Inexorable rise of human population pressures in Africa

31 08 2016
© Nick Brandt

© Nick Brandt

I’ve been a bit mad preparing for an upcoming conference, so I haven’t had a lot of time lately to blog about interesting developments in the conservation world. However, it struck me today that my preparations provide ideal material for a post about the future of Africa’s biodiversity.

I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to the University of Pretoria Mammal Research Unit‘s 50th Anniversary Celebration conference to be held from 12-16 September this year in Kruger National Park. Not only will this be my first time to Africa (I know — it has taken me far too long), the conference will itself be in one of the world’s best-known protected areas.

While decidedly fortunate to be invited, I am a bit intimidated by the line-up of big brains that will be attending, and of the fact that I know next to bugger all about African mammals (in a conservation science sense, of course). Still, apparently my insight as an outsider and ‘global’ thinker might be useful, so I’ve been hard at it the last few weeks planning my talk and doing some rather interesting analyses. I want to share some of these with you now beforehand, although I won’t likely give away the big prize until after I return to Australia.

I’ve been asked to talk about human population pressures on (southern) African mammal species, which might seem simple enough until you start to delve into the complexities of just how human populations affect wildlife. It’s simply from the perspective that human changes to the environment (e.g., deforestation, agricultural expansion, hunting, climate change, etc.) do cause species to dwindle and become extinct faster than they otherwise would (hence the entire field of conservation science). However, it’s another thing entirely to attempt to predict what might happen decades or centuries down the track. Read the rest of this entry »

Sensitive numbers

22 03 2016

A sensitive parameter

You couldn’t really do ecology if you didn’t know how to construct even the most basic mathematical model — even a simple regression is a model (the non-random relationship of some variable to another). The good thing about even these simple models is that it is fairly straightforward to interpret the ‘strength’ of the relationship, in other words, how much variation in one thing can be explained by variation in another. Provided the relationship is real (not random), and provided there is at least some indirect causation implied (i.e., it is not just a spurious coincidence), then there are many simple statistics that quantify this strength — in the case of our simple regression, the coefficient of determination (R2) statistic is a usually a good approximation of this.

In the case of more complex multivariate correlation models, then sometimes the coefficient of determination is insufficient, in which case you might need to rely on statistics such as the proportion of deviance explained, or the marginal and/or conditional variance explained.

When you go beyond this correlative model approach and start constructing more mechanistic models that emulate ecological phenomena from the bottom-up, things get a little more complicated when it comes to quantifying the strength of relationships. Perhaps the most well-known category of such mechanistic models is the humble population viability analysis, abbreviated to PVA§.

Let’s take the simple case of a four-parameter population model we could use to project population size over the next 10 years for an endangered species that we’re introducing to a new habitat. We’ll assume that we have the following information: the size of the founding (introduced) population (n), the juvenile survival rate (Sj, proportion juveniles surviving from birth to the first year), the adult survival rate (Sa, the annual rate of surviving adults to year 1 to maximum longevity), and the fertility rate of mature females (m, number of offspring born per female per reproductive cycle). Each one of these parameters has an associated uncertainty (ε) that combines both measurement error and environmental variation.

If we just took the mean value of each of these three demographic rates (survivals and fertility) and project a founding population of = 10 individuals for 1o years into the future, we would have a single, deterministic estimate of the average outcome of introducing 10 individuals. As we already know, however, the variability, or stochasticity, is more important than the average outcome, because uncertainty in the parameter values (ε) will mean that a non-negligible number of model iterations will result in the extinction of the introduced population. This is something that most conservationists will obviously want to minimise.

So each time we run an iteration of the model, and generally for each breeding interval (most often 1 year at a time), we choose (based on some random-sampling regime) a different value for each parameter. This will give us a distribution of outcomes after the 10-year projection. Let’s say we did 1000 iterations like this; taking the number of times that the population went extinct over these iterations would provide us with an estimate of the population’s extinction probability over that interval. Of course, we would probably also vary the size of the founding population (say, between 10 and 100), to see at what point the extinction probability became acceptably low for managers (i.e., as close to zero as possible), but not unacceptably high that it would be too laborious or expensive to introduce that many individuals. Read the rest of this entry »

Avoiding genetic rescue not justified on genetic grounds

12 03 2015
Genetics to the rescue!

Genetics to the rescue!

I had the pleasure today of reading a new paper by one of the greatest living conservation geneticists, Dick Frankham. As some of CB readers might remember, I’ve also published some papers with Dick over the last few years, with the most recent challenging the very basis for the IUCN Red List category thresholds (i.e., in general, they’re too small).

Dick’s latest paper in Molecular Ecology is a meta-analysis designed to test whether there are any genetic grounds for NOT attempting genetic rescue for inbreeding-depressed populations. I suppose a few definitions are in order here. Genetic rescue is the process, either natural or facilitated, where inbred populations (i.e., in a conservation sense, those comprising too many individuals bonking their close relatives because the population in question is small) receive genes from another population such that their overall genetic diversity increases. In the context of conservation genetics, ‘inbreeding depression‘ simply means reduced biological fitness (fertility, survival, longevity, etc.) resulting from parents being too closely related.

Seems like an important thing to avoid, so why not attempt to facilitate gene flow among populations such that those with inbreeding depression can be ‘rescued’? In applied conservation, there are many reasons given for not attempting genetic rescue: Read the rest of this entry »

Human population size: speeding cars can’t stop quickly

28 10 2014

Stop breeding cartoon-Steve Bell 1994Here at, I write about pretty much anything that has anything remotely to do with biodiversity’s prospects. Whether it is something to do with ancient processes, community dynamics or the wider effects of human endeavour, anything is fair game. It’s a little strange then that despite cutting my teeth in population biology, I have never before tackled human demography. Well as of today, I have.

