We want you to know what is going on in the BOD, our meetings, our actions, members leaving, the new ones elected,... but text written in this blog cannot be taken an official position or statement of the Society for Conservation Biology. Probably it is not even an official statement of the section... as these need to be approved by the members.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Reality check – reality shock: The Policy Committee holds its annual meeting in hard-fought Białowieża

Post by Stefan Kreft, SCB Europe Section Policy Committee Chair 

*1 of 2 blog entries on Bialowieza Forest 

Some things you have to see with your own eyes to believe. We thought we went prepared, but what we saw in Białowieża Forest was worse, much worse than we could have imagined. What we witnessed can only be called deliberate destruction.

As part of SCB’s Global Forest Initiative, the Europe Section has stood up for conservation of Białowieża Forest through many years of its complex history. Scientists work with evidence, and the Policy Committee subscribes to this principle. As credible information, let alone solid data, are hard to get these days when it comes to Białowieża, we decided to hold our annual meeting right (7-8 Oct) in the middle of the mayhem and find out by ourselves.

If you want to see primeval lowland forest in Europe, you will go to Białowieża National Park in Poland. Actually, there is nowhere else to go anymore, anywhere Europe. This national park, of 10,500 hectares, is embedded in the Białowieża Forest. This forest region covers 150,000 hectares and stretches to both sides of the Polish-Belarusian border. Its ‘skeleton’ are sizeable tracts of old growth characterized by trees of 150 years age or more. These tracts have an eminent conservation value in themselves, and they are also essential for the national park, the primeval ‘heart’ of the forest. The Białowieża Forest nomination as a transboundary UNESCO World Heritage site was extended to almost the entire forest in 2014.

Forest loss 2000-2016 due to a combination of natural disturbances and clear-cutting in Białowieża Forest. Colour scale ranges from yellow (2000) to red (2016). The white circle indicates the approximate location of the logging sites we visited
(Hansen et al. 2013, in Google Earth Engine 2017).

In 2012, after years of advocating for appropriate conservation of the old growth surrounding it by a broad range of civil society actors, including SCB-Europe Section, the former Polish government finally issued a Natura 2000 management plan. This management plan did allow for continued use, but limited annual wood harvest volume. The government currently in charge has annihilated this cap and ordered extensive cuttings. The Minister for Environment Jan Szyszko claims that bark beetle colonization (‘outbreaks’) of local spruce stands must be fought back by ‘salvage loggings’ (see map above).
Forest ecologists counter that colonized spruces have mainly been planted and are now being reduced to more natural densities. Ecologists further protest exceedingly large-scale logging operations, bark beetles being nothing but an excuse for fighting back Polish, EU and UN conservation proponents. The issue has been taken to the EU Court of Justice by the Commission and is currently being dealt with.

We invite you to join us for a walk through Białowieża Forest and judge yourself. There are a many harvesters active at different places concurrently all over the forest, and we picked two logging sites in walking distance north of our home base in Teremiski, a village near the town of Białowieża.

We pass by towering stacks of logs.

Still image capture from: https://youtu.be/miviN30EgfA
Upon arrival, a 360 degree view provides an overview of the scenery.

Still image capture from: https://youtu.be/nkufPMZQyBs
Our long-standing PC member Nuria Selva explains to us that we are standing in a “Partial Protection Zone” of the world heritage site, prescribing non-intervention management. The reality, though, is different.

Still image capture from: https://youtu.be/HHznUy88SXY
Looking up, we see that the closed canopy has given way to large holes. We discuss the impacts and risks of large clear-cuts to the resilience of the forest against extreme events such as storms (Zdenka Krenova)…

    Still image capture from: https://youtu.be/1M6aQajTJek
… and droughts (Stefan Kreft).

Still image capture from: https://youtu.be/4YCGG4xr7ws

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series on 16 November where we will scrutinize the harvesting sites in more into detail.


Friday, 10 November 2017

A place to find hope: Student Conference for Conservation Science

Guest post by Snežana Popov
August 29, 2017

"So, what's your topic about?" he asked me looking at a detailed conference program.
 I responded enthusiastically: "Hoverflies".
"Flies." I added. "They are so nice and they're really important pollinators. You know, pollinators are disappearing".
"Ahem. Interesting." he said, not so convinced.

