What conservationists should recommend to philanthropists

24 08 2015

business-people-forest-sqIt probably won’t come as too much of a surprise that most of the people I know reasonably well (mates included) are also scientists of some description. I therefore think that I fall into the extremely normal and mundane category of associating the most with people at work. Sure, I’ve also got very good mates who are et alia plumbers, chefs, winemakers (I do live in South Australia, after all), mechanics, coffee roasters and farmers (I also live on a small farm), so at least a get out of the office a bit. In summary, I tend to befriend and hang around people who are for the most part making ends meet, but who are by no means in a position to spend oodles of cash on anything remotely related to the conservation of biodiversity.

From time to time, however, I do meet extremely wealthy people, but we generally do not operate in the same social circles (I know, another big surprise). Nonetheless, I keep finding myself in conversations with such people that start along the lines of the following question:

“What’s the most effective way to invest money to save species from going extinct?”

As the Australian saying goes: “How long is a piece of string” – in other words, it’s a difficult, multi-dimensional answer at best, or a confused non sequitur one at worst.

Those reading this might be thinking right now, “Oh, I know exactly what I’d spend it on if I had that kind of money”, but after a few moments of contemplation, you might not be so sure. This is the dilemma in which I’ve found myself now on more than a few occasions.

So, with the benefit of a little contemplation, here are a few of my thoughts on the subject. Read the rest of this entry »

Tropical forest resilience depends on past disturbance frequency

16 07 2014

I’ve recently come across an interesting study that perfectly marries palaeo-ecological data with modern conservation philosophy. It’s not often that such a prehistorical perspective dating at least to the Last Glacial Maximum has been used so effectively to inform future conservation outlooks. I’m particularly interested in this sort of approach considering my own palaeo dabblings of late.

Published in Nature Communications this May, Lydia Cole and colleagues’ paper Recovery and resilience of tropical forests after disturbance is a meta-analysis of 71 studies covering nearly 300 disturbance events in tropical forests over the last 20,000 years or so. Using fossil pollen records as an index of vegetation change, they demonstrated the (somewhat intuitive) main result that the time to recovery following a disturbance generally decreases as the past disturbance frequency increased.

This appears to be a vindication of the idea that a system’s adaptive strategies evolve as a product of the local disturbance regime. More importantly, they found that recovery was faster following ‘large infrequent events’, which are natural perturbations such as cyclones and major fires. While most past disturbances were caused by humans clearing forest, the fact that tropical forest systems were most resilient to ‘natural’ events means that if we can’t stop human disturbances, at least we can attempt to emulate natural processes to maximise the rebound potential. Much like many modern forestry operations try to emulate natural disturbances to limit their damage, we should at least manage our impacts by understanding so-called ‘natural’ regimes as much as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

Influential conservation papers of 2013

31 12 2013

big-splash1This is a little bit of a bandwagon – the ‘retrospective’ post at the end of the year – but this one is not merely a rehash I’ve stuff I’ve already covered.

I decided that it would be worthwhile to cover some of the ‘big’ conservation papers of 2013 as ranked by F1000 Prime. For copyright reasons, I can’t divulge the entire synopsis of each paper, but I can give you a brief run-down of the papers that caught the eye of fellow F1000 faculty members and me. If you don’t subscribe to F1000, then you’ll have to settle with my briefest of abstracts.

In no particular order then, here are some of the conservation papers that made a splash (positively, negatively or controversially) in 2013:

Read the rest of this entry »

Quantity, but not quality – slow recovery of disturbed tropical forests

8 11 2013

tropical regrowthIt is a sobering statistic that most of the world’s tropical forests are not ‘primary’ – that is, those that have not suffered some alteration or disturbance from humans (previously logged, cleared for agriculture, burned, etc.).

Today I highlight a really cool paper that confirms this, plus adds some juicy (and disturbing – pun intended – detail). The paper by Phil Martin and colleagues just published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B came to my attention through various channels – not least of which was their citation of one of our previous papers ;-), as well as a blog post by Phil himself. I was so impressed with it that I made my first Faculty of 1000 Prime recommendation1 of the paper (which should appear shortly).

As we did in 2011 (to which Phil refers as our “soon-to-be-classic work” – thanks!), Martin and colleagues amassed a stunning number of papers investigating the species composition of disturbed and primary forests from around the tropics. Using meta-analysis, they matched disturbed and undisturbed sites, recording the following statistics: Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation: So easy a child could do it

13 09 2013

child's playI don’t like to talk about my family online. Call me paranoid, but there are a lot of crazy people out there who don’t like what scientists like me are saying (bugger the evidence). Yes, like many climate scientists, I’ve also been threatened. That’s why my personal life remains anonymous except for a select group of people.

