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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Collect and analyse your Altmetric data

17 11 2020

Last week I reported that I had finally delved into the world of R Shiny to create an app that calculates relative citation-based ranks for researchers.

I’m almost slightly embarrassed to say that Shiny was so addictive that I ended up making another app.

This new app takes any list of user-supplied digital object identifiers (doi) and fetches their Altmetric data for you.

Why might you be interested in a paper’s Altmetric data? Citations are only one measure of an article’s impact on the research community, whereas Altmetrics tend to indicate the penetration of the article’s findings to a much broader audience.

Altmetric is probably the leading way to gauge the ‘impact’ (attention) an article has commanded across all online sources, including news articles, tweets, Facebook entries, blogs, Wikipedia mentions and others.

And for those of us interested in influencing policy with our work, Altmetrics also collate citations arising from policy documents.

Read the rest of this entry »

New journal: Frontiers in Conservation Science

29 09 2020

Several months ago, Daniel Blumstein of UCLA approached me with an offer — fancy leading a Special Section in a new Frontiers journal dedicated to conservation science?

I admit that my gut reaction was a visceral ‘no’, both in terms of the extra time it would require, as well as my autonomous reflex of ‘not another journal, please‘.

I had, for example, spent a good deal of blood, sweat, and tears helping to launch Conservation Letters when I acted as Senior Editor for the first 3.5 years of its existence (I can’t believe that it has been nearly a decade since I left the journal). While certainly an educational and reputational boost, I can’t claim that the experience was always a pleasant one — as has been said many times before, the fastest way to make enemies is to become an editor.

But then Dan explained what he had in mind for Frontiers in Conservation Science, and the more I spoke with him, the more I started to think that it wasn’t a bad idea after all for me to join.

Read the rest of this entry »

The politics of environmental destruction

22 10 2019

C_SE 409521698 Paul Ehrlich Lecture Event - Eventbrite2

You’d think I’d get tired of this, wouldn’t you? Alas, the fight does wear me down, but I must persist.

My good friend and colleague, the legendary Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, as well as his equally legendary wife, Anne, will be joining us in Adelaide for a brief visit during their annual southern migration.

Apart from just catching up over a few good bottles of wine (oh, do those two enjoy fine wines!), we have the immense privilege of having Paul appear at two events while he’s in town.

I’m really only going to be talking about the second of the two events (the first is a Science Meets Parliament gig with me and many others at the South Australia Parliament on 12 November): a grand, public lecture and Q&A session held at Flinders University on Wednesday, 13 November.

Haven’t heard of Paul? Where have you been hiding? If by some miracle you haven’t, here’s a brief bio:

Paul Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus, President of the Center for Conservation Biology, Department of Biology, Stanford University and Adjunct Professor, University of Technology, Sydney. He does research in population biology (includes ecology, evolutionary biology, behavior, and human ecology and cultural evolution). Ehrlich has carried out field, laboratory and theoretical research on a wide array of problems ranging from the dynamics and genetics of insect populations, studies of the ecological and evolutionary interactions of plants and herbivores, and the behavioral ecology of birds and reef fishes, to experimental studies of the effects of crowding on human beings and studies of cultural evolution, especially the evolution of norms. He is President of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere and is author and coauthor of more than 1100 scientific papers and articles in the popular press and over 40 books. He is best known to his efforts to alert the public to the many intertwined drivers that are pushing humanity toward a collapse of civilization – especially overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich, and lack of economic, racial, and gender equity. Ehrlich is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Entomological Society and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.  He is a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, an Honorary Member of the British Ecological Society and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society.  Among his many other honours are the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Crafoord Prize in Population Biology and the Conservation of Biological Diversity (an explicit replacement for the Nobel Prize); a MacArthur Prize Fellowship; the Volvo Environment Prize; UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize; the Heinz Award for the Environment; the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement; the Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences; the Blue Planet Prize;  the Eminent Ecologist award of the Ecological Society of America, the Margalef Prize in Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology. Prof Ehrlich has appeared as a guest on more than 1000 TV and radio programs; he also was a correspondent for NBC News. He has given many hundreds of public lectures in the past 50 years.