I could hear the disappointment in his voice. Insects and nice in the same sentence? Who am I kidding? 

Why do people not care about the loss of pollinators?! I looked nervously at my watch. Budapest is an hour away. I have enough time to explain to him the importance of the insects... pollination and biological control...biodiversity loss... I could show him some pictures of really beautiful specimens. Ok, they are not fluffy pandas, but maybe I can provoke some sympathy.

"Sir, you know..." I spoke up decisively and looked at him.
The man has fallen asleep. Well done, Snežana, well done!

August 30, 2017

"Hi, what's your talk about?" she asked me while pouring coffee.
"Wow, that's great! I have an urban garden at home so I often enjoy looking some specimens around the flowers. They are so beautiful." she said all in one breath, and making me smile.

Two similar situations but with different audiences - a random person on a train and a young scientist at a scientific conference. Of course, hanging out with people that are enthusiastic about the same thing as you is a godsend! As conservationists we understand each other (at least try to do so). But, what to do when you have a person in front of you who is not that interested in conservation science (yes, somehow these people exist)?

For me, the answer emerged from a plenary talk by Andrew Balmford, and that answer is simple, we must give people hope by presenting successful conservation stories. The definition of hope is "a feeling of optimism or a desire that something will happen". If conservationists don't offer hope to others about conservation issues we study, who will?

Science is structured in a way that forces us to first reveal a problem, and then to offer a solution. However, when it comes to raising our voices about conservation issues, besides being proactive, we need to be enthusiastic too, and we need to talk about solutions and successes, not only challenges. In my case, the next time I encounter a random person on the train who wants to know more about my work, I can discuss how each one of us can help pollinators by establishing a simple urban terrace garden at home.

After spending several days with conservation scientists, young and old, at the SCCS conference, I definitely found hope, and improved my understanding about how I can better communicate hope in when it comes to environmental conservation, particularly in relation to pollination and pollinators. Ultimately, as scientists, we need to pay attention to threats and alarming signs, but we should drive the public to make sustainable choices in their daily lives by communicating positive experiences. 

Snežana Popov is a Research Assistant in the Department of Biology and Ecology, University of Novi Sad. She recently received her PhD in Ecology. She investigates how human disturbance and landscape patterns affect biodiversity. A huge nature lover, yoga teacher, and a small craft brewery owner. You can contact her via Research Gate or by email: ekosneza (at) gmail (dot) com. 

Friday, 3 November 2017

Expanding the Conservationist’s Toolbox

Guest post by Lara Semple 

Increasingly, the world's ecosystems are exploited and fragmented, and many wildlife communities are declining and increasingly vulnerable to extinction. As a consequence of these changes, small genetically isolated populations are at risk of losing genetic diversity and becoming inbred (Ralls et al., 2017). 

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and some countries’ legalisation advise preservation of genetic diversity. However, fundamental steps towards considering genetic diversity in conservation decision making are rare, and conservation genetics have only been incorporated in a minority of governmental policies (Laikre et al. 2010, Cook & Sgrò 2017). Recently, Pierson et al. (2016) demonstrated that just 36 of 110 European species' recovery plans give explicit consideration to genetic factors related to population recovery. These European percentages are lower than species recovery plans compiled in the USA and Australia (Pierson et al., 2016). 

Genetic factors are also often overlooked in monitoring of post-reintroductions or translocations, but there is a need to consider such factors to better assess whether populations have successfully colonised (Ottewell et al., 2014).  One indicator of genetic diversity is heterozygosity, which refers to the presence of two different alleles (e.g. Aa) at a given locus - one being recessive (a) and the other dominant (A). Reduced heterozygosity in threatened species can suggest lowered evolutionary potential and reduced reproductive fitness. For example, in a meta-analysis, Spielman et al. (2004) found that heterozygosity was lower for the majority of threatened when compared with taxonomically related non-threatened taxa; threatened taxa had, on average, 35% lower heterozygosity than comparative species. Spielman et al. (2004) found that species like Eurasian Otter, a near threatened species on the IUCN Red List, had a lower heterozygosity compared to two closely related species that are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Without the explicit consideration of genetics in threatened species recovery plans and monitoring, a tool known as genetic rescue is being overlooked (Frankham, 2015; Ralls et al., 2017). Genetic rescue involves mixing of new genotypes into a population of 'at-risk' members to increase individual and population fitness (Waller, 2015). One example of a natural genetic rescue is the isolated Scandinavian metapopulation of Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) which originated from a single pair (Vila et al., 2002).  At the time of writing this there were approximately 30 published examples where genetic rescue was used in conservation (e.g., Frankham 2015; Stowell et al., 2017; Ralls et al., 2017).

