Monkeys and motorbikes

29 06 2009

flyingmonkeyThis post by a colleague of mine, Erik Meijaard of The Nature Conservancy, really nails down one of the principal bugbears of conservation science – how to make our research truly relevant to reducing or reversing the trends in species extinctions. It also goes straight to the Toothless page.

We as a discipline have been studying ways to improve the plight of biodiversity for over 50 years, but across the board, species are disappearing at faster and faster rates. So obviously we’re doing something dreadfully wrong. Yes, we have made huge scientific leaps in that time, quantified many hypothetical aspects of extinction and restoration (e.g., fragmentation, trophic cascades, protected areas, etc. – check out Conservation Classics for some of the more memorable conservation science advances), and identified some of the major socio-political impediments to achieving real conservation outcomes.

Yes, one can argue that without conservation science we’d already be a lot worse off and many species now just hanging on would have long since disappeared. It’s also arguable that our battle was lost before we begun fighting simply by virtue of the burgeoning human population and its never-ending quest to consume more – one step forward and two steps back.

I’m not at all trying to condemn the discipline, but I think it’s worth our while to hold our research up closely and regularly to the mirror and ask ourselves in the most objective manner whether we think we’re truly changing things for the better. Something to think about the next time you apply for that research grant.

Erik’s post is reproduced below.

Last year, The Nature Conservancy’s Indonesia program was offered an undisclosed amount of money from an anonymous motorbike company. Presumably because the company knew of the Conservancy’s expertise in primate research, they somewhat bizarrely requested us to investigate bike preference among Indonesian apes and monkeys.

As the senior scientist of the Indonesian forest program, I rejected the idea outright. The scientific scope of the study appeared far from our usual focus on proper applied conservation research. Do we really care which brand of motorbike different species of primate prefer? And if we knew, would it really help us to protect them any better? My answer to both questions was “no.”

Still, I couldn’t stop myself wondering. What if we simply took the money? It had been offered with virtually no strings attached. If we could do the study cheaply we might have some funds left for more relevant work.

So, weak as I am, I relented and took the cash and developed a minimalistic study in which we studied photos of primates on bikes. The results indicate that agile gibbons (Hylobates agilis) prefer Yamaha, crested black macaques (Macaca nigra) prefer Honda, and pig-tailed macaques (Macaca nemestrina) favor push bikes. Curiously, none of the species seem to favor the big handlebars on bikes called “ape hangers.”

Admittedly, the sample size of three is somewhat limited, but a tentative conclusion is that the higher evolved a primate is, the more expensive its bike selection. The donor company is extremely pleased with the results of this study, and they are now translating the findings into new marketing strategies for a very expensive bike for people, based on the assumption that humans are at the top rung of the evolutionary ladder.

Whether the story is factual or not, the moral of it is that most conservation research in places like Indonesia, but also elsewhere in the world, is largely irrelevant to conservation.

Douglas Sheil (a colleague of mine) and I published a paper some time ago in which we compiled, categorized and evaluated 284 publications on Bornean wildlife (Biodiversity and Conservation 16:3053–3065). We found that few studies address threats to species and fewer still provide input for or guidance to effective management.

Too often scientists working under the guise of conservation answer questions that are not important to conservation — and judging my CV, I am one of them. In the end, if we cannot come up with the facts and recommendations that can be directly applied by managers, decision makers, local communities and other people that really count in conservation, conservation science will have little to offer to conservation.

CJA Bradshaw

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New Impact Factors for conservation journals

23 06 2009

For those of you who follow the ISI Impact Factors for journals (the ratio of the number of total citations i+3 for the papers published in years i and i+1 divided by the total number of citable papers published in years i and i+1), you might know that the 2008 IFs have just been published. Now, whether you put stock or not in these is somewhat irrelevant – enough people do to make it relevant to who publishes what where, and who cites or does not cite scientific papers. It’s also in our scientific culture – pretty much everyone in a field will have a rough idea of the range of IFs their specific discipline’s journals span, and so it acts as a kind of target for varying qualities of science. Far from perfect, but it’s what we have to deal with.

So, I thought I’d publish the 2008 Impact Factors for the journals listed on this site’s Journals page and compare them to the 2007 values:

and for some more general journals that occasionally publish conservation papers:

Almost across the board, conservation journals have seen an increase in their Impact Factors. There are many other good conservation papers published in other journals, but this list probably represents the main outlets. I hope we continue to focus more on conservation outcomes rather than scientific kudos per se, although I’m certainly cognisant of the hand that feeds. Good luck with your publishing.

CJA Bradshaw

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Conservation Letters starts to Twitter

21 06 2009

Conservation LettersConservation Letters has joined the Twitter-sphere.

Click here to follow.

Click on the Journals page of to access specific issues.

CJA Bradshaw

Burn baby, burn

18 06 2009

© K.W. Sorensen

© K.W. Sorensen

A recent report by Reuters highlighted in about forest fires in Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra reminded me of an important paper that appeared in Nature in 2007.

Lohman and colleagues’ paper entiled The burning issue gets my vote for a Potential spot at

Let’s face it, there is ample evidence now that countries in Southeast Asia can ill-afford any more deforestation, yet unregulated and illegal burning continues there despite international accords to reduce the intensity and frequency of fires. Lohman et al. highlighted how farmers throughout Indonesia and Malaysia in particular are ignoring fire bans and continuing to apply traditional techniques of burning off vegetation from plantations when new crops are to be seeded.

