What does ‘collapse’ mean, and should we continue using the term?

30 08 2022

The conservation, environment, and sustainability literature is rife with the term ‘collapse’, applied to concepts as diverse as species extinction to the complete breakdown of civilisation. I have also struggled with its various meanings and implications, so I’m going to attempt to provide some clarity on collapse for my own and hopefully some others’ benefit.

State transitions (Fig. 2 from Keith et al. (2015))

From a strictly ecological perspective, ‘collapse’ could be described in the following (paraphrased) ways:

But there is still nor formal definition of ‘collapse’ in ecology, as identified by several researchers (Keith et al. 2013; Boitani et al. 2015; Keith et al. 2015; Sato and Lindenmayer 2017; Bland et al. 2018). While this oversight has been discussed extensively with respect to quantifying changes, I can find nothing in the literature that attempts a generalisable definition of what collapse should mean. Perhaps this is because it is not possible to identify a definition that is sufficiently generalisable, something that Boitani et al. (2015) described with this statement:

“The definition of collapse is so vague that in practice it will be possible (and often necessary) to define collapse separately for each ecosystem, using a variety of attributes and threshold values

Boitani et al. 2015

Despite all the work that has occurred since then, I fear we haven’t moved much beyond that conclusion.

Hell, cutting down the trees in the bush block next to my property constitutes a wholesale ‘collapse’ of the microcommunity of species using that patch of bush. An asteroid hitting the Earth and causing a mass extinction is also collapse. And everything in-between.

But at least ecologists have made some attempts to define and quantify collapse, even if an acceptable definition has not been forthcoming. The sustainability and broader environment literature has not even done that.

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Terror management

2 08 2022

As is my tendency, I like to wade carefully into other disciplines from time to time to examine what components they can bring to the conservation table. I do not profess any sort of expertise when I do so, but if I require a true expert for research purposes, then I will collaborate with said experts.

I often say to my students that in many ways, the science of sustainability and conservation is more or less resolved — what we need now is ways to manage the human side of the problems we face. The disciplines that deal with human management, such as psychology, economics, political science, and sociology, are mainly pursuits of the humanities (have I just argued myself out of a job?).

On the topic of human psychology, I think most people involved in some way with biodiversity conservation often contemplate why human societies are so self-destructive. Even in the face of logic and evidence, people deny what’s going on in front of their eyes (think anti-vaxxers, climate-change denialists, etc.), so it should be no wonder why many (most?) people deny their own existential threats. Yet, it still doesn’t seem to make much sense to us until we put the phenomenon into a psychological framework.

My apologies here to actual psychologists if I oversimplify or otherwise make mistakes, but the following explanation has done a lot for me personally in my own journey to understand this conundrum. It is also a good way to teach others about why there is so much reticence to fixing our environmental problems.

The idea is a rather simple one, but it requires a little journey to appreciate. Let’s pop back to the 1970s with the publication of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 (ironically, two months after his own death). In this book, Becker examined the awareness of death on human behaviour and the strategies that we have developed to mitigate our fear of it. This particular quote sums it up nicely:

This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, and excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression — and with all this yet to die

Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death (1973)

The upshot is that we have evolved a whole raft of coping mechanisms to this personal existential dread. Some engage in overly hedonic pursuits to numb the anxiety; others try to “tranquillise themselves with the trivial”, essentially ignoring the terror, while others still manage the dread through religion and the hope of an existence beyond the mortal.

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A cascade of otters

4 04 2022

Carnivores are essential components of trophic webs, and ecosystem functions crumble with their loss. Novel data show the connection between calcareous reefs and sea otters under climate change.


Trophic cascade on the Aleutian Islands (Alaska, USA) linking sea otters (Enhydra lutris) with sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus) and calcareous reefs (Clathromorphum nereostratum). With males weighting up to 50 kg, sea otters have been IUCN-catalogued as Endangered since 2000. The top photo shows a male in a typical, belly-up floating position. The bottom photo shows live (pinkish) and dead (whitish) tissue on the reef surface as a result of grazing of sea urchins at a depth of 10 m. Sea otters are mesopredators, typically foraging on small prey like sea urchins, but their historical decline due to overhunting unleashed the proliferation of the echinoderms. At the same time, acidification and sea-water warming have softened the skeleton of the reefs, allowing for deeper grazing by sea urchins that eliminate the growth layer of living tissue that give the reefs their pinkish hue. Large extents of dead reefs stop fixing the excess in carbonic acid, whose carbon atoms sea water sequesters from the atmosphere enriched in carbon by our burning of fossil fuels. Photos courtesy of Joe Tomoleoni taken in Moss Landing – California, USA (otter), and on the Near Islands – Aleutian Archipelago, Alaska (reef).