The rarity of genetic rescue in conservation practice, despite being talked about in literature for more than 20 years, appears to be driven by perceived biological, cultural and political barriers (Frankham, 2015; Stowell et al., 2017). Biological barriers seem to be primarily concerned with out-breeding depression (reduced reproductive fitness), and to do with the loss of local adaptation and doubt as to the scale of the consequences (Ralls et al., 2017). It is critical to be able to predict the probability of out-breeding depression in out-crossing between fragmented populations than were once found in continuous habitat. 

Dr. Richard Frankham has focused on exploring the professed biological barriers of genetic rescue. Frankham shows that the chance of out-breeding depression occurring increases when crosses are between distinct species, which have not exchanged genes for ≥500 years or inhabit different environments. Therefore, the probability of out-breeding depression being a consequence of two populations of the same species is low for those of the same karyotype that have been isolated for < 500 years and occupy similar habitats. Incredibly, it has recently been shown that genetic rescue can benefit fitness and evolutionary potential in F2 and F3 generations (Frankham, 2016) and even up to F10 (Bijlsma et al., 2010). Loss of local adaptation is usually a minor issue, as an isolated population experiencing genetic drift will not be fully equipped to adapt to changing environmental changes anyway (Ralls et al., 2017). With thorough planning, local adaptations can be sustained into the new population as seen with the Florida Panther (Puma concolor) (Johnson et al., 2010). 

Cultural barriers related to genetic rescue seem to originate from people's fear that genetic rescue could result in the loss of genetic purity or integrity after an out-crossing is implemented (Stowell et al., 2017).  However, if we consistently choose to view nature anthropomorphically, categorising life into discrete species, and are reluctant to consider genetic rescue, extinctions could result that could otherwise be reduced or avoided by employing such methods in conservation programs.

Political barriers are often related to logistics, such as the movement of biological material across jurisdictions, and the lack of hybridisation or sub-species definitions in current endangered species legalisation (Frankham et al., 2015; Stowell et al., 2017). Repositioning taxa across boundaries is regular practice in zoos and botanic gardens, and such approaches could be extended to cross-jurisdiction genetic rescue programs. In addition, incorporation of the dynamic nature of species into conservation policy will provide population managers greater flexibility to make decisions about genetic rescued in the future (Stowell et al., 2017).

European Bison. Image courtesy of Arkive. 
These current barriers are compelling inaction, which is indeed a consequential action. One subspecies which has suffered from inaction is the Dusky Seaside Sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens) found in marshes in Florida, USA (Stowell et al., 2017). The United State's Fish and Wildlife Service would not allow any dilution of the genetics by out-crossing the last males with females of a different sparrow subspecies. In turn, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow subspecies became extinct in 1987. Despite the United State's Fish and Wildlife Service's hesitation, many subspecies and closely related species hybridise in nature (Stowell et al., 2017). For example, the European bison is a hybrid of two extinct species; the steppe bison (Bison priscus) and the auroch (Bos primigenius) (Soubrier et al., 2016). Hybridisation between these species occurred >120 kya years ago, and demonstrating that hybridisation is certainly a naturally occurring phenomenon and it is a consequence of out-crossing which we shouldn’t necessarily avoid within conservation practices.

With increasing access to genetic data for a diversity of species it will soon be possible to further reduce the perceived barriers of genetic rescue through improved management guidelines. Simply put, the more we know, the less risky the decisions will be! Frankham and an increasing number of researchers believe that the current genetic rescue examples represents a “miniscule proportion of the populations that might benefit from out-crossing”. Given the continued decline of plant and animal populations, conservationists should regard genetic rescue as a welcome addition to their toolbox. My goal is for this blog post to promote consideration of genetic rescue as one of the tools in the conservation toolbox to help us to prevent species extinctions.