I hope your jaw just dropped.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Great Dying

30 09 2019

Here’s a presentation I gave earlier in the year for the Flinders University BRAVE Research and Innovation series:

There is No Plan(et) B — What you can do about Earth’s extinction emergency

Earth is currently experiencing a mass extinction brought about by, … well, … us. Species are being lost at a rate similar to when the dinosaurs disappeared. But this time, it’s not due to a massive asteroid hitting the Earth; species are being removed from the planet now because of human consumption of natural resources. Is a societal collapse imminent, and do we need to prepare for a post-collapse society rather than attempt to avoid one? Or, can we limit the severity and onset of a collapse by introducing a few changes such as removing political donations, becoming vegetarians, or by reducing the number of children one has?

Read the rest of this entry »

“Overabundant” wildlife usually isn’t

12 07 2019

koalacrosshairsLate last year (10 December) I was invited to front up to the ‘Overabundant and Pest Species Inquiry’ at the South Australian Parliament to give evidence regarding so-called ‘overabundant’ and ‘pest’ species.

There were the usual five to six Ministers and various aides on the Natural Resources Committee (warning here: the SA Parliament website is one of the most confusing, archaic, badly organised, and generally shitty government sites I’ve yet to visit, so things require a bit of nuanced searching) to whom I addressed on issues ranging from kangaroos, to dingoes, to koalas, to corellas. The other submissions I listened to that day were (mostly) in favour of not taking drastic measures for most of the human-wildlife conflicts that were being investigated.

Forward seven months and the Natural Resources Committee has been reported to have requested the SA Minister for Environment to allow mass culling of any species (wildlife or feral) that they deem to be ‘overabundant’ or a ‘pest’.

So, the first problem is terminological in nature. If you try to wade through the subjectivity, bullshit, vested interests, and general ignorance, you’ll quickly realise that there is no working definition or accepted meaning for the words ‘overabundant’ or ‘pest’ in any legislation. Basically, it comes down to a handful of lobbyists and other squeaky wheels defining anything they deem to be a nuisance as ‘overabundant’, irrespective of its threat status, ecological role, or purported impacts. It is, therefore, entirely subjective, and boils down to this: “If I don’t like it, it’s an overabundant pest”. Read the rest of this entry »

What Works in Conservation 2018

23 05 2018


Do you have a copy of this book? If not, why not?


This book is free to download. This book contains the evidence for the effectiveness of over 1200 things you might do for conservation. If you don’t have a copy, go and download yourself a free one here, right now, before you even finish reading this article. Seriously. Go. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll change your life.

Why you’ll laugh

OK, I may have exaggerated the laughing part. ‘What Works in Conservation 2018’ is a serious and weighty tome, 660 pages of the evidence for 1277 conservation interventions (anything you might do to conserve a species or habitat), assessed by experts and graded into colour-coded categories of effectiveness. This is pretty nerdy stuff, and probably not something you’ll lay down with on the beach or dip into as you enjoy a large glass of scotch (although I don’t know your life, maybe it is).

But that’s not really what it’s meant for. This is intended as a reference book for conservation managers and policymakers, a way to scan through your possible solutions and get a feel for those that are most likely to be effective. Once you have a few ideas in mind, you can follow the links to see the full evidence base for each study at conservationevidence.com, where over 5000 studies have been summarised into digestible paragraphs.

