Tropical Turmoil II

8 03 2009

In August last year I covered a paper my colleagues (Navjot Sodhi and Barry Brook) and I had in press in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment entitled Tropical turmoil – a biodiversity tragedy in progress. The paper is now available in the March 2009 issue of the journal (click here to access). We were also fortunate enough to grab the front cover (shown here) and have a dedicated podcast that you can listen to by clicking here about the paper and its findings. I encourage readers to have a listen if they’re interested in learning more about the woeful state of tropical biotas worldwide, and maybe some ways to rectify the problems. The intro to the podcast can be viewed by clicking here.

CJA Bradshaw

Rare just tastes better

11 02 2009

I had written this a while ago for publication, but my timing was out and no one had room to publish it. So, I’m reproducing it here as an extension to a previous post (That looks rare – I’ll kill that one).

As the international market for luxury goods expands in value, extent and diversity of items (Nueno & Quelch 1998), the world’s burgeoning pool of already threatened species stands to worsen. Economic theory predicts that harvested species should eventually find refuge from over-exploitation because it simply becomes too costly to find the last remaining wild individuals (Koford & Tschoegl 1998). However, the self-reinforcing cycle of human greed (Brook & Sodhi 2006) can make rare species increasingly valuable to a few select consumers such that mounting financial incentives drive species to extinction (Courchamp et al. 2006). The economic and ecological arguments are compelling, but to date there has been little emphasis on how the phenomenon arises in the human thought process, nor how apparently irrational behaviour can persist. Gault and colleagues (2008) have addressed this gap in a paper published recently in Conservation Letters by examining consumer preferences for arguably one of the most stereotypical luxury food items, caviar from the 200-million-year-old sturgeon (Acipenser spp.).

Sturgeon (6 genera) populations worldwide are in trouble, with all but two of the 27 known species threatened with extinction (either Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered) according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Despite all 27 species also having strict international trade restrictions imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (Gault et al. 2008), intense commercial pressure persists for 15 of these at an estimated global value exceeding US$200 million annually (Pikitch et al. 2005). The very existence of the industry itself and the luxury good it produces are therefore, at least for some regions, unlikely to endure over the next decade (Pala 2007). What drives such irrational behaviour and why can we not seem to prevent such coveted species from spiralling down the extinction vortex?

Gault and colleagues addressed this question specifically in an elegantly simple set of preference experiments targeting the very end-consumers of the caviar production line – French connoisseurs. Some particularly remarkable results were derived from presentations of identical caviar; 86 % of attendees of luxury receptions not only preferred falsely labelled ‘rarer’ Siberian caviar (A. baeri) after blind tasting experiments, they also scored what they believed was caviar from the rarer species as having a higher ‘gustative quality’. These high-brow results were compared to more modest consumers in French supermarkets, with similar conclusions. Not only were unsuspecting gourmands fooled into believing the experimental propaganda, subjects in both cases stated a preference for seemingly rarer caviar even prior to tasting.

The psycho-sociological implications of perceived rarity are disturbing themselves; but Gault and colleagues extended their results with a mathematical game theory model demonstrating how irrational choices drive just such a harvested species to extinction. The economic implications of attempting to curb exploitation as species become rarer when the irrationality of perceived rarity was taken into consideration were telling – there is no payoff in delaying exploitation as more and more consumers are capable of entering the market. In other words, the assumption that consumers apply a positive temporal discount rate to their payoff (Olson & Bailey 1981) is wrong, with the demographic corollary that total depletion of the resource ensues. The authors contend that such artificial value may drive the entire luxury goods market based mainly on the self-consciousness and social status of consumers able to afford these symbols of affluence.

