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

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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

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Toilet Torrens II: The Plot Sickens

14 02 2009
© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

A few days into the Torrens ‘River’ disaster, and we see very little in the way of a truly dedicated, organised clean-up. With some token efforts to clean up the more obvious rubbish in the lake section itself (i.e., cars, fridges, etc.), there is nothing suggesting the true problems are going to be addressed. Indeed, the authorities are desperately trying to ‘find’ water to cover the problem up rather than deal with it.

Instead of a catchment-wide mass clean-up, the removal of the water-sucking invasive plants that line the river’s edge (see photos below), the implementation of a water neutrality scheme, and the removal of hundreds of untreated drainage pipes, they are willing to spend over $1 million to pipe in water from elsewhere.

I can’t believe it.

This is the best opportunity Adelaide has ever had to rectify the problem and clean the mess up once and for all; instead, the investment is going toward a cosmetic cover-up that will effectively fix nothing. Toothless. Some images I took today while cycling along the Torrens path follow:

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

CJA Bradshaw

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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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Assessing Conservation Actions

3 09 2008

A good post from Tim Bean (Berkeley) over at – one for the Potential list:


This paper in press at Conservation Letters by Haines et al. presents a novel method for assessing conservation actions. There’s been quite a bit of work done in the past decade, particularly by NGOs, to develop methods to assess whether their actions have actually succeeded; this work was spear-headed in particular by Nick Salafsky and his Foundations of Success. This paper suggests that many of conservation biggest problems can be monitored with spatial datasets and proposes using the Human Footprint as a basis for such monitoring. The Human Footprint is, in essence, a collection of spatial datasets that holistically represent the collective anthropogenic impact on the land. In their paper, Haines et al. suggest that by tracking these spatial datasets through time in a paired way – conservation action site randomly paired with a control – we can get a better handle on whether the particular action was successful. The nice thing about the paper is how clear-eyed it is about what is and is not possible using this approach:

The human footprint is a spatially explicit approach to conservation planning that may serve as an effective visual medium to public audiences and stakeholders worldwide by simplifying the presentation of complex information.

(This is always the last, best resort for spatial analysts: even if the model isn’t perfect, it’s a great communication tool. ) But they also warn:

Spatial data rarely produce a complete picture of what negative impacts are occurring because human footprint data are not well-suited to track anthropogenic impacts that lack a spatial signature…[e.g.] the spread of some chemical pollutants, invasive species, diseases, and impacts of poaching…

Although I have to disagree partially with these particulars – presence of roads is often a very good correlative of poaching – their main point is an important one to consider. How well does a spatial model of human influence catch these hidden factors? A few years ago I did an informal (and sadly never completed) analysis of invasive plants and the Human Footprint and found that they were actually fairly well correlated. You could also argue that disease may be higher amongst individuals that are negatively impacted by the presence of humans. There’s plenty of opportunity here for further exploration.

Thanks, Tim.

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Native forests reduce the risk of catastrophic floods

20 08 2008

A-Pakistan-Army-helicopte-004Each year extreme floods kill or displace hundreds of thousands of people and cause billions of dollars in damage to property. The consequences of floods are particularly catastrophic in developing countries generally lacking the infrastructure to deal adequately with above-average water levels.

For centuries it has been believed that native forest cover reduced the risk and severity of catastrophic flooding, but there has been strong scientific debate over the role of forests in flood mitigation.

Forest loss is currently estimated at 13 million hectares each year, with 6 million hectares of that being primary forest previously untouched by human activities. These primary forests are considered the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, but this realisation has not halted their immense rate of loss.

Last year my colleagues and I published a paper entitled Global evidence that deforestation amplifies flood risk and severity in the developing world in Global Change Biology (highlighted in Nature and Faculty of 1000) that has finally provided tangible evidence that there is a strong link between deforestation and flood risk. Read the rest of this entry »

More on ‘roos

8 08 2008
Couldn’t resist posting this. Brilliant. Copyright Cathy Wilcox and the Sydney Morning Herald (in reference to previous post).

From the mountains to the sea

18 07 2008

The theme of this year’s Society for Conservation Biology annual meeting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA.

The positives: I was fortunate to meet some great established and up-and-coming conservation biologists that I had not yet met face to face; the people were friendly; the organisation was efficient; and many of the talks were good, solid science.

The negatives: I truly felt a lack of excitement or passion at the conference. There was nothing to suggest that we are in the midst of a conservation crisis; perhaps we as scientists have seen and heard it so much that the ‘crisis’ tone has been lost in our delivery. Have we given up? The quality of the the research and the dedication of those involved suggest otherwise, but I can’t help think that there is a spark missing from those responsible for convincing the rest of the world that we are in serious trouble. It’s almost as if we’ve come full circle – the early days of conservation biology (the discipline) struggled to find its place among the more classic scientific research fields, but over 50 years of excellent and ground-breaking research has secured its place among the most relevant of today’s scientific endeavours. Conservation scientists began to take on bolder roles as advocates in addition to being purely objective information providers. The world’s sad state has ratified the importance of what we do like never before, but it would be sadder still if we slipped back into the passionless role of mere data providers.

I hope the next conference inspires me more. No offence intended to the conference organisers – my statements reflect the apparent laissez-faire of all of us.

IUCN Chief Scientist & Asia

15 07 2008

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

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

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

CJA Bradshaw

‘Conservation for the people’

11 07 2008

This, the title of Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier’s paper in Scientific American, embodies in some ways, what this website is all about. Certainly not the first researchers to conclude that people will only value biodiversity if it has direct implications for their own well-being (economic prosperity, health, longevity, etc.), Kareiva and Marvier’s paper nicely summarises, however, the extent to which conservation research MUST quantify these links. The corollary is that if we don’t, conservation research will pass into oblivion (along with the species we are attempting to protect from extinction). Nice paper, and certainly one to watch.

CJA Bradshaw

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Conservation Letters – a scientific journal with a difference?

5 07 2008

ConLetters-Jan12I’d like to introduce the latest scientific conservation journal – Conservation Letters (Wiley-Blackwell). If you are a publishing conservation scientist then you will have undoubtedly heard about this already. I must admit my biased opinion up front – I have the role of Senior Editor for the journal under the auspices of the venerable Editors-in-Chief, Professor Richard Cowling, Professor Hugh Possingham, Professor Bill Sutherland and Dr. Michael Mascia.

We’ve been doing conservation science now for well over 50 years, and there has been some fantastic, hard-hitting, brilliant research done. However, extinction rates continue to soar, habitat loss and fragmentation abound, bushmeat hunting and other forms of direct over-exploitation show no signs of slowing and invasive species are penetrating into the most ‘pristine’ habitats. To top it all off, climate change is exacerbating each and every one of these extinction drivers.

So what have we been doing wrong?

Clearly the best research is going unheeded – this is not to say that some progress has not been made, and I hope to highlight the best examples of the hardest-hitting research on this site – it simply means that we are losing the battle. Enter Conservation Letters – a journal designed to make conservation research more available to policy makers and managers to make true strides forward in biodiversity conservation. I’m not suggesting for a moment that other well-known, respected and established conservation journals have not done their job; without the research those journals publish we’d certainly be much worse off. However, we have recognised that our research isn’t affecting as many people as it should.

With Conservation Letters now well into its first year, I hope that we start to see some changes here, and I hope that the discipline will have a much greater net effect on slowing (and perhaps) reversing the extinction trends we observe today. Climate change is making this much more challenging, as well as the ever-increasing human population. Can we make better progress? – I certainly hope so.

CJA Bradshaw

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Conservation that bites

2 07 2008

This new website will post examples of conservation science with real-world impacts to policy that improves biodiversity outcomes. Stay tuned.

CJA Bradshaw

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