Government pulls plug on Asian honeybee eradication

3 03 2011

Here’s another one from the bee man, Tobias Smith (PhD candidate at the University of Queensland). Tobias recently blogged about bee basics here on ConservationBytes.com (something I highly recommend for anyone interested on brushing up on bee facts and dispelling a few myths), so I asked him to follow up with this very important piece on the future of pollination in Australia. It concerns a nasty little invader recently dubbed the “flying cane toad” (not my analogy).

http://www.flickr.com/photos/angela-and-andrew/1196369580/in/faves-lornet/

© 中國蜂

Over the last few weeks there has been much media attention given to the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) incursion in far north Queensland. The Asian honeybee was first detected near Cairns in May 2007. Since then an effort to eradicate the bee has been made. This peaked during 2010, when over 40 bee eradication personnel were employed to hunt and destroy in areas around Cairns, the Atherton Tablelands, and other nearby locations.

In late January this year, the committee established to manage the eradication program (governments and industry), decided to pull the plug on eradication efforts (on money to pay for efforts that is). They decided it was no longer possible to achieve eradication (a majority decision, not a unanimous decision). The position to stop resources for eradication is not supported by industry, or ecological commentators. Arguments have been made that this is the only window of opportunity for eradication (for ever!), and that more resources need to be put towards it now, while there is still a chance of success.

A few points to be made about the Asian honeybee in Australia: Read the rest of this entry »





More to bees than queens and honey

11 02 2011

Another great guest post, this time from Tobias Smith, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences. Tobias is investigating bee community shifts across a fragmented tropical landscape in far north Queensland, aiming to identify landscape variation in community composition of two important rainforest pollinator groups, bees and flies. I met Tobias a few years ago as part of the Thiaki rainforest reforestation project for which he is doing baseline surveys of bees and flies.

I asked him a while ago to write a ‘primer’ on bees for ConservationBytes.com since so many people really don’t much about the taxon (I include myself in that group). He’s done a brilliant job – everything you wanted to know about bees but were afraid to ask (in 1000 words).

The frequently reported, gloomy news about bee declines is hard not to notice. Bees are in dire trouble around the world, and this trend has worrying implications for both ecosystems and human food production. As a result, popular media often reports on the plight of bees, regularly reciting the figure of one in three mouthfuls of food being dependent on the work of bees. While bees certainly are in major trouble, it can be easy to misinterpret statements often made in these kind of articles without a little general bee knowledge. So here are a few bee facts that, at the very least, we ecological representatives should be familiar with. This information should help give some perspective when interpreting bee news, and when engaging in exciting bee conversations at the shops.

There are approximately 20,000 bees species globally. Yet when most people think of bees they think of a single species, Apis mellifera, the western honey bee (introduced in most of its range, and also referred to as the European honeybee). This bee is certainly an important bee. It is managed as the usual pollinator of crops requiring biotic pollination, and it makes the honey we usually eat here in the developed world. Some say our domestication of this bee has been an important contributing factor in achieving the level of development that we humans have. There are however, about 19,999 other bee species out there, and most of them are very different to the western honeybee. Read the rest of this entry »





Global erosion of ecosystem services

14 09 2010

A few months ago I was asked to give a lecture about erosion of ecosystem services to students in the University of Adelaide‘s Issues in Sustainable Environments unit. I gave that lecture last week and just uploaded a slidecast of the presentation (with audio) today.

I’ve reproduced the lecture here for your viewing pleasure. I hope you find the 45-minute presentation useful. Note that the first few minutes cover me referring to the Biodiversity film short that I posted not too long ago.

CJA Bradshaw





Mega-meta-model manager

24 07 2010

As Barry Brook just mentioned over at BraveNewClimate.com, I’ll be travelling with him and several of our lab to Chicago tomorrow to work on some new aspects of linked climate, disease, meta-population, demographic and vegetation modelling. Barry has this to say, so I won’t bother re-inventing the wheel:

… working for a week with Dr Robert LacyProf Resit Akcakaya and collaborators, on integrating spatial-demographic ecological models with climate change forecasts, and implementing multi-species projections (with the aim of improving estimates of extinction risk and provide better ranking of management and adaptation options). This work builds on a major research theme at the global ecology lab, and consequently, a whole bunch of my team are going with me — Prof Corey Bradshaw (lab co-director), my postdocs Dr Damien FordhamDr Mike Watts and Dr Thomas Prowse and Corey’s and my ex-postdoc, Dr Clive McMahon. This builds on earlier work that Corey and I had been pursuing, which he described on ConservationBytes last year.

The ‘mega-meta-model manager’ part is a clever piece of control-centre software that integrates these disparate ecological, climate and disease dynamic inputs. Should be some good papers coming out of the work soon.

Of course, I’ll continue to blog over the coming week. I’m not looking forward to the 30-hour travel tomorrow to Chicago, but it should be fun and productive once I get there.

CJA Bradshaw

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Global pollinator declines

11 03 2010

Mention anything about ecosystem services – those ecological functions arising from the interactions between species that provide some benefit (source of food/clean water, health, etc.) to humanity1 – and one of the most cited examples is pollination.

It’s really a no-brainer, hence its popularity as an example. Pollinators (mainly insects, but birds, bats and other assorted species too) don’t exist to pollinate plants; rather, their principal source of food acquisition happens to spread around the gametes of the plants they regularly visit. Evolution has favoured the dependence of species in such ways because the mutualism benefits all involved, and in some cases, this dependence has become obligate. So when the habitats that pollinators need to survive are reduced or destroyed, inevitably their population sizes decline and the plants on which they feed lose their main sources of gene-spreading.