But I’ve mentioned my daughter before on this blog, and despite a few people insinuating that I am a bad parent because of what I said, I am happy that I made the point that climate change is a scary concept of which our children must at least be cognisant.

My daughter’s story today is a little less confronting, but equally enlightening. It’s also a little embarrassing as a scientist who has dedicated my entire research career to the discipline of conservation biology.

As a normal six year-old without the ability to refrain from talking – even for a moment – I hear a lot of stories. Many of them are of course fantastical and ridiculous, but those are just part of a healthy, imaginative childhood (I am proud to say though that she is quite clear about the non-existence of fictitious entities like faeries, easter bunnies and gods).

Every once in a while, however, there are snippets of wisdom that ooze out from the cracks in the dross. In the last few months, my daughter has independently and with no prompting from me come up with two pillars of conservation science: (i) protected areas and (ii) biodiversity corridors. Read the rest of this entry »

Having more tree species makes us wealthier

28 01 2013

money treeAs more and more empirical evidence pours in from all corners of the globe, we can only draw one conclusion about the crude measure of species richness (i.e., number of species) – having more species around makes us richer.

And I’m not talking about the esoteric or ‘spiritual’ richness that the hippies dribble about around the campfire after a few dozen cones pulled off the bong (I’ll let the confused among you try to work the meaning of that one out by yourselves), I’m talking about real money (incorporated into my concept of ‘biowealth‘).

The idea that ‘more is better’ in terms of the number of species has traditionally found some (at times, conflicting) empirical support in the plant ecology literature, the latest evidence about which I wrote last year. This, the so-called ‘diversity-productivity’ relationship (DPR), demonstrates that as a forest or grass ecosystem gains more species, its average or total biomass production increases.

Read the rest of this entry »

Damned by nature; damned by man

26 10 2012

I am a forest officer from India. I want to narrate a story. No, my story is not about elephants or tigers or snakes. Those stories about India are commonplace. I wish to narrate a simple story about people, the least-known part of the marathon Indian fable.

Humans are said to have arrived in India very early in world civilisation. Some were raised here from the seed of their ancestors; others migrated here from all over the world. Over the centuries these people occupied every inch of soil that could support life. The population of India today is 1.2 billion. Each year, India’s population increases by a number nearly equal to the complete population of Australia. Such a prolific growth of numbers is easy to explain; the fertile soil, ample water and tropical warmth of India support the growth of all life forms.

Not all numbers are great, however, and big numbers sometimes exact the price from the wrong persons.

This is my story.

I went to work in the state of Meghalaya in north-eastern India. Pestilence, floods and dense vegetation have made north-eastern India a most inhospitable place. Population is scanty by Indian standards. Life does not extend much beyond the basic chores of finding food and hearth. In the hills, far away from the bustle of modern civilisation, primitive tribal families practice agriculture in its most basic form. Fertilisers are unknown to them, so they cultivate a parcel of land until it loses its fertility, ultimately abandoning it to find other arable land. When the original parcel has finally recovered its fertility after a few years, they move back. It is a ceaseless cycle of migrating back and forth – the so-called practice known as ‘shifting cultivation’.  Ginger, peas, pumpkin, brinjal and sweet potato can be seen growing on numerous slopes in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya beside the huts of the farmers built on stilts, with chickens roosting below.

When I reached Meghalaya and looked about at the kind of world I had never seen before, I admit that I found the tribal folk a little strange. They lived in a way that would have appeared bizarre to a modern community. The people did not seem to know how many centuries had passed them by. For me as a forest officer, what looked worst was that that these people appeared to have no comprehension of the value of forests for the planet. They built their huts with wood. They cooked on firewood. Most of their implements were made of wood. A whole tree would be cut and thrown across the banks to make a bridge over a stream. Above all, their crazy practice of shifting cultivation would ultimately remove all the remaining forest.

I decided my main job in this place was to save the forest from its own people, and we enforced Indian laws to preserve the forests.

On one occasion my staff saw a young local man running with an illegally obtained log of wood and started to chase him, waving their guns in the air to scare him. He ran barefoot amid dense bushes a long distance before we managed to apprehend him. I had bruises on my arms and a leech hanging from my armpit drinking my blood by the time the race was over. I admit that in my anger at the time, I wanted to impale the man to the earth at the spot where he had cut down the tree. It was not the leeches and the bruises that angered me. The tree he was carrying was (until quite recently) in perfect condition.

