Bring it back

13 02 2018

Protea compacta in fynbos, a form of shrubland at Soetanysberg, South Africa. Photo: Brian van Wilgen

Restoration of lost habitats and ecosystems hits all the right notes — conservation optimism, a can-do attitude, and the excitement of seeing biologically impoverished areas teem with life once more.

The Strategic Plan of the Convention on Biological Diversity includes a target to restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems. This is being enthusiastically taken up in many places, including through initiatives such as the Bonn Challenge, a global aspiration to restore 350 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2030. This is in recognition of the importance of healthy ecosystems in not just conserving biodiversity, but also in combating climate change. Peatlands and forests lock away carbon, while grassland diversity stabilises ecosystem productivity during extreme weather events. So how can we make sure that these restoration efforts are as effective as possible? Read the rest of this entry »


24 02 2016

frogWhile I’ve blogged about this before in general terms (here and here), I thought it wise to reproduce the (open-access) chapter of the same name published in late 2013 in the unfortunately rather obscure book The Curious Country produced by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia. I think it deserves a little more limelight.

As I stepped off the helicopter’s pontoon and into the swamp’s chest-deep, tepid and opaque water, I experienced for the first time what it must feel like to be some other life form’s dinner. As the helicopter flittered away, the last vestiges of that protective blanket of human technological innovation flew away with it.

Two other similarly susceptible, hairless, clawless and fangless Homo sapiens and I were now in the middle of one of the Northern Territory’s largest swamps at the height of the crocodile-nesting season. We were there to collect crocodile eggs for a local crocodile farm that, ironically, has assisted the amazing recovery of the species since its near-extinction in the 1960s. Removing the commercial incentive to hunt wild crocodiles by flooding the international market with scar-free, farmed skins gave the dwindling population a chance to recover.

redwoodConservation scientists like me rejoice at these rare recoveries, while many of our fellow humans ponder why we want to encourage the proliferation of animals that can easily kill and eat us. The problem is, once people put a value on a species, it is usually consigned to one of two states. It either flourishes as do domestic crops, dogs, cats and livestock, or dwindles towards or to extinction. Consider bison, passenger pigeons, crocodiles and caviar sturgeon.

As a conservation scientist, it’s my job not only to document these declines, but to find ways to prevent them. Through careful measurement and experiments, we provide evidence to support smart policy decisions on land and in the sea. We advise on the best way to protect species in reserves, inform hunters and fishers on how to avoid over-harvesting, and demonstrate the ways in which humans benefit from maintaining healthy ecosystems. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting your conservation science to the right people

22 01 2016

argument-cartoon-yellingA perennial lament of nearly every conservation scientist — at least at some point (often later in one’s career) — is that the years of blood, sweat and tears spent to obtain those precious results count for nought in terms of improving real biodiversity conservation.

Conservation scientists often claim, especially in the first and last paragraphs of their papers and research proposals, that by collecting such-and-such data and doing such-and-such analyses they will transform how we manage landscapes and species to the overall betterment of biodiversity. Unfortunately, most of these claims are hollow (or just plain bullshit) because the results are either: (i) never read by people who actually make conservation decisions, (ii) not understood by them even if they read the work, or (iii) never implemented because they are too vague or too unrealistic to translate into a tangible, positive shift in policy.

A depressing state of being, I know.

This isn’t any sort of novel revelation, for we’ve been discussing the divide between policy makers and scientists for donkey’s years. Regardless, the whinges can be summarised succinctly: Read the rest of this entry »

It’s all about the variation, stupid

12 01 2015

val-1-3It is one of my long-suffering ecological quests to demonstrate to the buffoons in government and industry that you can’t simply offset deforestation by planting another forest elsewhere. While it sounds attractive, like carbon offsetting or even water neutrality, you can’t recreate a perfectly functioning, resilient native forest no matter how hard you try.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we shouldn’t reforest much of what we’ve already cut down over the last few centuries; reforestation is an essential element of any semblance of meaningful terrestrial ecological restoration. Indeed, without a major commitment to reforestation worldwide, the extinction crisis will continue to spiral out of control.

