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.

As you can probably deduce from that last paragraph, I think the ATBC does some good work, but could do a lot more. In fact, I even proposed to Bill Laurance (former head of the ATBC and now senator-for-life on the board) that perhaps the ATBC and the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) should merge, or at least become sister societies. He thought it was a good idea, but didn’t think it would happen just yet. I’m planting the seed though on CB as well.

On the whole there was an encouraging emphasis on conservation, which from what I’ve heard around the traps is a fairly new development in the ATBC. Clearly conservation is taking over from ‘pure’ ecology in the tropical field, mainly because it’s such an important and rapidly expanding issue.

Back to the conference itself. The talks that I saw were pretty good on average (but with your typical amount of bad speaking, crap [or no] data/analysis and irrelevancy), but as with so many large conferences, too many concurrent sessions means you end up missing most of the talks. The plenaries were also fairly mundane – we as a group of scientists really need to lift our speaking skills to a minimum level, especially if we’re invited to give a plenary! Of the talks I did see, the following stood out:

  • Stuart Pimm gave a good presentation (as usual) on the laws of biodiversity and biogeography, with their implications for understanding tropical biodiversity patterns
  • Trish Shanley gave a poignant piece on the (ir)relevancy of most conservation research
  • Bill Laurance gave a sobering account of the escalating logging occurring in Papua New Guinea. Some of the statistics he cited include: (i) 25 % of forests lost in Papua New Guinea from 1972-2005, (i) 80% of forests destroyed from logging in Papua New Guinea predicted to occur by 2020-2030, (iii) last month, Papua New Guinea government stripped traditional communities of right to sue over environmental degradation, (iv) still no ban on roundlog exports in Papua New Guinea, but … (v) illegal timber trade appears to have declined by ~ 20 % since 2002, (vi) Papua New Guinea is emerging as international leader promoting carbon trading for forest preservation
  • Richard Corlett talked about long-term trends in mammal and bird range declines in Asia
  • Dan Nepstad gave a fascinating talk about carbon trading under REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). Some highlights of which include (i) we need annual reduction of 10 billion tonnes CO2eq arising from land-use change by 2020, (ii) for REDD to work, we need functional government institutes, organised civil society, slow planning processes with meaningful stakeholder participation, (iii) Brazil has already surpassed its deforestation reduction targets for the Amazon (mainly from drop in beef and soy market), (iv) 53 % of Amazonian forest is under some sort of protection, (v) Brazilian amazon worth US$60 trillion under carbon emission reduction schemes
  • Reuben Clements gave a really great (and funny) talk about ‘killer roads’ in South East Asia
  • Hugh Possingham gave some insights into planning for the future, and suggested that perhaps we can design protected areas in the tropics without collecting any biological data at all (i.e., only inferring biodiversity patterns from physical attributes)

As for the venue, it might sound somewhat attractive to have a conference in a ‘5-star’ hotel in Bali (if that was 5-star, I’m a primate’s father’s brother), but it was a little strange. Couple that with badly air-conditioned rooms, a poor sound system and a strange room layout, it was not the best way to get the talks across. One rather interesting thing was that the Vice President of Indonesia popped by with his huge military and police entourage to open the conference (on Day 3, mind). Quite the display of pomp and circumstance, but at least the top brass of Indonesia appears to be paying attention to us.

Overall an enjoyable conference: 7/10.

CJA Bradshaw

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