10 August 2012

Conservation success and the paths we're taking. (at SCB Asia 2012)

Over the course of yesterday and today various scientists and students provided the same window into conservation in Asia:

Small interventions are sorely required but the way we view professional success is not really compatible with small 'drop in the pond results' as scientists.

Should roles be clearly defined? Scientist, managers and implementers for wildlife. Also the term "implementer" - who is this person? a forest patrol beat guard? a policy worker? a manager could be one?

Should scientists have to extend themselves to be all? "Is today's conservation solution tomorrow's conservation mistake?" - maybe in some instances, but we don't have a choice and hopefully we will make different mistakes each time and be wiser for it.

Many times people-wildlife friction was also in the forefront. A show of hands we realized only maybe 10% of the audience fell in the following rough criteria - policy workers, government representatives and social scientists. But I would like to point out that with the number of times human-wildlife strife was highlighted at a conservation biology conference would signify that the gaps between these groups is smaller than we imagine. A larger problem - not highlighted is the lack of / mis - governance.

While the scientific community disseminates conclusive results for the conservation of nature it cannot extend itself to form societal decisions of prioritizing wins and losses. Here public and government buy-in come in to play. We know this. Should we be convincing? YES. Should we ally with similar value based people in other fields? YES.

And so - is conservation science objective? ... ? Most people felt they could not longer say 'yes' to this question. But I disagree. Scientific research by definition is objective, how the outcome is used is much less so. (Usually at this juncture someone points out the hole in the argument that should leading scientists be held responsible for the destruction caused by atomic bombs... I think that is an entirely different question of what science interests you and personal ethical codes.)

Large gnarly issues were voiced - where is conservation attention and resources spent? should we be picky about funding bodies or who works with us on research depending on their value and ethical code?

Another point to note here would be - conservationists must be afforded credit in ways that other applied science workers are apart from peer review publications. I think peer reviewed articles are still a standard, but should not be held up as the only critical measure of success as a conservationist. This becomes especially true in places where large gaps exist and little support can be found for education and journal access alongside eking out a living.

This morning, a suggestion for a regional / country specific conservation think tank to be formed what floated by Kashmira (plenary speaker) - to make sure reports reach policy workers and decision makers. To hold and make public this information in a collated but transparent manner. So that a community of "conservationists" {including scientists, policy workers, decision makers, government office holders and public patrons/volunteers/interest groups...} may have a stronger voice influencing policy.

08 August 2012

Biodiversity Asia 2012 : Day 2 : Talking Science

Day two of the SCB Asia regional conference brought with it a packed schedule and much running around as a few of us attempted to make it to various talk in parallel sessions. Some even tried this between the speed talks (!). Today for me turned out to be all about megafauna - the BIG animals. Tigers - Indian and Siberian, elephants, dholes, leopards their distributions, their populations, degrading connectivity and maintaining genetic pools. Very heavy with models and statistics that conclusively provide enough scientific motivation to employ these results in policy.

Talking (yes, still) about the snippets that I noted and remember will be a jumble if we do this chronologically. So instead I am going to go topic wise.

Tigers - Russian conservation efforts need to see that large biomass prey base remains intact because these cats cannot afford to spend energy to hunt the required number of smaller prey across a year. Tigers in India - they traverse across the larger agricultural matrix quite well and novel ways are being used to look at the existing populations. The routes they take are sometimes quite surprising with a few protected areas for tigers being completely avoided (!) and some parks behaving like a "bus stop" with a large amount of inflow - outflow. Connectivity will have to be more seriously looked at and factors defining some protected ares not being used must be addressed to have a better handle on the conservation of the same. Also in tiger habitats a great deal can be and has been achieved through local peoples trained in survey methods.

Leopards - exist in extensive farmland and may be culture shocked when caught and relocated to a forest where they must learn what is prey and deal with forest structural factors of a thick canopy or non-crop vegetation. Maybe even the total absence of people may throw them off track. Maybe this happens only in India. We should remember cats are territorial and empty lots get taken off the market - so relocation may just swap individuals around. Relocation we're now finding may increase human-big cat conflict (at least with leopards). Townie leopards should probably not be released in the wild.

Elephants - populations being blocked in by private estates and corridors shrinking seasonally may not be the only changes they are finding hard to cope with. A road that is almost entirely as a linear barrier (too steep sides + human settlement concentrations) may require us to build viable overpasses. Needless to say - science must govern the placement of such measures, not administration and certainly not human convenience.

Other large carnivores - Canids being threatened by distemper carrying stray dogs and roaming outside of parks are often the very populations that provide for genetic mixing. Populations within parks also are increasingly being affected by hard edge affects - much larger for some taxa (sometimes extending beyond 6kms inside a forest from the edge). Conservation for large mammals across the region will have to consider measures that involve human dominated landscapes in a bid for healthy populations of large carnivores.