The book takes the form of discrete chapters on taxa, habitats or topics (such as ‘control of freshwater invasives’). Each chapter is split into IUCN threat categories such as ‘Agriculture’ or ‘Energy production and mining’. For each threat there are a series of interventions that could be used to tackle it, and for each of these interventions the evidence has been collated. Experts have then graded the body of the evidence over three rounds of Delphi scoring, looking at the effectiveness, certainty in the evidence (i.e., the quality and quantity of evidence available), and any harms to the target taxa. These scores combine to place each intervention in a category from ‘Beneficial’ to ‘Likely to be ineffective or harmful’. Read the rest of this entry »

Penguins cheated by ecosystem change

13 03 2018

Jorge Drexler sings “… I was committed not to see what I saw, but sometimes life is more complex than what it looks like …”*. This excerpt by the Oscar-winning Uruguayan singer seems to foretell the theme of this blog: how the ecological complexity of marine ecosystems can elicit false signals to their predators. Indeed, the fidelity of marine predators to certain feeding areas can turn demographically detrimental to themselves when the amount of available food shrinks. A study of jackass penguins illustrates the phenomenon in a context of overfishing and ocean warming.


Adult of jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus) from Robben Island (South Africa) — in the inset, one of the first juveniles released with a satellite transmitter on its back. The species is ‘Endangered’ under IUCN’s criteria (28), following a recent halving of the total population currently estimated at ~ 80,000 adults. Jackass penguins are the only penguins living in Africa, and owe their common name to their vocalisations (you can hear their braying sounds here); adults are ~ 50 cm tall and weigh ~ 3 kg. Photos courtesy of Richard Sherley.

Surface temperature, dissolved oxygen, acidity and primary productivity are, by and large, the top four environmental factors driving the functionality of marine ecosystems (1). Growing scientific evidence supports the idea that anthropogenic warming of the atmosphere and the oceans correlates with this quartet (2). For instance, marine primary productivity is enhanced by increased temperatures (3), but a warmer sea surface intensifies stratification, i.e., stacked layers of seawater with contrasting physical and chemical properties.

In coastal areas experiencing ‘upwelling’ (where winds displace surface water, allowing deep water laden with nutrients to reach the euphotic zone where plankton communities feast), stratification weakens upwelling currents and, in turn, limits the growth of plankton (4) that fuels the entire trophic web, including our fisheries. The study of these complex trophic cascades is particularly cumbersome from the perspective of large marine predators because of their capacity to move long distances, from hundreds to thousands of kilometres (5), with strong implications for their conservation (6).

With those caveats in mind, Richard Sherley and colleagues satellite-tracked the movement of 54 post-fledged, juvenile jackass penguins (Spheniscus demersus) for 2-3 years (7). All individuals had been hatched in eight colonies (accounting for 80% of the global population), and were equipped with platform terminal transmitters. Jackass penguins currently nest in 28 island and mainland locations between South Africa and Namibia. Juveniles swim up to 2000 km in search of food and, when approaching adulthood, return to their native colonies where they reproduce and reside for the remainder of their lives (watch individuals swimming here).

The natural history of this species is linked to the Southern Hemisphere’s trade winds (‘alisios’ for Spanish speakers), which blow from the southeast to the tropics. In the South Atlantic, trade winds sustain the Benguela Current, the waters of which surface from some 300 m of depth and fertilise the marine ecosystems stretching from the Western coasts of South Africa to Angola (8). Read the rest of this entry »

Australians: out-of-touch, urban squanderers

23 03 2015

There’s a romantic myth surrounding Australia that is pervasive both overseas and within the national psyche: this sun-scorched continent home to stoic bushmen1 that eek out a frugal, yet satisfying existence in this harsh rural land. Unfortunately that ideal is anathema to almost every Australian alive today.

While some elements of that myth do have a basis in reality – it is indeed a hot, dry, mostly inhospitable place if you count the entire land area (all 7.69 million square kilometres of it), and it does have the dubious honour of being the driest inhabited continent on Earth – most Australians live nowhere near the dry interior or the bush.