Literature cited: Bijlsma, R et al. 2010. Conservation Genetics 11: 449-462; Cook, CN and Sgrò, CM. 2017. Conservation Biology 31: 501–512; Frankham, R. 2015. Molecular Ecology 24: 2610–2618; Frankham, R. 2016. Biological Conservation 195: 33-36; Johnson, WE et al. 2010. Science 329: 1641-1645; Laikre, L et al. Conservation Biology 24: 86–88; Ottewell, K et al. 2014. Biological Conservation 171: 209-219; Pierson, JC et al. 2016. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 14: 433-440; Ralls, K et al. 2017 Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12412; Soubrier, J et al. 2016 Nature communications 7;  Spielman, D et al. 2004. PNAS 101:15261-15264; Stowell, SML et al. 2017. Biodiversity and Conservation 26:1753–1765; Vilà, C et al. 2013. Proc Roy Soc B 270: 91-97; Walker, CW et al. 2001. Molecular Ecology 10: 53-63; Waller, DM 2015. Molecular ecology 24: 2595-2597.

Lara Semple is a Master’s student in International Nature Conservation specialising in wildlife conservation genetics. You can reach Lara on LinkedInYou can also follow her wildlife photography on her Flickr page

Monday, 25 September 2017

Studying and Saving Species in the Anthropocene

Guest post by Helen O'Neill

The world is changing.  Areas that were once remote are becoming ever more accessible; even the world’s few remaining areas of wilderness are increasingly human-dominated. The global human population’s ever growing effects on the environment has led many people to start referring to our current period in history as the Anthropocene.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are the leading threats to global biodiversity. As areas where wild species once thrived disappear and remaining parcels of wilderness become rarer and more isolated, wildlife is often forced into closer contact with local human populations.  Whilst protected areas are undoubtedly important refuges for many threatened species, human-dominated landscapes are nevertheless likely to be key for the future of conservation. 

Large carnivore populations in Europe provide tangible evidence of the importance of human-dominated landscapes to conservation. Just a few decades ago, across the continent populations of brown bears (Ursus arctos), grey wolves (Canis lupus) and Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) had undergone massive declines as a result of habitat loss in combination with human persecution. However, over recent years these carnivore populations have had a resurgence. Changes in legislation providing the species with greater protection from persecution, along with the establishment of nature reserves, has led to populations of all three species remaining steady and even increasing across Europe. Whilst the increase in protected areas has been of great importance for these carnivore species, the majority of their populations still live outside of protected areas.  =It is likely thanks to the recognition of the importance of these non-protected, and human-dominated, areas to carnivore conservation and the interventions that have focused on them, which has resulted in carnivore population recoveries.

Collaring Zuri. Photo contributed by Helen O'Neill.
My research focuses on how African wild dogs and cheetah live in a human-dominated landscape in Laikipia County in Northern Kenya, and how geographical features such as fences affect them.  Both wild dogs and cheetah have suffered from extensive habitat loss and fragmentation across Africa, with wild dogs now found in just 7% of their former range and cheetah 11%. They are the widest-ranging species within the African large carnivore guild; with individuals and groups from both species having been recorded having home-ranges of more than 2000 sq km. This wanderlust means they need large areas of carnivore-friendly land to survive. As with European carnivore populations, very few protected areas are large enough to support viable populations of cheetah or wild dogs on their own, meaning that habitat loss and fragmentation are still very real threats to their survival.

When you talk about habitat loss and fragmentation people's first thoughts are usually of vast swathes of tropical forests being cut down, leaving only small stands of trees, however such images don’t tell the full story. Fragmentation is caused by any feature that prevents animals moving from one area of habitat to another. Increases in fragmentation mean that connections between habitat patches are lost and can result in serious consequences for the species affected, ranging from animals no longer having access to the resources they need to survive or, in the longer-term, inbreeding. 

For many human-dominated landscapes amongst the key causes of fragmentation are fences. This kind of fragmentation is much less obvious than a vast swathe of deforestation as there may well be areas of apparently prime habitat on each side of the fence.  Nonetheless fences can have important impacts on the connectivity of an area - after all preventing movement between different areas is literally their raison d'etre.

