Another nail in Borneo’s biodiversity coffin

11 09 2008

I always try to tell myself never “to underestimate the stupidity of the human race”; yet, I am too often surprised. Borneo is one of the places in the tropics with the worst track record in destroying ecosystems and the services they provide. The Malaysian government couldn’t be more self-destructive with this sort of policy.

This item from



The Malaysian government is attempting to quell indigenous opposition to logging in the rainforests of Borneo by deposing community leaders and replacing them with timber company stakeholders, reports an environmental group.

The Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss NGO that works on behalf of the forest people of Sarawak, Malaysia, says that the headmen of at least three Penan communities that have opposed logging have lost official recognition from Malaysian authorities over the past year. The government is working to install representatives who support logging.

“The non-recognition of the elected community headmen by the Sarawak State Government is a clear violation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” stated the Bruno Manser Fund in an emailed release. “The Declaration, which has been adopted by Malaysia, upholds in its article 18 the right of indigenous communities ‘to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures’.”

The Penan communities of Sarawak have waged a long battle against the logging of their ancestral homeland in the rainforests of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. The opposition reached a crescendo in the 1980s when the Penan blocked logging roads and sabotaged equipment. The Malaysian government responded by closing down media access to the area and sending in armed forces to violently supress the unrest. While the attacks on the Penan brought international attention to the rapacious logging of Borneo’s forests, they had relatively little long-term impact.

Today the Penan face not only loggers but increased pressure from oil palm developers as well as an ambitious government plan to dam several rainforest rivers in an effort to generate electricity to attract aluminum smelters and mineral refiners.

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Deforestation and disease

10 09 2008

Humans have such a short memory…

A recent theme in many of my posts is the concept of ecosystem services provided to us essentially free of charge, and their continued degradation due to the burgeoning human population, bad land management and excessive resource consumption. We are indeed degrading the very life-support system species assemblages provide us. I’ve previously posted a long list of ecosystem services that you can consult here, but this recent paper in BioScience highlights one that is probably largely overlooked – the role of forests in reducing the incidence of human disease.

In their article entitled Deforestation, mosquitoes, and Ancient Rome: lessons for today, Lara O’Sullivan and colleagues discuss the evidence from Ancient Rome that deforestation rapidly increased the prevalence of malarial diseases. They also go on to cite several examples from the modern world where deforestation appears to be linked to greater manifestation of diseases like malaria.

The evidence isn’t just linked to Africa and the Amazon, but the authors suggest that the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases in Australia such as Ross River fever may also be on the rise as forests are quickly degraded and destroyed.

In two previous posts (see here and here), I commented on the escalating biodiversity crisis in the tropics driven largely by habitat loss (i.e., deforestation) – add increasing human disease to the long list of negatives associated with degrading or disappearing ecosystem services such as increased frequency and severity of floods, reduced food provision, reduced availability of clean water, reduced pollination, etc. We MUST educate the masses with the increasing body of scientific evidence that our behaviour is self-defeating (see previous post on this issue).

Indeed, it’s no longer the days of the capitalists versus the ‘greenies’ – the rapid decline in the quality of human life and and our own survival is affecting all of us, including the wealthy. In fact, I would argue that environmentalism has fully developed as the principal rationale in conservation ecology, such that it has become much less of an esoteric struggle for maintaining all things beautiful (the capitalist viewpoint of the traditional ‘greeny’), to a science-driven means to maintain human life and prosperity. Can we afford to continue along this path? Definitely not. Only an idiot with the foresight of a slug could ignore our current trajectory – and that includes the millionaire sport heroes, actors, and entrepreneurs who have benefited directly from our collective resource exploits. If you give a shit about the quality of life you and your descendants will have in the very near future, do not ignore habitat loss any longer.

CJA Bradshaw

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Tropical Conservation Biology

8 09 2008

An obvious personal plug – but I’m allowed to do that on my own blog ;-)

1405150734I’d like to introduce a (relatively) new textbook that my colleagues, Navjot Sodhi and Barry Brook, and I wrote and published last year with Blackwell (now Wiley-Blackwell) Scientific Publishing – Tropical Conservation Biology.