So what? Well, about 80 % of all wild plant species require insect pollinators for fruit and seed set, and about 75 % of all human crops require pollination by insects (mostly bees). So it’s pretty frightening to consider that although our global population is at 6.8 billion and growing rapidly, our main food pollinators (bees) are declining globally (see also previous post on bee declines). Indeed, domestic honey bee stocks have declined in the USA by 59 % since 1947 and in Europe by 25 % since 1985. Scared yet?

Another thing people don’t tend to get is that a bee cannot live on rapeseed alone. Most pollinators require intact forests to complete many of their other life history requirements (breeding, shelter, etc.) and merely forage occasionally in crop lands. Cut down all the adjacent bush, and your crops will suffer accordingly.

These, and other titbits to keep you awake at night and worry about what your grandchildren might eat are highlighted in a recent review in Trends in Ecology and Evolution by Potts and colleagues entitled Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers.

What’s driving all this loss? Several things, but it’s mainly due to ‘land-use change’ (a bullshit word people use generally to mean habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation). However, invasive species competition, pathogens and parasites, and climate change (and the synergies amongst all of these) are all contributing.

It always amazes me when people ask me why biodiversity is important. Despite the overwhelming knowledge we’ve accumulated about how functioning ecosystems make the planet liveable, despite it just being plainly stupid to think that humans are somehow removed from normal biological processes, and even with such in-your-face examples of global pollinator declines and the real, extremely worrying implication for food supplies, many people just don’t seem to get it. Every tree you cut down, every molecule of carbon dioxide you release, every drop of water you waste will punish you and your family directly for generations to come. How much more self-evident can you get?

Humanity seems to have a very poorly developed sense of self-preservation.

CJA Bradshaw

1It’s amazingly arrogant and anthropocentric to think of anything in ecosystems as ‘providing benefits to humanity’. After all, we’re just another species in a complex array of species within ecosystems – we just happen to be one of the numerically dominant ones, excel at ecosystem ‘engineering’ and as far as we know, are the only (semi-) sentient of the biologicals. Although the concept of ecosystem services is, I think, an essential abstraction to place emphasis on the importance of biodiversity conservation to the biodiversity ignorant, it does rub me a little the wrong way. It’s almost ascribing some sort of illogical religious perspective that the Earth was placed in its current form for our eventual benefit. We might be a fairly new species in geological time scales, but don’t think of ecosystems as mere provisions for our well-being.

ResearchBlogging.orgPotts, S., Biesmeijer, J., Kremen, C., Neumann, P., Schweiger, O., & Kunin, W. (2010). Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.01.007

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Sick environment, sick people

30 10 2009

sickplanetA quick post to talk about a subject I’m more and more interested in – the direct link between environmental degradation (including biodiversity loss) and human health.

To many conservationists, people are the problem, and so they focus naturally on trying to maintain biodiversity in spite of human development and spread. Well, it’s 60+ years since we’ve been doing ‘conservation biology’ and biodiversity hasn’t been this badly off since the Cretaceous mass extinction event 146-64 million years ago. We now sit squarely within the geological era more and more commonly known as the ‘Anthropocene’, so if we don’t consider people as an integral part of any ecosystem, then we are guaranteed to fail biodiversity.

I haven’t posted in a week because I was in Shanghai attending the rather clumsily entitled “Thematic Reference Group (TRG) on Environment, Agriculture and Infectious Disease’, which is a part of the UNICEF/UNDP/World Bank/World Health Organization Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) (what a mouthful that is). What’s this all about and why is a conservation ecologist (i.e., me) taking part in the group?

It’s taken humanity a while to realise that what we do to the planet, we eventually end up doing to ourselves. The concept of ecosystem services1 demonstrates this rather well – our food, weather, wealth and well-being are all derived from healthy, functioning ecosystems. When we start to bugger up the inter-species relationships that define one element of an ecosystem, then we hurt ourselves. I’ve blogged about this topic a few times before with respect to flooding, pollination, disease emergence and carbon sequestration.

Our specific task though on the TRG is to define the links between environmental degradation, agriculture, poverty and infectious disease in humans. Turns out, there are quite a few examples of how we’re rapidly making ourselves more susceptible to killer infectious diseases simply by our modification of the landscape and seascape.

Some examples are required to illustrate the point. Schistosomiasis is a snail-borne fluke that infects millions worldwide, and it is on the rise again from expanding habitat of its host due to poor agricultural practices, bad hygiene, damming of large river systems and climate warming. Malaria too is on the rise, with greater and greater risk in the endemic areas of its mosquito hosts. Chagas (a triatomine bug-borne trypanosome) is also increasing in extent and risk. Some work I’m currently doing under the auspices of the TRG is also showing some rather frightening correlations between the degree of environmental degradation within a country and the incidence of infectious disease (e.g., HIV, malaria, TB), non-infectious disease (e.g., cancer, cardiovascular disease) and indices of life expectancy and child mortality.

I won’t bore you with more details of the group because we are still drafting a major World Health Organization report on the issues and research priorities. Suffice it to say that if we want to convince policy makers that resilient functioning ecosystems with healthy biodiversity are worth saving, we have to show them the link to infectious disease in humans, and how this perpetuates poverty, rights injustices, gender imbalances and ultimately, major conflicts. An absolute pragmatist would say that the value of keeping ecosystems intact for this reason alone makes good economic sense (treating disease is expensive, to say the least). A humanitarian would argue that saving human lives by keeping our ecosystems intact is a moral obligation. As a conservation biologist, I argue that biodiversity, human well-being and economies will all benefit if we get this right. But of course, we have a lot of work to do.

CJA Bradshaw

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1Although Bruce Wilcox (another of the TRG expert members), who I will be highlighting soon as a Conservation Scholar, challenges the notion of ecosystem services as a tradeable commodity and ‘service’ as defined. More on that topic soon.