In order to look at how wild dogs and cheetah live in and move through their landscape, I use data collected by GPS collars, which my colleagues and I fit to our study animals.  These collars record the animal’s location at pre-programmed times throughout the day, enabling me to see how they interact with different features within the landscape. It is perhaps not surprising that I have found that fences have important impacts on our study animals but what has been interesting is the extent to which the design of the fence affects how much the wild dogs and cheetah are affected by them. Whilst some fences have significant effects, others appear to have little or no effect at all.

Laikipia is an area of huge conservation significance. Living alongside a large and growing human population there are high wildlife densities and vital populations of several globally threatened species. Laikipia is already a human-dominated landscape as is only likely to become more so over the coming years. However, whilst it is undoubtedly important to take into account the effects of different socio-economic and cultural factors, it is nevertheless encouraging to look to carnivore populations throughout the European mainland and see them persisting, and even thriving, in human-dominated landscapes there.


Helen O'Neill is a PhD candidate at Zoological Society London, and her research focuses on cheetah and African wild dogs living in a human-dominated landscape in Northern Kenya.  You can find more about her research here or reach out to her on Twitter @hmk_oneill.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Large mammals aren’t getting enough attention (for once)

Guest Post by Dani Rabaiotti 

Large mammals get an awful lot of attention. People love a fluffy, charismatic, animal, and their large size often makes them comparatively easier to study, and an awful lot of time, effort and money goes into conserving charismatic large mammals. As a result, there are systematic biases towards large mammals in conservation research, in the media, across social media (guilty), and in the amount of money raised both through charities and grants. Whilst most people think of large African megafauna when they hear large mammals, they are actually making a comeback in Europe: numbers of wolves, bears, and lynx are increasing across most of the continent and, in some areas, these animals are even expanding their ranges.

This leads me onto one area of research where…possibly (hear me out here!)…large mammals might be overlooked. A lot of the focus on climate change response research has been into reptiles and amphibians, which have physiological traits that mean their behaviour and/or breeding is directly dependant on temperature, or species like corals, which have been identified as most at risk. Low down on the list of climate change impact studies are large mammals. A fairly large number of correlative studies have been done, where researchers look at where species live now and what the climatic conditions are, and use it to project where they could live under climate change. Far fewer studies have looked at the mechanisms by which large mammals might be affected by temperature changes.

African Wild Dog. Photo contributed by Dani Rabaiotti.
It could be argued, however, that large mammals may be disproportionately at risk. Due to their size, large mammals need a lot of resources and as a result generally need big territories to survive. Large mammals are disproportionately threatened compared to small mammals, in part due to global habitat loss, but also because they are more likely to come into conflict with humans, and be persecuted as a result: think large carnivores eating livestock or elephants eating crops. This also means that, as the climate warms, many species have no-where to move to (many plants and animals will move to cooler areas to avoid rising temperatures). In my study species, the African wild dog, for example, it has already been extirpated from over 90 percent of its former range through habitat loss and human conflict – there is no other ‘range’ for it to shift to. On top of this, large mammals take a really long time to reproduce, meaning that if they need to adapt to climate change, it has to be through behaviour and not evolution.

Because of this, it is really important that we understand the responses of large mammals to changes in temperature. This can be challenging as, unlike many smaller species, you can’t stick an elephant in a lab and heat it up to see what happens. The fields of herpetology, fisheries research, and, to a slightly lesser extend ornithology, have done some great work into how the physiology, behaviour and breeding habits of various species are impacted by climate change. These can be used to gain a mechanistic (that is, the mechanism behind how climate change might effect a species in future) understanding of climate change impacts, and allows the building of more detailed, mechanistic models that don’t just rely on correlation. However, there are far fewer papers of this kind on large mammals.

The good news is we already have a lot of data on large mammals, and where data is missing there are a lot of long-term projects out there. It would be a shame to pour money into conserving large mammals in an area that may be too hot for them to survive in the future, when it may be better directed elsewhere. It would be tragic if the large mammal conservation successes in Europe were lessened by an oversight in research. It is important that people start looking at past datasets, and collecting new datasets with questions on temperature impacts in mind. This would help ensure the future of these species that people know and love so well.


Dani Rabaiotti is a PhD student studying the impact of climate change on African wild dogs at the Zoological Society of London and UCL.  You can find more about her research here or reach out to her on Twitter @DaniRabaiotti.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Can conservation science alone save the planet?

Guest Post by Ewa Orlikowska

Conservation science recognizes the tight coupling of social and natural systems; for conservation to be fully successful, poverty must be addressed, but is it enough? What about our increasingly polarized societies? Is there still time to reverse ecosystem collapse or stop the human-driven sixth mass extinction? What if Stephen Hawking is right in giving humanity only 100 years to find a new planet, because we will not survive without escaping beyond our fragile Earth?

Degrowth principles and the doughnut of social and planetary boundaries concepts may guide us in providing for the human race without over-stressing the Earth’s life-support systems. We must act now and the actions need to be simultaneous, multilateral and bottom-up with citizen involvement applying Aldo Leopold’s land ethic that ‘…changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.’ Conservation must be incorporated into education and everyday life; the way we eat, travel, and consume needs to be sustainable to bring about social and environmental justice.

Some believe that scientists possess the “magic wand” giving them an extraordinary power to save the planet. With 7.4 billion of us inhabiting the Earth and researchers accounting for merely 0.1% of the global population, it seems highly infeasible. We all need to take responsibility for the state of our environment and act together on its behalf.

Many small steps add up – grow your own garden instead of maintaining a green lawn; compost, recycle, pick up street litter, walk and bicycle as opposed to driving, repair and reuse, wear plastic-free clothes, improve wildlife habitat in your area, eat organic - less meat and more plants, reduce plastic waste, support fossil-fuel-free technologies, be conscientious citizen and consumer. Look into the past for solutions for the future such as the consumption levels of our grandparents. Get involved in your local community – spread the conscientious lifestyle by example, educate your neighbors, friends and family. 

As one of the Student Conference on Conservation Science, University of Cambridge, 2017 (#SCCS2017) plenary speakers, Brendan Fisher taught us, we need to address each individual’s identity in framing our questions and approaches. For instance, the environmental aspects of palm oil plantations, such as deforestation of regions with the highest levels of biodiversity on Earth (Indonesia and Malaysia), may not impact the consumer decision of my 74-year-old mother, but the health risks its consumption imposes due to its high content of saturated fat long linked to heart disease will do.

As scientists, we must devote more time and effort to communication of scientific findings to the public; we must build bridges, educate, and reach out in order to break the ‘bubble’ encapsulating us from the society. Perhaps, we enclosed in the “ivory tower” of academia focus too much on pursuing our own careers, publishing another paper or improving our h-index. What we scientists consider common knowledge among ourselves is often unknown, misunderstood or misinterpreted by the public or politicians. We need to make our knowledge accessible to fellow citizens, we need to lead and encourage civic participation and dialogue processes in nature conservation, management and sustainability. There is so much to be done and so little time left. But we need to remember ‘Yes we can’!

The 2017 SCCS in Cambridge provided numerous examples of successful evidence-based conservation projects, giving us a sense of optimism (#earthoptimism). What struck me the most was that many projects were not just about publishing another paper or obtaining a degree, but about bringing a real change to the world around us – saving one more tapir from being run over in Costa Rica or another bat from collision with wind farm in Poland, to name just two. The SCCS 2017 yielded extraordinary inspiration and empowerment. As many of the 183 participants from 59 counties showed, ‘Every individual in this world can make a difference, and we can go out there and we can actually achieve our dreams’ (Carl Jones, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust).

Resources used:

1. Lindenmayer et al. 2017. http://go.nature.com/2f1KG4j; 2. Williams et al. 2015. http://bit.ly/2f2wRCT; 3. Holley 2017. http://wapo.st/2j0eJOh; 4. Raworth 2017. https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/; 5. Leopold, A. 1989. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There.; 6. Unites States Census Bureau 2017. U.S. and World Population Clock, https://www.census.gov/popclock/; 7. UNESCO 2017. Facts and figures: human resources. From the UNESCO Science Report, Towards 2030. https://en.unesco.org/node/252277; 8. The Zoological Society of London. 2017. SPOTT. Sustainable Palm Oil Transparency Toolkit. Environmental impacts. https://www.sustainablepalmoil.org/impacts/environmental/; 9. Harvard Medical School. 2017. Harvard Health Publications. By the way, doctor: Is palm oil good for you? http://bit.ly/2w57lm3; 10. The New York Times. 2008. Barack Obama’s New Hampshire Primary Speech. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/08/us/politics/08text-obama.html; 11. Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, https://www.facebook.com/DurrellWildlife/


