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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5 responses

6 07 2009
Neil Ellis

This is great, thank you for bringing it to the fore. I noticed back during my student days that whenever I tried to research the ecology or natural history of almost any animal, scientific papers and research never held the answer. Yes I could discover the enzyme reactions in a Geocarcinidae species of crab or how long a periopthalmus mudskipper could survive out of water, but no where is there information useful for the conservation of the animals, how does a mudskipper reproduce? What do the fry eat? Who are their predators? And the crabs how long do they live? How old are they when they move inshore? All these questions are simple yet incredibly important when it comes to preserving and conserving species and habitats. Yet the funding and research is not there unless your want to know about genetics or biochemistry which in my view is far less relevant than making sure food webs and ecosystems are protected and thrive thanks to knowledge of the animals life cycle and basic ecology! Something really has to change in the scientific community so that we can go back to the real biology of ecosystems and learn about the lives of animals and ecosystems all around us. As it is a sorry state of affairs when more can be learnt about the ecology of an animal, from a good tv documentary than the scientific literature. It is only when understand the communtity and ecosystem we are trying to conserve that we can conserve it!

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6 07 2009
CJAB

Thanks, Neil. Very apt comment. However, I’d argue that we know enough now even in community and ecosystem ecology already to be able to inform policy to prevent ecosystem collapse. It’s just that the political will isn’t there. That said, we need to be a little bit more strategic about the research we do, and try to convince people that human medical research is only one small aspect of human ‘health’.

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6 07 2009
Marty Deveney

This is genius. A new science is born. I plan to immediately apply for funds to investigate the preferences of fish for military ordinance (do carp prefer Armalite or Kalashnikoff assault rifles?) and those of butterflies for sunglasses (does the wanderer prefer Ray-Ban Wayfarers or Aviators?).

There is far too much work to do here, we must fortify ourselves and prepare for an onslaught of behavioural preferential analysis.

Marty

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6 07 2009
CJAB

Classic, Marty. You take Aussie sarcasm to a new level.

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30 06 2009
Geoff Russell

Have you seen a book called “The square metre garden”? All the stuff you can get from 1 square metre during the course of a year. Think about it. Tomatoes, a melon, lots of bok choi, snow peas, etc. But if you aren’t vegan, what can you get from 1 square metre in a year? Most grains are good for about 2 tonne per hectare in a good year (1 tonne in a bad year … on average), rice is good for about 10 … but sticking to wheat/barley/etc this is about 200gms of grain during a good year. A battery chook turns about 165 gms of grain + added vitamins, minerals and protein into an egg. That’s about as efficient as it gets for animal food. So the choice is simple … all manner of wonderful food during the year or an egg, one solitary egg.

Now what does this tell us about the cause of habitat destruction?

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