Continuing saga of the frogs’ legs trade

10 08 2009
© D. Bickford

© M. Auliya

In January we had a flurry of media coverage (see here for examples) about one of our papers that had just come out online in Conservation BiologyEating frogs to extinction (Warkentin et al.). I blogged about the paper then (one of ConservationBytes’ most viewed posts) that described the magnitude of the global trade in amphibian parts for human food. Suffice it to say, it’s colossal.

A couple of months ago, John Henley of the Guardian (UK) rang me to discuss the issue some more for a piece he was doing in that newspaper. The article has just come out (along with a companion blog post), and I can honestly say that it’s the most insightful coverage of the issue by the media I’ve seen yet. Thanks, John, for covering it so well. The article is excellently written, poignant and really gets to the heart of the matter – people just don’t know how bad the frog trade really is for amphibian biodiversity.

Short story – don’t eat any more frogs’ legs (you probably won’t be missing much).

I’ve reproduced John’s article below, but please visit the original here.

Why we shouldn’t eat frogs’ legs

In the cavernous community hall of the Vosges spa town of Vittel, a large and lugubrious man, his small, surprisingly chirpy wife, and 450 other people are sitting down to their evening meal. It’s rather noisy. “Dunno why we do it, really,” shouts the man, whose name is Jacky. “Don’t taste of anything, do they? White. Insipid. If it wasn’t for the sauce it’d be like eating some soft sort of rubber. Just the kind of food an Englishman should like, in fact. Hah.”

Outside, the streets are filled with revellers. A funfair is going full swing. The restaurants along the high street are full, and queues have formed before the stands run by the local football, tennis, basketball, rugby and youth clubs.

All offer the same thing: cuisses de grenouilles à la provencale (with garlic and parsley), cuisses de grenouille à la poulette (egg and cream). Seven euros, or thereabouts, for a paper plateful, with fries. Nine with a beer or a glass of not-very-chilled riesling. The more daring are offering cuisses de grenouilles à la vosgienne, à l’andalouse, à l’ailloli. There’s pizza grenouille, quiche grenouille, tourte grenouille. Omelette de grenouilles aux fines herbes. Souffle, cassolette and gratin de grenouilles.

Everywhere you look, people are nibbling greasily on a grenouille, licking their fingers, spitting out little bones. “Isn’t it just great?” yells Jacky’s diminutive wife, Frederique. “Every year we do this. It’s our tradition. Our tribute to the noble frog.”

This is Vittel’s 37th annual Foire aux Grenouilles. According to Roland Boeuf, the 70-year-old president of the Confrererie de Taste-Cuisses de Grenouilles de Vittel, or (roughly) the Vittel Brotherhood of Frog Thigh Tasters, which has organised the event since its inception, the fair regularly draws upwards of 20,000 gourmet frog aficionados to the town for two days of amphibian-inspired jollities. Between them, they consume anything up to seven tonnes of frogs’ legs.

But there’s a problem. When the fair began, its founder René Clément, resistance hero, restaurateur and last of the great Lorraine frog ranchers, could supply all the necessary amphibians from his lakes 20 miles or so away. Nowadays, none of the frogs are even French.

According to Boeuf, Clément, whose real name was Hofstetter, moved to the area in the early 1950s looking to raise langoustines in the Saone river; the water proved too brackish and he turned to frogs instead. A true Frenchman, his catchphrase, oft-quoted around these parts, was that frogs “are like women. The legs are the best bits”.

Hofstetter/Clément would, says Gisèle Robinet, “provide 150 kg, 200 kg for every fair, all from his lakes and all caught by him”. With her husband Patrick, Robinet runs the Au Pêché Mignon patisserie (tourte aux grenouilles for six, €18; chocolate frogs €13 the dozen) on the Place de Gaulle, across the square from the restaurant Clément used to run, Le Grand Cerf. Now known as Le Galoubet, there’s a plaque commemorating the great frogman outside. “As a child I remember clearly him dismembering and preparing and cleaning his frogs in front of the restaurant,” says Robinet, who sells frog tartlets to gourmet Vitellois throughout the year, but makes a special effort with quiches and croustillants at fair-time. “It’s a big job, you know. Very fiddly. But we were all frog-catchers when I was a kid. Now, of course, that’s not possible any more.”

Boeuf recalls many a profitable frog-hunting expedition in the streams and ponds around Vittel. “One sort, la savatte, you could catch with your bare hands,” he says. “Best time was in spring, when they lay their eggs. They’d gather in their thousands, great wriggling green balls of them. I’ve seen whole streams completely blocked by a mountain of frogs.”

Others, rainettes, would be everywhere at harvest time. Or you could get a square of red fabric and lay it carefully on the water next to a lily pad that happened to have a frog on it, “and she’d just hop straight off and on to the cloth”, Boeuf says. “They love red.”

Pierette Gillet, the longest-standing member of the Brotherhood and, at 81, still a sprightly and committed frog-fancier, remembers heading out at night with a torch in search of so-called mute frogs, harder to catch because they have no larynx and hence emit no croak. “They’d be blinded by the light, and you could whack them over the head,” she says.

But those days are long gone. As elsewhere in the world, the amphibians’ habitat in France – where frogs’ legs have been a recognised and much remarked-upon part of the national diet for the best part of 1,000 years – is increasingly at risk, from pollution, pesticides and other man-made ills. Ponds have been drained and replaced with crops and cattle-troughs. Diseases have taken their toll, and the insects that frogs feed on are disappearing too. Alarmed by a rapid and dramatic fall in frog numbers, the French ministry of agriculture and fisheries began taking measures to protect the country’s species in 1976; by 1980, commercial frog harvesting was banned.

These days, a few regional authorities in France still allow the capture of limited numbers of frogs, strictly for personal consumption and provided they are broiled, fried or barbecued and consumed on the spot (a heresy not even Boeuf is prepared to contemplate). There are poachers who defy the ban; two years ago a court in Vesoul in the Haute-Saone convicted four men of harvesting vast numbers of frogs from the Mille-Etangs or Thousand Lakes area of the Vosges. The ringleader admitted to personally catching at least 10,000, which he sold to restaurants for 32 cents apiece.

By and large, though, France’s tough protection laws, enforceable by fines of up to €10,000 (£8,500) and instant confiscation of vehicles and equipment, seem to be working. As a result, all seven tonnes (officially, at least) of frogs’ legs consumed at this year’s Vittel fair have been imported, pre-prepared, deep-frozen and packed in cardboard boxes, from Indonesia.

Needless to say, this does not much please patriotic Gallic frog-fanciers. “We’d far prefer our frogs to be French, of course we would,” laments Gillet. “Especially here in the Vosges. This really is the heart of frog country.”

A Vittel restaurateur, who for obvious reasons demands anonymity, suggests there are still “ways and means” of securing at least a semi-reliable supply of French frogs for those who demand a true produit du terroir, “but it’s really not very easy, and no one here will tell you anything about it. We’d like to source locally, but the law is the law.”

But the fact that the Foire aux Grenouilles – not to mention the rest of France, and other big frog-consuming nations such as Belgium and the United States – now imports almost all its frogs’ legs has consequences that run deeper than a mere denting of national gastronomic pride. For scientists now believe that, just as with many fish species, we could be well on the way to eating the world’s frogs to extinction. Based on an analysis of UN trade data, researchers think we may now be consuming as many as 1bn wild frogs every year. For already weakened frog populations, that is very bad news indeed.

Scientists have long been aware that while human activity is causing a steady loss of the world’s biodiversity, amphibians seem to be suffering far more severely than any other animal group. It is thought their two-stage life cycle, aquatic and terrestrial, makes them twice as vulnerable to environmental and climate change, and their permeable skins may be more susceptible to toxins than other animals. In recent years, a devastating fungal condition, chytridiomycosis, has caused catastrophic population declines in Australia and the Americas.

“Amphibians are the most threatened animal group; about one third of all amphibian species are now listed as threatened, against 23% of mammals and 12% of birds,” says Corey Bradshaw, an associate professor at the Environment Institute of the University of Adelaide and a member of the team that carried out the research into human frog consumption that was published earlier this year in the journal Conservation Biology. “The principle drivers of extinction, we always assumed, were habitat loss and disease. Human harvesting, we thought, was minor. Then we started digging, and we realised there’s this massive global trade that no one really knows much about. It’s staggering. So as well as destroying where they live, we’re now eating them to death.”

France is the main culprit: according to government figures, while the French still consume 70 tonnes a year of domestically gathered legs each year, they have been shipping in as many as 4,000 tonnes annually since 1995. Besides popular, essentially local events such as the Foire aux Grenouilles, frogs’ legs are mostly a delicacy reserved for restaurants with gastronomic pretensions; one three-star chef, Georges Blanc, has at one time or another developed 19 different recipes for them at his celebrated restaurant in the Ain village of Vonnas, baking and skewering and skilleting them in everything from cream to apples.

Belgium and Luxembourg are also noted connoisseurs, but perhaps surprisingly, the country that runs France closest in the frog import stakes is the US. Frogs’ legs are particularly popular in the former French colony of Louisiana, where the city of Rayne likes to call itself Frog Capital of the World, but are also consumed with relish in Arkansas and Texas, where they are mostly served breaded and deep-fried. Bradshaw has a picture on his blog of President Barack Obama tucking with apparent gusto into a plate of frogs’ legs.

The world’s most avid frog eaters, though, are almost certainly in Asia, in countries such as Indonesia, China, Thailand and Vietnam. South America, too, is a big market. “People may think frogs’ legs are some kind of epicurean delicacy consumed by a handful of French gourmets, but in many developing countries they are a staple,” Bradshaw says.

Indonesia is today the world’s largest exporter of frogs by far, shipping more than 5,000 tonnes each year. Some of these may be farmed, but not many. Commercial frog-farming has been tried in both the US and Europe, but with little success: for a raft of reasons, including the ease with which frogs can fall prey to disease, feeding issues and basic frog biology, it is a notoriously risky and uneconomic business. Frogs are farmed in Asia, but rarely on an industrial scale; most are small, artisan affairs with which rural families try to supplement their income.

The vast majority of frogs that end up on a plate are harvested from the wild. Bradshaw and his colleagues estimate that Indonesia, to take just one exporting country, is probably consuming between two and seven times as many frogs as it sends abroad. “We have the legally recorded, international trade figures, but none of the local business is recorded,” Bradshaw says. “It’s back-of-an-envelope work. That’s what’s so alarming.”

The scientists’ biggest concern, he says, is that because of the almost complete lack of data, no one knows in what proportion different frog species are being taken. If, as they suspect, some 15 or 20 frog species are at any given moment supplying most of world demand, the consequences could be catastrophic. For while overharvesting for human consumption may not in itself be quite enough to drive a frog species to extinction, combined with all the other threats frogs face it certainly could be.

“The thing is, it isn’t a gradual process,” Bradshaw warns. “There’s a threshold, you cross it, and the whole thing crashes because you’ve just completely changed the composition of the whole community. There’s a tipping point. It’s exactly what happened with the overexploitation of cod in the North Atlantic. And with frogs, there’s no data, no tracking, no stock management. We really should have learned our lesson with fish, but it seems we haven’t. This is a wake-up call.”