For most, the decisions made by people we have never met affect our daily lives. Other species experience the same phenomenon because they are linked to one another through a trophic cascade.

A trophic cascade occurs when a predator limits the abundance or behaviour of its prey, in turn affecting the survival of a third species in lower trophic levels that have nothing directly to do with the predator in question (1).

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) represent a text-book example of a trophic cascade. These mustelids (see video footage here and here) hunt and control the populations of sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus), hence favouring kelp forests  — the fronds of which are eaten by the sea urchins.

Removing the predator from the equation should lead to more sea urchins and less kelp, and this chain of events is exactly what happened along the coasts of the North Pacific (2, 3). The historical distribution of sea otters once ranged from Japan to Baja California through the Aleutian Islands (see NASA’s photo from space, and documentary on the island of Unimak), a sub-Arctic, arc-shaped archipelago including > 300 islands between Alaska (USA) and the Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia), extending ~ 2000 kilometres, and having a land area of ~ 18,000 km2.

But the fur trade during the 18th and 19th centuries brought the species to the brink of extinction, down to < 2000 surviving individuals (4). Without otters, sea urchins boomed and deforested kelp ecosystems during the 20th Century (5). Now we also know that this trophic cascade has climate-related implications in other parts of the marine ecosystem.

Underwater bites

Doug Rasher and collaborators have studied the phenomenon on the Aleutian Islands (6). The seabed of this archipelago is a mix of sandy beds, kelp forests, and calcareous reefs made up of calcium and magnesium carbonates fixed by the red algae Clathromorphum nereostratum. These reefs have grown at a rate of 3 cm annually for centuries as the fine film of living tissue covering the reef takes the carbonates from the seawater (7).

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Be wise about what you put online

21 03 2022

While you have little choice these days about posting your data and code online when you publish, here are some things to consider when contemplating putting potentially sensitive data online (modified excerpt from The Effective Scientist).


One aspect of making your data publicly available is the prickly issue of whether your data contain sensitive information.

Of course, there are many different types of ‘sensitive’ information that might accompany the more basic quantitative measurements of your datasets, with perhaps the most common being personal details of any human subjects. For example, if you are a medical researcher and your data are derived primarily from living human beings undergoing some procedure, trial, or intervention, then clearly you are bound by your human ethics approvals not to publish information like names, addresses, or anything that could be used to identify the subjects in your sample. In fact, human ethics approvals generally prohibit any sort of public accessibility to medical data that has personal information included; thus, the scientists concerned are being pulled in two different directions — keeping their subjects’ personal information out of the hands of the public, while still making the data available to other scientists.

There are ways around this, such as publishing only generic information online (i.e., by excluding personal identifiers) that could then be linked to the more sensitive data via unique identifiers. In these cases, any other researcher requiring the additional information would have to seek specific permission from the primary researchers, pending additional human-ethics approvals.

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The sixth mass extinction is happening now, and it doesn’t look good for us

2 03 2022

Mounting evidence is pointing to the world having entered a sixth mass extinction. If the current rate of extinction continues we could lose most species by 2200. The implication for human health and wellbeing is dire, but not inevitable.

In the timeline of fossil evidence going right back to the first inkling of any life on Earth — over 3.5 billion years ago — almost 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. That means that as species evolve over time — a process known as ‘speciation’ — they replace other species that go extinct.

Extinctions and speciations do not happen at uniform rates through time; instead, they tend to occur in large pulses interspersed by long periods of relative stability. These extinction pulses are what scientists refer to as mass extinction events.