The poor record of species over-exploitation by humans arising from the Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968) is compounded by this new information. This anthropogenic Allee effect (Courchamp et al. 2006) provides a novel example mechanism for how small populations are driven ever-downward because low densities ensure declining fitness. Many species may follow the same general rules, from bluefin tuna, Napoleon wrasse lips and shark fins, to reptile skins and Tibetan antelope woollen shawls. Gault and colleagues warn that as the human population continues to expand and more people enter the luxury-goods market, more wildlife species will succumb to this Allee effect-driven extinction vortex.

The authors suggest that a combination of consumer education and the encouragement of farmed substitute caviar will be more effective than potentially counter-productive trading bans that ultimately encourage illegal trade. However, the preference results suggest that education might not promote positive action given that reluctance of affluent consumers to self-limit. I believe that the way forward instead requires a combination of international trade bans, certification schemes for ‘sustainable’ goods that flood markets to increase supply and reduce price, better controls on point-of-origin labelling, and even state-controlled ‘warning’ systems to alert prospective consumers that they are enhancing the extinction risk of the very products they enjoy. A better architecture for trading schemes and market systems that embrace long-term persistence can surely counteract the irrationality of the human-induced destruction of global ecosystem services. We just need to put our minds and pocketbooks to the task.

CJA Bradshaw

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Even Obama eats frog legs

3 02 2009

As the seemingly never-ending media blitz covering our paper describing the massive world trade in frog legs continues, I came across a very poignant example of how ubiquitous the trade in frog legs for human consumption really is.

Even one of the most powerful men in the world eats them. Need we say more?

© S. Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

© S. Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Actually, I will say three more things: (1) We need a lot more investment in research to quantify the effects of this trade on threatened frog populations, (2) I wonder if Mr. Obama, his chef, or the restaurant owner had any idea what species or what country the frog in question came from?, and (3) if you still think cooked frog legs is a minor epicurean oddity enjoyed only by slightly eccentric French gourmets, think again.

CJA Bradshaw

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss II: frog legs

1 02 2009

I couldn’t resist this. Given the enormous response to our soon-to-be-published paper in Conservation Biology entitled Eating frogs to extinction by Warkentin, Bickford, Sodhi & Bradshaw (view post How many frogs do we eat?), I just had to put these up. Enjoy this subclass of biodiversity loss cartoons for what they are worth.

CJA Bradshaw

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Throw another roo on the barbie

21 11 2008

Following a previous post on extolling the environmental virtues of eating more kangaroo and less beef (Beef is Bad; Skippy is Better), here’s an article from the Melbourne Age by David Sutherland (reproduced below):

LAST week only one of my five local butchers could sell me kangaroo. And that was frozen, not fresh. One said he occasionally got it in if people requested it. Another directed me to a butcher several suburbs away. Another said he didn’t sell roo because they moved too fast and he couldn’t catch them.

The only roo meat I could buy fresh within five kilometres of home was at a Coles supermarket. Supplied by South Australian game meat wholesaler Macro Meats, it was packed like any other supermarket meat. The difference was the spiel written on the back of the container.

It detailed the health and environmental advantages of eating kangaroo meat, including the fact that kangaroos produce lower levels of greenhouse gases than cattle and sheep.

In Professor Ross Garnaut’s final report on tackling climate change, he said that the carbon benefits of eating kangaroo meat could be one of Australia’s great contributions to the global problem.

But it would seem that producers believe consumers are reluctant to eat kangaroo and need to be convinced otherwise. Could it be the “skippy syndrome” – a dread of munching on a national emblem? Or a lasting stigma from the days when roo was considered dirty and only fit for pet food? Regardless, there’s no doubt kangaroo as a food continues to battle an image problem in some quarters.

Interesting then that, according to recent government figures, roo meat is experiencing steady growth. A national report, Consumer Attitudes to Kangaroo Meat Products by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, released in February, found that 58.5% of respondents had tried kangaroo meat and that men were more likely to consume it than women. Sales of roo meat through Coles have increased by 9% over the past financial year.

It’s largely home cooks who are driving the boom.

