Showing posts with label conservation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label conservation. Show all posts

Friday, December 7, 2018

Into the Eye of the Elephant Storm: Poaching in Africa’s Last Great Elephant Refuge

Guest post by Adam Byers, MEnvSc Candidate at the University of Toronto-Scarborough

It’s hard to put into words the feeling you get gazing up into the gentle, intelligent eyes of a 5-tonne African elephant. But that’s exactly where I found myself six months ago, deep within the borders of Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

Two members of a small bachelor herd in Chobe National Park, Botswana

I was nearing the end of a camping safari across the grasslands of southern Africa, and just when I thought it wasn’t possible to top the incredible wildlife I’d already experienced, Africa proved me wrong in a surreal heart-stopping moment. A towering young bull elephant emerged from the bush and passed by our jeep close enough to touch. It’s the kind of experience you never forget. But it’s an experience that may soon cease to be possible.

The African bush elephant is a threatened species as designated by the IUCN (Blanc, 2008), the global organization that assesses at-risk wildlife. Tracked since 1986, the species is currently listed as “vulnerable”, and recent trends suggest populations are in decline (Chase et al., 2016). Making matters worse, this year elephant conservation was dealt a devastating blow that is already having major consequences: in May, the new president of Botswana revoked the country’s zero-tolerance policy on poaching and stripped the weapons from Parks officers. Mere weeks later, the place of my elephant encounter was transformed into a scene of destruction and violence. By September, surveys carried out by the charity Elephants Without Borders found 87 dead elephants killed for their tusks.

Botswana supports among the densest populations of elephant in Africa (from Chase et al., 2016)
Botswana is home to the world’s largest population of elephants, and has long been esteemed for its tough stance on poaching. A commentary released last year by researchers from the University of Botswana emphasized the nation’s shoot-to-kill order as responsible for reducing illegal hunting (Mogomotsi & Madigele, 2017), which is a leading cause of elephant mortality, particularly for tusked males (CITES, 2017). The belief was widespread, shared with me by guides and park staff from Zimbabwe to South Africa, who lauded Botswana’s approach. So it’s no wonder the policy reversal was met with international outrage, which only intensified with the discovery of dozens of poached elephants in the Chobe park and other protected areas.

The government denied the claims, insisting the numbers were much lower, but in a continent still rife with corruption it is difficult to know who to believe. But whether it’s one elephant or one hundred, the harm is unacceptable. And the fact that it followed so closely after the disarmament of the country’s anti-poaching unit can be no coincidence.

Further investigation, however, shows that despite the likely connection, the government may have done no wrong. The shoot-to-kill policy was never official legislation, and as I was warned during my adventure, there were no real criteria before escalating to violence – simply being in a protected area after dark was sufficient for guards to open fire. This led to several years of clashes between anti-poaching units and citizens of neighbouring nations.

Proportion of illegally killed elephants (PIKE) from 2003 to 2016; the red line represents the level at which half of all deaths are due to illegal hunting or poaching (adapted from CITES, 2017)
Regardless of the controversies and merits of the former anti-poaching strategy, scholars are quick to point out that this sort of harsh response was only a band-aid solution. In an impoverished country ravaged by AIDS, inequality, and lack of clean water, poaching offers a high-risk but extremely tempting escape. Ivory values peaked at over $1,700 per kilo (CAD) in 2015, and with a pair of adult male tusks weighing up to 90kg, a single elephant could represent a lifetime’s salary. The price of ivory has decreased since China’s ban earlier this year, but with a thriving black market trade, and U.S. President Trump reversing a ban on ivory imports, the world is far from a cohesive anti-poaching strategy.

Given the lucrative market, it’s no wonder that a sophisticated system of poachers has descended on the country, especially now that the risk is reduced. But as one ranger in Botswana explained, these poachers are not necessarily bad men. They are sons and brothers. Husbands. Fathers.

If we want to fix the poaching problem, we need to dig deeper for a solution. We need alternative livelihoods for the marginalized men that are turning to poaching in order to provide for their families. Conservation and humanitarian NGOs operating around the world have long tried to implement programs to encourage alternate sources of food and income, but unfortunately few of these programs have had adequate funding or infrastructure to measure the results. To assess whether conservation benefits were being achieved, the IUCN conducted interviews as part of an enlightening assessment of 15 alternative livelihood projects in Central Africa (Wicander & Coad, 2015). In many cases funding was inadequate to meet program targets, and the majority lacked sufficient monitoring to measure progress. These findings were echoed in a systematic review conducted by Dilys Roe and colleagues (2015). The authors found only 21 studies that adequately assessed conservation outcome of alternative livelihood projects, only a third of which were from Africa, and none of those specifically dealt with poaching. Scientists are often quick to raise problems, and usually to suggest solutions, but there is also a need to follow through to determine whether those solutions are working. There is a clear gap that needs to be addressed to determine which interventions are effective at both reducing poaching and meeting socioeconomic goals, and researchers and NGOs must work together to ensure adequate funding is available for such programs.

In the last days of my trip I visited a local primary school where I had the opportunity to meet both students and teachers. Despite its troubles, Botswana is a fast-advancing nation and a leader in education among its peers. Their children today have more choice and freedom than ever before, and it is up to them to set the course for the world’s last great elephant refuge. And I have no doubt they will succeed if we just give them the opportunity, because like their gentle giant neighbours, they are kind and enthusiastic. Thoughtful. Intelligent.
To see it, you just need to look into their eyes.

Photo by Adam Byers
Much of the information in this posting is taken from first-hand experiences and conversations in Botswana and neighbouring nations. For fuller appreciation of the complexities of the issue, I recommend reading the news articles linked above and the referenced studies and documents below. For more on endangered elephant populations or to find out how you can help, visit the IUCN or World Wildlife Fund.


References
Blanc, J. (2008). Loxodonta africana. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Chase, M. J., Schlossberg, S., Griffin, C. R., Bouché, P. J., Djene, S. W., Elkan, P. W., ... & Omondi, P. (2016). Continent-wide survey reveals massive decline in African savannah elephants. PeerJ, 4, e2354.

CITES. (2017). MIKE Report: Levels and Trends of Illegal Killing of Elephants in Africa to 31 December 2016 - Preliminary Findings. Convention on International Trade n Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Mogomotsi, G. E., & Madigele, P. K. (2017). Live by the gun, die by the gun: Botswana’s ‘shoot-to-kill’policy as an anti-poaching strategy. South African Crime Quarterly, 60, 51-59.

Roe, D., Booker, F., Day, M., Zhou, W., Allebone-Webb, S., Hill, N. A., ... & Shepherd, G. (2015). Are alternative livelihood projects effective at reducing local threats to specified elements of biodiversity and/or improving or maintaining the conservation status of those elements? Environmental Evidence, 4(1), 22.

Wicander, S., & Coad, L. (2015). Learning our Lessons: A Review of Alternative Livelihood Projects in Central Africa. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Un-BEE-lievable: The Buzz on Native Bee Conservation in Canada

Guest post by University of Toronto-Scarborough MEnvSc Candidate Rachel Siblock

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (much like native mining bees in Canada), you’ve probably seen the numerous campaigns to “Save the Bees”. Bee species across the globe are in decline. There are many factors that contribute to this decline, such as pesticide use, colony collapse, disease, habitat loss, and climate change1. Many of these factors interact with one another, exacerbating the consequences and impacts. Conservation efforts are being implemented to try to stop the loss of these pollinators, and the valuable services they provide to humans. Canada is no exception. There are local, provincial, and national policies and programs operating and currently being developed in order to reduce the impacts of these threats. In the past few years, programs like The Bee Cause, Bees Matter, Feed the Bees, and others have implemented programs and recommendations in order to increase the bee populations in Canada. Honey Nut Cheerios has even campaigned to get the public engaged and involved in the conservation of bees. These programs, however, all have one common issue: they focus their efforts on Honey Bees. 


An example of a campaign by Honey Nut Cheerios, focusing on honey bees. 
There are no native honey bees in Canada. The most well-known bee in Canada was not even present in the country until it was introduced from Europe in the 1600s2. The European Honey Bee was intentionally introduced to Canada for honey production, and since has increased in number dramatically, both in farmed and wild colonies. Honey bees have large colonies, allowing them to be easily managed and farmed. They also pollinate crops and produce honey, which may make them seem more economically valuable than their native, non-honey-producing counterparts. However, there have been unexpected impacts of the introduction of the European Honey Bee on native bee species in Canada.
            There are over 800 native bee species in Canada. While there are many different types of bees in Canada, the best understood group of native bees are bumble bees. Bumble bees have the ability to buzz pollinate, which allows them to obtain pollen from plants with pollen that is difficult to extract. Many of these plants are economically valuable, such as kiwi and blueberry crops. This, along with general pollination, makes managed populations of bumble bees worth several billion dollars annually3. Bumble bees naturally have low genetic diversity and can be subject to inbreeding depression, leading to declining populations and making the some species more vulnerable to extinction4. Threats can then interact with these low population levels, and intensify population loss. 
A male Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, one of Canada’s native bee species. It is currently listed as endangered in Canada.
Aside from facing the same threats as honey bees, native bumble bees are also threatened by the very presence of honey bees. Competition for resources with honey bees is a major threat to native bumble bees. A study performed in the United Kingdom found that bumble bees at sites with high honey bee density were significantly smaller in body size when compared to their relatives at sites with low honey bee density5. An additional study discovered a reduction of native bumble bee colony success when colonies were experimentally exposed to honey bees6. Honey bees generally produce larger colony sizes which can store a larger amount of resources than bumble bees. They also have the ability to communicate with one another about valuable floral resource locations7. Honey bees have a larger foraging range than native bumble bees, and have an increased ability to forage on introduced plant species7. These adaptations allow honey bees to outcompete native bumble bees, and commandeer sparse resources in the area.
            Threats from honey bees do not just end at competition; pathogens and parasites specifically adapted to honey bees have been shown to have the ability to spread to wild bumble bee populations. Managed honey bees are known to carry higher than natural levels of pathogens8, which can be transmitted to wild bumble bee populations when the bees interact. In particular, two pathogens endemic to honey bees, C. bombi and N. bombi, are wreaking havoc on bumble bee populations. While these pathogens do not have lethal effects, their sublethal effects can be devastating to colonies. These pathogens cause reduced pollen loads, a decline in flowers visited per minute, slower growth rates of colonies, decreased queen reproductive rates, shortened life spans and diminished colony growth8. With small populations already, entire bumble bee colonies can be wiped out by these pathogens. Honey bee parasites, such as the Small Hive Beetle, have also been shown to be able to spread to bumble bee colonies, where they consume the wax, pollen, and nectar stores of hives8. While honey bees have co-evolved with these parasites and pathogens for eons, bumble bees have not had the time to adapt to these threats, making them much more vulnerable to these hazards. 
Small Hive Beetle infestation in a honey bee colony. 
But why do we care about losing native bees? The same concerns about the loss of honey bees applies to native bees. Native bee species pollinate crops and flowers, which we depend on for food. It is estimated that about one in three bites of food we consume can be traced back directly to pollination by bees and other pollinators. However, native bees have been found to be more effective pollinators than honey bees. Some plant species in Canada rely solely on native bees for their pollination. With the loss of native bees, these plants will also become endangered, along with many other food crops requiring pollination. Additionally, there is a severe lack of research into native bees. Research tends to focus on honey bee populations, resulting in much more knowledge of honey bee behaviours, adaptations, actions, and responses to stressors. The truth is, we don’t know much about native bee species in Canada. We have no idea what the consequences of the loss of these species will be. However, this does not excuse us from protecting these bees. If anything, this lack of knowledge should increase our urge to protect them, so we have the opportunity to learn about them in the future.
            The native bee species in Canada share little life history traits with the European Honey Bee8, making many conservation efforts that focus on honey bees unsuccessful. Focusing conservation efforts on one species may not address the specific needs of native bees. In addition, by focusing on improving honey bee populations, there will be increased stress on native bees, which will lead to a decline in their populations. If we continue with these conservation strategies, we may threaten native species further.
            An increase in honey bee populations will increase parasite and pathogen levels in native bees, and also increase the competition between honey bees and native bees. So what can you do to focus conservation efforts on native Canadian bees? For starters, avoid the use of pesticides, which will decrease already low populations8. Improve your knowledge of bee species, and report invasive or introduced species in areas used by native bee species. Plant a wide variety of native plants with high pollen and nectar concentrations to ensure newly emerging bees have the resources they need to survive. And finally, avoid tilling, mowing, or burning in areas where native bee species, particularly ground dwelling species, are known to live. With increased knowledge of native bee needs, and species specific conservation efforts, it is hoped that native bee species will begin to rebound. Let’s BEE positive!

BEE Informed – To get involved with native bee conservation check out these links:


BEE-bliography:
    1.     Pettis, J.S., and K.S. Delaplane. 2010. Coordinated responses to honey bee decline in the USA. Adipologie 41:256-263.
    2.     van Engelsdorp, D., and M.D. Meixner. 2010. A historical review of managed honey bee populations in Europe and the United Sates and the factors that may affect them. Journal of Invertebrate Pathology 103:80-95.    
    3.     James, R., and T.L. Pitts-Singer. 2008. Bee Pollination in Agricultural Ecosystems. Oxford University Press, USA.
    4.     Zayed, A., and L. Packer. 2005. Complementary sex determination substantially increases extinction proneness of haplodiploid populations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102:10742-10746.
    5.     Goulson, D., and K. Sparrow. 2009. Evidence for competition between honey bees and bumble bees: Effects on bumble bee worker size. Journal of Insect Conservation 13:177-181.
    6.     Thomson, D. 2004. Competitive interactions between the invasive European honey bee and native bumble bees. Ecology 85:458-470.
    7.     Goulson, D. 2003. Effects of introduced bees on native ecosystems. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 34:1-26.
    8.     Colla, S.R. 2016. Status, threats and conservation recommendations for wild bumble bees (Bombus spp.) in Ontario, Canada: a review for policymakers and practitioners. Natural Areas Journal 36:412-426.

Image Sources:
  1. https://bringbackthebees.ca
  2. https://inaturalist.com
  3. http://beeaware.org.au/archive-pest/small-hive-beetle/#ad-image-0

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Tea Time with Amazigh People

Guest post by University of Toronto-Scarborough MEnvSc Candidate Erin Jankovich



 “How do they survive?” This is the question I kept asking myself over and over as I sat sipping my mint tea on the clay floor of an Amazigh cave in the Moroccan mountains. Their faces, hands, tea-kettle and even my cup were layered with dirt and soot. Outside, prevailing winds dusted the lonely peaks of the High Atlas with orange silt. I never expected to stumble across an indigenous settlement when I set out on my hike that day, let alone be invited for tea. This was by no means a fancy tea party, but it certainly was a memorable one.

Women plucked leaves from dry aromatic plants and a man filled a kettle for more tea. A toddler sat beside me and gestured to trade his clay ball for my Nikon. I felt like a fly on the wall in a National Geographic documentary.

I was on to my third cup of tea when a young man broke the silence. “Hello, do you speak English”, I heard from behind me. Dressed in traditional Amazigh clothes, this young man carrying a notepad and pen excitedly sat down beside me. He was a university student from Japan who had been living with this Amazigh family for four months to learn about their culture. Perfect! Maybe he could enlighten me as to how these people sustain their lives on this rugged mountain top - surely there was more to it than mint tea.

Mint tea, a traditional Moroccan drink and symbol of hospitality. Photography: Erin Jankovich

The young man pointed out across the valley and said “see”. For a while, all I saw was an expanse of orange rock but eventually like a stereogram the landscape came to life. Those little black dots were goats, dozens of goats! He walked me to the trailhead and pointed at the pale green tufts across the landscape. Mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, and verbena – these aromatic plants were right beneath my nose. This dusty landscape wasn’t so dead after all. He explained that the Amazigh people have extensive knowledge of the medicinal properties of hundreds of plants that grow in the High Atlas, and women will take several hour journeys to sell herbs in the valley markets. I wanted to learn more, but I was reminded of the long trek back to Tinerhir. I said goodbye, and thanked them all for such generous hospitality.

Afternoon tea with Amazigh family. Photography: Erin Jankovich
Morocco is dominated by a mountainous interior, bordered with rich coastal plains to the west and Sahara desert to the east. Since coming home from my trip, I have learned that this unique geography falls within the Mediterranean basin, a global biodiversity hotspot teeming with endemic flora and fauna found nowhere else on the planet (Rankou et al. 2013). Morocco alone has 879 endemic plants, the majority of which are restricted to the High Atlas region (Rankou et al., 2013).

The rich biodiversity of the High Atlas has been known to the Amazigh people for thousands of years, but only recently have researchers and scientists begun to draw their attention to this unique area. In 2015, scientists used IUCN Red List criteria to assess the status of endemic Moroccan flora and determined that many species are at risk of extinction due to climate change and habitat degradation (Rankou et al., 2015). These scientists emphasized that mountainous regions such as the High Atlas are especially sensitive to changes in climate and should be a top priority for conservationists, but so far very little research has gone into understanding the vegetation dynamics of this region.

Fresh and dry plants used for medicinal purposes found in traditional markets (image from Bouiamrine, 2017).
Many plant species picked by the Amazigh are highly toxic and dangerous to humans if not used appropriately (Mouhajir et al., 2001). Anecdotal evidence through surveys and interviews have revealed that the Amazigh people, specifically senior women, are experts in distinguishing between medicinal herbs and continue to pass on this traditional knowledge from one generation to the next (Bouiamrine, 2017). Many Moroccans still rely on traditional medicine to maintain good health thus conservation of these endemic herbs is critical for both the lives of the Amazigh and Moroccan market economy (Bouiamrine, 2017).

An Amazigh woman journeys across rugged terrain to sell herbs in modern markets. Photography: Erin Jankovich
I know better now that not all hotspots of biodiversity look like lush tropical jungles, but what they do have in common is an abundance of unique species that are threatened with extinction. Internationally the Mediterranean Basin has been recognized as providing significant ecosystem function and I was pleased to find that the Moroccan government has set national targets to preserve biodiversity and inventory traditional knowledge by 2020 (CBD, 2011).

Who better than the indigenous people of the High Atlas to help us understand the historical distribution of endemic plants and potential range shifts induced by climate change? Through sensitive and purposeful strategies for interaction with the Amazigh people—like the young student sharing a tea in the mountain—we may find that complimenting science with traditional ecological knowledge is the key to saving these unique landscapes.

References
Bouiamrine, E.H., Bachiri, L., Ibijbijen, J., & Nassiri, L. (2017). Use of medicinal plants in Middle Atlas of Morocco: potential health risks and indigenous knowledge in a Berber community. Journal of Medicinal Plant Studies, 5(2), 388-342.
Convention on Biological Diversity (2011). Electronic source. Retrieved from: https://www.cbd.int/countries/targets/?country=ma
Mouhajir, F., Hudson, J.B., Rejdali, M., & Towers, G.H.N. (2001). Multiple antiviral of endemic medicinal plants used by Berber peoples of Morocco. Pharmaceutical Biology, 39(5), 364-374.
Rankou, H., Culham, A., Jury, S.L., & Christenhusz M.J.M. (2013). The endemic flora of Morocco. Phytotaxa, 78 (1), 1-69.
Rankou, H., Culham, A. ,Taleb, M.S., Ouhammou, A., Martin, G., & Jury, S.L. (2015). Conservation assessments and Red Listing of the endemic Moroccan flora (monocotyledons). Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 177, 507-575.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The problematic charismatics: Are loveable invasives getting a free pass?

Guest post by Will Brown, MEnvSci Candidate in the Professional Masters of Environmental Science program at the University of Toronto-Scarborough

In the world of animal conservation, charismatic wildlife - those loveable, huggable species like giant pandas or koalas - take centre stage. They’re the kinds of animals you see dominating news stories, books, and movies, with less-attractive species often falling by the wayside. The concept of charismatic species is tied closely to animal conservation and protection. And the public’s love and adoration for charismatic creatures plays an essential role in the success of conservation and awareness campaigns. As flagship species they become ambassadors and icons, rallying support and focusing the public’s attention (and money) on an environmental cause or conservation program.
Figure 1 A famous example of a charismatic species used as a flagship species for a conservation group, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). (Source)

For many years, a societal bias for charismatics has been important for protecting and conserving rare and imperilled species. But what happens when a charismatic species, rather than requiring protection, is considered an invasive pest? And how does this affect the proper implementation of invasive species management and threat abatement?

A perfect example of a charismatic species as an invasive pest is wild horses, known as brumbies, in Australia. First introduced for farm work in 1788, there are now over 400 000 brumbies throughout the country. As an invasive this species causes erosion and damages vegetation with their hard hooves and overgrazing. They damage and foul waterholes and spread weeds through seeds carried in their dung, manes, and tails. As competitors with native species, they can force wildlife from favoured habitats and dominate food and water sources. There is a significant portion of the public, however, that see the brumby as an iconic Australian species that is  ’a unique equine and epitomizes the spirit of freedom’.
 
Figure 2 Feral horses threaten fragile ecosystems in Kosciusko National Park. (Source)
To manage the impacts of brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park, a plan was released in 2016 to reduce the number of wild horses by 90% over a 20-year period. The cull was to be carried out using humane control methods including trapping, fertility control and ground shooting rather than aerial shooting and roping. The management plan sparked angry protests and fierce opposition, despite warnings from scientists about the impacts of brumbies in the region. Even though government scientists declared that the horse population in the region severely degrade natural waterways and threaten fragile native alpine wildlife, hundreds of people protested the cull in Sydney and support groups downplayed the adverse effects brumbies have had on the environment. Lisa Caldwell of the Snowy Mountain Horse Riding Association was reported as saying ‘You've got to remember that the national park is 6,900 square kilometres…horses are not going to have a huge impact on those wetlands’ (www.abc.net.au).

Now almost 2 years on, backlash to the draft legislation has halted any form of management and a new amended management plan is in the works. It is reported that the amended plan includes less aggressive reduction of wild horses, with culling more likely to reduce the numbers to several thousand rather than just 600. To overcome Australia’s environment laws that require a more complete removal of wild horses, a ‘brumbies bill’ is being put forward to give recognition to the horses’ ‘cultural significance’, providing them with legal protection to remain in the park.

Now consider how an uncharismatic species is treated in a similar situation. The feral pig, generally perceived as dirty, disease-ridden and hated by farmers, also roams through Kosciuszko National Park and has very similar impacts on the environment. Feral pigs degrade natural areas through rooting up soils, grasslands and forest litter as they feed on native plants. They also spread a number of diseases and predate on a host of native animals including insects, frogs, snakes and small ground-nesting birds. Unlike brumbies however, their numbers are managed within in the park with almost no opposition.
 
Figure 3 Feral pigs populations are controlled in Australia with minimal public opposition. (Source)
In both cases there are two species found in the same location, negatively impacting the ecosystem in a similar way. For the uncharismatic species, management plans are carried out promptly and effectively. But for the charismatic species, it seems clear that societal bias can lead to strong resistance from the public and as a result, management efforts can be delayed or watered down.

And this pattern isn’t restricted to Australia. In Canada, introduced feral cats are the No.1 killer of birds, responsible for over 100 million bird deaths per year. Even with this information available, there is no widescale control programs for managing feral cat populations. In British Columbia, an exploding European rabbit population at the University of Victoria was responsible for extensive damage to fields, lawns and mature trees. When the university tried to implement a removal program, public outcry delayed efforts and the university ended up committing to using non-lethal methods for controlling the rabbit population. Meanwhile, less cute and fluffy invasive species such as America bullfrogs in BC have active population control programs with almost no objection from the public.

Based on these examples, it is clear there is a degree of favouritism when it comes to how invasive species are perceived and subsequently managed. With an obvious bias towards charismatic species, the power of public opinion can have significant impacts on invasive species control. This in turn has the potential to result in severe ecological consequences. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of the issue there is likely no single solution. The most impactful approach may be to increase the public’s awareness of the negative impacts of invasives with a focus on how these species may be damaging native wildlife. A more controversial approach may be to simply provide government scientists with greater decision-making power when it comes to wildlife management, especially for federally and state-owned lands. Adding to the complexity of the issue is how valuable are the cultural ecosystem services provided by charismatic invasives. Are the cultural benefits of invasive species as important as those provided by native species? This is an important question that should be addressed in evaluating the overall impacts caused by invasive species. Biases present in invasion biology are rarely discussed but the issues are clear. For the effective management of all invasive species, whether huggable or ugly, these biases should be recognised and carefully considered. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Gender-Biased Scientist: Women in Science

Guest post by Maika Seki, MEnvSci Candidate in the Professional Masters of Environmental Science program at the University of Toronto-Scarborough

In November of 2017, Nature Ecology & Evolution published “100 articles every ecologist should read” by Courchamp and Bradshaw, sparking a social media outrage. Rightfully so, because the list of first authors only included two women. There remains a pervasive perception that women lack the skills to practice science, and that there simply are not enough women in the field for them to have made a significant contribution, referring to the male-dominated history of the sciences. Many of us have come across studies highlighting gender bias in science education - which people have attempted to use to explain gender gaps in STEM fields. However in 2011, neuroscientist Melissa Hines found no significant difference between the mathematical, spatial, and verbal skills of boys and girls. But of course that finding did not receive much attention. In light of the emerging discourse of vital inclusivity in science, now is the time to confront our own social biases with the goal of achieving gender equity in the scientific community.

Instead of rehashing these outdated arguments, why don’t we talk about the barriers that women face in science? Why don’t we talk about the sexism in the publishing and peer-review process? In 2015, evolutionary geneticist Fiona Ingleby submitted a research paper to PLOS ONE, where the peer-reviewer suggested that she work with male biologists in order to strengthen the study, stating, “It would probably … be beneficial to find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors).” The under-recognition of women scientists has been so rampant in the fabric of science that it has been coined the Matilda effect; named after the first women scientist to comment on the phenomenon, Matilda Jocelyn Gage.
   
Why don’t we talk about the barriers women face in accessing employment in science, even while possessing the same qualifications as their male counterparts? At Yale University, a study was conducted wherein over 100 scientists assessed a resume for a job posting. The only difference between the resumes were the names; half of them were given recognizably male names, and the other half recognizably female names. The resumes submitted under the female names were deemed significantly less competent and employable, and were offered lower salaries. Clearly there is work to be done.

And then there was Tim Hunt, a Nobel laureate who made outright sexist comments at the World Conference of Science Journalists stating, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.Twitter responded with the hashtag #DistractinglySexy, where women scientists shared unglamorous photos of them doing their research work. Hunt subsequently resigned from his honorary post at the University College-London. We may think that this is an exceptional and isolated event, but studies show that we are not immune to these kinds of social forces of gender discrimination, even if we like to think so — especially as scientists. These seemingly minor micro-aggressions translate to devastating and tangible effects, such as the gender pay gap. 





Photo by @STEPHEVZ43 on Twitter, as a response to Tim Hunt’s sexist comments.



Within scientific fields, we like to pride ourselves in being as close to bias-free as possible with our empirical, quantitative, and reproducible data. But scientists are people, and as such, we must confront the cultural and social influences that may permeate our objectivity. As scientists, we do not like to admit to this. But if we are going to arrive as close to the truth as possible, we need to capitalize on the emerging discourse of gender issues in science.
    
As of 2015, Canadian women represented only 22% of the STEM workforce. Not only are women under-represented in the workforce despite 62% of undergraduate students being women, but they are under-compensated. According to Statistics Canada, the wage gap persists across all fields, with the women median income of a bachelor’s degree being $68,342, and $82,083 for men. This is not a “third world” problem. This is a global issue. It is indisputable that there are systemic barriers that women face when pursuing careers in science. So why can’t scientists consider the confounding social factors at play that create these patterns? In science when somebody denies a phenomenon after many analyses point to the same mechanism, we would likely consider that as being irrational. With this in mind, is the denial of gender bias in science not irrational? By acknowledging these biases and promoting change, we take aim at the lack of objectivity in the discipline of science. It should also be encouraged to confront the sexism, racism, and all other intersectionalities of power imbalance within the science community. Some may argue that there is no place for politics in science, but we must face the reality that the two can not be separated. Addressing the sexism would bring us better, more balanced science. 


Statistics Canada graph on the Canadian men and women in STEM fields.


How can we aspire towards a world of innovation and ground-breaking research when roughly half of the population is held back? And how can we address it? To start, we need to hold institutions more accountable. It is disheartening to know that had people not reacted to the all-male panels, it would not be seen as a problem. Furthermore, it is not enough to tweet about it. It’s a start, but not nearly enough — because how many of these types of stories repeat themselves in the media? We need it to be written in the mandates of institutions, and this is not enough. We need it to be enforced. We also need women to be more involved and hold power in these decision-making panels; it is not enough to throw in a token white woman and call it a day. It is not enough for women to be given a seat on the board as a corporate marketing tool under the guise of inclusivity. They must also be afforded the same power that men have. We need to hold each other more accountable. We need to confront our own prejudices, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. If not for women, then do it for practical and selfish reasons; do it because there are studies that show that women have to be more productive than men to be deemed equally scientifically competent (feeling the pressure to prove themselves). And do it because it is better for the economy, and because diversity in the workplace increases productivity




Graph by The Star on the income of full-time men and women in Canada, who have a bachelor’s degree.


There is no good reason to continue to exclude women from the same influential roles that men have, and it is time that we each consider our own sexist views (whether sub-conscious or not). It is time to challenge the systemic biases in powerful institutions in order to let women claim their full potential as true peers to men; as colleagues, partners, scientists, and in all other walks of life. In order to increase scientific literacy, we can not afford to continue to exclude women from science, because science needs women. In the spirit of the United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science day, which passed on February 11th, and International Women’s day today, let us commit to empowering women to reach political, social, and economic equality to men. And let us make changes in our own lives, begin conversations with those around us, and become more active in our communities to progress towards gender equity.


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Of course we need to save endangered species: a response

I spend a lot of time thinking about the related topics of conservation, biodiversity, and evolution, so I was interested to see an editorial in the Washington Post on precisely those issues. The article, "We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution" by Alex Pyron, presents a misrepresentative and potentially harmful position about the future of the earth's biota.

Pyron begins by stating that "Evolution loves death." Selection necessarily means the success of one variant at the expense of others, and today's living creatures are the survivors of an ongoing battle for existence. Extinction is not a modern phenomenon by any means. There have been five mass extinctions, including the glaciation of Gondwana and the impact of an asteroid that lead to the loss of the dinosaurs.

But the 6th great extinction (the Anthropocene extinction - the one we are currently living in) shares little in common with these past events. This is the only extinction that a single species (humans) are primarily responsible for, through activities from habitat conversion or degradation, land fragmentation, warming climate, ocean acidification, and human consumption of natural resources. In this context, Pyron's argument seems to be that we ought to retain an anthropocentric viewpoint of conservation as well. That is, we are simply selecting for species that can survive in our wake, and we should feel concern only for those species that we need.
"But the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency. Extinction is the engine of evolution, the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish. Species constantly go extinct, and every species that is alive today will one day follow suit. There is no such thing as an “endangered species,” except for all species. The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings. Yes, we have altered the environment and, in doing so, hurt other species. This seems artificial because we, unlike other life forms, use sentience and agriculture and industry. But we are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural. Conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else."
This is hardly an original viewpoint (hastening to the Bible's 'Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.'). But it is a short-sighted one. Ignoring more philosophical arguments about the intrinsic value of all species, the arguments presented are problematic and incomplete, and the potential cost could be huge.

Pyron notes that we may be over-estimating the loss of species:
"According to some studies, it’s not even clear that biodiversity is suffering. The authors of another recent National Academy of Sciences paper point out that species richness has shown no net decline among plants over 100 years across 16,000 sites examined around the world."
The study cited by Pyron here does not support the assertion that biodiversity is fine. In fact, Vellend et al (2013) show that at local scales, plant diversity (i.e., the number of plant species; species number being only way of characterizing biodiversity) has been stable. This isn't the same as saying species are not being lost at a global scale. In a follow-up piece (Vellend et al. 2016), the same author notes that at the global scale, "Nonetheless, if we take 142 and 592 as somewhere in the ballpark of extinctions that have occurred between 1600 and 2016, we get extinction rates of 0.98–4.1, 1–2 orders of magnitude higher than the background rate." Outside of plants, Pimm et al. (2014)'s comprehensive review of extinctions in birds, amphibians, and mammals show extinction rates have at least doubled since 1900. These are rates much higher than considered 'natural'. Even when no extinctions have occurred yet, populations are declining rapidly (Ceballos and Ehrlich 2014, Ceballos et al 2017).

An anthropocentric approach also requires complete understanding and control of our environment. Preventing the loss of the species we need or the ecosystems we rely on is not straightforward (as seen by the rarity with which species become 'non-endangered'). Humans are still under-informed about ecosystem services and goods, and what biotic and abiotic interactions are essential to maintain them. The existence of IPBES is a good indicator of how essential and lacking this information is. To confidently state that "Conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else" ignores the indirect linkages that might matter, and our lack of knowledge of them.

Further, the philosophy that humans will survive somehow, in the face of losses of biodiversity and changing planetary climate is probably mostly true for the richest members of the planet. Elsewhere, food shortage associated with climate change (eg.) and water shortages (eg.) already threaten individuals in less wealthy countries.

Ironically, Pyron suggests that all we need to make this reality is "moderation".
"The solution is simple: moderation. While we should feel no remorse about altering our environment, there is no need to clear-cut forests for McMansions on 15-acre plots of crabgrass-blanketed land. We should save whatever species and habitats can be easily rescued (once-endangered creatures such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons now flourish), refrain from polluting waterways, limit consumption of fossil fuels and rely more on low-impact renewable-energy sources....We cannot thrive without crops or pollinators, or along coastlines as sea levels rise and as storms and flooding intensify."
But the anthropocentric view of the world that he presents is the opposite of moderation. It favours only humans. In many ways it's the other extreme of the Half-Earth proposal that suggests we set aside half the planet made free of humans. Having been told we don't need to value species beyond our current needs and interests assumes that we will capably and correctly identify those needs and goals, including for time frames beyond our own myopic lifespans. This uncertainty means that a human-centric view may be just as harmful to humans as approaches that ascribe value for biodiversity more value. And humans have proven willing and capable of taking much broader and more effective actions, that accommodate both humans and other organisms. (As FDR said and did: "We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.")

It's frustrating to see this kind of description of biodiversity as though the earth is simply a plus-minus ledger of species – a few lost here, a few gained there.

A conservation baseline is meant to capture an idealized Eden is of course unreasonable. But Pyron's view looks like Hell. ("If this means fewer dazzling species, fewer unspoiled forests, less untamed wilderness, so be it. They will return in time.")


Edit (Nov. 24): the TL:DR is that 
a) I thought the author cherrypicked the ecological literature and downplayed what we know about the loss of biodiversity and the complex/negative effects of human actions; 
b) if the argument is that we should think about biodiversity over timescales of millions of years, humans don't matter anyways; 
c) if we do care about humans, utility values of biodiversity are an acceptable focus of conservation. But it would be misguided to think that we have a perfect understanding of how ecosystems work or a perfect ability to forecast our impacts. For reasons of uncertainty, sampling effects and option value argue that we preserve as much diversity as we can;
d) Non-economic utility values (aesthetic, cultural values) are a good argument for conservation too. Most of us want to leave our children a beautiful planet that is full of life. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Positive cost-benefit analysis for conservation spending

In a time when most news about human impacts on the Earth's biodiversity seems to be negative, a new paper in Nature provides a glint of good news about our ability to change the current trend of loss. Encouraging new conservation efforts and funding may be contingent on providing evidence that such efforts will actually be effective.

The new report from Waldron et al. (2017) provides evidence for a predictable relationship between conservation spending and reduction of biodiversity loss. They focused on signatory countries of the Earth Summit's Convention on Biological Diversity and Sustainable Development Goals, and developed a pressures-and-conservation-impact’ (PACI) model to predict how biodiversity loss changed in these countries between 1996-2008. Improvements were driven by conservation spending (relativized to reflect differences in buying power between nations) and were counteracted by GDP growth and agricultural expansion. 

Using this model, the authors could predict how the conservation investments made in these nations had affected their loss of biodiversity, as compared to the scenario in which no investment had been made. Amazingly, the median loss of biodiversity per nation was 29% lower than would otherwise have been expected. Over 1996-2008, seven countries even had net biodiversity improvements: Mauritius, Seychelles, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Poland and Ukraine.

Fig 1. Map of biodiversity decline scores (BDS) for signatory nations.
"Colours show percentage of all global declines (total BDS) associated with each country. Pie charts show the predicted reduction in decline (in black) if spending had been I$5 million higher (for selected countries); pie size represents the square root of the BDS. Inset shows predicted versus observed BDS (log-transformed) for the continuous model".

They discuss a number of interactions among model terms that capture greater socio-economic complexity - for example, the impacts of GDP growth on biodiversity loss are lower when a country's base GDP is very low. Such large scale studies naturally face data limitations - here, they use mammal and bird Red List status changes to develop a quantitative measure of biodiversity loss. Other taxa presumably show similar trends, but we lack the data to incorporate them at this moment.

Hopefully by demonstrating this cost-benefit analysis for conservation actions, Waldron et al. (2017) encourage future 'investors' as to the payoff of spending on conservation. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Biodiversity conservation in a human world: do successes involve losses?

It's become commonplace to state that the world is in the midst of a mass extinction event. And there is no doubt about the cause. Unlike previous mass extinction events, like the cretaceous extinction event that saw most dinosaurs disappear, the current extinction event is not caused by a geological or astrological event. Rather, the current extinction event is caused by a single species, humans. Through habitat destruction, wildlife harvesting, pollution, and the introduction of pest species to other regions, the current extinction rate is 100 to 1000 times higher than it should normally be. We often think of human legacy in terms of art or architecture, but a permanent scar in the biological record of the Earth is our greatest legacy.

Of course many people and some governments are very concerned about our impact, and have committed to try to conserve elements of the remaining natural world. How best to do this is largely influenced by conservation biology, a field of research and applied management that includes biology, economics, and sociology, amongst others. There are many debates within conservation biology, and a big one is about how much to involve people, and their activities, in conservation areas versus attempting to completely exclude people from protected areas.

Two conservation conversations have explored this dichotomy in meaningful ways. First is a recent paper by Elena Bennett (Bennett 2017), who argues that strategies for environment and conservation protection needs to take a human-first approach and focus on human well-being. The second is a talk I saw from Daniel Janzen the other day. Janzen is a world-renowned ecologist and has dedicated his life to conservation in Costa Rica for the past 30 years. This debate was central to his talk about the conservation successes at the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG), where Janzen developed and implemented a conservation philosophy that included local people in the managing and research in the conservation area. Before Janzen, the Park relied on the traditional approach of excluding people to protect nature and it was failing. Janzen’s approach has been immensely successful, and the Park is now considered a conservation success story.

People can be convinced to appreciate biodiversity around
-if it provides a benefit. (photo by M. Cadotte)
Including people in nature conservation is bound to have successes. People feel more familiar and involved with nature protection, which gives them a sense of ownership. If people understand the benefits of nature, economic and otherwise, then they will be invested in its protection. It all seems so logical, but as I listened to Janzen’s talk (and read Bennett’s paper), I kept thinking: “would there be any losers under a human-first approach to conservation”. I think the answer is yes, and the reason is that we are prone to use a shifting baseline to evaluate success. Let me explain what I mean.

The human-nature story is one that is about a continual 30,000 year retreat. All of our successes -our population growth, our art, our medicine, have all come at the expense of nature. Anywhere on Earth where there are humans, there are losses. Habitat alteration and destruction, and species extinctions are the defining feature of our presence. This legacy has permanently altered the biology of our planet.

Why is this important? Because we really don’t care. We don’t miss wholly mammoths in northern Europe. We don’t miss giant sloths in California. We don’t miss black bears in downtown Toronto. We don’t miss lions in Cape Town. The definition and acceptance of nature  for most people is not influenced by what is not there, but rather the critters we are familiar with and are willing to accept. Big mammals simply have no place in human dominated landscapes and we don’t bemoan their absences.

Can human-first conservation protect jaguars?
(Photo from wikipedia)

Human-first conservation strategies work simply because we accept a less valuable system as acceptable and perhaps normal because of our shifting baselines. Would a human-first conservation strategy work in Costa Rica’s ACG if there was a huge jaguar population that was attacking livestock? Not likely.

The United States government spends billions on national parks to conserve nature (among other things), but if it was up to ranchers living near Yellowstone, for example, all the top predators will be exterminated. Hunters and ranchers in Germany are similarly up in arms (literally) over the re-appearance of wolves and lynx in restored forests within Germany’s borders. Some there consider the extermination of large predators a commendable feat of an advanced society.

The point is that we like the nature we know, and the nature that is not likely to kill us. People are most often invested, familiar, and willing to conserve nature around them, which already works for them.

Costa Rica’s ACG human-first conservation works in certain contexts. It gets people involved, it protects certain facets of nature, and it has a high likelihood of long-term success. If this is the model for a successful conservation philosophy, then we must accept that not all of nature can be protected. In all likelihood, many large mammals will go extinct in my childrens’ lifetime, regardless of how well we do conservation. So perhaps, moving forward with the human-first strategy is the best option, but a part of me hopes that there is a place for real nature in our world. The rest of me knows that there isn’t.


Bennett, E. M. 2017. Changing the agriculture and environment conversation. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1:0018.