The Cambrian explosion was a burst of speciation some 540 million years ago. Since then, at least five mass extinction events have been identified in the fossil record (and probably scores of smaller ones). Arguably the most infamous of these was when a giant asteroid smashed into Earth about 66 million years ago in what is now the Gulf of Mexico. The collision vapourised species immediately within the blast zone. Later, species were killed off by climate change arising from pulverised particulates suspended in the atmosphere, as well as intense volcano activity stimulated by the buckling of the Earth’s crust from the asteroid’s impact. Together, about 76 percent of all species around at the time went extinct, of which the disappearance of the dinosaurs is most well-known. But dinosaurs didn’t disappear altogether — the survivors just evolved into birds.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXX

16 02 2022

Here is the first set of biodiversity cartoons for 2022. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Neo-colonialist attitudes ignoring poachernomics will ensure more extinctions

14 01 2022

No matter most people’s best intentions, poaching of species in Sub-Saharan Africa for horn and ivory continues unabated. Despite decades of policies, restrictions, interventions, protections, and incentives, many species of elephant and rhino are still hurtling toward extinction primarily because of poaching.

Clearly, we’re doing something heinously wrong.

Collectively, we have to take a long, hard look in the conservation mirror and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Why haven’t we been able to put any real dent in the illegal trade of poached elephant ivory and rhino horn? How many millions (billions?) of dollars have we spent seemingly to little avail? Why haven’t trade bans and intensive security measures done the trick?

The reasons are many, but they boil down to two main culprits:

  1. neo-colonialist sentiments driven by the best intentions of mainly overseas NGOs have inadvertently created the ideal conditions for the poaching economy — what we term poachernomics — to thrive by ensuring the continued restriction of legal supply of wildlife products; and
  2. shutting off conservation areas to local people and directing the bulk of ecotourism profits away from source communities have maintained steady poaching incentives in the absence of other non-destructive livelihoods.

In our new paper — Dismantling the poachernomics of the illegal wildlife trade (led by Enrico Di Minin of the Universities of Helsinki and KwaZulu-Natal, and co-authored by Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes of the University of Oxford, Jeanetta Selier of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, Maxi Louis of the Namibian Association of Community-Based Natural Resources Management Support Organizations, and me) — published quietly in late 2021, we describe how poachernomics works, and why our efforts to incapacitate it have been so ineffectual.

First, what is poachernomics?

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Fancy a pangolin infected with coronavirus? Apparently, many people do

30 12 2021

The logic of money contradicts the logic of species conservation and human health. As illegal trade has driven pangolins to near extinction, their hunting and market value has kept increasing ― even when we have known that they act as coronavirus reservoirs in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) in a monsoon forest (Sumba Island, Indonesia). With adult weights up to 10 kg and body lengths around half a metre, these animals are mostly solitary and nocturnal, feed on ants and termites, and love tree climbing using bark hollows to shelter and give birth to singletons. The species occurs across mainland and islands of South East Asia, and became ‘Endangered’ in 2008 and ‘Critically Endangered’ in 2014, following a 80% decline in the last 20 years due to hunting and poaching. It has been the most heavily trafficked Asian species, and the IUCN’s assessment states: “… the incentives for harvesting and illegally trading in the species are universally high based on the high financial value of pangolin parts and derivatives”. Captive breeding is unlikely to deter wild collection because (among other reasons) farming costs are high (more so on a large scale) and, even if the species could be traded legally, wild versus farmed pangolin products and individuals are difficult to distinguish (23). Photo courtesy of Michael Pitts

Urbanites are attracted to exotic species, materials, and places. Our purchasing power seems to give us the right to buy any ‘object’ that we can pay for, no matter how exotic the object might be. In such a capitalist rationale, it is no surprise that > 150 thousand illegal cargos with wild animals and plants have been confiscated in 149 countries over the last two decades, moving some 6000 species from one place of the planet to another (1).

Social networks show people interacting with all kinds of fauna, creating the illusion that any animal can become a pet (2). And there’s a multi-$billion market of wildlife for a diverse array of uses including collecting, food, ornamentation, leisure, clothing and medicine (3-5). The paradox is that the rarer a species is, the higher its market value runs and the more lucrative selling it turns out to be, leading to more exploitation and rocketing extinction risk (6).

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Extinct megafauna prone to ancient hunger games

14 12 2021

I’m very chuffed today to signal the publication of what I think is one of the most important contributions to the persistent conundrum surrounding the downfall of Australia’s megafauna many tens of millennia ago.

