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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

Tropical biology and conservation overview

28 07 2010

Last week I attended the 2010 International Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) in Sanur, Bali (Indonesia). I only managed one post on the real-world relevance of conservation research (that attracted quite a lot of comment) while there, but I did promise to give a conference overview as I did for the International Congress for Conservation Biology earlier this month. So here goes.

This was my first ATBC meeting despite having co-written ‘the book’ on tropical conservation biology (well, one of very, very many). I no longer live in the tropics but am still managing to keep my hand in many different aspects of tropical research. After all, tropical regions represent ground zero for conservation biology – they have the highest biodiversity (no matter which way you measure it), some of the greatest threats (e.g., most people, most rapid development, most corruption) and some of the most pressing human problems (disease, hunger, socio-political instability). Ironically, most of the world’s conservation ecologists work in temperate realms – it should really be the other way around. Read the rest of this entry »


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