Paula Mauriks runs Auscroc, a game meat wholesaler based in Melbourne. When she started the business 10 years ago, kangaroo made up a tiny proportion of her business. But five years later it started to take off, and in the past 18 months Mauriks says sales have tripled, mainly due to roo’s popularity in home kitchens.

“We used to sell more to restaurants, but now wholesale has taken over as the biggest market,” she says. “New butchers, chicken shops and other specialist meat retailers are coming to us all the time looking to source kangaroo meat.”

Mauriks believes people’s increased willingness to try new foods has contributed to improved sales for kangaroo meat products.

“Most people know by now that kangaroo is low in fat and high in iron, and quite a few of those are willing to see if they like the taste,” she says. “Then it becomes a matter of educating people how best to cook it so they enjoy it and come back for more.”

Kangaroo Cookin’ (Wakefield Press), a cookbook comprised solely of recipes using kangaroo meat, was the first kangaroo cookbook. From soups and pastas to char grills, stir-fries and one-pot dishes, the 88 recipes in this deliberately down-to-earth book illustrate the versatility of this often-underrated meat.

Gary Hunt and his wife Janine have been selling kangaroo meat from the Chicken Pantry at Queen Victoria Market for almost 12 years. Their pepper-marinated kangaroo has always been the strongest seller in their roo range, but in the past couple of years other products and cuts have started to take off.

“We’ve noticed lots of people buying kangaroo who are advised by their doctors to lower their fat intake or increase their levels of iron,” says Hunt. “Many more women are buying it these days.”

Mornington Peninsula butcher Greg Goss, from Greg’s Family Gourmet Butchers, has been selling meat for more than 40 years and has noticed the recent interest in kangaroo meat.

“Two years ago we did well to sell 5 kilos in a month,” he says. “Now we’re probably selling 100 kilos in that same time.”

Goss sees sales of roo meat increase in spring, summer and autumn, and spike as fine weekends loom, which he puts down to the lure of outdoor cooking.

“Kangaroo comes up beautifully on the barbie,” he says, “seared on the outside and pink on the inside.”

Here’s hoping some of my local butchers read the market too, and order in some fresh for this weekend.

Primate conservation enhances human food availability

19 09 2008

This one from – yet another reason to conserve species for human benefit…

© F. Möllers

© F. Möllers

Primate conservation may have the unintended benefit of enhancing food availability to humans, reports a study [Koné et al. 2008. Primate seed dispersal and its potential role in maintaining useful tree species in the Taï region, Côte-d’Ivoire: implications for the conservation of forest fragments. Tropical Conservation Science 1:293-306] led by African scientists.

The research, conducted in the Taï region of Côte-d’Ivoire, found that seven species of monkeys used about 75 species of plants as a source of fruit, of which 25 were also used by local human inhabitants for various purposes. Because monkeys are key seed dispersal agents, the results suggest that primate conservation may sustain the persistence of plant resources important for human livelihoods.

“The cost of losing monkeys extends beyond the loss of the animals themselves,” write the authors. “Indeed, the local extinction of frugivorous primates is predicted to have deleterious consequences for forest regeneration and/or tree species community composition.”

The authors, led by Inza Koné from the University of Cocody in Abidjan and the Taï Monkey Project, note that monkeys in the region are already experiencing “extreme hunting pressure” as a source of protein and as crop pests. Primates are also threatened by habitat loss caused by the conversion of forest for agriculture.

Koné and colleagues suggest measures to conserve monkeys will offer multiple benefits to the primates themselves as well as local communities.

“Results of this study suggest that maintaining populations of monkeys is important not only for forest regeneration, but also for human habitat use,” they continue. “The conservation of primate species is a critically important goal in itself; by working to ensure their protection in forest fragments, we protect indirectly the seed dispersal of important human resources in these fragments as well.”

“Protection of monkeys and seed dispersal systems outside protected areas is particularly relevant in this context, since it is in these areas… that primates are most at risk, and also where people are allowed to exploit forest plant resources.”