Back in Vittel, Boeuf says he had no idea frogs were in such trouble. “They’re an endangered species here, I know,” he says. “That’s why we have to be careful, and we are. But if we can buy them in such quantities from Indonesia, surely it must be all right. They’re being careful there too, aren’t they?” Sadly, it would seem they are not. And all for a few greasy scraps of limp, bland flesh.

People say frogs taste like a cross between fish and chicken. In fact, they taste of frog: in other words, precious little bar the sauce they are served in.





Few people, many threats – Australia’s biodiversity shame

31 07 2009

bridled_nailtail_400I bang on a bit about human over-population and how it drives biodiversity extinctions. Yet, it isn’t always hordes of hungry humans descending on the hapless species of this planet  – Australia is a big place, but has few people (just over 20 million), yet it has one of the higher extinction rates in the world. Yes, most of the country is covered in some fairly hard-core desert and most people live in or near the areas containing the most species, but we have an appalling extinction record all the same.

A paper that came out recently in Conservation Biology and was covered a little in the media last week gives some telling figures for the Oceania region, and more importantly, explains that we have more than enough information now to implement sound, evidence-based policy to right the wrongs of the past and the present. Using IUCN Red List data, Michael Kingsford and colleagues (paper entitled Major conservation policy issues for biodiversity in Oceania), showed that of the 370 assessed species in Australia, 80 % of the threatened ones are listed because of habitat loss, 40 % from invasive species and 30 % from pollution. As we know well, it’s mainly habitat loss we have to control if we want to change things around for the better (see previous relevant posts here, here & here).

Kingsford and colleagues proceed to give a good set of policy recommendations for each of the drivers identified:

Habitat loss and degradation

  • Implement legislation, education, and community outreach to stop or reduce land clearing, mining, and unsustainable logging through education, incentives, and compensation for landowners that will encourage private conservation
  • Establish new protected areas for habitats that are absent or poorly represented
  • In threatened ecosystems (e.g., wetlands), establish large-scale restoration projects with local communities that incorporate conservation and connectivity
  • Establish transparent and evidence-based state of environment reporting on biodiversity and manage threats within and outside protected areas.
  • Protect free-flowing river systems (largely unregulated by dams, levees, and diversions) within the framework of the entire river basin and increase environmental flows on regulated rivers

Invasive species

  • Avoid deliberate introduction of exotic species, unless suitable analyses of benefits outweigh risk-weighted costs
  • Implement control of invasive species by assessing effectiveness of control programs and determining invasion potential
  • Establish regulations and enforcement for exchange or treatment of ocean ballast and regularly implement antifouling procedures

Climate change

  • Reduce global greenhouse gas emissions
  • Identify, assess, and protect important climate refugia
  • Ameliorate the impacts of climate change through strategic management of other threatening processes
  • Develop strategic plans for priority translocations and implement when needed

Overexploitation

  • Implement restrictions on harvest of overexploited species to maintain sustainability
  • Implement an ecosystem-based approach for fisheries, based on scientific data, that includes zoning the ocean; banning destructive fishing; adopting precautionary fishing principles that include size limits, quotas, and regulation with sufficient resources based on scientific assessments of stocks and; reducing bycatch through regulation and education
  • Implement international mechanisms to increase sustainability of fisheries by supporting international treaties for fisheries protection in the high seas; avoiding perverse subsidies and improve labelling of sustainable fisheries; and licensing exports of aquarium fish
  • Control unsustainable illegal logging and wildlife harvesting through local incentives and cessation of international trade

Pollution

  • Decrease pollution through incentives and education; reduce and improve treatment of domestic, industrial, and agriculture waste; and rehabilitate polluted areas
  • Strengthen government regulations to stop generation of toxic material from mining efforts that affects freshwater and marine environments
  • Establish legislation and regulations and financial bonds (international) to reinforce polluter-pays principles
  • Establish regulations, education programs, clean ups, labelling, and use of biodegradable packaging to reduce discarded fishing gear and plastics

Disease

  • Establish early-detection programs for pathological diseases and biosecurity controls to reduce translocation
  • Identify causes, risk-assessment methods, and preventative methods for diseases
  • Establish remote communities of organisms (captive) not exposed to disease in severe outbreaks

Implementation

  • Establish regional population policies based on ecologically sustainable human population levels and consumption
  • Ensure that all developments affecting the environment are adequately analysed for impacts over the long term
  • Promote economic and societal benefits from conservation through education
  • Determine biodiversity status and trends with indicators that diagnose and manage declines
  • Invest in taxonomic understanding and provision of resources (scientific and conservation) to increase capacity for conservation
  • Increase the capacity of government conservation agencies
  • Focus efforts of nongovernmental organisations on small island states on building indigenous capacity for conservation
  • Base conservation on risk assessment and decision support
  • Establish the effectiveness of conservation instruments (national and international) and their implementation

A very good set of recommendations that I hope we can continue to develop within our governments.

CJA Bradshaw

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Climate change’s ugly cousin – biodiversity loss

17 05 2009

uglybaby…nobody puts a value on pollination; national accounts do not reflect the value of ecosystem services that stop soil erosion or provide watershed protection.

Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North (UK), Co-chairman, Global Legislators Organisation‘s International Commission on Land Use Change and Ecosystems

Last week I read with great interest the BBC’s Green Room opinion article by Barry Gardiner, Labour MP in the UK, about how the biodiversity crisis takes very much the back seat to climate change in world media, politics and international agreements.

He couldn’t be more spot-on.

I must stipulate right up front that this post is neither a whinge, rant nor lament; my goal is to highlight what I’ve noticed about the world’s general perception of climate change and biodiversity crisis issues over the last few years, and over the last year in particular since ConservationBytes.com was born.