We’re rather proud of this book because it was a timely summary and assessment of the scientific evidence for the degree of devastation facing tropical biodiversity today and in the future. I’ve summarised some of the main issues in a previous post covering a paper we have ‘in press’ that was born of the text book, but obviously the book is a far more detailed account of the problems facing the tropics.

This introductory textbook examines diminishing terrestrial and aquatic habitats in the tropics, covering a broad range of topics including the fate of the coral reefs; the impact of agriculture, urbanisation, and logging on habitat depletion; and the effects of fire on plants and animal survival.

One of the highlights of the book is that each chapter (see below) Includes case studies and interviews with prominent conservation scientists to help situate key concepts in a real world context: Norman Myers (Chapter 1), Gretchen Daily (Chapter 2), William Laurance (Chapter 3), Mark Cochrane (Chapter 4), Daniel Simberloff (Chapter 5), Bruce Campbell (Chapter 6), Daniel Pauly (Chapter 7), Stephen Schneider (Chapter 8), Stuart Pimm (Chapter 9) and Peter Raven (Chapter 10). These biographies are followed by a brief set of questions and answers that focus on some of the most pertinent and pressing issues in tropical conservation biology today. It is our intention that readers of Tropical Conservation Biology will benefit from the knowledge and be inspired by the passion of these renowned conservation experts.


  1. Chapter 1: Diminishing habitats in regions of high biodiversity. We report on the loss of tropical habitats across the tropics (e.g., deforestation rates). We also highlight the drivers of habitat loss such as human population expansion. Finally, we identify the areas in immediate need of conservation action by elucidating the concept of biodiversity hotspots. Read the rest of this entry »

Threatened species depend on protected areas

4 09 2008

One for the Potential list:

3932397_origA great new paper has just come out in Global Change Biology by Sarah Jackson and Kevin Gaston: Land use change and the dependence of national priority species on protected areas. In what is simultaneously frightening and ecouraging is the observation that of nearly 400 Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species considered either to be globally threatened or rapidly declining in the UK (i.e., > 50 % decline over 25 years), 55 % were largely restricted to statuatory protected areas in the UK. These areas cover about 11.5 % of Britain’s land surface.

What’s amazing about this is that without these reserves, these (hundreds) of species would already be extinct (or very close to it) – if this isn’t one of the strongest arguments for reserves, I don’t know what is. Not only are reserves essential for maintaining populations of threatened species, their spatial connectivity is also highly influential on persistence probability (future posts on fragmentation coming).

Much of the planet has now been modified to the point where any sort of species preservation will necessarily require large, expansive, contiguous networks of protected areas. Jackson & Gaston conclude:

Britain has undergone particularly extensive land transformation, reducing many originally much more widespread vegetation/habitat types to scattered fragments, few of which can be considered strictly natural (Rackham, 1986). A proportion of these fragments receive statutory protection and intensive management, increasing the likelihood that species of conservation concern are restricted to such areas. This circumstance is not unique to Britain, being found in many heavily developed regions including much of northwestern Europe, although it is not so extreme in many others. Britain may, thus, represent a possible future scenario for such regions. Under such circumstances, it is not unlikely that many species if they are not already restricted to protected areas will become so (e.g. species confined to tropical forest habitats following deforestation).

 Keeping things off limits from the burgeoning human population is therefore one of the major ways we can stem the tide of extinctions.

CJA Bradshaw

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Wordle of ConservationBytes

4 09 2008

The Wordle (word cloud) of as of today. This is what we’ve been talking about since inception:

(seems I use a lot of exempli gratia)

Assessing Conservation Actions

3 09 2008

A good post from Tim Bean (Berkeley) over at – one for the Potential list:


This paper in press at Conservation Letters by Haines et al. presents a novel method for assessing conservation actions. There’s been quite a bit of work done in the past decade, particularly by NGOs, to develop methods to assess whether their actions have actually succeeded; this work was spear-headed in particular by Nick Salafsky and his Foundations of Success. This paper suggests that many of conservation biggest problems can be monitored with spatial datasets and proposes using the Human Footprint as a basis for such monitoring. The Human Footprint is, in essence, a collection of spatial datasets that holistically represent the collective anthropogenic impact on the land. In their paper, Haines et al. suggest that by tracking these spatial datasets through time in a paired way – conservation action site randomly paired with a control – we can get a better handle on whether the particular action was successful. The nice thing about the paper is how clear-eyed it is about what is and is not possible using this approach:

The human footprint is a spatially explicit approach to conservation planning that may serve as an effective visual medium to public audiences and stakeholders worldwide by simplifying the presentation of complex information.