Common practice, been used for centuries – so what? Well the problem is that many of these fires burn out of control for weeks to months and continue into the remaining fragmented forests adjacent to agricultural land. With already altered moisture regimes from logging and agricultural clearing, drier forests are more susceptible, leading to broad scale fires that further threaten these important biodiversity hotspots.

If you are of the blinkered type that couldn’t give a rat’s bollocks about the loss of species (I hope not – otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading this), then the human cost should convince you that something drastic needs to be done. These rampant and seemingly unending fire cycles cost billions to some of the world’s poorest nations in terms of material damage. Additionally, the haze associated with fires (remember the 1998 El Niñ0 event that saw 3 million km2 of Southeast Asia covered in haze affecting 70 million people?) is a major health hazard that cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of people.

For my Australian readers, don’t think this is restricted to Southeast Asia – burning is a major biodiversity and human health hazard here as well (see Johnston et al. 2002, 2007, Woinarksi 1999 and Pardon et al. 2003)

Clearly the burning has to stop.

CJA Bradshaw

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Official Environment Institute video

11 06 2009

I’ve written about The University of Adelaide‘s new Environment Institute not too long ago (see post here), and now we’ve had the official launch. The people behind scenes have put together a great introductory video that we all witnessed for the first time last week. Happy to share it with readers here.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

A couple of other excellent parts of this evening include the venerable Robyn Williams‘ speech (listen here), and our Director’s, Professor Mike Young, encouraging kick off (listen here).

I’ve very proud to be a part of this exciting initiative.

CJA Bradshaw

Vortex of travel to RAMAStan

9 06 2009

Just a short post to say that the frequency of posts might decline somewhat over the coming weeks. I’m currently travelling in the US on a mixture of leave and work.

From the work side of things, I’ll be heading shortly to Harvard University in Boston to spend some time with colleague Navjot Sodhi of the National University of Singapore who’s finishing up a year-long Hrdy Fellowship there. We’ll be joined by my close friend and colleague, Barry Brook, and Resit Akçakaya of RAMAS fame. We’ll be working on a few ideas regarding extinction dynamics, modelling and climate change projections for species distributions and risk.

We’ll be heading next to visit Bob Lacy of VORTEX fame at the Chicago Zoological Society. We’ll be joined by Phil Miller of the IUCN‘s Species Survival Commission (SSC) Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, JP Pollak of Cornell University, and maybe Jon Ballou of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. We’re hoping to help take the next generation of species vulnerability software into a more realistic framework that accounts for the complexities of climate change.

I’m looking forward to the trip and meeting new colleagues.

CJA Bradshaw

June Issue of Conservation Letters

6 06 2009

Quick off the mark this month is the new issue of Conservation Letters. There are some exciting new papers (listed below). I encourage readers to have a look:

Policy Perspectives


CJA Bradshaw

Tropical forests worth more standing

4 06 2009
© R. Butler

© R. Butler

Keeping with the oil palm theme…

A paper just published online in Conservation Letters by Venter and colleagues entitled Carbon payments as a safeguard for threatened tropical mammals gets my vote for the Potential list.

We’ve been saying it again and again and again… tropical forests, the biodiversity they harbour and the ecosystem services they provide are worth more to humanity than the potential timber they represent. Now we find they’re even worth more than cash crops (e.g., oil palm) planned to replace them.

A few years ago some very clever economists and environmental policy makers came up with the concept of ‘REDD’ (reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), which is basically as system “… to provide financial incentives for developing countries that voluntarily reduce national deforestation rates and associated carbon emissions below a reference level”. Compensation can occur either via grant funding or through a carbon-trading scheme in international markets.

Now, many cash-greedy corporations argue that REDD could in no way compete with the classic rip-it-down-and-plant-the-shit-out-of-it-with-a-cash-crop approach, but Venter and colleagues now show this argument to be a bit of a furphy.

The authors asses the financial feasibility of REDD in all planned oil palm plantations in Kalimantan – Indonesia’s part of the island of Borneo in South East Asia. Borneo is also the heart of the environmental devastation typical of the tropics. They conclude that REDD is in fact a rather financially competitive scheme if we can manage to obtain carbon prices of around US$10-33/tonne. In fact, even when carbon prices are as low as US$2/tonne (as they are roughly now on the voluntary market), REDD is still competitive for areas of high forest carbon content and lower agricultural potential.

But the main advantage isn’t just the positive cash argument – many endangered mammals (and there are 46 of them in Kalimantan) such as the South East Asian equivalent of the panda (the orang-utan – ‘equivalent’ in the media-hype and political sensitivity sense, not taxonomic, of course) and the Bornean elephant (yes, they have them) are currently found in areas planned for plantation. So saving the forest obviously saves these and countless other taxa that only exist on this highly endemic island. Finally, Venter and colleagues found that where emission reductions were cheapest, these are also areas with higher-than-average densities of endangered mammals, suggesting that REDD is a fantastic option to keep developing countries in the black without compromising their extensive species richness and endemism.

Brilliant. Now if we can just get the economists and pollies to agree on a REDD model that actually works.

CJA Bradshaw

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