Ewa Orlikowska is a PhD student at the School for Forest Management, Faculty of Forest Sciences, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Her  doctoral research focuses on large scale biodiversity conservation in forested habitats, especially on the European network of protected areas Natura 2000. You can connect with Ewa on Twitter: @ewa_orlikowska

Thursday, 13 July 2017

The tragedy of the commons reloaded: now with better technology

Entry by: Guy Pe’er.

Disclaimer: This entry represents my personal opinion and should not be considered as an official statement of SCB-ES. I would like to thank Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley for her kind assistance in preparing and editing this entry.

It was a beautiful sunny morning as I was cycling along Cospudener Lake in Leipzig, Germany. The area was once an open cast mine for brown coal, and is now a restored environment and a popular leisure area. I put my bike aside and approached the waterline, enjoying the soothing wind and the murmur of the waves. I then sat on the soft grass, and… pulled out my mobile phone to read the news. Soon after, the calming effect of nature was gone once reading the news that the United States' President, Donald Trump, had resigned the Paris agreement. For me, this moment offered a powerful demonstration of our disconnection from nature.

While many world leaders and companies have already condemned this decision, we as scientists, and particularly as conservation scientists, should recognize the severity of the political discourse where science and evidence seem irrelevant or even undesirable, and where the most developed countries, who are the key contributors to the current environmental crisis, withdraw any responsibility to remedy it.

The United States is the world's largest national economy in nominal terms and second largest according to purchasing power parity (PPP), representing 22% of nominal Gross Domestic Product, and 17% of Gross World Product (GWP). The United States is also the world’s second largest contributor of Green House Gas emissions (14.34%; second to China with 29.51%), and this is without considering the global emissions the country is driving elsewhere. It is also the 5th leading country in terms of Ecological Footprint, and 2nd largest (after China) when multiplying ecological footprint (gha/person) by its population.

Ecological footprint by nation - source: Wikipedia

Despite this, the people of the United States have democratically elected a government which endorses environmental irresponsibility and the silencing of the scientific community as its official policy line. To put it straight, the question should not be whether climate change is happening because of us, but rather, why do so many people choose to deny climate change? While this question is likely best addressed by a social scientist, it seems plausible that accepting the fact that Earth has planetary boundaries forces all of us to call into question the freedom of consumption and the concept of limitless economic growth. Accepting that Earth has boundaries implies that we must limit our own consumption, yet without immediate observable benefits for doing so. With this in mind, there is plenty of evidence that Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States to bring economic growth at any cost, be it to poorer communities, the global South, our environment (both climate and biodiversity), but also costs to our children and future. All these costs in favour of achieving one digestible coin, namely growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is in fact a poor indicator of human well-being and can be achieved by just a few people getting exceedingly rich.

The collapse of global agreements and international responsibilities is in no way exclusive to the United States. Across many developed countries we see an ongoing struggle to enable the global economy to continue growing, against all odds. In Europe this is demonstrated by Juncker’s “Growth and Jobs” agenda (no environment mentioned), and the looming Brexit was largely motivated by economic grounds. Yet when nations take to themselves, they allow non-national actors to govern the global economy and global markets, guiding our society from consumerism to hyper-consumerism. 

This is nothing else but a revised form of the Tragedy of the Commons, where individuals act to maximise their own short-term benefits by exhausting a common good (our environment) to a point of collapse – yet now we are shifting from mere exploitation to using increasingly-modern technologies for extracting more of Earth’s dwindling resources at a faster rate. As conservation scientists, we should therefore be alarmed by the years ahead of us, particularly because climate change takes the headlines anyway, whereas biodiversity is put aside; and beyond that, the mechanisms to reverse the biodiversity crisis remain weak or fragile.

So what can (conservation) scientists, as members of society, do to help us move away from this political lock-in? Here are ten ideas that came to mind.