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 »

Tropical turmoil – a biodiversity tragedy in progress

18 08 2008

fragmentationWe recently published (online) a major review showing that the world is losing the battle over tropical habitat loss with potentially disastrous implications for biodiversity and human well-being.

Published online in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, our review Tropical turmoil – a biodiversity crisis in progress concludes that we are “on a trajectory towards disaster” and calls for an immediate global, multi-pronged conservation approach to avert the worst outcomes.

Tropical forests support more than 60 % of all known species, but represent only about 7 % of the Earth’s land surface. But up to 15 million hectares of tropical rainforest are being lost every year and species are being lost at a rate of up to 10000 times higher than would happen randomly without humans present.

This is not just a tragedy for tropical biodiversity, this is a crisis that will directly affect human livelihoods. This is not just about losing tiny species found in the canopies of big rain forest trees few people will ever see, this is about a complete change in ecosystem services that directly benefit human life. Read the rest of this entry »

Saving species does not harm poor

17 08 2008

Poor-Amongst-YouHere’s a great one for the Potential list:

A paper just published online in the journal Oryx by Kent Redford and colleagues entitled What is the role for conservation organizations in poverty alleviation in the world’s wild places? challenges one argument used by anti-conservation humanists to avoid preserving intact habitats.

When rainforests and other high conservation-value habitats are set aside for protection, humanists will often complain that it destroys the livelihoods of the people living there because the listing prevents them from farming, hunting or otherwise providing themselves with income. Not so say Redford and colleagues – they found that most of the world’s poor (measured by proxy using infant mortality rates) were predominately associated with high-density urban areas and not with more intact wild areas.

Critics of the finding argue that this should not take the onus away from richer nations or governments to bolster the economic prosperity of these people, and I agree. However, this is a major finding that in some ways validates what we are beginning to understand about habitat intactness and ecosystem services. Destroy the ecosystems around you and you generally have lower water quality, higher incidence of catastrophic events, poor agricultural returns, greater disease prevalence, etc. that will drive people into poverty, rather than drop them further down the economic scale.

If this conclusion stands up to analytical scrutiny and supporting evidence from other analyses, I dearly hope that it is noticed and embraced by governments worldwide struggling to find the balance between economic development, poverty alleviation and conservation of biodiversity to maintain ecosystem services.

CJA Bradshaw

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IUCN Chief Scientist & Asia

15 07 2008

I’m currently attending the Society for Conservation Biology‘s Annual Meeting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA and blogging on presentations I think are worth mentioning.

The first plenary talk was given by the IUCN’s Chief Scientist, Jeffrey McNeely, about the issues surrounding biodiversity conservation in Asia. Dr. McNeely gave an interesting background to the human cultural history and diversity of the region, followed by a brief exposé of the conservation issues there (habitat loss, over-exploitation, invasive species, etc). Overall, however, I was disappointed by his lack of emphasis on the magnitude of the conservation crisis Asia is undergoing. There was no mention of the perverse subsidies buffering unsustainable forestry and fishing, the corruption driving habitat loss and habitat degradation, or the massive problems driven by human over-population.

We recently published (currently online) a paper regarding the conservation crisis facing this (and similar regions) in the tropics Tropical turmoil – a biodiversity crisis in progress (see related post), and several of my colleagues have recently outlined just how badly biodiversity is faring in Asia (e.g., see Brook et al. 2003; Sodhi et al. 2004). While I was happy to see Dr. McNeely mention the need for more research on these issues, his statement that he had “depressed [us] with the problems” was a major understatement. He did not nearly go far enough to ‘depress’ his audience of conservation scientists. We are squarely within a crisis in the region, and if the Chief Scientist of the IUCN who has intimate knowledge of Asia is not singing that song loudly and clearly, I fear it will get far worse before we see any real positive change.

CJA Bradshaw

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