Bring it back

13 02 2018

Protea compacta in fynbos, a form of shrubland at Soetanysberg, South Africa. Photo: Brian van Wilgen

Restoration of lost habitats and ecosystems hits all the right notes — conservation optimism, a can-do attitude, and the excitement of seeing biologically impoverished areas teem with life once more.

The Strategic Plan of the Convention on Biological Diversity includes a target to restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems. This is being enthusiastically taken up in many places, including through initiatives such as the Bonn Challenge, a global aspiration to restore 350 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2030. This is in recognition of the importance of healthy ecosystems in not just conserving biodiversity, but also in combating climate change. Peatlands and forests lock away carbon, while grassland diversity stabilises ecosystem productivity during extreme weather events. So how can we make sure that these restoration efforts are as effective as possible? Read the rest of this entry »

Giving a monkey’s about primate conservation

12 12 2017
Urban monkey living (Macaque, Gibraltar) small

Concrete jungle. A Barbary macaque sits in a human-dominated landscape in Gibraltar. Photo: Silviu Petrovan

Saving primates is a complicated business. Primates are intelligent, social animals that have complex needs. They come into conflict with humans when they raid rubbish bins and crops, chew power cables, and in some cases become aggressive towards people.

Humans, however, have the upper hand. While 60% of non-human primate species are threatened, humans grow in numbers and power, building roads through forests, hunting and trapping primates, and replacing their habitat with farms and houses.

To help primatologists choose the most effective conservation approaches to resolve these problems, researchers in the Conservation Evidence project teamed up with primate researchers to produce a global database on the effectiveness of primate conservation solutions. This free database, which can also be downloaded as a single pdf, summarizes the evidence for 162 conservation interventions — actions that conservationists might take to conserve primates. The data come from searches of over 170 conservation journals and newsletters, and each study is summarized in a single paragraph in plain English, making it possible for conservationists without access to scientific journals to read the key findings.

Front cover primate synopsisSo what works in primate conservation? Well, the picture is rarely straightforward — partly due to the lack of data — but there are some interesting trends. Reducing hunting is one area where there seem to be a range of potentially effective approaches. Community control of patrolling, banning hunting and removing snares was effective in the three studies in which it was tested, all in African countries.

Further emphasizing the importance of involving local communities, implementing no-hunting community policies or traditional hunting bans also appeared helpful in boosting primate numbers. In other places, a more traditional approach of using rangers to protect primates has proved a winning strategy. Training rangers, providing them with arms, and increasing ranger patrols all worked to protect primates from poachers. Identifying the circumstances in which community led approaches or ranger patrols work will be key to implementing the most appropriate response to each conservation challenge. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. Read the rest of this entry »

Making science matter

14 10 2013


I’ve been home from my last overseas trip now for nearly two weeks, but despite not feeling caught up, it’s high time I report what I was up to.

Some of you who follow my Twitter feed or who saw a CB post about cartoonist Seppo Leinonen know that I was visiting the University of Helsinki to participate in a three-day short course for PhD students entitled ‘Making Science Matter‘. I was so impressed with how well Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin put together the course, that I thought I’d share the format with CB readers (just in case any of you out there can be convinced to design a similar course at your university).

I think it’s important first to discuss the philosophy of the course and what it hoped to provide those early-career researchers.

Most science PhD students will tell you once they’ve completed their degree that they feel completely unprepared to launch themselves into the extra-curricular world of communicating their science beyond the ‘traditional’ (peer-reviewed journals) outlets. Swamped with learning how to write concisely and clearly, getting up to speed with the entire body of theory on which their projects are based, mastering advanced modelling and statistical approaches and learning how to apply efficient computer code, it’s no wonder that many students find precious little time for anything else (including families, good food and proper hygiene).

Once they do land that precious post-doctoral fellowship though, they are immediately expected to interact professionally with the media, embrace social media and give fantastic public lectures to engage the uninformed. Right. Read the rest of this entry »

Guilty until proven innocent

18 07 2013

precautionary principleThe precautionary principle – the idea that one should adopt an approach that minimises risk – is so ingrained in the mind of the conservation scientist that we often forget what it really means, or the reality of its implementation in management and policy. Indeed, it has been written about extensively in the peer-reviewed conservation literature for over 20 years at least (some examples here, here, here and here).

From a purely probabilistic viewpoint, the concept is flawlessly logical in most conservation questions. For example, if a particular by-catch of a threatened species is predicted [from a model] to result in a long-term rate of instantaneous population change (r) of -0.02 to 0.01 [uniform distribution], then even though that interval envelops r = 0, one can see that reducing the harvest rate a little more until the lower bound is greater than zero is a good idea to avoid potentially pushing down the population even more. In this way, our modelling results would recommend a policy that formally incorporates the uncertainty of our predictions without actually trying to make our classically black-and-white laws try to legislate uncertainty directly. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation research rarely equals conservation

21 07 2010

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

I am currently attending the 2010 International Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) in Sanur, Bali (Indonesia). As I did a few weeks ago at the ICCB in Canada, I’m tweeting and blogging my way through.

Yesterday I attended a talk by my good friend Trish Shanley (formerly of CIFOR) where she highlighted the disconnect between conservation research and actual conservation. I’ve posted about this before (see Out of touch, impractical and irrelevantMake your conservation PhD relevant), but this was a sobering reminder of how conservation research can be a self-perpetuating phenomenon and often not touch the people who need it most.

Presenting the highlights of her paper published earlier this year in Biotropica entitled Out of the loop: why research rarely reaches policy makers and the public and what can be done, one comment she made during the talk that really caught my attention was the following (I’m paraphrasing, of course).

Most of the world’s poor living off the land are unconcerned about biodiversity per se. As conservationists we should not therefore adopt the typical preamble that biodiversity (e.g., forests) represent the “lungs of our planet” – what people (and especially women) need to know is how biodiversity loss affects “food for my children”.

The paper itself was an interview 268 researchers from 29 countries (of which I was one) about their views on the relevance of their work. Not surprisingly (but amazingly that we were so honest), most respondents stated that their principal target was other scientists, with policy makers and other marginalised groups/local people holding a distant second place. Corporate targets were also pretty rare – I guess we feel as a group that that’s generallly a lost cause.
Neither a surprise was that we generally view peer-reviewed scientific publications as the main vehicle for the dissemination of our results. What was a bit of a surprise though is that we fully admit papers aren’t the best way to trickle down the information (again, more of that brutal honesty); apparently we mainly believe ‘stakeholder meetings’
are more effective (I have my doubts).

Make your conservation PhD relevant

23 04 2010

The other day I was approached by two PhD candidates from James Cook University in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies who requested I publish a short article they put together on making conservation PhDs relevant while achieving academic excellence. I’m delighted to say that I found the article very well written and topical, so I am pleased to present it in full here.

© J. Cham

Make your conservation PhD relevant – bridging the research-implementation gap

Duan Biggs & Tom Brewer

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia

A recent paper, in Biotropica’s special issue on bridging the research-implementation gap (Duchelle et al. 2009) included examples of postgraduate students in the University of Florida’s Tropical Conservation and Development Program contributing to knowledge exchange with local stakeholders. The authors argue that this experience, during training, enables postgraduate students to develop their skills to confront the elaborate set of management and policy issues that will be present through their careers. We agree with Duchelle and her co-authors’ arguments, but believe that further discussion is required on finding the balance between the requirements of academic training and knowledge sharing with conservation stakeholders at the PhD level specifically.

Earning a PhD requires a novel theoretical contribution to a specific field of knowledge, and the practical value or contribution of that knowledge is of secondary importance, or irrelevant. Therefore, finding synergies between the requirements of academia and knowledge sharing can be particularly challenging at the PhD level. Yet, we believe that in an applied science like conservation, the quality of research and training will be enhanced through being more explicit about how to synergise a scientific contribution worthy of a PhD degree with related practical skills like knowledge sharing. In support of our argument, we propose the following six questions that PhD candidates, together with their academic supervisors, can consider during research design to enhance their contribution to knowledge exchange whilst meeting the requirements of academic training: Read the rest of this entry »