Peppered among the 'big carnivore day' today were science findings such as - 
- Economic approaches to solving people-park situations fail in long term as attachment to land and way of life are rarely adequately compensated.

- Biodiversity of taxa like birds and amphibians largely fall through the net of protected areas and have have a lot less ability to bridge fragmentation gaps. These taxa therefore are under great peril even and especially in biodiversity hotspots where human pressures on non-protected land are converting as much habitat as legally possible.

- Vultures: the fight against Diclofenac use for cattle continues unabated and must remain the top priority for the many species of vulture to survive.

- Lion Tailed Macaques are in dire need of canopy connectivity between populations especially to facilitate males to get around.

- A study on forest and tea estates in Manipur found that ambient air temperature warming causes more carbon flux. (Initial findings that need more spatial and seasonal replicates that may point to these key habitat's source and sink functions for carbon storage)

A take-away from yesterday that got reiterated at the closing of today's sessions after a ride of different species and places and wholly ecological in nature: Politics, Economics, Society, Cultures - ALL of this has to be the purview of conservationists. The science has to play out in policy and governance (see what I did there for this regional's theme?). Maybe tomorrow will be a day of acting on all the parallel, collaborative and required momentum today generated to crystallize ideas and future course of conservation in the region.

Also most posters went up today (click the image to view pdf):

07 August 2012

Biodiversity Asia 2012: Science, Policy, and Governance - Day 1

The 2nd Asia Regional Conference of the Society for Conservation Biology – Asia Section kicked off today. I can only represent here the bits I attended and / or was part of so bear with some missing parts from this conference in blog posts over the next few days (read - till I keep writing / maintain a semblance of daily reporting)...

Attending a great pre-inauguration workshop on criteria for identifying Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) set the stage of what I am expecting for the rest of the conference. The 3 speakers were Tom Brooks, Diego Juffe and Jagdish Krishnaswamy. The session was chaired by Dr. Vinod Mathur who managed the time and a long and interesting Q &  A session - excellent.

Going over the main driver of biodiversity extinctions - habitat loss, the history of taxa specific site identification criteria - BirdLife's Important Bird Areas (IBAs), Important Plant Areas, Prime Butterfly Areas and the Alliance for Zero Extinction as a starting point of information that already exists gave a good idea that KBAs were not set to be the new improved system, but a framework to provide a global standard way to identify critical sites for biodiversity conservation. Add to this irreplaceability of a species, ecosystem or space and vulnerability measurements and you have the crux of the argument for KBAs.

Sure, there are limits to using KBAs as a biodiversity conservation approach - clearly elucidated by Tom in his presentation. Using KBAs as a box to put all biodiversity in and expecting that to work would be disastrous - imagine trying to fit migrations, source and sink locations of a threatened species (and maybe even getting that the wrong way around due to the criteria largely being for a congregation / large abundance - present both at source and sinks ! ), the choices we make using available data vs actual data and the turnaround time updating a large number of local sites may require if the criteria / data change over time... 

But my fundamental reservation lies elsewhere with the idea of KBAs and is borne out of advocating for IBAs (successfully in regions with strong legal support or local community buy in, dismal in ignored or prime large development real estate)...

Part of the work undertaken in forming KBA criteria will also evaluate how well we have done for species using protected areas. There are only two ways this study could go (assuming it won't be inconclusive) -

If we've done far worse than we thought we would - then does it make sense to layer another framework over the existing ones that are flawed (in their inherent mechanisms / their implementation)?


If we've done better than we thought we would - how are non official frameworks contributing to this conservation of biodiversity?

I suspect in a country like India, as across much of Asia, hungry for economic growth - integrated planning is far removed from involving corporate sector, government, large development, peoples with even a a passing thought for biodiversity. EIA clearances are formalities and the increasing pressures of large development dwarf the chance for ecologists to make their foot-in-the-door remarks about ecosystem functioning / services and biodiversity value.

It would be very interesting to compare conservation results from places that have afforded frameworks like Key Biodiversity Areas official and legislative importance with places that have spent a bulk of their scientific and policy resources in solely strengthening existing protected areas conservation. That would make clear if we need to invest more in evaluating our present systems and then may be providing an adequate amount of scientific study to solving these roadblocks through good practice and maybe even global standards.

**  This part between the morning session and the evening public lecture provided a little rain, a lot of foraging exploration around the conference venue and setting up my poster (more on that later)**

Evening public lecture: A real treat of a talk filled with witty jokes and more importantly the passion to drive home the point of largely how we react as humans / as a society to something as abstract and destructive as global climate destabilization by Dr. David Orr. I particularly loved his analogy of how if a tiger walked on to the inaugural stage we'd get pumped, use our fight vs flight instincts and DO something. But a slide clearly stating that food will get undoubtedly scarce if we allow the next 30 yrs to go by as BAU (business as usual) doesn't bring forth any fidgeting, mad screaming, running out of the doors or pushing someone else into the "tiger's mouth" !   :D