Despite our remarkably low average population density (a mere 3.09 people per square kilometre), Australia is in fact one of the most urbanised nations on the planet, with nearly 90% of its citizenry living within a major urban centre. As a result, our largely urban/suburban, latte-sipping, supermarket-shopping population has little, if any, connection to the vast landscape that surrounds its comfortable, built-up environs. There should be little wonder then that Australians are so disconnected from their own ecology, and little surprise that our elected officials (who, after all, represent the values of the majority of the citizens they purport to represent), are doing nothing to slow the rapid flushing of our environment down the toilet. Indeed, the current government is in fact actively encouraging the pace of that destruction. Read the rest of this entry »

Evidence-based conservation advocacy can work

15 09 2014

Colin 'Captain Hook' Barnett

Colin ‘Captain Hook’ Barnett

Just before knock-off time last Friday, I received some inspiring news. It’s not often in conservation science that the news is good, so even small wins are deliciously welcome.

Unless you’ve been out bush for the last few days or completely ignored the news services, you would have heard that Western Australia has decided not to go ahead with its moronic shark-culling programme. It all came down to the Western Australia Environmental Protection Authority‘s recommendation to the state government that it should not proceed with the cull because of ‘uncertainties’ in its effectiveness and impacts. While the government could conceivably ignore this recommendation and go ahead with the cull anyway, the right-wing Premier of Western Australia, Colin ‘Captain Hook’ Barnett, stated that while he was “disappointed”, the government was unlikely to appeal the decision, at least this year.

Putting the obvious commentary on his response aside for the moment, this is a rare example where overwhelming evidence actually persuaded a semi-autonomous government agency from going ahead with clearly stupid environmental policies. I can claim a small part in this endeavour, having co-written the synopsis of the scientific consensus statement and co-signed the submission to the Environmental Protection Authority. However, it was mainly down to the hard work and dedication of Professor Jessica Meeuwig of the University of Western Australia that the Western Australia government had little choice to but to heed our condemnation. Without her, I can pretty much guarantee that the shark slaughter would be continuing this year.

As they say in France, “chapeau” to Jessica. Read the rest of this entry »

A fairer way to rank conservation and ecology journals in 2014

1 08 2014

Normally I just report the Thomson-Reuters ISI Web of Knowledge Impact Factors for conservation-orientated journals each year, with some commentary on the rankings of other journals that also publish conservation-related material from time to time (see my lists of the 2008200920102011 and 2012 Impact Factor rankings).

This year, however, I’m doing something different given the growing negativity towards Thomson-Reuters’ secretive behaviour (which they’ve promised this year to rectify by being more transparent) and the generally poor indication of quality that the Impact Factor represents. Although the 2013 Impact Factors have just been released (very late this year, for some reason), I’m going to compare them to the increasingly reputable Google Scholar Journal Metrics, which intuitively make more sense to me, are transparent and turn a little of the rankings dogma on its ear.

In addition to providing both the Google metric as well as the Impact Factor rankings, I’ve come up with a composite (average) rank from the two systems. I think ranks are potentially more useful than raw corrected citation metrics because you must first explicitly set your set of journals to compare. I also go one step further and modify the average ranking with a penalty term that is essentially the addition of the coefficient of variation of rank disparity between the two systems.

Read on for the results.

Read the rest of this entry »

Western Australia’s moronic shark cull

4 07 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Christopher Neff from the University of Sydney stated:

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

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

MPs’ ignorance puts national parks in peril

30 08 2013

greedyLed by Bill Laurance, our latest opinion editorial in the Higher Education supplement. Interestingly, it has already spawned a bilious and spittle-flecked response by Queensland’s Acting National Parks Minister, Tim Mander. Given the evidence, who’s side do you take? I’m happy that at least one of the worst culprit state governments is at least now paying some attention to the issue.

LAST week the world was appalled when Ecuador decided to open up one of its iconic national parks for petroleum development, with Leonardo di Caprio being among the chorus of dissenting voices. Yet the world should be even more disappointed in Australia, a far wealthier nation whose parks could be facing even worse threats.

Why is Australia going down this reckless path? It’s all down to the state governments – especially in Victoria, Queensland and NSW.