(This is always the last, best resort for spatial analysts: even if the model isn’t perfect, it’s a great communication tool. ) But they also warn:

Spatial data rarely produce a complete picture of what negative impacts are occurring because human footprint data are not well-suited to track anthropogenic impacts that lack a spatial signature…[e.g.] the spread of some chemical pollutants, invasive species, diseases, and impacts of poaching…

Although I have to disagree partially with these particulars – presence of roads is often a very good correlative of poaching – their main point is an important one to consider. How well does a spatial model of human influence catch these hidden factors? A few years ago I did an informal (and sadly never completed) analysis of invasive plants and the Human Footprint and found that they were actually fairly well correlated. You could also argue that disease may be higher amongst individuals that are negatively impacted by the presence of humans. There’s plenty of opportunity here for further exploration.

Thanks, Tim.

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Classics: Ecosystem Services

2 09 2008

‘Classics’ is a category of posts highlighting research that has made a real difference to biodiversity conservation. All posts in this category will be permanently displayed on the Classics page of

tobewell_homeEhrlich, P.R., H. A. Mooney. (1983). Extinction, substitution, and ecosystem services. BioScience 33, 248-254

I may be mistaken, but I think this is one of the earliest appearances of the term ‘ecosystem services‘, which is essentially the concept that intact biological communities and functioning species interactions provide humanity with a host of ‘services’ that support or improve our quality of life. The ongoing assault on species and habitats around the globe are, to use Ehrlich & Mooney’s words “accompanied by severe degradation of the public service functions of the systems”.

What are ecosystem services? The list is long and varied, and much of them remain largely unquantified, but I’ll attempt to list the more important ones here:

Add your favourite to the list – there are plenty of sources that expand on these. For starters try the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Wikipedia entry, the Ecological Society of America and Gretchen Daily’s lab at Standford University.

What is the value of ecosystem services to humanity?

This is a fairly controversial area because of the difficulty of measuring the link between ecosystem function and the services they provide, but also by the decision to include direct and direct costs of providing the services artificially. However, many people have attempted to put them into financial terms – Robert Costanza and colleagues put together some figures (see here, here, and here for examples) that attracted some criticism. Nonetheless, ecosystems are estimated to provide us with trillions of dollars worth of goods and services. Some examples from the Ecological Society of America:

  • Much of the Mississippi River Valley’s natural flood protection services were destroyed when adjacent wetlands were drained and channels altered. As a result, the 1993 floods resulted in property damages estimated at twelve billion dollars partially from the inability of the Valley to lesson the impacts of the high volumes of water.
  • Over 100,000 different animal species – including bats, bees, flies, moths, beetles, birds, and butterflies – provide free pollination services. One third of human food comes from plants pollinated by wild pollinators. The value of pollination services from wild pollinators in the U.S. alone is estimated at four to six billion dollars per year.
  • Eighty percent of the world’s population relies upon natural medicinal products. Of the top 150 prescription drugs used in the U.S., 118 originate from natural sources: 74 percent from plants, 18 percent from fungi, 5 percent from bacteria, and 3 percent from one vertebrate (snake species). Nine of the top 10 drugs originate from natural plant products.

What does this mean for conservation of biodiversity? Well, since scientists and policy makers alike have embraced the concept, we now have a much more convincing argument for maintaining the intactness of natural ecosystems. In the past we found it hard to convince those struggling to make ends meet (or even to obtain their next meal) about the importance of preventing species extinctions. Why should someone worried about whether or not his or her family will survive another day give a rat’s arse about species conservation? Well, the degradation of ecosystem services ensuing from species extinctions means that everyone’s – including the poorest – lives are reduced in quality and duration as we destroy these systems. See a previous post on Conservation for the People for more information.

CJA Bradshaw

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