What I am concerned about, however, is that administrators continue to push for so-called ‘biodiversity offsets’ – clearing a forest patch here for some such development, while reforesting or even afforesting another degraded patch there. However, I’ve blogged before about studies, including some of my own, showing that one simply cannot replace primary forests in terms of biodiversity and long-term carbon storage. Now we can add resilience to that list.

While I came across this paper a while ago, I’ve only found the time to blog about it now. Published in PLoS One in early December, the paper Does forest continuity enhance the resilience of trees to environmental change?1 by von Oheimb and colleagues shows clearly that German oak forests that had been untouched for over 100 years were more resilient to climate variation than forests planted since that time. I’ll let that little fact sink in for a moment … Read the rest of this entry »

Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. Read the rest of this entry »

Terrestrial biodiversity’s only chance is avoided deforestation

24 01 2014

farming forestsToday I was shocked, stunned and pleasantly (for a change) surprised. Australia has its first ‘avoided deforestation’ carbon farming project.

It is understandable that this sort of news doesn’t make the Jane & Joe Bloggs of the world stand up and cheer, but it should make conservation biologists jump for bloody joy.

So why exactly am I so excited about the setting aside of a mere 9000 ha (90 km2, or 10 × 9 km) of semi-arid scrub in western New South Wales? It’s simple – nothing can replace the biodiversity or carbon value of primary forest. In other words, forest restoration – while laudable and needed – can never achieve what existing forest already does. We know now from various parts of the world that biodiversity is nearly always much higher in primary forest, and that the carbon structure of the forest (especially below-ground carbon) can take centuries to recover.

Another problem with restoration – and if you’ve ever been involved in any tree planting yourself, you’ll know what I mean – is that it’s incredibly expensive, time-consuming and slow. Wouldn’t it make more financial sense just to save forests instead of trying to rebuild them?

Of course it is, so the logical conclusion from a conservation perspective is to save primary forest first, then worry about restoration next. The problem is, there are few, if any, financial incentives for keeping forests standing in the private sector. The stumbling rise of the carbon economy is a potential resolution to this problem, although neither the Kyoto Protocol nor most national carbon-trading schemes adequately account for the carbon value of existing forests.

Up until today, even Australia didn’t have any examples.

Read the rest of this entry »

A carbon economy can help save our species too

20 05 2013

money treeWe sent out this media release the other day, but it had pretty poor pick-up (are people sick of the carbon price wars?). Anyway, I thought it prudent to reprint here on

Will Australia’s biodiversity benefit from the new carbon economy designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Or will bio-‘perversities’ win the day?

“Cautious optimism” was the conclusion of Professor Corey Bradshaw, Director of Ecological Modelling at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute. He is lead author of a new paper published in the journal of Biological Conservation which reviewed the likely consequences of a carbon economy on conservation of Australian biodiversity.

“In most circumstances these two very important goals for Australia’s future – greenhouse gas emissions reduction and biodiversity conservation – are not mutually exclusive and could even boost each other,” Professor Bradshaw says.

“There are, however, many potential negative biodiversity outcomes if land management is not done with biodiversity in mind from the outset.”

The paper was contributed to by 30 Australian scientists from different backgrounds. They reviewed six areas where Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative could have the greatest impact on biodiversity: environmental plantings; policies and practices to deal with native regrowth; fire management; agricultural practices; and feral animal control.

“The largest biodiversity ‘bang for our buck’ is likely to come from tree plantings,” says Professor Bradshaw. “But there are some potential and frightening ‘bioperversities’ as well. For example, we need to be careful not to plant just the fastest-growing, simplest and non-native species only to ‘farm’ carbon.

“Carbon plantings will only have real biodiversity value if they comprise appropriate native tree species and provide suitable habitats and resources for valued fauna. Such plantings could however risk severely altering local hydrology and reducing water availability.”

Professor Bradshaw says carefully managing regrowth of once-cleared areas could also produce a large carbon-sequestration and biodiversity benefit simultaneously. And carbon price-based modifications to agriculture that would benefit biodiversity included reductions in tillage frequency, livestock densities and fertiliser use, and retention and regeneration of native shrubs. Read the rest of this entry »