But Meghalaya isn’t populated solely by subsistence-farming villagers – there are also a few successful traders originally from big cities who have settled in this economically depressed region. They dress smartly and speak impeccable English. At the time, I remembered wondering how these more sophisticated types could be maintaining their relatively lavish lifestyles among the poor villagers who walked barefoot in the dense forests. On a couple of occasions I dropped in at the home of a prominent trader.  He hosted me graciously in his beautiful home. I admit that I enjoyed these visits because they were my only link to the civilisation I had become used to prior to moving to Meghalaya. But I never visited the home of any tribal villager, for what could I talk to them about anyway?

Read the rest of this entry »

If a tree falls… preventing deforestation with insurance

3 05 2012

As CB readers will know, I’ve reported a few times on our iREDD idea, and it got a little pick-up overseas. Here’s a great article by Rachel Nuwer covering the concept, published in Ecoimagination.com.

Almost everything we own – our houses and cars and our very health – is insured. It works on a simple principal: the higher the risk, the higher the premium. It’s an age-old concept that ecological modelers have decided to apply to a new area: forest preservation.

A new proposal, published in the journal Conservation Letters, would create forest insurance to make the U.N. forest preservation program Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD, more effective. REDD is generally supposed to function by paying developing countries to protect their forests in exchange for carbon pollution credits. Currently the program has 42 partner countries across the globe. The program is crucial to the fight against climate change since deforestation and forest degradation accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and threatens biodiversity.

“REDD is a fantastic idea,” said Corey Bradshaw, director of ecological modeling at the University of Adelaide and co-author of the study. “You get a carbon advantage and biodiversity doesn’t get wiped out at the same time, it seems perfect.”

But it has a few major flaws that the insurance scheme, called iREDD, seeks to remedy.

REDD only works if the parties are honest and stick to the agreement. Bradshaw doesn’t have much faith that will happen. “If there’s a way to cheat, people will cheat. That’s the nature of all life, not just humans, but we excel at it,” he said. If, for example, a country is paid to conserve one forest but moves its deforestation efforts to an adjacent forest in order to get both money and timber, in terms of carbon offsets, that transaction was a failure. This phenomenon is called “leakage.”

Carbon-capture also only works if it’s maintained indefinitely. If a country accepts money for ten years and then cuts its forest the day after the agreement expires, then all of that conservation was for naught. This issue is called “permanence,” usually translated into an arbitrarily defined period of time set by countries in terms of decades or centuries. Read the rest of this entry »

Take a leaf from insurance industry’s book

18 04 2012

Just a quick one rehashing today’s media release on the iREDD paper I blogged about a while back. The full, online version is available upon request. Stay tuned for media coverage.

A group of environmental scientists say a problem-ridden economic model designed to slow deforestation can be improved by applying key concepts from the insurance industry.

REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) is a UN-promoted scheme that allows countries to trade in carbon credits to keep forests intact. It is mainly targeted at developing nations where deforestation and exploitation are a major threat.

In a paper published online in the journal Conservation Letters, ecology researchers from Australia and South Africa argue that REDD projects can suffer from three major problems. They have proposed strengthening the scheme by using insurance policies and premiums, creating a new scheme known as iREDD.

“The idea of paying a nation to protect its forests in exchange for carbon pollution offsets can potentially reduce overall emissions by keeping the trees alive, and ensure a lot of associated biodiversity gets caught up in the conservation process,” says Professor Corey Bradshaw,, Director of Ecological Modelling at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute and a senior author of the paper.

“However, there are three main problems with REDD: these are known as leakage, permanence and additionality.” Read the rest of this entry »

Sink to source – the loss of biodiversity’s greatest ecosystem service

29 02 2012

I’ve mentioned this idea before, but it’s nice when some real data support a prediction (no matter how gloomy that prediction might have been). It’s what drives scientists toward discovery (or at least, it’s what I find particularly appealing about my job).

Several years ago, my colleagues (Navjot Sodhi† and Ian Warkentin) and I wrote a major review in TREE about the fate of the world’s ‘second’ lung of the planet, the great boreal forests of Russia, Canada & Scandinavia. We discussed how fragmentation was increasing at an alarming rate, and that although most species there are still relatively intact, we stand to lose a lot of its biodiversity if we don’t halt the fragmenting processes soon. We wrote more on the subject in a paper to appear imminently in Biological Conservation.

Another component though that we raised in the TREE paper was the boreal forests were very much in danger of turning into a net carbon producer. You see, the ‘lung’ analogy is very pertinent because on average, the growth of the massive expanse of the vegetation in the forest generally takes up much more atmospheric carbon that it exudes through decay and burning (for as we all know, plants take up carbon dioxide to produce sugars during photosynthesis, and produce oxygen as a ‘waste’ product). However, as we fragment, cut down and burn the forest, it can end up producing more than it takes up (i.e., turning from a ‘sink’ to a ‘source’). We highlighted several studies indicating how insect outbreaks and human-exacerbated fire intensities and frequencies could conceivably do this.

Now Zhihai Ma and colleagues have just compiled a paper in PNAS indicating that the danger is well on the way to becoming reality in Canada. The paper entitled Regional drought-induced reduction in the biomass carbon sink of Canada’s boreal forests reports the results from 96 long-term permanent sampling plots spread right across southern Canada – from British Columbia in the far west, to Newfoundland in the far east. Read the rest of this entry »

Little left to lose: deforestation history of Australia

6 10 2011

© donkeycart http://ow.ly/6OSeX

I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to blog about a paper I’ve just had accepted in the Journal of Plant Ecology that isn’t yet out online. The reason for the early post is that the paper itself won’t appear until 2012 in a special issue of the journal, and I think the information needs to get out there.

First, a little history – In May this year I blogged about a workshop that I attended at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China at the behest of Fangliang He. The workshop (International Symposium for Biodiversity and Theoretical Ecology) was attended by big-wig overseas ecologists and local talent, and was not only informative, but a lot of fun (apart from the slight headache on the way home from a little too much báijiǔ the night before). More importantly, we  lǎo wài (老外) were paired with various students to assist with publications in progress, and I’m happy to say that for me, two of those have already produced fruit (one paper in review, another about to be submitted).

But the real reason for this post was the special issue of papers written by the invitees – I haven’t published in the journal before, and understand that it is a Chinese journal that has gone mainstream internationally now. I’m only happy to contribute to lifting its profile.

Given that I’m not a plant ecologist per se (although I’ve dabbled), I decided to write a review-like paper that I’ve been meaning to put together for some time now examining the state of Australia’s forests and the history of her deforestation and forest degradation. The reason I thought this was needed is that there is no single peer-reviewed resource one can turn to for a concise synopsis of the history of our country’s forest destruction. The stats are out there, but they’re buried in books, government reports and local-scale scientific papers. My hope is that my paper will be used as a general reference point for people wishing to get up to speed with Australia’s deforestation history.

The paper is entitled Little left to lose: deforestation and forest degradation in Australia since European colonisation, and it describes the general trends in forest loss and degradation Australia-wide, followed by state- and territory-level assessments. I’ve also included sections on plantations, biodiversity loss from deforestation and fragmentation, the feedback loop between climate change and deforestation, the history of forest protection legislation, and finally, a discussion of the necessary general policy directions needed for the country’s forests.

I’ve given a few titbits of the stats in a previous post, but let me just summarise some of the salient features here: Read the rest of this entry »

No substitute for primary forest

15 09 2011

© Romulo Fotos http://goo.gl/CrAsE

A little over five years ago, a controversial and spectacularly erroneous paper appeared in the tropical ecology journal Biotropica, the flagship journal of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. Now, I’m normally a fan of Biotropica (I have both published there several times and acted as a Subject Editor for several years), but we couldn’t let that paper’s conclusions go unchallenged.

That paper was ‘The future of tropical forest species‘ by Joseph Wright and Helene Muller-Landau, which essentially concluded that the severe deforestation and degradation of tropical forests was not as big a deal as nearly all the rest of the conservation biology community had concluded (remind you of climate change at all?), and that regenerating, degraded and secondary forests would suffice to preserve the enormity and majority of dependent tropical biodiversity.

What rubbish.

Our response, and those of many others (including from Toby Gardner and colleagues and William Laurance), were fast and furious, essentially destroying the argument so utterly that I think most people merely moved on. We know for a fact that tropical biodiversity is waning rapidly, and in many parts of the world, it is absolutely [insert expletive here]. However, the argument has reared its ugly head again and again over the intervening years, so it’s high time we bury this particular nonsense once and for all.

