  1. Emerging Challenges for Environmental Research in the Tropics
  2. Diagnosis critical – the lungs of the planet

Part 1 MP3

Part 1 Slideshow

Part 2 MP3

Part 2 Slideshow

And finally, the radio interview he did on ABC 891 Afternoons with Carole Whitelock (audio file courtesy of ABC 891, Afternoons with Carole Whitelock):


CJA Bradshaw

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Don’t miss Bill

25 03 2010

Yes, yes, I know I’ve posted only a little under two weeks ago that the venerable William (Bill) Laurance is coming to Adelaide, and anyone even remotely interested in biodiversity conservation would be a fool to miss his talks, and ra, ra, ra…

Well, you would be.

However, I don’t want anyone to miss this opportunity simply because of non-recognition. So I thought it prudent to remind people just how special this visit is, and what a researcher extraordinaire Bill really is. For those not necessarily following the trends in tropical conservation biology (probably not many in Adelaide, at least), you might not necessarily recognise his name.

So, I thought I’d give a little broadsheet of his achievements, Read the rest of this entry »

Bill Laurance coming to Adelaide

13 03 2010

We’ve got a real treat for biodiversity buffs scheduled for the end of March. Eminent (Distinguished, Famous, Respected… the list goes on) Professor William (Bill) Laurance is briefly leaving his tropical world and coming south to the temperate climes of Adelaide to regale us with his fascinating biodiversity research career.

Bill is a leading conservation biologist who has worked internationally on many high-profile threats to tropical forests—in the Amazon, Central America, Africa, and Australasia. A highly prolific scientist, to date he has published five books and over 300 scientific articles. Bill has recently commenced a position as Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University and is involved with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He also happens to be the bloke that blew the lid open on the devastating effects of tropical fragmentation in the Amazon with some of the best long-term experiments ever done in conservation biology.

I’m personally very pleased for several reasons: (1) Although I have never met Bill in person yet, I’ve recently co-authored two papers with him (Wash and spin cycle threats to tropical biodiversity and Improving the performance of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for nature conservation) and I’m keen to meet the man behind the pen; (2) we have had many email discussions (some of them rather heated!), so I’m keen to flesh some of these out over a nice glass of South Australian Shiraz; (3) he’s been a keen supporter of my work for years, and has given me many opportunities to get my research noticed; and (4) it’s high time to met one of ConservationBytes.com Conservation Scholars.

Bill has recently shifted shop from Panama (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) to Australia’s own James Cook University, and so we at the Environment Institute thought we should take advantage of his geographical disorientation and bring him down south for a while. But he’s going to have to sing for his supper, so he’s kindly agreed to give three talks in 3 days from 29-31 March 2010.

His first talk (on Monday 29 March) will be an in-house Environment Institute seminar, but the second two will be public events that I urge anyone remotely interested in biodiversity conservation research to attend. In fact, his Tuesday 30 March presentation (18.00-20.00 Napier G03, University of Adelaide) is even more generic than that, and word on the street is it is highly entertaining and extremely well attended wherever Bill’s is gracious enough to give it:

Amplify Your Voice: Keys to Having a Prolific Scientific Career (and Bill would know).

This will include (1) How to be more prolific: strategies for writing and publishing scientific papers and (2) Further ways to maximise your scientific impact – interacting with the popular media and how to promote yourself. Each topic will run for 50 minutes and will include 10 minutes for audience questions. A tea and coffee break will be held between sessions. Book here.

His second public talk on Wednesday 31 March (18.00-19.30 Napier 102, University of Adelaide) will be:

Diagnosis Critical | The lungs of our Planet

Here he will be discussing how the forests of our world are in crisis. Our drive for continued economic growth has had devastating consequences for the world’s ecosystems that provide critical human services. Our forests are a haven for countless plant and animal species that form the basis of ecological services, these services are the biological mechanisms that make the world our home. Book here.

So, if you have a couple of free nights at the end of the month and are in Adelaide, I strongly recommend you come out and see Bill do his thing.

CJA Bradshaw

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Society for Conservation Biology’s 24th International Congress

15 01 2010

I’m off for a long weekend at the beach, so I decided to keep this short. My post concerns the upcoming (well, July 2010) 24th International Congress for Conservation Biology (Society for Conservation Biology – SCB) to be held in Edmonton, Canada from 3-7 July 2010. I hadn’t originally planned on attending, but I’ve changed my mind and will most certainly be giving a few talks there.

There’s not much to report yet, apart from the abstract submission deadline looming next week (20 January). If you plan on submitting an abstract, get it in now (I’m rushing too). Actual registration opens online on 15 February.

The conference’s theme is “Conservation for a Changing Planet” – well, you can’t get much more topical (and general) than that! The conference website states:

Humans are causing large changes to the ecology of the earth. Industrial development and agriculture are changing landscapes. Carbon emissions to the atmosphere are changing climates. Nowhere on earth are changes to climate having more drastic effects on ecosystems and human cultures than in the north. Circumpolar caribou and reindeer populations are declining with huge consequences for indigenous peoples of the north, motivating our use of caribou in the conference logo. Developing conservation strategies to cope with our changing planet is arguably the greatest challenge facing today’s world and its biodiversity.

Sort of hits home in a personal way for me – I did my MSc on caribou populations in northern Canada a long time before getting into conservation biology proper (see example papers: Woodland caribou relative to landscape patterns in northeastern Alberta, Effects of petroleum exploration on woodland caribou in Northeastern Alberta & Winter peatland habitat selection by woodland caribou in northeastern Alberta), and we’ve recently published a major review on the boreal ecosystem.

Only 3 plenary speakers listed so far: David Schindler, Shane Mahoney and Georgina Mace (the latter being a featured Conservation Scholar here on ConservationBytes.com). I’m particularly looking forward to Georgina’s presentation. I’ll hopefully be able to blog some of the presentations while there. If you plan on attending, please come up and say hello!

CJA Bradshaw

Conservation Scholars: Hugh Possingham

25 11 2009

The Conservation Scholars series highlights leaders in conservation science and includes a small biography, a list of major scientific publications and a Q & A on each person’s particular area of expertise.

Hugh PossinghamOur sixteenth Conservation Scholar needs little introduction because, well, he’s so famous (especially in Australia)! I cannot estimate how many times I’ve covered Professor Hugh Possingham‘s and his colleagues’ research here on ConservationBytes, but suffice it to say it probably dominates the coverage (ok, I could have, but I couldn’t find the time). Affectionately known as the ‘Huge Possum’ for his brilliance, his effect on wide-reaching environmental policy and his no-bullshit approach to science, Hugh was awarded a coveted Federation Fellow by the Australian Research Council in 2007. He is also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and one of the founding Editors-in-Chief of Conservation Letters (for which I have the honour of editing alongside him).


Born in 1962, Hugh accidentally completed Applied Mathematics at The University of Adelaide in 1984 (top of honours class of 20 students). After attaining a Rhodes Scholarship Hugh completed his DPhil at Oxford University in 1987. An ARC QEII Fellowship ANU in 1989 followed, then a postdoc with Jonathan Roughgarden at Stanford modeling barnacles. In 1990 he took a tenure-track position in Applied Mathematics. He became a Professor and Chair in 1995 and moves to become Head of the Ecology Centre at The University of Queensland in 2000. Hugh has been awarded: the POL Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, 1999, the inaugural Fenner medal for plant and animal biology from the Australian Academy of Sciences, 2000, the Australian Mathematical Society Medal, 2001, ARC Professorial Fellow, 2003, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, 2005, ARC Federation Fellow, 2006, Sherman Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, 2009. Hugh has over 290 publications, 4900 Web of Science citations and currently a lab of 32 students and staff. Work from his lab helped stop land clearing in Queensland and NSW securing at least 1 billion tonnes of CO2. Hugh has a variety of broader public roles advising policy makers and managers as he sits of 16 committees and boards including: The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (founding member), Queensland Smart State Council, Chief Editor of Conservation letters, Council of the Australian Academy of Science, member of three NGO scientific advisory committees. The Possingham lab developed the most widely used conservation planning software in the world. Marxan was used to underpin the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef and is currently used in over 100 countries by over 2000 users – from the UK to Brazil. Australia is using Marxan to help it rezone its entire Exclusive Economic Zone (2% of planet). Hugh gave a plenary at the first Marxan conference in Vancouver in April 2007. A recent international plenary was at The Society for Conservation Biology meeting in Port Elizabeth, Sth Africa 2007 – decision theory to conservation scientists – and locally the Australian Society for Operations Research, 2009 – conservation theory to decision theorists. Recent media includes discussions of: triage, assisted colonization (Science policy forum), national biodiversity policy, declining woodland birds and the conservation of travelling stock routes in Australia. He suffers from obsessive bird watching.

Major Publications

  1. Lindenmayer, DW, HP Possingham. 1996. Ranking conservation and timber management options for Leadbeater’s Possum in south eastern Australia using population viability analysis. Conservation Biology 10:235-251
  2. Possingham, HP, SJ Andelman, MA Burgman, RA Medellin, LL Master, DA Keith. 2002. Limits to the use of threatened species lists. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 17:503-507
  3. Meir, E, SJ Andelman, HP Possingham. 2004. Does conservation planning matter in a dynamic and uncertain world? Ecology Letters 7:615-622
  4. Wilson, KA, M McBride, M Bode, HP Possingham. 2006. Prioritising global conservation efforts. Nature 440:337-340
  5. Chades I, E McDonald-Madden, MA McCarthy, B Wintle, M Linkie, HP Possingham 2008. When to stop managing or surveying cryptic threatened species. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105:13936-13940

Questions & Answers

1. You were recently quoted saying “If you don’t know what a differential equation is, you are not a scientist”. Can you describe the importance of mathematics in conservation biology and recommend what subjects in mathematics young conservationists should pursue?

All disciplines of science eventually get consumed by mathematics. This is a natural progression as they strive for prediction and utility. In 1994 it dawned on me that conservation research would remain fairly useless in practice unless it was embedded in a decision science framework with objectives, constraints, things we control and predictive models affected by those things we control. I have not changed my view since then. After a knowledge of decision sciences (optimisation mathematics and economics) a credible conservation researcher needs some differential equations, algebra, statistics (preferably Bayesian) and maybe something flashy things like graph theory. Conservation research without decision theory is pure conservation research, which is an oxymoron.

2. You’ve certainly tackled a lot of issues in your illustrious career, but you are probably best known for your work on reserve design algorithms and the software Marxan. Can you explain what reserve design algorithms are, why they’re needed, and how Marxan works?

That may be the most useful area of the lab’s research, however intellectually it is very straightforward – what is interesting is not always useful and what is useful is not always interesting. Marxan can be summarised in one sentence – get me a set of reasonably clumped sites that reserves a reasonable amount of a whole heap of biodiversity features (or surrogates of features) that we have data on while annoying as few people as possible. That is it – and it may ultimately alter the face of ten percent of the world. As for illustrious career … there are a few intellectual giants that aren’t so big I can still clamber over them to steal some ephemeral glory.

3. While most Australians might say they value biodiversity, our poor conservation record invalidates this assertion. What do you think are some practical (and realistic) ways we can encourage Joe Bloggs to invest in and protect biodiversity?

There seem to be two sorts of people that care for nature for its own sake. First there are those that love wilderness and large natural spaces, even if they don’t go there. These are the people who believe the Amazon is worth preserving because it is so huge, wild and diverse and that is all we need to know. Then there are the people interested in natural history. I think this a less fickle constituency, however their numbers in Australia are remarkably small. I would like to build on the latter – the love of nature for its own sake. It doesn’t matter how many media interviews I do extolling my love of nature, that doesn’t work. This probably requires activities that give more people a “hand-on” experience with nature; we probably need to get more people doing things like feeding birds. I used to say that bird feeding in Australia was stupid – I think I was wrong.

4. Effective conservation requires a lot more than science because it needs to alter human behaviour. One aspect here you’ve championed is effective allocation of conservation funds. How does one do this?

If you can shop you can wisely allocate conservation funds. All you need to know is price (usually well known), benefit to you (only you can determine that), and product reliability (read a consumer magazine). Combine the three and you are 90% there. Of course we delight in making it a lot more complex, sometimes with justification, but it is just shopping.

5. You’re a member of the well-known Wentworth Group. What do you do as a group?

The Wentworth Group has successfully championed major environmental policy reforms in Australia over the past few years. Some work is highly visible (work on water reform and land clearing), but other stuff is behind the scenes. I think it is a remarkable revolution in the way science can influence policy at a huge scale, and I can claim no credit for any of it.

6. If conservation triage was a corporation, you’d probably be its CEO. What is conservation triage to you, and how should it be approached?

Conservation triage is the same as resource allocation. Haven’t you read Madeleine’s 2008 TREE paper, Corey? If conservation planning and triage is just resource allocation, which is just prudent shopping, then my entire career boils down to six words: “the smart guide to biodiversity shopping”. And 90% was done by my lab members – it is all fairly embarrassing really.

[CJAB - I did, Hugh, I promise! I'm trying to bring my readers up to speed though ;-)]

7. Happiest greenie moments.

Playing a role in stopping broad-scale land clearing in Australia (= saving about 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere) and getting all of Australia’s waters rezoned (including the Great Barrier Reef).

8. Future aspirations.

End tropical deforestation. Stop over-grazing in much of Australia. Get the people of Australia to love biodiversity. See every family of bird.

Amen, brother.

CJA Bradshaw

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Conservation Scholars: Georgina Mace

16 11 2009

The Conservation Scholars series highlights leaders in conservation science and includes a small biography, a list of major scientific publications and a Q & A on each person’s particular area of expertise.

Georgina MaceOur fifteenth Conservation Scholar is a real stalwart in conservation science and its applications – Georgina Mace. She is famous for many things, although one thing in particular stands out – the IUCN Red List. We’re really lucky to have someone of Georgina’s calibre, highly demanding schedule and international reputation to  agree to be highlighted on ConservationBytes.com, so I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did.


Georgina Mace was born and grew up in London, UK. After an undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Liverpool, she moved to do a PhD at the University of Sussex, working with Paul Harvey on comparative ecology in small mammals. After postdoctoral appointments in Washington DC and in Newcastle-upon-Type, she moved back to London where she has worked ever since. From 1986, she was a research fellow at the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London and was involved in the earliest scientifically based conservation breeding programmes for rare species, based around genetic and demographic principles from population biology. It was this work that ultimately led to her leading the process to develop, test and document criteria for listing species on IUCN’s Red List of threatened species. This work started in the early 1990s, a first set of criteria were approved in 1994 and, following review and testing, a slightly different set were approved in 2000. These criteria are now used routinely be IUCN and have been increasingly adopted at national level. Subsequently, she was involved in the biodiversity elements of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, in the development of measures for the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010 target, and is now working on the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Her research has interwoven with these processes, involving testing the traits that contribute to threatened status in mammals, examining the impact of different species concepts on conservation planning, devising methods for testing the effectiveness of conservation projects, and most recently, developing trait-based approaches to assessing species vulnerability to climate change.

During the 1990s her work was supported by the Pew Scholars Program (1991-1994) and by a NERC Advanced Fellowship (1995-1999). In 2000 Georgina was appointed Director or Science at the Zoological Society of London where she led the 70+ researchers in the Institute of Zoology. In 2006 she moved to Imperial College London, first as Director of the NERC Centre for Population Biology and later as Associate Head of the Division of Biology. She was awarded an OBE in 1998 and a CBE in 2007; elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2002, and was the 2007 winner of the international Cosmos prize. She has served in a number of scientific societies having been Vice President of the British Ecological Society (2001-2004), President of the Society for Conservation Biology (2007-2009) and Vice Chair of the international programme on biodiversity science DIVERSITAS (2007-2010).

Georgina is married to Rod Evans and they have three children (Ben, Emma and Kate), all of whom have a healthy respect for the environment and commitment to working towards a better world, but seem to think that doing science is a hard way to go about it!

Major Publications

Questions and Answers

1. You were the architect for the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. This is clearly the world’s authority on threatened species listings. Can you explain how the Red List came about and describe the major challenges along the way?

The Red List had been around for a long time – since the mid 1960s at least. Initially it was a list of species nominated by experts as being at risk. In this way it raised the profile of the growing risks to species, but the way it was compiled meant that the species included were rather subjectively assessed, and species that were not on the list were not necessarily secure. As the Red List started to be used in both legislation and for conservation planning it became important that the listing process was more systematic and objective. This was when I became involved in around 1989. There were many challenges in getting the criteria established and that is why it took us over 10 years before there was a system that was approved by IUCN Council and used consistently for producing the IUCN Red List. I think one of the hardest things to deal with is that this is never going to be a perfect system – we wanted a process that was simple, could be applied even when we know rather little about a species, and would deal fairly with everything from mosses to elephants. Inevitably, some people feel the system gives the wrong answer for their species. All I can say is that we tried really hard to minimise the risk of wrong answers that would be damaging for species conservation. While acknowledging that the system will never be perfect, we think it is effective at sorting the species most likely to be at high risk from those that are not.

2. How do you define ‘biodiversity’, and what should we be focussing on in biodiversity assessments?

I like to use generic definitions for ‘biodiversity’ such as that adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity: the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part. This includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems. I like this because it emphasises the scope of biodiversity and the importance of interactions which gets missed out in some narrower definitions. Of course if you try to use this kind of definitions for assessment it becomes impossible. This is why we have ended up with long, long lists of indicators for the 2010 assessments. My personal preference would be to select a smaller number of measures that reflect what we really care about in biodiversity and use these as the core of our assessments.

3. What, in your opinion, is the biggest research gap in climate change research for biodiversity conservation?

I think that to a large degree the biology is missing! Many approaches to assessing the impacts of climate change tend to treat species and ecosystems as if they were just response variables in an environmental model. Yet we know that populations and communities have their own processes and internal dynamics that will determine how they respond to a changing environment and also make it quite difficult to generalise across systems and species. I fear we are over-estimating some risks, under-estimating others, but most of all forgetting about the biological processes that will allow biological adaptation (or maybe won’t allow it). Another important gap is a recognition in climate models that the biosphere plays a key role in the climate system – one that is not well represented at the moment and that could offer cheap, low-risk techniques for both mitigation and adaptation.

4. How do you mesh the quantification of ecosystem services with biodiversity assessments? Should we be reducing our emphasis on the latter and investing more effort in characterising the former?

I’m sure we have to do both ecosystem services and biodiversity. I don’t think that ecosystem services and biodiversity assessment are the same thing – there are ecosystem services that we need that rely hardly at all on biodiversity, and there are components of biodiversity that we should care about that do not clearly provide ecosystem services. I see ecosystem services at the end of a delivery chain to people from ecosystems and those ecosystems and their features and processes are intimately linked to biodiversity. But it becomes impossible hard and confusing if we don’t separate them out and think about both.

5. Given humanity’s appalling conservation track record to date, do you have an optimistic outlook for the future of biodiversity on which we depend?

Generally it is hard to be optimistic – we are not yet even embarking on doing the right things for the planet. And, as I think the negotiations to Copenhagen show, governments are simply not able to take the bold steps that are necessary. However, all the evidence to date is that when societies put their mind to solving a problem, they can generally do it. People are ingenious and determined and form a creative, problem-solving community, and so I believe that the means exist to solve even some very hard problems. I think the challenge is to break the problems down into manageable chunks and solve them – being careful not to set aside the difficult and important ones, and remembering that ultimately the benefits need to flow to all people and societies.

CJA Bradshaw

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