Tropical forest resilience depends on past disturbance frequency

16 07 2014

I’ve recently come across an interesting study that perfectly marries palaeo-ecological data with modern conservation philosophy. It’s not often that such a prehistorical perspective dating at least to the Last Glacial Maximum has been used so effectively to inform future conservation outlooks. I’m particularly interested in this sort of approach considering my own palaeo dabblings of late.

Published in Nature Communications this May, Lydia Cole and colleagues’ paper Recovery and resilience of tropical forests after disturbance is a meta-analysis of 71 studies covering nearly 300 disturbance events in tropical forests over the last 20,000 years or so. Using fossil pollen records as an index of vegetation change, they demonstrated the (somewhat intuitive) main result that the time to recovery following a disturbance generally decreases as the past disturbance frequency increased.

This appears to be a vindication of the idea that a system’s adaptive strategies evolve as a product of the local disturbance regime. More importantly, they found that recovery was faster following ‘large infrequent events’, which are natural perturbations such as cyclones and major fires. While most past disturbances were caused by humans clearing forest, the fact that tropical forest systems were most resilient to ‘natural’ events means that if we can’t stop human disturbances, at least we can attempt to emulate natural processes to maximise the rebound potential. Much like many modern forestry operations try to emulate natural disturbances to limit their damage, we should at least manage our impacts by understanding so-called ‘natural’ regimes as much as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

If biodiversity is so important, why is Europe not languishing?

17 03 2014

collapseI don’t often respond to many comments on this blog unless they are really, really good questions (and if I think I have the answers). Even rarer is devoting an entire post to answering a question. The other day, I received a real cracker, and so I think it deserves a highlighted response.

Two days ago, a certain ‘P. Basu’ asked this in response to my last blog post (Lose biodiversity and you’ll get sick):

I am an Indian who lived in Germany for quite a long period. Now, if I am not grossly mistaken, once upon a time Germany and other west european countries had large tracts of “real” forests with bears, wolves, foxes and other animals (both carnivore and herbivore). Bear has completely disappeared from these countries with the advent of industrialization. A few wolves have been kept in more or less artificially created forests. Foxes, deer and hares, fortunately, do still exist. My question is, how come these countries are still so well off – not only from the point of view of economy but also from the angle of public health despite the loss of large tracts of natural forests? Or is it that modern science and a health conscious society can compensate the loss of biodiversity.

“Well”, I thought to myself, “Bloody good question”.

I have come across this genre of question before, but usually under more hostile circumstances when an overtly right-wing respondent (hell, let’s call a spade a spade – a ‘completely selfish arsehole’) has challenged me on the ‘value of nature’ logic (I’m not for a moment suggesting that P. Basu is this sort of person; on the contrary, he politely asked an extremely important question that requires an answer). The comeback generally goes something like this: “If biodiversity is so important, why aren’t super-developed countries wallowing in economic and social ruin because they’ve degraded their own life-support systems? Clearly you must be wrong, Sir.”

There have been discussions in the ecological and sustainability literature that have attempted to answer this, but I’ll give it a shot here for the benefit of readers. Read the rest of this entry »

Incentivise to keep primary forests intact

7 02 2014

The Amazon rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

I know – ‘incentivise’ is one of those terrible wank words of business speak. But to be heard by the economically driven, one must learn their guttural and insensitive language. I digress …

Today’s post is merely a repost of an interview I did for the new series ‘Next Big Idea in Forest Conservation‘. I’m honoured to have been selected for an interview along with the likes of Bill Laurance and Stuart Pimm.

Consider this my conservation selfie.

An Interview with Corey Bradshaw What is your background?

Corey Bradshaw: I have a rather eclectic background in conservation ecology. I grew up in the wilds of western Canada, the son of a trapper. My childhood experiences initially gave me a primarily consumptive view of the environment from trapping, fishing and hunting, but I learned that without intact environmental functions, these precious resources quickly degrade or disappear. This ironic appreciation of natural processes would later lead me into academia and the pursuit of reducing the rate of the extinction crisis.

I completed my first degrees in ecology in Montréal and the University of Alberta, followed by a PhD in New Zealand at the University of Otago. After deciding to pursue the rest of my career in the Southern Hemisphere, I completed my postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Tasmania. Multiple field seasons in the subantarctic and Antarctica probably assisted in a giving me a burgeoning desire to change gears, so I left for the tropics of northern Australia to begin a position at Charles Darwin University. Being introduced there to conservation greats like Navjot Sodhi (sadly, now deceased), Barry Brook and David Bowman turned my research interests on their ear. I quickly became enamoured with quantitative conservation ecology, applying my skills in mathematics to the plight of the world’s ecosystems. Nowhere did the problems seem more intractable than in the tropics.

I am now based at the University of Adelaide (since 2008) and have a vibrant research lab where we apply our quantitative skills to everything from conservation ecology, climate change, energy provision, human population trends, ecosystem services, sustainable agriculture, human health, palaeoecology, carbon-based conservation initiatives and restoration techniques. How long have you worked in tropical forest conservation and in what geographies? What is the focus of your work? Read the rest of this entry »

More species = more resilience

8 01 2014

reef fishWhile still ostensibly ‘on leave’ (side note: Does any scientist really ever take a proper holiday? Perhaps a subject for a future blog post), I cannot resist the temptation to blog about our lab’s latest paper that just came online today. In particular, I am particularly proud of Dr Camille Mellin, lead author of the study and all-round kick-arse quantitative ecologist, who has outdone herself on this one.

Today’s subject is one I’ve touched on before, but to my knowledge, the relationship between ‘diversity’ (simply put, ‘more species’) and ecosystem resilience (i.e., resisting extinction) has never been demonstrated so elegantly. Not only is the study elegant (admission: I am a co-author and therefore my opinion is likely to be biased toward the positive), it demonstrates the biodiversity-stability hypothesis in a natural setting (not experimental) over a range of thousands of kilometres. Finally, there’s an interesting little twist at the end demonstrating yet again that ecology is more complex than rocket science.

Despite a legacy of debate, the so-called diversity-stability hypothesis is now a widely used rule of thumb, and its even implicit in most conservation planning tools (i.e., set aside areas with more species because we assume more is better). Why should ‘more’ be ‘better’? Well, when a lot of species are interacting and competing in an ecosystem, the ‘average’ interactions that any one species experiences are likely to be weaker than in a simpler, less diverse system. When there are a lot of different niches occupied by different species, we also expect different responses to environmental fluctuations among the community, meaning that some species inherently do better than others depending on the specific disturbance. Species-rich systems also tend to have more of what we call ‘functional redundancy‘, meaning that if one species providing an essential ecosystem function (e.g., like predation) goes extinct, there’s another, similar species ready to take its place. Read the rest of this entry »

Quantity, but not quality – slow recovery of disturbed tropical forests

8 11 2013

tropical regrowthIt is a sobering statistic that most of the world’s tropical forests are not ‘primary’ – that is, those that have not suffered some alteration or disturbance from humans (previously logged, cleared for agriculture, burned, etc.).

Today I highlight a really cool paper that confirms this, plus adds some juicy (and disturbing – pun intended – detail). The paper by Phil Martin and colleagues just published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B came to my attention through various channels – not least of which was their citation of one of our previous papers ;-), as well as a blog post by Phil himself. I was so impressed with it that I made my first Faculty of 1000 Prime recommendation1 of the paper (which should appear shortly).

As we did in 2011 (to which Phil refers as our “soon-to-be-classic work” – thanks!), Martin and colleagues amassed a stunning number of papers investigating the species composition of disturbed and primary forests from around the tropics. Using meta-analysis, they matched disturbed and undisturbed sites, recording the following statistics: 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 »

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

15 11 2012

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

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

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

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

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

A posthumous citation tribute for Sodhi

6 11 2012

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

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

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

Wise guys of deforestation

17 10 2012

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

By Bill Laurance, James Cook University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty seas coming to a shore near you

12 07 2012

Last week I had the pleasure of entertaining some old friends and colleagues for a writing workshop in Adelaide (don’t worry – they all came from southern Australia locations, so no massive carbon footprints for overseas travel). I’m happy to report it was a productive (and epicurean) week, but that’s not really the point of today’s post.

One of those participants was long-time colleague, Dr. Rik Buckworth. Rik and I first met in Darwin back in the early 2000s when he was lead fisheries scientist for Northern Territory Fisheries; this collaboration and friendship blossomed into an ARC Linkage Project (with Dr. Mark Meekan of AIMS) on shark fisheries (see some of the scientific outputs from that here, here, here and here). Rik has since moved to CSIRO in Brisbane, but keeps a hand in NT fisheries’ affairs. Incidentally, Rik trained under one of the most well-known fisheries modellers in the world – Carl Walters – when he did his PhD at the University of British Columbia back in the early 1990s.

During our workshop, Rik pointed out a paper he had co-authored back in 2009 in Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries that had completely escaped my attention – it’s a frightening and apocalyptic view of the Australasian marine tropics that seems to confirm our predictions about northern Australia’s marine future. Just take a look at the following two figures from their paper (Elasmobranchs in southern Indonesian fisheries: the fisheries, the status of the stocks and management options): Read the rest of this entry »

No more ecology

9 05 2012

To all ecology people who read this blog (students, post-docs, academics), this is an intriguing, provocative and slightly worrying title. As ecology has matured into a full-fledged, hard-core, mathematical science on par with physics, chemistry and genetics (and is arguably today one of the most important sciences given how badly we’ve trashed our own home), its sophistication now threatens to render many of the traditional aspects of ecology redundant.

Let me explain.

As a person who cut his teeth in field ecology (with all the associated dirt, dangers, bites, stings, discomfort, thrills, headaches and disasters), I’ve had my fair share of fun and excitement collecting ecological data. There’s something quaintly Victorian (no, I am not referring to the state next door) about the romantic and obsessive naturalist collecting data to the exclusion of nearly all other aspects of civilised life; the intrepid adventurer in some of us takes over (likely influenced by the likes of David Attenborough) and we convince ourselves that our quest for the lonely datum will heal all of the Earth’s ailments.


As I’ve matured in ecology and embraced its mathematical complexity and beauty, the recurring dilemma is that there are never enough data to answer the really big questions. We have sampled only a fraction of extant species, we know embarrassingly little about how ecosystems respond to disturbance, and we know next to nothing about the complexities of ecosystem services. And let’s not forget our infancy in understanding the synergies of extinctions in the past and projections into the future. Multiply this uncertainty by several orders of magnitude for ocean ecosystems.

Read the rest of this entry »

Worlds collide: greenwashed development to kill biodiversity

15 03 2012

Another development fiasco that, if it goes ahead, will devastate a Biodiversity Hotspot and ultimately, reduce the livelihood prospects of millions of West Africans.

In yet another move to expose and shame the greedy developers behind another massive (and superlatively greenwashed) oil palm development in the tropics (see our previous Open Letter), Bill Laurance and Josh Linder have organised another Open Letter from some of the world’s top conservation scientists (again, I count myself fortunate to be included in that group) denouncing the project. The press release is below, followed by the letter itself:

Eleven of the world’s top scientists have produced an open letter to the public urging the Cameroon government to stop a giant oil palm plantation that they say will threaten some of Africa’s most important protected areas.

The project, sponsored by a subsidiary of U.S. agribusiness giant Herakles Farms in collaboration with a U.S. nonprofit organization, All for Africa, would span 70,000 hectares (154,000 acres), an area nearly the size of New York City.

“It’s simply frightening in scope,” said Thomas Struhsaker, a leading expert on African primates and rainforest ecology at Duke University in North Carolina, USA, who has worked in the region for nearly a half-century.

The project would destroy a critical forested area that currently links five national parks or protected areas in Cameroon, say the scientists.

“These forests are vital for wildlife, including the African elephant, chimpanzee and drill, all threatened or endangered species,” said anthropologist Joshua Linder of James Madison University in Virginia, USA, who has helped coordinate the protest. “These animals rely on the forests that would be destroyed to survive and move among the parks.”

“This area is a biodiversity hotspot, some of the world’s most biologically important real estate,” said tropical ecologist William Laurance of James Cook University in Australia, who studies threats to wildlife in the Congo Basin.

“There’s no way a project like this would be allowed in most countries, because the price for biodiversity is just too high,” said Laurance.

The project has been promoted in Cameroon as environmentally sustainable, but the scientists heatedly disagree. “Those promoting this project are misleading everyone—especially the people and government of Cameroon,” said Linder. “They claim the forests they want to clear are mostly logged and degraded, but we’ve shown clearly that they include lots of tall, dense forest that’s vital for wildlife and nature conservation.” Read the rest of this entry »

Give way to the invader

25 01 2012

By weird coincidence, Salvador Herrando-Pérez (student blogger extra-ordinaire – see his previous posts on evolution, pollination, bird losses, taxonomic inflation, niche conservatism, historical biogeography, ecological traps and ocean giants) has produced a post this week expanding on the problem of roads. Also weirdly coincidental is that both Salva and I are in his home country of Spain this week.

Australia’s > 800,000-km road network would go 60 times around the equator of our planet. Confined to the boundaries of any one country, roads are a conspicuous component of the landscape, and shape the dispersion, survival and reproduction of many plants and animals in urban and remote areas.

Those who drive (or are driven by) will be familiar with the image of a crushed kangaroo on the roadside (a hedgehog in Europe), or the sticky mosaic of insects smashed against the windscreen after a high-speed run. Mortality by collision is one of the many effects that roads can have on the demography of organisms – including humans. Those effects encompass

  • physical alteration of terrestrial and aquatic habitats,
  • chemical pollution leakage during road construction and maintenance, and from asphalt compounds during storms,
  • alteration of animal behaviour (e.g., change in home range, or in patterns of flight or vocalisation),
  • access to remote areas by hunters, fishermen and gatherers in general, and
  • intense habitat fragmentation1-3.

However, some species get around those negative impacts by using the roads as pathways to new territories, thereby eluding barriers like seas, mountains, rivers, dense vegetation, or competition for vital resources with other species. Read the rest of this entry »

The seeds of tropical forest destruction

22 01 2012

Bill Laurance asked me to reproduce his latest piece originally published at Yale University‘s Environment 360 website.

We live in an era of unprecedented road and highway expansion — an era in which many of the world’s last tropical wildernesses, from the Amazon to Borneo to the Congo Basin, have been penetrated by roads. This surge in road building is being driven not only by national plans for infrastructure expansion, but by industrial timber, oil, gas, and mineral projects in the tropics.

Few areas are unaffected. Brazil is currently building 7,500 km of new paved highways that crisscross the Amazon basin. Three major new highways are cutting across the towering Andes mountains, providing a direct link for timber and agricultural exports from the Amazon to resource-hungry Pacific Rim nations, such as China. And in the Congo basin, a recent satellite study found a burgeoning network of more than 50,000 km of new logging roads. These are but a small sample of the vast number of new tropical roads, which inevitably open up previously intact tropical forests to a host of extractive and economic activities.

“Roads,” said the eminent ecologist Thomas Lovejoy, “are the seeds of tropical forest destruction.”

Despite their environmental costs, the economic incentives to drive roads into tropical wilderness are strong. Governments view roads as a cost-effective means to promote economic development and access natural No other region can match the tropics for the sheer scale and pace of road expansion. resources. Local communities in remote areas often demand new roads to improve access to markets and medical services. And geopolitically, new roads can be used to help secure resource-rich frontier regions. India, for instance, is currently constructing and upgrading roads to tighten its hold on Arunachal Pradesh state, over which it and China formerly fought a war.

Read the rest of this entry »

Where the sick buffalo roam

28 10 2011

It’s been some time coming, but today I’m proud to announce a new paper of ours that has just come out in Journal of Applied Ecology. While not strictly a conservation paper, it does provide some novel tools for modelling populations of threatened species in ways not available before.

The Genesis

A few years ago, a few of us (Bob LacyPhil Miller and JP Pollak of Vortex fame, Barry Brook, and a few others) got together in a little room at the Brookfield Zoo in the suburban sprawl of Chicago to have a crack at some new modelling approaches the Vortex crew had recently designed. The original results were pleasing, so we had a follow-up meeting last year (thanks to a few generous Zoo benefactors) and added a few post-docs and students to the mix (Damien FordhamClive McMahon, Tom Prowse, Mike Watts, Michelle Verant). The great population modeller Resit Akçakaya also came along to assist and talk about linkages with RAMAS.

Out of that particular meeting a series of projects was spawned, and one of those has now been published online: Novel coupling of individual-based epidemiological and demographic models predicts realistic dynamics of tuberculosis in alien buffalo.

The Coupling

So what’s so novel about modelling disease in buffalo, and why would one care? Well, here’s the interesting part. The buffalo-tuberculosis example was a great way to examine just how well a new suite of models – and their command-centre module – predicted disease dynamics in a wild population. The individual-based population modelling software Vortex has been around for some time, and is now particularly powerful for predicting the extinction risk of small populations; the newest addition to the Vortex family, called Outbreak, is also an individual-based epidemiological model that allows a population of individuals exposed to a pathogen to progress over time (e.g., from susceptible, exposed, infectious, recovered/dead). Read the rest of this entry »

1 million hectares annually – the forest destruction of Indonesia

30 09 2011

© A. Kenyon

Bill Laurance wrote a compelling and very dour piece in The Conversation this week. He asked for some ‘link love’, so I decided to reproduce the article here for readers. Full credit to Bill and The Conversation, of course.

What comes to mind when you think of Indonesia?

For biologists like myself, Australia’s northern neighbour provokes visions of ancient rainforests being razed by slash-and-burn farmers, and endangered tigers and orangutans fleeing from growling bulldozers.

This reality is true, but there is also hope on the horizon.

Indonesia is a vast, sprawling nation, spanning some 17,000 islands. Among these are Java, Sumatra, half of New Guinea and much of Borneo.

Some of the planet’s most biologically rich and most endangered real estate is found on this archipelago.

Today, Indonesia is losing around 1.1 million hectares of forest annually. That’s an area a third the size of Belgium, bigger than Australia’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

With forest loss now slowing in Brazil, Indonesia has the dubious distinction of being the world’s deforestation “leader”. No nation is destroying its forests faster.

In Sumatra, where I visited recently, the world’s biggest paper-pulp corporations are chopping down hundreds of thousands of hectares of native rainforest to make paper and cardboard.

Some of these corporations also fund aggressive lobbyists, such as World Growth in Washington DC [CJA Bradshaw's note: see our piece on one particular patron of WG - Alan Oxley], to combat their critics and dissuade major retail chains from dropping their products. Read the rest of this entry »

No substitute for primary forest

15 09 2011

© Romulo Fotos

A little over five years ago, a controversial and spectacularly erroneous paper appeared in the tropical ecology journal Biotropica, the flagship journal of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. Now, I’m normally a fan of Biotropica (I have both published there several times and acted as a Subject Editor for several years), but we couldn’t let that paper’s conclusions go unchallenged.

That paper was ‘The future of tropical forest species‘ by Joseph Wright and Helene Muller-Landau, which essentially concluded that the severe deforestation and degradation of tropical forests was not as big a deal as nearly all the rest of the conservation biology community had concluded (remind you of climate change at all?), and that regenerating, degraded and secondary forests would suffice to preserve the enormity and majority of dependent tropical biodiversity.

What rubbish.

Our response, and those of many others (including from Toby Gardner and colleagues and William Laurance), were fast and furious, essentially destroying the argument so utterly that I think most people merely moved on. We know for a fact that tropical biodiversity is waning rapidly, and in many parts of the world, it is absolutely [insert expletive here]. However, the argument has reared its ugly head again and again over the intervening years, so it’s high time we bury this particular nonsense once and for all.

In fact, a few anecdotes are worthy of mention here. Navjot once told me one story about the time when both he and Wright were invited to the same symposium around the time of the initial dust-up in Biotropica. Being Navjot, he tore off strips from Wright in public for his outrageous and unsubstantiated claims – something to which Wright didn’t take too kindly.  On the way home, the two shared the same flight, and apparently Wright refused to acknowledge Navjot’s existence and only glared looks that could kill (hang on – maybe that had something to do with Navjot’s recent and untimely death? Who knows?). Similar public stoushes have been chronicled between Wright and Bill Laurance.

Back to the story. I recall a particular coffee discussion at the National University of Singapore between Navjot Sodhi (may his legacy endure), Barry Brook and me some time later where we planned the idea of a large meta-analysis to compare degraded and ‘primary’ (not overly disturbed) forests. The ideas were fairly fuzzy back then, but Navjot didn’t drop the ball for a moment. He immediately went out and got Tien Ming Lee and his new PhD student, Luke Gibson, to start compiling the necessary studies. It was a thankless job that took several years.

However, the fruits of that labour have now just been published in Nature: ‘Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity‘, led by Luke and Tien Ming, along with Lian Pin Koh, Barry Brook, Toby Gardner, Jos Barlow, Carlos Peres, me, Bill Laurance, Tom Lovejoy and of course, Navjot Sodhi [side note: Navjot died during the review and didn't survive to hear the good news that the paper was finally accepted].

Using data from 138 studies from Asia, South America and Africa comprising 2220 pair-wise comparisons of biodiversity ‘values’ between forests that had undergone some sort of disturbance (everything from selective logging through to regenerating pasture) and adjacent primary forests, we can now hammer the final nails into the coffin containing the putrid remains of Wright and Muller-Landau’s assertion – there is no substitute for primary forest. Read the rest of this entry »

When you have no idea, you should shut up

12 09 2011

© Taren McCallan-Moore

Last week, The Conversation published a particularly wonderful example of uninformed drivel that requires a little bit of a reality injection.

Like our good friend, the Destroyer of Forests (a.k.a. Alan Oxley), a new pro-deforestation, pro-development cheerleader on the scene, a certain Phillip Lawrence apparently undertaking a PhD entitled ‘Ecological Modernization of the Indonesian Economy: A Political, Cultural and Historical Economic Study‘ at Macquarie University in Sydney (The Conversation mistakenly attributes him to the University of Sydney, unless of course, he’s moved recently), has royally stuck his foot in it with respect to the dangers of oil palm in South-East Asia.

Mr. Lawrence runs an interestingly titled blog ‘Eco Logical Strategies‘, especially considering there is nothing whatsoever regarding ‘ecology’ on the site, and this ignorance comes forth in a wonderful array of verbal spew in his latest Conversation piece. He’s also a consultant for one of the most destructive forces in Indonesia – Asia Pulp and Paper – a company with a more depressive environmental track record than the likes of Monsanto, General Electric and BP combined. That preface of conflict of interest now explained, I will now expose Mr. Lawrence for the wolf in sheep’s clothing he really is.

Banging the development and anti-poverty drum like Oxley, albeit with much less panache and linguistic flourish, Mr. Lawrence boldly claims, without a shred of evidence, that “There is ample peer-reviewed research that is supportive of the palm oil industry in Indonesia.”

Excuse me? Supportive of just what component of the palm oil industry, Mr. Lawrence? Would that be that it makes a shit-load of cash for a preciously small component of Indonesian (and foreign) society? Let’s just look at the peer-reviewed literature, shall we? Read the rest of this entry »

How buggered are our hairy red cousins?

23 08 2011

Here’s a post from one of our lab’s post-doctoral fellows, Dr. Stephen Gregory. Stephen just got back from Borneo (jammy bastard), and will now regale you with his exploits.

© Danau Girang Field Centre

When asked to name a Bornean animal, I’ll bet the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) would top a public survey. This charismatic animal shares over 95 % of its genome with Homo sapiens, and so it’s little wonder that we find their infants so adorable and their popularity in the pet trade so deplorable.

Yet, I wonder how many people know that the biggest threat to our hairy red cousin is actually human eating and hygiene habits? Palm oil (oil extracted from the kernel of Elaeis spp.) is used in many foods – particularly snack foods – and hygiene products. It is our addiction to these convenient products that is destroying the orangutan’s habitat.

I’ve just returned from a trip to Sabah, the northernmost Malaysian state on Borneo, where I witnessed this distressing truth firsthand. I was meeting with the Sabah Wildlife Department, French NGO Hutan and staff at the Danau Girang Field Centre  to discuss early results from my Sabah orangutan project and seek their expert opinions. Read the rest of this entry »

Recognising differing viewpoints in a rapidly changing world

18 08 2011

Is oil palm bad? Is protecting tropical forests more important than converting them for economic development? Should we spike trees to make sure no one cuts them down?

Answers to these questions depend on which side of the argument you’re on. But often people on either side of debates hardly know what their opponents are thinking.

A recent paper by us in the journal Biotropica, of which parts were published on this blog, points out that the inability to recognise differing viewpoints undermines progress in environmental policy and practice.

The paper in Biotropica takes an unusual approach to get its message across, one rarely applied in science, but nevertheless dating back to 1729. In that year, Jonathan Swift, the first satirist, wrote an essay suggesting the English should eat Irish children, “whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled”, to reduce the growing population of Irish poor.

We similarly use satire to highlight the viewpoint problem. Our paper uses a spoof press release by the Coalition of Financially Challenged Countries with Lots of Trees, aka “CoFCCLoT”. CoFCCLoT proposes that in return for nor cutting down their tropical rainforests, wealthy countries should reforest at least half their land. This would provide the world with a level playing field, restore the ecological health of wealthy countries, provide job opportunities for their citizens, and even allow lions to thrive in Greece and gorillas in Spain. Read the rest of this entry »


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