In fact, a few anecdotes are worthy of mention here. Navjot once told me one story about the time when both he and Wright were invited to the same symposium around the time of the initial dust-up in Biotropica. Being Navjot, he tore off strips from Wright in public for his outrageous and unsubstantiated claims – something to which Wright didn’t take too kindly.  On the way home, the two shared the same flight, and apparently Wright refused to acknowledge Navjot’s existence and only glared looks that could kill (hang on – maybe that had something to do with Navjot’s recent and untimely death? Who knows?). Similar public stoushes have been chronicled between Wright and Bill Laurance.

Back to the story. I recall a particular coffee discussion at the National University of Singapore between Navjot Sodhi (may his legacy endure), Barry Brook and me some time later where we planned the idea of a large meta-analysis to compare degraded and ‘primary’ (not overly disturbed) forests. The ideas were fairly fuzzy back then, but Navjot didn’t drop the ball for a moment. He immediately went out and got Tien Ming Lee and his new PhD student, Luke Gibson, to start compiling the necessary studies. It was a thankless job that took several years.

However, the fruits of that labour have now just been published in Nature: ‘Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity‘, led by Luke and Tien Ming, along with Lian Pin Koh, Barry Brook, Toby Gardner, Jos Barlow, Carlos Peres, me, Bill Laurance, Tom Lovejoy and of course, Navjot Sodhi [side note: Navjot died during the review and didn’t survive to hear the good news that the paper was finally accepted].

Using data from 138 studies from Asia, South America and Africa comprising 2220 pair-wise comparisons of biodiversity ‘values’ between forests that had undergone some sort of disturbance (everything from selective logging through to regenerating pasture) and adjacent primary forests, we can now hammer the final nails into the coffin containing the putrid remains of Wright and Muller-Landau’s assertion – there is no substitute for primary forest. Read the rest of this entry »

Deforesting and reforesting Australia

13 07 2011

A couple of weeks ago we (Andy Lowe and I) did a small interview on ABC television about the current status of Australia forests, followed by a discussion regarding our recently funded Australian Research Council Linkage Project Developing best-practice approaches for restoring forest ecosystems that are resilient to climate change. Just in case you didn’t see it, I’ve managed to upload a copy of the piece to Youtube.com and reproduce it here:

I’m actually in the process of writing a paper on all this for a special issue of Journal of Plant Ecology (that is nearly already overdue!), but here are a few facts for you in the interim:

  • Australian eucalypt forests are globally unique, with one of the longest evolutionary histories among the world’s forests
  • Australia has about 147 million ha of native forest remaining, and about 2 million ha of plantations Read the rest of this entry »

Reforesting wealthy countries for the common good

29 06 2011

The Coalition of Financially Challenged Countries with Lots of Trees, known as ‘CoFCCLoT’, representing most of the world’s remaining tropical forests, is asking wealthy nations to share global responsibilities and reforest their land for the common good of stabilizing climate and protecting biodiversity.

“We are willing to play our part, but we require a level playing field in which we all commit to equal sacrifices,” a coalition spokeswoman says. “Returning forest cover in the G8 countries and the European Union back to historic coverage will benefit all of us in the long-term.”

Seventy-five per cent of Europe was once forested. Now it is 45 per cent. Some countries such as Ireland saw forest cover reduced to near zero. Most forest cover in the developed world is now often planted with stands of alien trees, turning them into deserts for biodiversity. Remaining natural forests are often highly fragmented and have few native species. Read the rest of this entry »

Wolves masquerading as sheep: the fallout

29 10 2010


© New Zealand Films


Well, we’ve managed to stimulate quite a lively conversation after dropping the Open Letter about Scientific Credibility and the Conservation of Tropical Forests regarding the questionable tactics employed by Alan Oxley and his industrial lobbyist organisations.

Mr. Oxley has responded with vitriol, hand-waving, red herrings and straw men, and failed to address even a single one of our accusations. I am particularly amused by his insinuation that we, the proven scientists, don’t know what science is – but that he does.

Below I reproduce Mr. Oxley’s reaction to our original letter, followed by our response.

I’ll let you, the reader, decide who is most reasonable.


There is too much pseudo-scientific hype today about environmentalism and forestry and not enough fact.

I put this double-barrelled question to the Group of 12 scientists who have rather laboriously wandered over the work of World Growth: What biodiversity is expressly protected by a global cessation of conversion of forest land to other purposes and how is that biodiversity scientifically measured? And let’s have some technical response, not political blather. Read the rest of this entry »