For the conservative politicians currently holding sway in these States, it seems it’s time to generate some quick cash while cutting park budgets – and never mind the impact on Australia’s imperilled ecosystems and biodiversity.

In Victoria, for instance, land developers are now being allowed to build hotels and other ventures in national parks. In NSW, recreational shooting and possibly logging will be allowed in parks if new legislation is passed. In NSW’s marine parks, bans on shore-based recreational fishing are being lifted [see previous post here].

Other parks in NSW and Queensland are being opened up to livestock grazing. In Morrinya National Park in Queensland, a strip of forest 20 km long was recently cleared for fencing, with new stock-watering tanks being established throughout the park. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation and ecology journal Impact Factors 2012

20 06 2013

smack2It’s the time of year that scientists love to hate – the latest (2012) journal ranking have been released by ISI Web of Knowledge. Many people despise this system, despite its major role in driving publishing trends.

I’ve previously listed the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 IF for major conservation and ecology journals. As before, I’ve included the previous year’s IF alongside the latest values to see how journals have improved or worsened (but take note – journals increase their IF on average anyway merely by the fact that publication frequency is increasing, so small jumps aren’t necessarily meaningful; I suspect that declines are therefore more telling).

Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation and Ecology Impact Factors 2011

29 06 2012

Here we go – another year, another set of citations, and another journal ranking by ISI Web of Knowledge Journal Citation Reports. Love them or loathe them, Impact Factors (IF) are immensely important for dictating publication trends. No, a high Impact Factor doesn’t mean your paper will receive hundreds of citations, but the two are correlated.

I’ve previously listed the 2008, 2009 and 2010 IF for major conservation and ecology journals – now here are the 2011 IF fresh off the press (so to speak). I’ve included the 2010 alongside to see how journals have improved or worsened (but take note – journals increase their IF on average anyway merely by the fact that publication frequency is increasing, so small jumps aren’t necessarily meaningful).

Read the rest of this entry »

Arguing for scientific socialism in ecology funding

26 06 2012

What makes an ecologist ‘successful’? How do you measure ‘success’? We’d all like to believe that success is measured by our results’ transformation of ecological theory and practice – in a conservation sense, this would ultimately mean our work’s ability to prevent (or at least, slow down) extinctions.

Alas, we’re not that good at quantifying such successes, and if you use the global metric of species threats, deforestation, pollution, invasive species and habitat degradation, we’ve failed utterly.

So instead, we measure scientific ‘success’ via peer-reviewed publications, and the citations (essentially, scientific cross-referencing) that arise from these. These are blunt instruments, to be sure, but they are really the only real metrics we have. If you’re not being cited, no one is reading your work; and if no one is reading you’re work, your cleverness goes unnoticed and you help nothing and no one.

A paper I just read in the latest issue of Oikos goes some way to examine what makes a ‘successful’ ecologist (i.e., in terms of publications, citations and funding), and there are some very interesting results. Read the rest of this entry »

2010 ISI Impact Factors out now (with some surprises)

29 06 2011

It’s been another year of citations and now the latest list of ISI Impact Factors (2010) has come out. Regardless of how much stock you put in these (see here for a damning review), you cannot ignore their influence on publishing trends and author journal choices.

As I’ve done for 2008 and 2009, I’ve taken the liberty of providing the new IFs for some prominent conservation and ecology journals, and a few other journals occasionally publishing conservation-related material.

One particular journal deserves special attention here. Many of you might know that I was Senior Editor with Conservation Letters from 2008-2010, and I (with other editorial staff) made some predictions about where the journal’s first impact factor might be on the scale (see also here). Well, I have to say the result exceeded my expectations (although Hugh Possingham was closer to the truth in the end – bugger!). So the journal’s first 2010 impact factor (for which I take a modicum of credit ;-) is a whopping… 4.694 (3rd among all ‘conservation’ journals). Well done to all and sundry who have edited and published in the journal. My best wishes to the team that has to deal with the inevitable rush of submissions this will likely bring!

