Conservation: So easy a child could do it

13 09 2013

child's playI don’t like to talk about my family online. Call me paranoid, but there are a lot of crazy people out there who don’t like what scientists like me are saying (bugger the evidence). Yes, like many climate scientists, I’ve also been threatened. That’s why my personal life remains anonymous except for a select group of people.

But I’ve mentioned my daughter before on this blog, and despite a few people insinuating that I am a bad parent because of what I said, I am happy that I made the point that climate change is a scary concept of which our children must at least be cognisant.

My daughter’s story today is a little less confronting, but equally enlightening. It’s also a little embarrassing as a scientist who has dedicated my entire research career to the discipline of conservation biology.

As a normal six year-old without the ability to refrain from talking – even for a moment – I hear a lot of stories. Many of them are of course fantastical and ridiculous, but those are just part of a healthy, imaginative childhood (I am proud to say though that she is quite clear about the non-existence of fictitious entities like faeries, easter bunnies and gods).

Every once in a while, however, there are snippets of wisdom that ooze out from the cracks in the dross. In the last few months, my daughter has independently and with no prompting from me come up with two pillars of conservation science: (i) protected areas and (ii) biodiversity corridors. Read the rest of this entry »

Guilty until proven innocent

18 07 2013

precautionary principleThe precautionary principle – the idea that one should adopt an approach that minimises risk – is so ingrained in the mind of the conservation scientist that we often forget what it really means, or the reality of its implementation in management and policy. Indeed, it has been written about extensively in the peer-reviewed conservation literature for over 20 years at least (some examples here, here, here and here).

From a purely probabilistic viewpoint, the concept is flawlessly logical in most conservation questions. For example, if a particular by-catch of a threatened species is predicted [from a model] to result in a long-term rate of instantaneous population change (r) of -0.02 to 0.01 [uniform distribution], then even though that interval envelops r = 0, one can see that reducing the harvest rate a little more until the lower bound is greater than zero is a good idea to avoid potentially pushing down the population even more. In this way, our modelling results would recommend a policy that formally incorporates the uncertainty of our predictions without actually trying to make our classically black-and-white laws try to legislate uncertainty directly. Read the rest of this entry »

Tropical protected areas still in trouble

8 10 2012

© P. Harris

There’s nothing like a bit of good, intelligent and respectful debate in science.

After the publication in Nature of our paper on tropical protected areas (Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas), some interesting discussion has ensued regarding some of our assumptions and validations.

As is their wont, Nature declined to publish these comments (and our responses) in the journal itself, but the new commenting feature at allowed the exchange to be published online with the paper. Cognisant that probably few people will read this exchange, Bill Laurance and I decided to reproduce them here in full for your intellectual pleasure. Any further comments? We’d be keen to hear them.

COMMENT #1 (by Hari Sridhar of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore)

In this paper, Laurance and co-authors have tapped the expert opinions of ‘veteran field biologists and environmental scientists’ to understand the health of protected areas in the tropics worldwide. This is a novel and interesting approach and the dataset they have gathered is very impressive. Given that expert opinion can be subject to all kinds of biases and errors, it is crucial to demonstrate that expert opinion matches empirical reality. While the authors have tried to do this by comparing their results with empirical time-series datasets, I argue that their comparison does not serve the purpose of an independent validation.

Using 59 available time-series datasets from 37 sources (journal papers, books, reports etc.), the authors find a fairly good match between expert opinion and empirical data (in 51/59 cases, expert opinion matched empirically-derived trend). For this comparison to serve as an independent validation, it is crucial that the experts were unaware of the empirical trends at the time of the interviews. However, this is unlikely to be true because, in most cases, the experts themselves were involved in the collection of the time-series datasets (at least 43/59 to my knowledge, from a scan of references in Supplementary Table 1). In other words, the same experts whose opinions were being validated were involved in collection of the data used for validation.

OUR RESPONSE (William F. Laurance, Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Susan G. Laurance)

Sridhar raises a relevant point but one that, on careful examination, does not weaken our validation analysis. Read the rest of this entry »

Threats to biodiversity insurance from protected areas

26 07 2012

A red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) from Barro Colorado Island in Panama. This small island, just 1500 ha (3700 acres) in area, is one of the tropical protected areas evaluated in this study (photo © Christian Ziegler <>, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). Note: It is prohibited for any third party or agency to use or license this image; any use other then described above shall be subject to usage fees as determined solely by the photographer.

Much of conservation science boils down to good decision making: when, where and how we ‘set aside’ terrestrial or marine areas for specific protection against the ravages of human endeavour. This is the basis for the entire sub-discipline of conservation planning and prioritisation, and features prominantly in most aspects of applied conservation and restoration.

In other words, we do all this science to determine where we should emplace protected areas, lobby for getting more land and sea set aside so that we have ‘representative’ amounts (i.e., to prevent extinctions), and argue over the best way to manage these areas once established.

But what if this pinnacle of conservation achievement is itself under threat? What if many of our protected areas are struggling to insure biodiversity against human consumption? Well, it’d be a scary prospect, to say the least.

Think of it this way. We buy insurance policies to buffer our investments against tragedy; this applies to everything from our houses, worldly possessions, cars, livestock, health, to forest carbon stores. We buy the policies to give us peace of mind that in the event of a disaster, we’ll be bailed out of the mess with a much-needed cash injection. But what if following the disaster we learn that the policy is no good? What if there isn’t enough pay-out to fix the mess?

In biodiversity conservation, our ‘insurance’ is largely provided by protected areas. We believe that come what may, at least in these (relatively) rare places, biodiversity will persist despite our relentless consumerism.

Unfortunately, what we believe isn’t necessarily true.

Today I’m both proud and alarmed to present our latest research on the performance of tropical protected areas around the world. Published online in Nature this morning (evening, for you Europeans) is the 216-author (yes, that is correct – 216 of us) paper entitled “Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas” led by Bill Laurance. Read the rest of this entry »


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