Case in point: my good friend and colleague, Professor Barry Brook, started his blog BraveNewClimate.com a little over a month (August 2008) after I managed to get ConservationBytes.com up and running (July 2008). His blog tackles issues regarding the science of climate change, and Barry has been very successful at empirically, methodically and patiently tearing down the paper walls of the climate change denialists. A quick glance at the number views of BraveNewClimate.com since inception reveals about an order of magnitude more than for ConservationBytes.com (i.e., ~195000 versus 20000, respectively), and Barry has accumulated a total of around 4500 comments compared to just 231 for ConservationBytes.com. The difference is striking.

Now, I don’t begrudge for one moment this disparity – quite the contrary – I am thrilled that Barry has managed to influence so many people and topple so effectively the faecal spires erected by the myriad self-proclaimed ‘experts’ on climate change (an infamous line to whom I have no idea to attribute states that “opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one”). Barry is, via BraveNewClimate.com, doing the world an immense service. What I do find intriguing is that in many ways, the biodiversity crisis is a much, much worse problem that is and will continue to degrade human life for millennia to come. Yet as Barry Gardiner observed, the UK papers mentioned biodiversity only 115 times over the last 3 months compared to 1382 times for climate change – again, that order-of-magnitude disparity.

There is no biodiversity equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (although there are a few international organisations tackling the extinction crisis such as the United Nation’s Environment Program, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the International Union for Conservation of Nature), we still have little capacity or idea how to incorporate the trillions of dollars worth of ecosystem services supplied every year to us free of charge, and we have nothing at all equivalent to the Kyoto Protocol for biodiversity preservation. Yet, conservation biologists have for decades demonstrated how human disease prevalence, reduction in pollination, increasing floods, reduced freshwater availability, carbon emissions, loss of fish supplies, weed establishment and spread, etc. are all exacerbated by biodiversity loss. Climate change, as serious and potentially apocalyptic as it is, can be viewed as just another stressor in a system stressed to its limits.

Of course, the lack of ‘interest’ may not be as bleak as indicated by web traffic; I believe the science underpinning our assessment of biodiversity loss is fairly well-accepted by people who care to look into these things, and the evidence spans the gambit of biological diversity and ecosystems. In short, it’s much less controversial a topic than climate change, so it attracts a lot less vitriol and spawns fewer polemics. That said, it is a self-destructive ambivalence that will eventually come to bite humanity on the bum in the most serious of ways, and I truly believe that we’re not far off from major world conflicts over the dwindling pool of resources (food, water, raw materials) we are so effectively destroying. We would be wise to take heed of the warnings.

CJA Bradshaw

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Plight of frogs

27 04 2009

I’m off to a conference shortly, so this will be brief.

© D. Bickford
© D. Bickford

In an effort to raise awareness about the plight of amphibians (see previous posts on ConservationBytes.com regarding drivers of amphibian extinction risk and over-harvesting frogs for human consumption), the mob at SaveTheFrogs.com have initiated ‘Save The Frogs Day’ for tomorrow (28 April 2009).

I encourage people to get involved – there are some particularly good ideas for teachers and students found at the dedicated ‘Save The Frogs Day’ website.

CJA Bradshaw





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 ConservationBytes.com 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





Get serious about understanding biodiversity

3 03 2009

Sometimes I realise I live inside something of a bubble where most of my immediate human contacts have a higher-than-average comprehension of basic life science (after all, I work at a university). I often find myself surprised when I overhear so-called ‘lay’ people discussing whether or not penguins are fish, or that environmental awareness is just a pre-occupation of deluded greenies with nothing better to do.

If only it were so innocuous.

I found a great little article in the Canberra Times that laments the populace’s general ignorance of natural and environmental sciences. In my view, we must be as ecologically literate as we are in economics, maths and literature (and as the rapidly changing climate stresses even our most resilient resources and systems, I argue it will become THE most important thing to teach the young).

I’ve reproduced the Canberra Times article by Rossyln Beeby below:

“You don’t have to look, you don’t have to see, you can feel it in your olfactory,” sang Loudon Wainwright in a chirpy song about skunk roadkill back in the 1970s.

Likewise, it could be argued that if, as claimed, 5000 eastern grey kangaroos have died of starvation “in one season” at a Federal department of defence training site in Canberra, our noses would know about it. Do the maths. Even if 5000 kangaroos had died in one year, that’s roughly 14 animals a day, building to 98 carcasses a week. There would be, as one kangaroo ecologist dryly observed, “a murder of crows” descending on the site. If we interpret “one season” as three months, the carcass count would be over 1600 a month – which would amount to a serious health hazard for any troops using the training site as well as a unique waste disposal problem. Let’s be blunt here, as well as a murder of crows, the decaying corpses would also attract a buzz of blowflies and a heave of maggots.

Can this estimate be accurate? Or does it simply reveal the usual flaw in using walked ground surveys, or line transects, to estimate kangaroo numbers? This accuracy of this method, and the correction factors required, have been debated since the mid-1980s. These issues were the subject of a paper published in the “Australian Zoologist” almost a decade ago, which argues a case for aerial surveys to gain a better estimate of kangaroo numbers.

And are kangaroos starving at the site? If such large numbers are dying over such a short period, then are we in fact looking at a fatal virus – similar to outbreaks recently reported in northern NSW – which attacks the brain and eyes of kangaroos. Or a macropod alphaherpes virus – similar to that now attacking the immune system of koalas – which was identified in nasal swabs taken from eastern grey kangaroos that died in captivity in Queensland. Has someone done the necessary pathology?