The press embargo has just lifted on our (Barry Brook and my) new paper in PNAS where we examine various future scenarios of the human population trajectory over the coming century. Why is this important? Simple – I’ve argued before that we could essentially stop all conservation research tomorrow and still know enough to deal with most biodiversity problems. If we could only get a handle on the socio-economic components of the threats, then we might be able to make some real progress. In other words, we need to find out how to manage humans much more than we need to know about the particulars of subtle and complex ecological processes to do the most benefit for biodiversity. Ecologists tend to navel-gaze in this arena far too much.

So I called my own bluff and turned my attention to humans. Our question was simple – how quickly could the human population be reduced to a more ‘sustainable’ size (i.e., something substantially smaller than now)? The main reason we posed that simple, yet deceptively loaded question was that both of us have at various times been faced with the question by someone in the audience that we were “ignoring the elephant in the room” of human over-population.

Read the rest of this entry »

Western Australia’s moronic shark cull

4 07 2014

another stupid politicianA major media release today coordinated by Jessica Meeuwig in Western Australia makes the (obvious) point that there’s no biological justification to cull sharks.

301 Australian and International Scientists experts have today provided their submission to the Western Australia Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), rejecting the scientific grounds for the proposed three-year drum-line programme.

Coordinating scientist, Professor Jessica Meeuwig from the University of Western Australia said:

“To have over 300 researchers, including some of the world’s top shark specialists and marine ecologists, all strongly agreeing that there is no scientific basis for the lethal drum-line programme, tells you how unjustified the government’s proposal is. If the EPA and the Federal Minister for the Environment are using science for decisions, the drum-line proposal should not be approved.”

The experts agree that the proposal presents no evidence that the lethal drum-line programme, as implemented, will improve ocean safety. It ignores evidence from other hook-based programs in Hawaii and Queensland that have been shown to be ineffective in reducing shark attacks on humans.

Dr. Christopher Neff from the University of Sydney stated:

“There is no evidence that drum lines reduce shark bites. The Western Australia EPA now faces a question of science versus politics with global implications because it is considering establishing a new international norm that would allow for the killing of protected white sharks.”

The drum lines are ineffective and indiscriminate, with 78% of the sharks captured not considered ‘threatening’ to humans. Yet, scientifically supported, non-lethal alternatives such as the South African ‘Shark Spotter’ and Brazil’s ‘Tag and Remove’ programmes are not adequately assessed as viable options for Western Australia. Read the rest of this entry »

Ecological processes depend on …

14 05 2014
© Cagan Sekercioglu

© Cagan Sekercioglu

I have been known to say (ok – I say it all the time) that ecologists should never equivocate when speaking to the public. Whether it’s in a media release, blog post, television presentation or newspaper article, just stick to ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In other words, don’t qualify your answer with some horrid statistical statement (i.e., in 95% of cases …) or say something like “… but it really depends on …”. People don’t understand uncertainty – to most people, ‘uncertainty’ means “I don’t know” or worse, “I made it all up”.

But that’s only in the movies.

In real ‘ecological’ life, things are vastly different. It’s never as straightforward as ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because ecology is complex. There are times that I forget this important aspect when testing a new hypothesis with what seem like unequivocal data, but then reality always hits.

Our latest paper is the epitome of this emergent complexity from what started out as a fairly simple question using some amazing data. What makes birds change their range1? We looked at this question from a slightly different angle than had been done before because we had access to climate data, life-history data and most importantly, actual range change data. It’s that latter titbit that is typically missing from studies aiming to understand what drives species toward a particular fate; whether it’s a species distribution model predicting the future habitat suitability of some species as a function of climate change, or the past dynamics of some species related to its life history pace, most often the combined dynamics are missing. Read the rest of this entry »

We’re sorry, but 50/500 is still too few

28 01 2014

too fewSome of you who are familiar with my colleagues’ and my work will know that we have been investigating the minimum viable population size concept for years (see references at the end of this post). Little did I know when I started this line of scientific inquiry that it would end up creating more than a few adversaries.

It might be a philosophical perspective that people adopt when refusing to believe that there is any such thing as a ‘minimum’ number of individuals in a population required to guarantee a high (i.e., almost assured) probability of persistence. I’m not sure. For whatever reason though, there have been some fierce opponents to the concept, or any application of it.

Yet a sizeable chunk of quantitative conservation ecology develops – in various forms – population viability analyses to estimate the probability that a population (or entire species) will go extinct. When the probability is unacceptably high, then various management approaches can be employed (and modelled) to improve the population’s fate. The flip side of such an analysis is, of course, seeing at what population size the probability of extinction becomes negligible.

‘Negligible’ is a subjective term in itself, just like the word ‘very‘ can mean different things to different people. This is why we looked into standardising the criteria for ‘negligible’ for minimum viable population sizes, almost exactly what the near universally accepted IUCN Red List attempts to do with its various (categorical) extinction risk categories.

But most reasonable people are likely to agree that < 1 % chance of going extinct over many generations (40, in the case of our suggestion) is an acceptable target. I’d feel pretty safe personally if my own family’s probability of surviving was > 99 % over the next 40 generations.

Some people, however, baulk at the notion of making generalisations in ecology (funny – I was always under the impression that was exactly what we were supposed to be doing as scientists – finding how things worked in most situations, such that the mechanisms become clearer and clearer – call me a dreamer).

So when we were attacked in several high-profile journals, it came as something of a surprise. The latest lashing came in the form of a Trends in Ecology and Evolution article. We wrote a (necessarily short) response to that article, identifying its inaccuracies and contradictions, but we were unable to expand completely on the inadequacies of that article. However, I’m happy to say that now we have, and we have expanded our commentary on that paper into a broader review. Read the rest of this entry »