Diprotodon optimum. Artwork by palaeontologist and artist Eleanor (Nellie) Pease (commissioned by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage)

Sure, I’m obviously biased in that assessment because it’s a paper from our lab and I’m a co-author, but if readers had any inkling of the work that went into this paper, I think they might consider adopting my position. In addition, the injection of some actual ecology into the polemic should be viewed as fresh and exciting.

Having waded into the murky waters of the ‘megafauna debate’ for about a decade now, I’ve become a little sensitive to even a whiff of binary polemic surrounding their disappearance in Australia. Acolytes of the climate-change prophet still beat their drums, screaming for the smoking gun of a spear sticking out of a Diprotodon‘s skull before they even entertain the notion that people might have had something to do with it — but we’ll probably never find one given the antiquity of the event (> 40,000 years ago). On the other side are the blitzkriegers who declaim that human hunting single-handedly wiped out the lot.

Well, as it is for nearly all extinctions, it’s actually much more complicated than that. In the case of Sahul’s megafauna disappearances, both drivers likely contributed, but the degree to which both components played a part depends on where and when you look — Fred Saltré demonstrated that elegantly a few years ago.

Palorchestes. Artwork by palaeontologist and artist Eleanor (Nellie) Pease (commissioned by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage)

So, why does the polemic persist? In my view, it’s because we have largely depended on the crude comparison of relative dates to draw our conclusions. That is, we look to see if some climate-change proxy shifted in any notable way either before or after an inferred extinction date. If a particular study claims evidence that a shift happened before, then it concludes climate change was the sole driver. If a study presents evidence that a shift happened after, then humans did it. Biases in geochronological inference (e.g., spatial, contamination), incorrect application of climate proxies, poor taxonomic resolution, and not accounting for the Signor-Lipps effect all contribute unnecessarily to the debate because small errors or biases can flip relative chronologies on their head and push conclusions toward uncritical binary outcomes. The ‘debate’ has been almost entirely grounded on this simplistically silly notion.

This all means that the actual ecology has been either ignored or merely made up based on whichever pet notion of the day is being proffered. Sure, there are a few good ecological inferences out there from some damn good modellers and ecologists, but these have all been greatly simplified themselves. This is where our new paper finally takes the ecology part of the problem to the next level.

Led by Global Ecology and CABAH postdoctoral fellow, John Llewelyn, and guided by modelling guru Giovanni Strona at University of Helsinki, the paper Sahul’s megafauna were vulnerable to plant-community changes due to their position in the trophic network has just been published online in Ecography. Co-authors include Kathi Peters, Fred Saltré, and me from Flinders Global Ecology, Matt McDowell and Chris Johnson from UTAS, Daniel Stouffer from University of Canterbury (NZ), and Sara de Visser from University of Groningen (Netherlands).

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… some (models) are useful

8 06 2021

As someone who writes a lot of models — many for applied questions in conservation management (e.g., harvest quotas, eradication targets, minimum viable population sizes, etc.), and supervises people writing even more of them, I’ve had many different experiences with their uptake and implementation by management authorities.

Some of those experiences have involved catastrophic failures to influence any management or policy. One particularly painful memory relates to a model we wrote to assist with optimising approaches to eradicate (or at least, reduce the densities of) feral animals in Kakadu National Park. We even wrote the bloody thing in Visual Basic (horrible coding language) so people could run the module in Excel. As far as I’m aware, no one ever used it.

Others have been accepted more readily, such as a shark-harvest model, which (I think, but have no evidence to support) has been used to justify fishing quotas, and one we’ve done recently for the eradication of feral pigs on Kangaroo Island (as yet unpublished) has led directly to increased funding to the agency responsible for the programme.

According to Altmetrics (and the online tool I developed to get paper-level Altmetric information quickly), only 3 of the 16 of what I’d call my most ‘applied modelling’ papers have been cited in policy documents:

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Everything you always wanted to know about conservation (but were afraid to ask)

14 05 2021

While some of us still might imagine the conservationist as a fancy explorer discovering new species in a remote corner of the world, or collecting samples while drowning in mud, a growing portion of conservation science nowadays consists of asking people about their ideas and behaviours.

Needless to say, this approach produces a fair share of awkward, if not dangerous, situations. After all, who likes the idea of completing a questionnaire from the fisheries office, asking about compliance with harvest limitations or licence fees? Or, even worse, who fancies being asked about the possession of illegally traded wildlife? 

Many conservationists would really like to have this valuable information, but at the same time it is clear that these questions put people at great discomfort. This leads to biased estimates of important behaviours affecting conservation. This is where specialised questioning techniques can help.

Specialised questioning techniques aim to prevent researchers, or anyone else, to trace back individual answers. Many do so by adding noise with a known distribution to individual answers. Then, when all answers are pooled, this noise is ruled out with statistical approaches. Noise can come from a randomising device (e.g. a die), like in the randomised response technique:

Individual answers can also be masked by asking respondents not to indicate if they engaged in a certain behaviour, but by asking them, out of a list of sensitive and non-sensitive behaviours, to indicate the number in which they engaged. This is the case of the unmatched count technique (a.k.a list experiments):

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The biggest and slowest don’t always bite it first

13 04 2021

For many years I’ve been interested in modelling the extinction dynamics of megafauna. Apart from co-authoring a few demographically simplified (or largely demographically free) models about how megafauna species could have gone extinct, I have never really tried to capture the full nuances of long-extinct species within a fully structured demographic framework.

That is, until now.

But how do you get the life-history data of an extinct animal that was never directly measured. Surely, things like survival, reproductive output, longevity and even environmental carrying capacity are impossible to discern, and aren’t these necessary for a stage-structured demographic model?

Thylacine mum & joey. Nellie Pease & CABAH

The answer to the first part of that question “it’s possible”, and to the second, it’s “yes”. The most important bit of information we palaeo modellers need to construct something that’s ecologically plausible for an extinct species is an estimate of body mass. Thankfully, palaeontologists are very good at estimating the mass of the things they dig up (with the associated caveats, of course). From such estimates, we can reconstruct everything from equilibrium densities, maximum rate of population growth, age at first breeding, and longevity.

But it’s more complicated than that, of course. In Australia anyway, we’re largely dealing with marsupials (and some monotremes), and they have a rather different life-history mode than most placentals. We therefore have to ‘correct’ the life-history estimates derived from living placental species. Thankfully, evolutionary biologists and ecologists have ways to do that too.

The Pleistocene kangaroo Procoptodon goliah, the largest and most heavily built of the  short-faced kangaroos, was the largest and most heavily built kangaroo known. It had an  unusually short, flat face and forwardly directed 
eyes, with a single large toe on each foot  (reduced from the more normal count of four). Each forelimb had two long, clawed fingers  that would have been used to bring leafy branches within reach.

So with a battery of ecological, demographic, and evolutionary tools, we can now create reasonable stochastic-demographic models for long-gone species, like wombat-like creatures as big as cars, birds more than two metres tall, and lizards more than seven metres long that once roamed the Australian continent. 

Ancient clues, in the shape of fossils and archaeological evidence of varying quality scattered across Australia, have formed the basis of several hypotheses about the fate of megafauna that vanished during a peak about 42,000 years ago from the ancient continent of Sahul, comprising mainland Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea and neighbouring islands.

There is a growing consensus that multiple factors were at play, including climate change, the impact of people on the environment, and access to freshwater sources.

Just published in the open-access journal eLife, our latest CABAH paper applies these approaches to assess how susceptible different species were to extinction – and what it means for the survival of species today. 

Using various characteristics such as body size, weight, lifespan, survival rate, and fertility, we (Chris Johnson, John Llewelyn, Vera Weisbecker, Giovanni Strona, Frédérik Saltré & me) created population simulation models to predict the likelihood of these species surviving under different types of environmental disturbance.

Simulations included everything from increasing droughts to increasing hunting pressure to see which species of 13 extinct megafauna (genera: Diprotodon, Palorchestes, Zygomaturus, Phascolonus, Procoptodon, Sthenurus, Protemnodon, Simosthenurus, Metasthenurus, Genyornis, Thylacoleo, Thylacinus, Megalibgwilia), as well as 8 comparative species still alive today (Vombatus, Osphranter, Notamacropus, Dromaius, Alectura, Sarcophilus, Dasyurus, Tachyglossus), had the highest chances of surviving.

We compared the results to what we know about the timing of extinction for different megafauna species derived from dated fossil records. We expected to confirm that the most extinction-prone species were the first species to go extinct – but that wasn’t necessarily the case.

While we did find that slower-growing species with lower fertility, like the rhino-sized wombat relative Diprotodon, were generally more susceptible to extinction than more-fecund species like the marsupial ‘tiger’ thylacine, the relative susceptibility rank across species did not match the timing of their extinctions recorded in the fossil record.

Indeed, we found no clear relationship between a species’ inherent vulnerability to extinction — such as being slower and heavier and/or slower to reproduce — and the timing of its extinction in the fossil record.

In fact, we found that most of the living species used for comparison — such as short-beaked echidnas, emus, brush turkeys, and common wombats — were more susceptible on average than their now-extinct counterparts.

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Recreational hunting, conservation and livelihoods: no clear evidence trail

2 03 2021
Enrico Di Minin, University of Helsinki; Anna Haukka, University of Helsinki; Anna Hausmann, University of Helsinki; Christoph Fink, University of Helsinki; Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Gonzalo Cortés-Capano, University of Helsinki; Hayley Clements, Stellenbosch University, and Ricardo A. Correia, University of Helsinki

In some African countries, lion trophy hunting is legal. Riaan van den Berg

In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 1,400,000 km² of land spread across many countries — from Kenya to South Africa — is dedicated to “trophy” (recreational) hunting. This type of hunting can occur on communal, private, and state lands.

The hunters – mainly foreign “tourists” from North America and Europe – target a wide variety of species, including lions, leopards, antelopes, buffalo, elephants, zebras, hippopotamus and giraffes.


Read more: Big game: banning trophy hunting could do more harm than good


Debates centred on the role of recreational hunting in supporting nature conservation and local people’s livelihoods are among the most polarising in conservation today.

On one hand, people argue that recreational hunting generates funding that can support livelihoods and nature conservation. It’s estimated to generate US$200 million annually in sub-Saharan Africa, although others dispute the magnitude of this contribution.

On the other hand, hunting is heavily criticised on ethical and moral grounds and as a potential threat to some species.

Evidence for taking a particular side in the debate is still unfortunately thin. In our recently published research, we reviewed the large body of scientific literature on recreational hunting from around the world, which meant we read and analysed more than 1000 peer-reviewed papers.

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Conservation paradox – the pros and cons of recreational hunting

20 02 2021
The recovery of species such as mountain zebra (Equus zebra) was partly supported by the economic benefits generated by trophy hunting. © Dr Hayley Clements

Through the leadership of my long-time friend and collaborator, Enrico Di Minin of the Helsinki Lab of Interdisciplinary Conservation Science, as well as the co-leadership of my (now) new colleague, Dr Hayley Clements, I’m pleased to report our new paper in One Earth — ‘Consequences of recreational hunting for biodiversity conservation and livelihoods‘.


My father was a hunter, and by proxy so was I when I was a lad. I wasn’t really a ‘good’ hunter in the sense that I rarely bagged my quarry, but during my childhood not only did I fail to question the morality of recreational hunting, I really thought that in fact it was by and large an important cultural endeavour.

It’s interesting how conditioned we become as children, for I couldn’t possibly conceive of hunting a wild, indigenous species for my own personal satisfaction now. I find the process not only morally and ethically reprehensible, I also think that most species don’t need the extra stress in an already environmentally stressed world.

I admit that I do shoot invasive European rabbits and foxes on my small farm from time to time — to reduce the grazing and browsing pressure on my trees from the former, and the predation pressure on the chooks from the latter. Of course, we eat the rabbits, but I tend just to bury the foxes. My dual perspective on the general issue of hunting in a way mirrors the two sides of the recreational hunting issue we report in our latest paper.

Wild boar (Sus scrofus). Photo: Valentin Panzirsch, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT, via Wikimedia Commons

I want to be clear here that our paper focuses exclusively on recreational hunting, and especially the hunting of charismatic species for their trophies. The activity is more than just a little controversial, for it raises many ethical and moral concerns at the very least. Yet, recreational hunting is frequently suggested as a way to conserve nature and support local people’s livelihoods. 

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Time for a ‘cold shower’ about our ability to avoid a ghastly future

13 01 2021

I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,’ said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Frodo Baggins and Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

Today, 16 high-profile scientists and I published what I describe as a ‘cold shower’ about society’s capacity to avoid a ghastly future of warfare, disease, inequality, persecution, extinction, and suffering.

And it goes way beyond just the plight of biodiversity.

No one who knows me well would mistake me for an optimist, try as I might to use my colleagues’ and my research for good. Instead, I like to describe myself as a ‘realist’. However, this latest paper has made even my gloomier past outputs look downright hopeful.

And before being accused of sensationalism, let me make one thing abundantly clear — I sincerely hope that what we describe in this paper does not come to pass. Not even I am that masochistic.

I am also supportive of every attempt to make the world a better place, to sing about our successes, regroup effectively from our failures, and maintain hope in spite of evidence to the contrary.

But failing to acknowledge the magnitude and the gravity of the problems facing us is not just naïve, it is positively dangerous and potentially fatal.

It is this reason alone that prompted us to write our new paper “Underestimating the challenges of
avoiding a ghastly future
” just published in the new journal, Frontiers in Conservation Science.

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Influential conservation papers of 2020

19 12 2020

Following my late-December tradition, I present — in no particular order — a retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of 2020 as assessed by experts in Faculty Opinions (formerly known as F1000). See previous years’ lists here: 201920182017201620152014, and 2013.


Life in fluctuating environments — “… it tackles a fundamental problem of bio-ecology (how living beings cope with the fluctuations of the environment) with a narrative that does not make use of the cumbersome formulas and complicated graphs that so often decorate articles of this kind. Instead, the narrative and the illustrations are user-friendly and easy to understand, while being highly informative.

Forest carbon sink neutralized by pervasive growth-lifespan trade-offs — “… deals with a key process in the global carbon cycle: whether climate change (CC) is enhancing the natural sink capacity of ecosystems or not.

Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy — “… explores different scenarios about the consequences of habitat conversion on terrestrial biodiversity.

Rebuilding marine life — “The logic is: leave nature alone, and it will come back. Not necessarily as it was before, but it will come back.

Towards a taxonomically unbiased European Union biodiversity strategy for 2030 — “… states that the emperor has no clothes, providing an estimate of the money dedicated to biodiversity conservation (a lot of money) and then stating that the bulk of biodiversity remains unstudied and unprotected, while efforts are biased towards just a few “popular” species.

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Grand Challenges in Global Biodiversity Threats

8 10 2020

Last week I mentioned that the new journal Frontiers in Conservation Science is now open for business. As promised, I wrote a short article outlining our vision for the Global Biodiversity Threats section of the journal. It’s open-access, of course, so I’m also copying here on ConservationBytes.com.


Most conservation research and its applications tend to happen most frequently at reasonably fine spatial and temporal scales — for example, mesocosm experiments, single-species population viability analyses, recovery plans, patch-level restoration approaches, site-specific biodiversity surveys, et cetera. Yet, at the other end of the scale spectrum, there have been many overviews of biodiversity loss and degradation, accompanied by the development of multinational policy recommendations to encourage more sustainable decision making at lower levels of sovereign governance (e.g., national, subnational).

Yet truly global research in conservation science is fact comparatively rare, as poignantly demonstrated by the debates surrounding the evidence for and measurement of planetary tipping points (Barnosky et al., 2012; Brook et al., 2013; Lenton, 2013). Apart from the planetary scale of human-driven disruption to Earth’s climate system (Lenton, 2011), both scientific evidence and policy levers tend to be applied most often at finer, more tractable research and administrative scales. But as the massive ecological footprint of humanity has grown exponentially over the last century (footprintnetwork.org), robust, truly global-scale evidence of our damage to the biosphere is now starting to emerge (Díaz et al., 2019). Consequently, our responses to these planet-wide phenomena must also become more global in scope.

Conservation scientists are adept at chronicling patterns and trends — from the thousands of vertebrate surveys indicating an average reduction of 68% in the numbers of individuals in populations since the 1970s (WWF, 2020), to global estimates of modern extinction rates (Ceballos and Ehrlich, 2002; Pimm et al., 2014; Ceballos et al., 2015; Ceballos et al., 2017), future models of co-extinction cascades (Strona and Bradshaw, 2018), the negative consequences of invasive species across the planet (Simberloff et al., 2013; Diagne et al., 2020), discussions surrounding the evidence for the collapse of insect populations (Goulson, 2019; Komonen et al., 2019; Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys, 2019; Cardoso et al., 2020; Crossley et al., 2020), the threats to soil biodiversity (Orgiazzi et al., 2016), and the ubiquity of plastic pollution (Beaumont et al., 2019) and other toxic substances (Cribb, 2014), to name only some of the major themes in global conservation. 

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How much is that iguana in the window?

25 08 2020

In our latest study, we examine the downstream effects of publicising an elevated species description for a reptile that is highly prized in the international commercial wildlife trade.

We describe how iguanas from an insular population of the common green iguana (Iguana iguana) entered commercial trade shortly after an announcement was made indicating that the population would be described as a new species.

The international commercial wildlife trade presents a known risk factor for wild populations of threatened species. One organisation in particular regulates the international trade in species — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Although most people probably know about the illegal practices involving iconic elephants and rhinos, reptiles are also targeted and traded. For example, after its discovery and description in 2016, and even though locality data were safeguarded, China’s endemic Mountain spiny crocodile newt (Echinotriton maxiquadratus) quickly entered the trade. This put conservation pressure on this small-range species (1, 2). Therefore, CITES signatory countries placed this species on its Appendix II in 2019, which lists animals and plants in need of protection.  

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The only constant is change

27 07 2020

I just wrote a piece for the Flinders University alumnus magazine — Encounter — and I thought I’d share it here.

encounter-2020_Page_01

As an ecologist concerned with how life changes and adapts to the vagaries of climate and pervasive biological shuffling, ‘constant change’ is more than just a mantra — it is, in fact, the mathematical foundation of our entire discipline.

But if change is inevitable, how can we ensure it is in the right direction?

Take climate change for example. Since the Earth first formed it has experienced abrupt climate shifts many times, both to the detriment of most species in existence at any given time, and to the advantage of those species evolving from the ashes.

For more than 3.5 billion years, species have evolved and gone extinct, such that more than 99% of all species that have ever existed are now confined, permanently, to the vaults of the past.

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A brief history of environmentalism in Australia since European invasion

29 06 2020

A (heavily) modified and updated excerpt from our 2015 book Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie

The Australian awakening to its environmental dilemmas was a little more sluggish than elsewhere in the New World. Not only did Europeans arrive in Australia en masse only about 250 years ago, they had a more limited view of their new landscape, and were, at least initially, constrained by the harshness of their new home. Those mostly British settlers brought with them the fully formed ideas of development and progress shaped by centuries of land use in the Motherland. That ideal of conquering wilderness and transforming it into the bucolic landscape typical of the English countryside was their driving force.

The early settlers viewed the Australian bush as ugly and monotonous, features that could only be overcome by human occupation and cultivation. This neo-classical view, homesickness and the Romantic desire to transform their homes and farms into an image of those from their homeland, were defining forces in early Australian history. Unlike in Europe, though, where there were cultural taboos associated with forest degradation — bound in mysticism, spirituality, folklore and politics — no such restrictions applied to the unfamiliar Australian bush.

In fact, the Australian government passed the Crown Lands Alienation Act in 1861, which was designed to ‘open up’ the colony to settlement, and penalized landholders for not clearing the land (via a forfeit of the land back to the Crown). That single Act guaranteed the deforestation wave would continue for over a 100 years. That, and the persistent desire to make the new land look as much as possible as the old, has ensured that continuing demise of Australia’s biodiversity.

Figure 3.3-Clearing for Agriculture

Clearing for agriculture in early settlement. Anonymous, Government Farm at Castle Hill, circa 1803. Watercolour, 24×35 cm. Permission to reproduce courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Interestingly, clashes over land use between the settlers and Indigenous peoples were probably some of the first demonstrations of what today we would call ‘environmentalism’ in Australia. Aboriginal nations were intent on preserving their way of life (and indeed, their lives) in the face of the settlers’ onslaught. But this was seen, at most, as a mild inconvenience for the new Australians who in response invoked the idea of terra nullius — that no one owned the land, making it available to anyone (white) who wished to ‘improve’ (clear) it. Read the rest of this entry »








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