1. Abandon wrong indicators and particularly GDP. We need an economy which makes sense, and which internalizes Earth’s natural resources. Neither growth nor “sustainable growth” should be accepted without questioning them. As scientists we should thus help a transition from speaking about incomes and the economy to focusing on well-being, health and tangible life quality, and accordingly improving the links between socio-economic and environmental (biodiversity) indicators.

2. Ensure that biodiversity is not put aside in the current discourse on climate, energy, water and waste. In contrast with the climate discourse, the biodiversity crisis is to a certain extent more tangible and cannot be denied, and likely there is also more room for facts and science compared to other discussions (e.g. climate) which seem to move ever deeper into the post-normal arena. Perhaps we should even ask ourselves: how can conservation science offer leadership in shaping the sustainability agenda?

3. Invest in bottom-up solutions. I believe this is particularly important, because ultimately, democratic leaders tend to respond to what the public wants. By putting emphasis on small-scale initiatives such as citizen science, outreach, and education, we can begin at the grass-roots level to engage with others and to share our passion and knowledge about our natural environment. Possibly, only bottom-up approaches can drive changes in our society and economy in the longer term.

4. Communicate conservation knowledge through social media. Humans as a social species seem to accept information based on where and whom it comes from, more so than if the information is (stated as) a fact. This suggests that scientists need to be as present as possible in public discussions regarding our environment, and the relation with the public may need to be tighter. Social media therefore offer key avenues for building these connections.

5. Ask hard questions, and write clear statements. It is our responsibility as scientists to unravel the processes underlying not only Earth’s ecosystems but also the mechanisms driving the ever-worsening human-Earth conflict – be it at the individual, community, national or international level. As individual scientists, we may also need to train ourselves in identifying and combating false-evidence and false-narratives, such as the unsupported claims that “we need to produce more” , the belief that “technology can save the environment” , or statements such as “…always remember that economic growth enhances environmental protection” (D.J. Trump, 22.4.2017). Factually, activities relating to economic growth inherently come in conflict with nature conservation, and there is no evidence that we can decouple consumption from material- and space-use. Along these lines, we also need to be aware of opportunities to leverage our roles in societies, like the Society for Conservation Biology, to produce official position papers such as an immediate statement against Trump's myriad policy decisions both against climate change mitigation and the environment in general.

6. Leverage opportunities for action. The United States resignation from the Paris Agreement opens the opportunity for other nations to lead the dialogue and actions to drive change, and design more robust and equitable environmental policies. Actions to come, likely in the contexts of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (or Brexit), can offer opportunities to raise awareness to the severity of the biodiversity crisis and the risks of deregulation. Consider how you could use such events to contact your elected officials, and encourage them to take leadership on progressive policies that explicitly value the environment and human well-being.

7. Work with economists, policy-experts, and environmental lawyers. We need to identify what constitutional, legal and economic adaptations can be achieved and how. While natural scientists can point at the problems, the solutions require finding the paths to mainstream public opinion, setting the economic tools and incentives, and developing the necessary legal instruments to ensure that the fate of our natural capital – and our future - will not be put at the hand of one person or a short-sighted political constellation.

8. Live by example. Socio-economic changes can be practiced by each of us: Scientists have an above-average CO2 footprint, so a good place to start is by taking actions to reduce our own footprint. Also, the impacts of consumption on biodiversity are often indirect or difficult to avoid, so raising our own awareness about impacts of certain goods and consumption patterns, and taking efforts to reduce those impacts, is another good start. If we expect society to change, we too need to reflect on our own habitat, and drive changes from within.

9. Ensure own sustainability. By this I mean support your own mental and physical well-being so that you are prepared for the science-policy dialogue, and not to burn yourself out. Be mindful of the fact that diverse values sit at the science-policy table and interface, and that acknowledging other's values, whether you agree or not, is important. Along these lines, remember self-care. You can't always be present or address all critical topics. There are many of us in conservation, and we should support one another and sustain ourselves and presence jointly to ensure we are continuously present, expressing our concerns and offering solutions where possible.

10. I leave it for you to propose your observations and suggestions. What should we, conservation scientists and members of SCB, do?


Guy Pe’er is a "Catalyst post-doc" at the sDiv, the synthesis Centre of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ.