Potential conservation nightmare unfolding in South Africa

31 10 2016

fees-must-fallLike most local tragedies, it seems to take some time before the news really grabs the overseas audience by the proverbial goolies. That said, I’m gobsmacked that the education tragedy unfolding in South Africa since late 2015 is only now starting to be appreciated by the rest of the academic world.

You might have seen the recent Nature post on the issue, and I do invite you to read that if all this comes as news to you. I suppose I had the ‘advantage’ of getting to know a little bit more about what is happening after talking to many South African academics in the Kruger in September. In a word, the situation is dire.

We’re probably witnessing a second Zimbabwe in action, with the near-complete meltdown of science capacity in South Africa as a now very real possibility. Whatever your take on the causes, justification, politics, racism, or other motivation underlying it all, the world’s conservation biologists should be very, very worried indeed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Valuing what we have to prevent it from disappearing

30 09 2016
29 year-old 'Tembo' shows us his grinders © CJA Bradshaw

29 year-old ‘Tembo’ shows us his grinders. Groom Anton is making sure Tembo remains well-rewarded for his good behaviour © CJA Bradshaw

I acknowledge that I’ve been banging on a bit about southern Africa over the last few weeks, but I defend my enthusiasm on the grounds that my first trip to the Kruger National Park profoundly changed the way I view extinction theory and conservation biology.

Today’s post rounds off this mini-series with something I only alluded to in my last: interacting with tame elephants.

I have always been in two minds about the role of animals in captivity, with my opinion that most zoos edge toward the negative because most people who attend them appear to view the animals as a freak-show rather than appreciate their beauty or be fascinated by their behaviour and ecology; add the near-impossible-to-avoid psychological distress to which most captive animals succumb, many zoos in particular are probably better off not existing at all.

That being the case, I won’t simply write off all captive situations as ‘negative’, because if done well, they can have a wonderful educational role to play. Read the rest of this entry »

Transition from the Anthropocene to the Minicene

24 09 2016
Going, going ...

Going, going … © CJA Bradshaw

I’ve just returned from a life-changing trip to South Africa, not just because it was my first time to the continent, but also because it has redefined my perspective on the megafauna extinctions of the late Quaternary. I was there primarily to attend the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute 50thAnniversary Celebration conference.

As I reported in my last post, the poaching rates in one of the larger, best-funded national parks in southern Africa (the Kruger) are inconceivably high, such that for at least the two species of rhino there (black and white), their future persistence probability is dwindling with each passing week. African elephants are probably not far behind.

As one who has studied the megafauna extinctions in the Holarctic, Australia and South America over the last 50,000 years, the trip to Kruger was like stepping back into the Pleistocene. I’ve always dreamed of walking up to a grazing herd of mammoths, woolly rhinos or Diprotodon, but of course, that’s impossible. What is entirely possible though is driving up to a herd of 6-tonne elephants and watching them behave naturally. In the Kruger anyway, you become almost blasé about seeing yet another group of these impressive beasts as you try to get that rare glimpse of a leopard, wild dogs or sable antelope (missed the two former, but saw the latter). Read the rest of this entry »

Staggering rhino poaching in the Kruger

14 09 2016

rhino-poachingI have the immense honour and pleasure of attending the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute 50th Anniversary Celebration conference currently being held in the Kruger National Park. To be rubbing shoulders with some of the greats of African ecology is humbling to say the least, but it’s also a huge opportunity to learn about the wonderful wildlife Africa still has.

Stepping back into what the Pleistocene must have been like in Australia, Europe, and North and South America, I’m moved to near tears by the truly awesome1 megafauna that still exists here. This is my first time to Africa, and I cannot begin to capture how I feel by seeing these amazing species in the flesh.

But as you probably already know, this last megafauna is under huge threat, and we seriously risk repeating the extinctions of the other continents within less than a century. While the topics associated with the threats are diverse, complex and challenging, one talk here stood out for me among all others: that by Ken Maggs of SANParks.

Kruger holds about 70% of the white (Ceratotherium simum) and black (Diceros bicornis) rhino in South Africa, and about 30% all rhino in the world (98.8% of all white rhino are found in just four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya).

So for the ~ 10,000 rhino in Kruger, the following numbers should shock you; Ken showed a slide with the following information: Read the rest of this entry »

Extinction synergy: deadly combination of human hunting & climate change wrote off Patagonian giants

20 06 2016

MegatheriumHere’s a paper we’ve just had published in Science Advances (Synergistic roles of climate warming and human occupation in Patagonian megafaunal extinctions during the Last Deglaciation). It’s an excellent demonstration of our concept of extinction synergies that we published back in 2008.

Giant Ice Age species including elephant-sized sloths and powerful sabre-toothed cats that once roamed the windswept plains of Patagonia, southern South America, were finally felled by a perfect storm of a rapidly warming climate and humans, a new study has shown.

Research led by the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide, published on Saturday in Science Advances, has revealed that it was only when the climate warmed, long after humans first arrived in Patagonia, did the megafauna suddenly die off around 12,300 years ago.

The timing and cause of rapid extinctions of the megafauna has remained a mystery for centuries.

“Patagonia turns out to be the Rosetta Stone – it shows that human colonisation didn’t immediately result in extinctions, but only as long as it stayed cold,” says study leader Professor Alan Cooper, ACAD Director. “Instead, more than 1000 years of human occupation passed before a rapid warming event occurred, and then the megafauna were extinct within a hundred years.”

The researchers, including from the University of Colorado Boulder, University of New South Wales and University of Magallanes in Patagonia, studied ancient DNA extracted from radiocarbon-dated bones and teeth found in caves across Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego, to trace the genetic history of the populations. Species such as the South American horse, giant jaguar and sabre-toothed cat, and the enormous one-tonne short-faced bear (the largest land-based mammalian carnivore) were found widely across Patagonia, but seemed to disappear shortly after humans arrived. Read the rest of this entry »

How to find fossils

30 03 2016

Many palaeontologists and archaeologists might be a little put out by the mere suggestion that they can be told by ecologists how to do their job better. That is certainly not our intention.

Like fossil-hunting scientists, ecologists regularly search for things (individuals of species) that are rare and difficult to find, because surveying the big wide world for biodiversity is a challenge that we have faced since the dawn of our discipline. In fact, much of the mathematical development of ecology stems from this probabilistic challenge — for example, species distribution models are an increasingly important component of both observational and predictive ecology.

IMG_1277But the palaeo types generally don’t rely on mathematical models to ‘predict’ where fossils might be hiding just under the surface. Even I’ve done what most do when trying to find a fossil — go to a place where fossils have already been found and start fossicking. I’ve done this now with very experienced sedimentary geologists in the Flinders Rangers looking for 550 million year-old Ediacaran fossils, and most recently searching for Jurassic fossils (mainly ammonites) on the southern coast of England (Devon’s Jurassic Coast). My prized ammonite find is shown in the photo to the left.

If you’ve read anything on this blog before, you’ll probably know that I’m getting increasingly excited about palaeo-ecology, with particular emphasis on Australia’s late-Pleistocene and early Holocene mass-extinction of megafauna. So with a beautiful, brand-new, shiny, and quality-rated megafauna dataset1, we cheekily decided to take fossil hunting to the next level by throwing mathematics at the problem.

Just published2 in PloS One, I’m happy to announce our newest paper entitled Where to dig for fossils: combining climate-envelope, taphonomy and discovery models.

Of course, we couldn’t just treat fossil predictions like ecological ones — there are a few more steps involved because we are dealing with long-dead specimens. Our approach therefore involved three steps: Read the rest of this entry »

Bad science

10 02 2016

Head in HandsIn addition to the surpassing coolness of reconstructing long-gone ecosystems, my new-found enthusiasm for palaeo-ecology has another advantage — most of the species under investigation are already extinct.

That might not sound like an ‘advantage’, but let’s face it, modern conservation ecology can be bloody depressing, so much so that one sometimes wonders if it’s worth it. It is, of course, but there’s something marvellously relieving about studying extinct systems for the simple reason that there are no political repercussions. No self-serving, plutotheocratic politician can bugger up these systems any more. That’s a refreshing change from the doom and gloom of modern environmental science!

But it’s not all sweetness and light, of course; there are still people involved, and people sometimes make bad decisions in an attempt to modify the facts to suit their creed. The problem is when these people are the actual scientists involved in the generation of the ‘facts’.

As I alluded to a few weeks ago with the publication of our paper in Nature Communications describing the lack of evidence for a climate effect on the continental-scale extinctions of Australia’s megafauna, we have a follow-up paper that has just been published online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B — What caused extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna of Sahul? led by Chris Johnson of the University of Tasmania.

After our paper published earlier this month, this title might seem a bit rhetorical, so I want to highlight some of the reasons why we wrote the review. Read the rest of this entry »