So here are the rest of the 2010 Impact Factors with the 2009 values for comparison: Read the rest of this entry »

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.

The non-human view of the (real) world

21 05 2009

cokebottleglassesWe all have a distorted view of the planet. Our particular experiences, drives, beliefs and predilections all taint our ability to perceive and interpret our world objectively and rationally.

Enter science.

Science, in all its manifestations, aims, outcomes and applications, is united by one basic principle: to reduce human subjectivity. Contrary to popular belief, science isn’t a ‘thing’; and it’s certainly not a belief system. It isn’t even a philosophy (although there are several different major branches of the philosophy of science). It is, put way too simplistically, a method that attempts to isolate pattern from noise and objectivity from desire. It’s by no means a perfect system because human subjectivity can still creep in even when we make our best attempts to avoid it, but it’s the best system we have. Chances are too that if you’ve made a mistake and haven’t been as objective as you could have been, some other scientist will come along and rip down your house of cards. Two steps forward and one step back. That’s science.

So, where am I going? You might have seen this before, but I thought it worthwhile reproducing some of the images from Daniel Dorling, Mark Newman and Anna Barford’s The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the Way We Live (Thames & Hudson 2008). There are some fascinating images of the world map that alter the ‘volume’ of a country relative to a particular resource use or conservation measure. The example shows the use of coal power, ecological footprint, forest depletion, water depletion, waste recycled, extinct species, species at risk, plants at risk, mammals at risk (check out the IUCN Red List for the last 4 categories), greenhouse gas emissions, energy depletion, and biocapacity. Check out your country and see how well or poorly you’re doing relative to the rest of the world.

CJA Bradshaw

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl

Shifting baselines

19 02 2009


A term first coined by Daniel Pauly (who we’ve previously covered as a Conservation Scholar), and one I could easily classify as a conservation Classic, it essentially describes the way changes to a system are measured against previous baselines, which themselves may represent changes from the original state of the system (definition modified from Wikipedia). Pauly originally meant it in a fisheries context, where “… fisheries scientists sometimes fail to identify the correct “baseline” population size (e.g., how abundant a fish species population was before human exploitation) and thus work with a shifted baseline“.

It’s easily considered a mantra in fisheries (there’s even a dedicated Scienceblog on the topic, and several other fisheries-related websites [e.g., here & here]), but it has been extended to all sorts of other conservation issues.

As it turns out, however, quantifying ‘shifting baselines’ in conservation is rather difficult, and there’s little good evidence in most systems (despite the logic and general acceptance of its ubiquity by conservation scientists). Now Papworth and colleagues have addressed this empirical hole in their new paper entitled Evidence for shifting baseline syndrome in conservation published online recently in Conservation Letters.

Papworth et al. discuss two kinds of shifting baselines: (1) general amnesia (“… individuals setting their perceptions from their own experience, and failing to pass their experience on to future generations”) and (2) personal amnesia (“… individuals updating their own perception of normality; so that even those who experienced different previous conditions believe that current conditions are the same as past conditions”), and they provide three well-quantified examples: (a) perceptions of bushmeat hunters in Gabon, (b) perceptions of bushmeat hunters in Equatorial Guinea and (c) perceptions of bird population trends in the UK.

Although the data have issues, all three cases demonstrate convincing evidence of the shifting baselines syndrome (with the UK example providing an example of both general and personal amnesia). Now, this may all seem rather logical, but I don’t want the reader to underestimate the importance of the Papworth paper – this is really one of the first demonstrations that it is a real problem in vastly different systems (i.e., not just fisheries). I think it’s hard evidence that the issue is a big one and cannot be ignored when presenting historical data for conservation purposes.

Humans inevitably have short memories when it comes to environmental degradation – this essentially means that in most demonstrations of biodiversity decline, it’s probably a lot worse even than the data might suggest. Policy makers take note.

CJA Bradshaw

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl