Showing posts with label wildlife. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wildlife. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Where the wild things are: the importance of urban nature

Cities represent our ultimate domination over nature. They are landscapes that are completely modified to meet all of our needs and desires. In cities we drastically change the vegetation, reroute rivers, seal the Earth’s surface in impermeable cement, and often change the chemical composition of the air around us. For most people, this unnatural state of affairs seems completely natural. Its how we grow up.

What we don’t notice is all that is missing. The trees, the birds, and the mammals are largely absent from big cities. But not all cities are equal in this missingness. For those of us that live in cities like Toronto, Nashville, or Sydney, seeing birds and mammals is part of our normal life. In my back yard in Toronto, I am likely to see racoons, skunks, possums, red squirrels, eastern grey squirrels, chipmunks, deer mice, and a plethora of birds, and just down the road, foxes, coyotes, and deer are not uncommon. One morning I heard a ‘thud’ come from our sunroom window, and outside was a stunned red-tailed hawk (he was fine in the end). These cities are evidence that nature can persist and coexist with urban development.

However, there are other cities where nature is almost completely absent. While living in Guangzhou, China I saw just cats, dogs and rats, and barely any birds –shockingly no pigeons. Recently in while in Montpellier, France, it became obvious to Caroline and I (the two EEB & Flow contributors) that besides a small lizard species, pigeons and a few sparrows, we were not going to see any wildlife in the city. Guangzhou and Montpellier are very different cities in terms of size (16 million vs. 300 thousand), density, building height, pollution levels, etc.  But one way they are similar is that they are old. People have living and changing the landscapes in these regions for thousands of years. Of course the same could technically be said of North America and Australia, but the magnitude and intensity of human modification has no parallel in North America and Australia. Long-term intensive human activity removes other species in the long run. Is this the natural endpoint for our younger cities?

Cambridge, England. While quite beautiful, it is a typical old european city with a lot of stone.

Why we should celebrate raccoons

Toronto has a war against the raccoon. To most Torontonians, the raccoon is a plague –vermin that get into garbage cans and pull shingles off of roofs. Their density in Toronto is about 10 times higher than in wild habitats and many people in Toronto support removing them all together.

I have a different stance. We should be celebrating the raccoon. Yes raccoons cause problems; yes they carry disease; yes they damage property; yes their density is unnaturally high. But the same can be said of people (I don’t think I ever caught a flu from a raccoon). If raccoons were to recede to distant wilds and disappear from Toronto altogether, we would be no different than all those other cities where nature has completely lost. Raccoons give hope –hope that nature can flourish under the repressive and cruel dominion of urban centres. Raccoons remind us that nature has a place and can thrive in cities, and that we can share this world. They give me hope that Toronto’s destiny is not prescribed and we are not bound to the same fate as so many other cities.

I have a couple of new Chinese scientists visit my lab each year, and the differences between Toronto and say Beijing or Shanghai could not be more stark for them. To see deer, squirrels and raccoons in the city is a marvel. Every time one of these visitors comments on the wildlife in our city, I am reminded that we are really fortunate and have something that should be cherished.

Raccoon family –not an uncommon sight in Toronto (CCBYgaryjwood


Need to rethink urban nature

The problem is that Toronto, and most other cities, is continuing to grow and become more densely packed, making it more difficult for nature to endure. We need to rethink how cities grow and develop, and we need to keep a place for nature. There is no reason why new developments can't accommodate natural elements and green space –this often does not happen in most cities. Singapore is unique in this sense, new public infrastructure projects explicitly incorporate novel green space and infrastructure. I toured green sites there recently and saw a new hospital where it was impossible to tell where the park space ended and the hospital started (see picture below). There I saw patients tending gardens on the roof, nearby residents strolling through the forested courtyards, and turtles, wading birds and a large river monitor in the neighbouring pond. Also, Singapore's new large pump house infrastructure that reduces flooding in the city has a full sloping lawn on the top that is used by picnickers. In most North American cities this type of building would be grey industrial cement with little other function than to house pumps.

Singpore's Khoo Teck Puat hospital -the world's greenest hospital? 

Large old cities devoid of wildlife need not be the natural endpoint for a city.  Smart development and accommodating nature needs to be woven into the tapestry of cities. Toronto’s raccoons are great, and I wouldn’t want to live in a Toronto without them.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

The vanishing pangolin: How do you change the value of an endangered species?

Extinction is forever. Extinction reduces the biological heritage of the Earth and is something that we cannot undo.

While living in China, and traveling around Asia, I have said something to my children I have never said before: “I want you to take a really good look, these animals will go extinct in your lifetime”.  I said this as we were watching 8 of the 60 remaining Hong Kong pink dolphins.

Hong Kong pink dolphin (photo by Shirley Lo-Cadotte)

Species become rare and endangered for many reasons, like habitat destruction, pollution, human facilitated spread of problematic species (rats for example), and direct harvesting. While all of these factors are subject to laws and regulations that attempt to control them, it is the last one, harvesting, that relies most on altering peoples' wants and desires. I don’t know why, but to me it is also the saddest cause, the idea that a species dies out because we desire it and kill it or chop it down, just doesn’t seem right.  

Walking through the market alley near my apartment in Guangzhou, China, I saw something that both intrigued and horrified me: a dead and quartered pangolin. You may not be familiar with pangolins –also called scaly anteaters; they are mammals about the size of a large cat or medium-small dog (like a cocker spaniel), with a very long and thick prehensile tail that they use in trees. Their most unique feature is that they are covered in large flat scales that are made of keratin –the same as your fingernails. 

A Chinese pangolin, Manis pentadactyla (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pangolin%27s_tail.jpgsted to Flickr by verdammelt cc-by-sa-2.0) 
Pangolins are critically endangered. They also have the distinction of being one of the most trafficked animals in the world. In China and Vietnam there is high demand for pangolins because they are considered a delicacy and more importantly their scales are used in traditional medicine. These scales are believed to provide a cure for a number of diseases, including cancer. The incidence of cancers in China is skyrocketing, which is not surprising given the level of pollution, and couple this with increasing affluence, the desire and ability to pay for pangolin parts has never been greater.

Obviously pangolin scales do not cure cancer. You might as well save your money and suck on your fingernails instead, but evidence and logic are not likely to sway mortal fear. There are groups in Asia dedicated to protecting endangered animals and educate citizens about wildlife. Such organizations have an opportunity to capitalize on recent attitude shifts in China and elsewhere, where animal wellbeing is increasingly seen as important. In China, pet ownership has increased dramatically over the past decade and pets are now seen as companions –which I suspect was partially a result of the one-child policy. But the demand for pangolins still exists. When we visited the Angkor Conservation Centre in Cambodia, which works tirelessly to rehabilitate animals and educate people, they were recovering from the theft of one of their pangolins from an enclosure, which they knew was transported to China.

The Chinese authorities are coming down hard on the illegal pangolin trade. They now routinely arrest individuals selling pangolins and seize large shipments. While such seizures and arrests show that the Chinese government is taking pangolin protection seriously, there is only so much they can do while demand is high.

Police confiscating a large illegal pangolin shipment bound for China (photo originally from news.163.com) 

My Mother-in-law, who is from southern China, said it best when I told her about the dead pangolin in the alley: “people just need to be educated”. That is really where the answer lies. Laws can only change peoples’ behaviour so much; education campaigns are desperately needed. Currently, there is an internationally funded billboard campaign in China to stop people from buying elephant ivory. Ivory demand is high in China. Despite the importance of reducing ivory purchases, I would argue that this type of education campaign needs to focus a little closer to home, and Pangolin conservation efforts are in desperate need of help. 

When we were visiting the conservation centre in Cambodia, I told my children that the Pangolin would go extinct in their lifetime. I really hope that I am wrong.