Research in universities across Australia is revealing that macropod biology – that’s the biology of more than 50 species of creatures that are usually lumped, by the unobservant, into the generic category of “kangaroo” – is far more complex than previously thought. Recent developments include the revelation that climate change is affecting the breeding patterns of red kangaroos. Heat stress is killing young animals, because they need to work harder – an increased rate of shallow panting and bigger breaths – to cool their bodies. The late Alan Newsome, a senior CSIRO researcher, also did pioneering research that found high temperatures reduced the fertility of male red kangaroos. Has anyone looked at the impact of temperature extremes on mortality rates in eastern greys? Is there a link between drought and increased gut parasite burdens?

Wildlife ecology should not be the domain of popular myth, casual speculation or media manipulation. It is a serious science, requiring mathematically based field work, an understanding of environmental complexities and a formidable intellect. At its best, it’s an enthralling, exhilarating science that’s right up there with the best of astronomy and quantum physics. It’s not about patting critters and taking a stroll through the bush.

As a nation, our politicians are mostly woefully uninformed about our biodiversity, and as a recent Australian Audit office report pointed out, our policy makers often are not fully across the complexities of environmental issues. Does anyone remember that episode of “The West Wing” (it’s in the second series) where the White House deputy chief of staff (Josh Lyman) and the communications director (the usually erudite Toby Ziegler) are describing one of America’s 12 subspecies of lynx as “a kind of possum'” when briefing the president on an emerging environmental issue? There’s also an episode where Josh (a character with a formidable knowledge of political systems) is struggling to establish the difference between a panda and a koala.

Given Australia’s vulnerability to climate change, we can’t afford this kind of muddle-headed confusion among our environmental policy makers.





Just give them a lift

16 01 2009

TvyamNb-BivtNwcoxtkc5xGBuGkIMh_nj4UJHQKupCdpgnnqXqJ70oP0iCjWicCL0ROBPry44AuNOne of the main problems in a rapidly changing world, whether that change arises from habitat loss, invasive species or climate change, is that often the pace of change is simply too fast for many species to keep up. History (both ‘deep-time’ and contemporary evidence) tells us this fact very clearly in the record of extinctions – species that have ‘slow’ life histories (i.e., those that mature late in their lives, produce few young and breed infrequently) are the most susceptible to extinction. More often than not, these tend to be the big organisms because the pace of life scales to body size nonlinearly (the so-called allometry of vital rates). The problem extends to evolution – when the pace of change happens faster than mutation and subsequent natural selection, you are unable to ‘evolve’ to the new environmental state fast enough. The end result – extinction.

So, can we help? Well, it’s fairly difficult to alter reproductive rates unless you do some assisted breeding programme (which generally don’t do much for the conservation status of a species) and you can’t really alter age at maturity or growth rates. You can stop or reverse habitat destruction, and you can translocate species in some circumstances.

So, in the case of climate change, if local conditions become too unbearable for a species (temperature, salinity, precipitation, etc.), just give them a lift to another spot where the new conditions suit! Sounds simple, but it could be rather difficult.

A relatively new Policy Forum piece in Science outlines how ‘assisted colonisation‘ could work for some species. The issues are many – most translocations fail for one reason or another (too few individuals moved, unforeseen predators or competitors, lack of appropriate habitat, etc.), but as we’ve seen the world over in the case of successful alien species, invasions can be remarkably successful (at least from the perspective of the invading species).

The key then is to think very carefully about which species to move and which to leave alone. Of course, generalist, highly adaptable and dispersed species probably don’t need the help, but restricted-range species or habitat specialists could really benefit from such action. You also run the risk of creating more problems than you solve (e.g., new invasive pests, disease introduction). However, a select group of species might just need this very assistance to persist given how much we’ve already change the biosphere, and how much more it will change due to shifting climate in the near future.

It’s controversial, but it could work in many circumstances. That’s why I’m adding this paper (Hoegh-Guldberg et al. – Assisted colonization and rapid climate change) to the Potential list.

CJA Bradshaw

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Measuring the amphibian meltdown

9 01 2009

melting_frog_by_zarinstar.pngA paper my colleagues and I published earlier last year in the open-access journal PLoS One describes one of the largest databases of amphibian threat risk ever compiled. Our main aims were to determine which factors drive amphibians toward extinction – this being especially topical considering that amphibians epitomise the modern biodiversity crisis: major population declines, disease outbreaks, deformities and recent confirmed extinctions dominate the biodiversity news. 32 % of all amphibians worldwide are threatened with extinction, 43 % of described species are declining, and about 160 species have already gone extinct in the last few decades.

In our paper (Sodhi and colleagues) entitled Measuring the meltdown: drivers of global amphibian extinction and decline, we found that the range size occupied by a species was overwhelmingly the principal driver of threat risk. This means that although other factors are involved, the number one (by far and away) thing threatening amphibians is habitat loss – everything else is minor by comparison.

Of course, we shouldn’t ignore other issues – increasing climate seasonality (temperature and precipitation) also contributed to higher threat risk. This is exactly the sort of thing that is predicted to increase with climate change (more variable weather patterns). In many cases, it’s the variability that’s worse than the mean trend when it comes to biodiversity.

So what should we do? Our results suggest that areas containing high numbers of restricted-range amphibians should have conservation priority. Although captive breeding might help to buffer some declining populations in the short term, such interventions cannot substitute for habitat protection and restoration. The synergies between ecological/life history traits and environmental conditions demonstrate how management must address each of the major drivers of decline together for any success – there is no magic bullet to prevent extinctions. We also recommend that substantial increases in international research on the long-term monitoring of amphibian populations is required to mitigate effectively the current meltdown of amphibian biodiversity.

CJA Bradshaw

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Foiling the frog-killing fungus

15 12 2008

© F. Brem

© F. Brem

Something I picked up the other day that is an interesting application of ecology and engineering – extreme interventions like this may become more and more necessary, especially for particularly vulnerable taxa like amphibians. This one from New Scientist:

A fungal disease is decimating amphibian populations around the world, and so far the only way to save a species at risk is to remove individuals from the wild. Is it time to try taking out the disease as well?

So far the majority of amphibian conservation efforts have focused on identifying species at high risk of extinction, and establishing captive breeding programmes in biosecure units where they will be protected from Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis Bd, the chytrid fungus that is responsible for the devastating scourge.

“The immediate response has been the right one: to get species that are at risk into captivity,” says Trent Garner of the Institute of Zoology in London. However, he adds, “we’re potentially missing out on some very important species” because, inevitably, some are prioritised over others.

Now an alternative strategy is emerging, which many had previously thought impossible: to reduce the amount of Bd in the wild, and perhaps even to enable amphibians to survive alongside it.

In lab experiments, Garner and colleagues have shown that it is possible to cure tadpoles infected with Bd by bathing them in the antifungal drug itraconazole for 5 minutes a day for seven days. “Even using extremely low doses, we showed that you can eliminate Bd from tadpoles,” says Garner, who presented his results at a meeting on amphibian decline at the Zoological Society of London last week.





Classics: Invasion Meltdown

26 10 2008

One for the Classics page…

melting_rat_by_xenatalhaoui-d71xr1yDaniel Simberloff is probably best known for his work on the implications of invasive (non-indigenous) species for biodiversity, although he has contributed to a wide range of conservation disciplines.

A seminal paper that he co-wrote with Betsy Von Holle is one I consider to be a conservation Classic: their 1999 paper in the inaugural issue of Biological Invasions entitled Positive interactions of nonindigenous species: Invasional meltdown?

The establishment of non-indigenous species can have severe negative impacts on ecosystems. Introduced species that become invasive (widespread and locally dominant) transform habitats, degrade ecosystem services, reduce biodiversity and are some of the greatest threats to ecosystems today (perhaps nearly as important as habitat loss and over-exploitation).

The so-called ‘invasion meltdown‘ describes the process by which the negative impacts induced on native ecosystems by one invading non-indigenous species are exacerbated by interactions with another exotic species.

Although there isn’t a lot of information on invasion meltdowns, one good example comes from Christmas Island in tropical Australia. The introduced yellow crazy ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes) exploded in numbers when another exotic species, a scale insect, was introduced about the same time that a native scale insect species also had a local outbreak.  Because ants protect scale insects from predators and parasites in return for scale honeydew, the crazy ant suddenly had a much more abundant food source, leading to the huge increase in the ant population. This large ant population devastated the population of native red crab (Gecarcoidea natalis) and resulted in massive increase in forest undergrowth due to reduced herbivory by crabs (see O’Dowd et al. 2003). The great decline in red crabs may also make the island more vulnerable to other plant invasions.

What did Simberloff & Van Holle’s idea and subsequent examples of invasion meltdowns teach us? I believe their paper really hit home the idea that invasive species were not only a threat to biodiversity, but the self-reinforcing mutualisms of invasive species could rival other forms of human-induced biodiversity decline. Indeed, many of the effects of invasive species will be reinforced by global climate change through increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and changing rainfall patterns that increase the potential range and spread of invading species, so the problem is only going to get worse. This is why the U.N. began the Global Invasive Species Programme (GISP), and world-wide, countries are attempting to restrict the flow of invasive species so that their negative effects are lessened. Identifying the extent of the problem has stimulated a lot of people to act accordingly.

CJA Bradshaw

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Deforestation and disease

10 09 2008

Humans have such a short memory…

A recent theme in many of my posts is the concept of ecosystem services provided to us essentially free of charge, and their continued degradation due to the burgeoning human population, bad land management and excessive resource consumption. We are indeed degrading the very life-support system species assemblages provide us. I’ve previously posted a long list of ecosystem services that you can consult here, but this recent paper in BioScience highlights one that is probably largely overlooked – the role of forests in reducing the incidence of human disease.

In their article entitled Deforestation, mosquitoes, and Ancient Rome: lessons for today, Lara O’Sullivan and colleagues discuss the evidence from Ancient Rome that deforestation rapidly increased the prevalence of malarial diseases. They also go on to cite several examples from the modern world where deforestation appears to be linked to greater manifestation of diseases like malaria.

The evidence isn’t just linked to Africa and the Amazon, but the authors suggest that the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases in Australia such as Ross River fever may also be on the rise as forests are quickly degraded and destroyed.

In two previous posts (see here and here), I commented on the escalating biodiversity crisis in the tropics driven largely by habitat loss (i.e., deforestation) – add increasing human disease to the long list of negatives associated with degrading or disappearing ecosystem services such as increased frequency and severity of floods, reduced food provision, reduced availability of clean water, reduced pollination, etc. We MUST educate the masses with the increasing body of scientific evidence that our behaviour is self-defeating (see previous post on this issue).

Indeed, it’s no longer the days of the capitalists versus the ‘greenies’ – the rapid decline in the quality of human life and and our own survival is affecting all of us, including the wealthy. In fact, I would argue that environmentalism has fully developed as the principal rationale in conservation ecology, such that it has become much less of an esoteric struggle for maintaining all things beautiful (the capitalist viewpoint of the traditional ‘greeny’), to a science-driven means to maintain human life and prosperity. Can we afford to continue along this path? Definitely not. Only an idiot with the foresight of a slug could ignore our current trajectory – and that includes the millionaire sport heroes, actors, and entrepreneurs who have benefited directly from our collective resource exploits. If you give a shit about the quality of life you and your descendants will have in the very near future, do not ignore habitat loss any longer.

CJA Bradshaw

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