Conservation hypocrisy

28 05 2013
telegraph.co.uk

telegraph.co.uk

Another soul-searching post from Alejandro Frid.

Confession time. This is going to be delicate, and might even ruffle some big feathers. Still, all of us need to talk about it. In fact, I want to trigger a wide conversation on the flaws and merits of what I did.

Back in March of this year I saw a posting for a job with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) seeking a ‘conservation biologist to provide expert advice in the design and implementation of a Biodiversity Monitoring and Assessment Program (BMAP) in northern British Columbia, Canada’. The job sounded cool and important. I was suited for it, knew northern British Columbia well, and loved the idea of working there.

But there was a catch. The job was focused on the local impacts of fossil fuel infrastructure while dissociating itself from the climate impacts of burning that fuel, and involved collaborating with the fossil fuel company. According to the posting, this was not a new thing for the Smithsonian:

Guided by the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity, SCBI works with a selected group of oil and gas companies since 1996 to develop models designed to achieve conservation and sustainable development objectives while also protecting and conserving biodiversity, and maintaining vital ecosystem services that benefit both humans and wildlife.

Given that climate change already is diminishing global biodiversity and hampering the ecosystem services on which we all depend, the logic seemed inconsistent to me. But there was little time to ponder it. The application deadline had just passed and my soft-money position with the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre was fizzling out. So I applied, hastily, figuring that I would deal with the issue later, if they ever got back to me. Read the rest of this entry »





The wounded soldiers of biodiversity

10 04 2012

Here’s another great post from Salvador Herrando-Pérez. It is interesting that he’s chosen an example species that was once (a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) of great interest to me (caribou – see ancient papers a, b, c, d). But that is another story. Take it away, Salva.

 

Figure 1. Caribou (reindeer) are ungulates weighing up to ~ 100 kg. They live in tundra and taiga in Finland, Greenland, Finland, Norway, Mongolia, Russia, Canada and USA (extinct in Sweden). The species is globally stable (‘Least Concern’, IUCN Red List), but the subspecies of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) is threatened in North America. Schneider and colleagues’ 7 study encompasses ~ 3,000 individuals in 12 herds (75 to 450 individuals per herd), occupying ~ 100.000 km2 of conifer forest and peatland (3,000 to 19,000 km2 per herd). Two ecotypes are recognized regionally22, namely migratory mountain herds (mostly from mountains and foothills in west-central Alberta), and non-migratory boreal herds (mostly from peatlands in central and northern Alberta). The photo shows a group of caribous grazing on subalpine vegetation from Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park (Alberta, Canada). Photo courtesy of Saakje Hazenberg.

As conservation biology keeps incorporating management and economical principles from other disciplines, it stumbles with paradoxes such that investing on the most threatened components of biodiversity might in turn jeopardize the entire assets of biodiversity.

At the end of 2011, newspapers and TVs echoed an IUCN report cataloguing as ‘extinct’ or ‘near extinct’ several subspecies of rhinos in Asia and Africa. To many, such news might have invoked the topic: “how badly governments do to protect the environment”. However if, to avoid those extinctions, politicians had to deviate funds from other activities, what thoughts would come to the mind of workers whose salaries had to be frozen, school directors whose classroom-roof leakages could not be repaired (e.g., last winter at my niece’s school in Spain), colonels whose last acquisition of ultramodern tanks had to be delayed, or our city council’s department who had to cancel Sting’s next performance.

Thus, there are three unquestionable facts regarding species conservation:

  1. the protection of species costs money;
  2. governments and environmental organisations have limited budgets for a range of activities they deem necessary; and
  3. our way of conserving nature is failing because, despite increasing public/private support and awareness, the rate of destruction of biodiversity is not decelerating1,2.

One of the modern debates among conservationists pivots around how to use resources efficiently3-6. Schneider and colleagues7 have dealt with this question for woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in Canada. A total of 18 populations of this ungulate persist in the Canadian province of Alberta, all undergoing demographic declines due to mining extractions (oil, gas and bitumen), logging and wolf predation. The species is listed as ‘threatened’ regionally and nationally. The Alberta Caribou Recovery Plan (2004-2014) is attempting to protect all herds. Under such a framework, Schneider et al.7 predicted that woodland caribou would be regionally extirpated in less than a century.

Furthermore, they estimated the costs of making each herd viable (Fig. 1), with a triple revelation. To save all herds from extinction would need ~ CA$150,000 million (beyond the available budget). The most threatened herds are among the most expensive to protect (within present management approach). Some herds would be secured through modest investment for two decades. Overall, their study suggests that Alberta’s woodland caribou would be eligible for triage, i.e., at the subpopulation level8. Read the rest of this entry »





Computer-assisted killing for conservation

12 01 2010

Many non-Australians might not know it, but Australia is overrun with feral vertebrates (not to mention weeds and invertebrates). We have millions of pigs, dogs, camels, goats, buffalo, deer, rabbits, cats, foxes and toads (to name a few). In a continent that separated from Gondwana about 80 million years ago, this allowed a fairly unique biota to evolve, such that when Aboriginals and later, Europeans, started introducing all these non-native species, it quickly became an ecological disaster. One of my first posts here on ConservationBytes.com was in fact about feral animals. Since then, I’ve written quite a bit on invasive species, especially with respect to mammal declines (see Few people, many threats – Australia’s biodiversity shame, Shocking continued loss of Australian mammals, Can we solve Australia’s mammal extinction crisis?).

So you can imagine that we do try to find the best ways to reduce the damage these species cause; unfortunately, we tend to waste a lot of money because density reduction culling programmes aren’t usually done with much forethought, organisation or associated research. A case in point – swamp buffalo were killed in vast numbers in northern Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, but now they’re back with a vengeance.

Enter S.T.A.R. – the clumsily named ‘Spatio-Temporal Animal Reduction’ [model] that we’ve just published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution (title: Spatially explicit spreadsheet modelling for optimising the efficiency of reducing invasive animal density by CR McMahon and colleagues).

This little Excel-based spreadsheet model is designed specifically to optimise the culling strategies for feral pigs, buffalo and horses in Kakadu National Park (northern Australia), but our aim was to make it easy enough to use and modify so that it could be applied to any invasive species anywhere (ok, admittedly it would work best for macro-vertebrates).

The application works on a grid of habitat types, each with their own carrying capacities for each species. We then assume some fairly basic density-feedback population models and allow animals to move among cells. We then hit them virtually with a proportional culling rate (which includes a hunting-efficiency feedback), and estimate the costs associated with each level of kill. The final outputs give density maps and graphs of the population trajectory.

We’ve added a lot of little features to maximise flexibility, including adjusting carrying capacities, movement rates, operating costs and overheads, and proportional harvest rates. The user can also get some basic sensitivity analyses done, or do district-specific culls. Finally, we’ve included three optimisation routines that estimate the best allocation of killing effort, for both maximising density reduction or working to a specific budget, and within a spatial or non-spatial context.

Our hope is that wildlife managers responsible for safeguarding the biodiversity of places like Kakadu National Park actually use this tool to maximise their efficiency. Kakadu has a particularly nasty set of invasive species, so it’s important those in charge get it right. So far, they haven’t been doing too well.

You can download the Excel program itself here (click here for the raw VBA code), and the User Manual is available here. Happy virtual killing!

CJA Bradshaw

P.S. If you’re concerned about animal welfare issues associated with all this, I invite you to read one of our recent papers on the subject: Convergence of culture, ecology and ethics: management of feral swamp buffalo in northern Australia.

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ResearchBlogging.orgC.R. McMahon, B.W. Brook,, N. Collier, & C.J.A. Bradshaw (2010). Spatially explicit spreadsheet modelling for optimising the efficiency of reducing invasive animal density Methods in Ecology and Evolution : 10.1111/j.2041-210X.2009.00002.x

Albrecht, G., McMahon, C., Bowman, D., & Bradshaw, C. (2009). Convergence of Culture, Ecology, and Ethics: Management of Feral Swamp Buffalo in Northern Australia Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 22 (4), 361-378 DOI: 10.1007/s10806-009-9158-5

Bradshaw, C., Field, I., Bowman, D., Haynes, C., & Brook, B. (2007). Current and future threats from non-indigenous animal species in northern Australia: a spotlight on World Heritage Area Kakadu National Park Wildlife Research, 34 (6) DOI: 10.1071/WR06056





Cloning for conservation – stupid and wasteful

5 02 2009
© J. F. Jaramillo

© J. F. Jaramillo

I couldn’t have invented a better example of a Toothless conservation concept.

I just saw an article in the Independent (UK) about cloning for conservation that has rehashed the old idea yet again – while there was some interesting thoughts discussed, let’s just be clear just how stupidly inappropriate and wasteful the mere concept of cloning for biodiversity conservation really is.

1. Never mind the incredible inefficiency, the lack of success to date and the welfare issues of bringing something into existence only to suffer a short and likely painful life, the principal reason we should not even consider the technology from a conservation perspective (I have no problem considering it for other uses if developed responsibly) is that you are not addressing the real problem – mainly, the reason for extinction/endangerment in the first place. Even if you could address all the other problems (see below), if you’ve got no place to put these new individuals, the effort and money expended is an utter waste of time and money. Habitat loss is THE principal driver of extinction and endangerment. If we don’t stop and reverse this now, all other avenues are effectively closed. Cloning won’t create new forests or coral reefs, for example.

I may as well stop here, because all other arguments are minor in comparison to (1), but let’s continue just to show how many different layers of stupidity envelop this issue.

2. The loss of genetic diversity leading to inbreeding depression is a major issue that cloning cannot even begin to address. Without sufficient genetic variability, a population is almost certainly more susceptible to disease, reductions in fitness, weather extremes and over-exploitation. A paper published a few years ago by Spielman and colleagues (Most species are not driven to extinction before genetic factors impact them) showed convincingly that genetic diversity is lower in threatened than in comparable non-threatened species, and there is growing evidence on how serious Allee effects are in determining extinction risk. Populations need to number in the 1000s of genetically distinct individuals to have any chance of persisting. To postulate, even for a moment, that cloning can artificially recreate genetic diversity essential for population persistence is stupidly arrogant and irresponsible.

3. The cost. Cloning is an incredibly costly business – upwards of several millions of dollars for a single animal (see example here). Like the costs associated with most captive breeding programmes, this is a ridiculous waste of finite funds (all in the name of fabricated ‘conservation’). Think of what we could do with that money for real conservation and restoration efforts (buying conservation easements, securing rain forest property, habitat restoration, etc.). Even if we get the costs down over time, cloning will ALWAYS be more expensive than the equivalent investment in habitat restoration and protection. It’s wasteful and irresponsible to consider it otherwise.

So, if you ever read another painfully naïve article about the pros and cons of cloning endangered species, remember the above three points. I’m appalled that this continues to be taken seriously!

CJA Bradshaw

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The Irwin Factor in Conservation Leadership

16 08 2008
© Channel 10 Australia

© Channel 10 Australia

In 2007 we were compelled to comment on an essential ingredient in the challenge to convince people that conserving biodiversity is in their best interest – inspirational and celebrity characters highlighting the extinction crisis.

Just how important is it to have charismatic conservation champions with celebrity status beating the drum for change? I used to think that it was essential (and some of my colleagues agree) if the majority of the human population is to alter destructive behaviour, especially considering that most people do not read the scientific literature (hence, media such as blogs that can appeal to a much wider audience).

However, there is a danger that overtly sensational representation of these issues may stimulate nothing at all, or even counter-productive behaviour. Indeed, this was our argument concerning Aussie ‘larrikin’ Steve Irwin. Our letter entitled Dangers of sensationalizing conservation biology published in the journal Conservation Biology was a response to Sébastien Paquette’s letter entitled Importance of the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ phenomenon published in the same journal.

An abbreviated version of our letter follows:

The global biodiversity crisis that spawned the discipline of conservation biology is closer to the forefront of the average person’s thoughts than it has ever been. The shift in popular thinking about conservation issues is in no small way due to the impressive and relevant work of conservation scientists worldwide. It is good science that provides the focus for the conservation spotlight, which continues to gain in intensity with problems such as anthropogenically driven climate change. That said, acknowledgement must be given to the power of advocacy wielded by people who have been successful in promoting awareness of conservation matters in the mass media.

The power of media, such as television, to influence public thought on conservation issues is, however, both a blessing and a curse. Its great benefit is that it promotes awareness of the natural world among the urbanized citizenry who are disconnected from the plight of biodiversity. Modern “nature celebrities” such as Sir David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau, Al Gore, and Steve Irwin have fostered and promoted an appreciation and fascination of natural systems by people who would never otherwise have the opportunity to observe them. The curse, however, is subtler and insidious. The overarching requirement of popular entertainment is that it be eye-catching, sensational, and even eccentric if it is to attract sufficient attention to survive. Read the rest of this entry »





When ‘conservationists’ …aren’t

12 08 2008

There is the concept of “conservation” and its vital counterpart, “preservation”. “Conservation” is defined as the preservation and careful management of the environment and of natural resources. Although preservation is necessarily an inherent aspect of conservation, in recent years it has come to symbolise a form of environmental zealotry that would preclude, if given the chance, any advancement of knowledge in ecology and biology in general. Conservation embraces understanding – knowledge that enables a defined management of the systems we seek to conserve.

Most people are familiar with emotive zealots such as those subscribing to the extreme views in abortion laws, religion and animal rights. I am reminded here of Barry Horne, the British animal-rights activist who died in a prison hospital from hunger strike. Mr. Horne was serving an 18-year sentence after being convicted of a nation-wide fire-bombing campaign in 1997. The misplaced passion exuded by Mr. Horne not only cost him his own life, but millions of pounds to shop owners around the country. One might ask the question: What was it all for? Even the slightly more humoristic saga of eco-terrorists in Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel Monkey Wrench Gang reminds us that zealots can embrace issues with a dedication that denies the logic of constructive improvement.

A far more insidious and malignant form of zealotry is that demonstrated by individuals or organisations that on the surface advocate a particular opinion, when underneath, do not actually subscribe to their own stated convictions. A common diatribe of such preservation zealots is that researchers do “science for science’s sake”. Read the rest of this entry »








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