Tag Archives: conservation

A Review of Netflix’s Our Planet as a Conservation Tool

The new Attenborough-narrated Netflix series Our Planet aimed to put threats to the environment at its forefront. So how well did it do? (Image Credit: Mikedixson, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Cropped)

Nature documentaries and saving nature: Reflections on the new Netflix series Our Planet (2019) Jones, Thomas-Walters, Rust & VerissimoPeople and Nature, https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10052

The Crux

Nature documentaries have long been the starting point for many an ecologist. They’re the reason that David Attenborough has long been so idolised among lovers of nature. But whether or not they actually work as a conservation tool has always been a little more difficult to say. Additionally, while they’ve long showed the wonder of animals, plants, insects and everything in between, many have shied away from the damage that humans have inflicted on the planet. This week’s authors wanted to examine Netflix’s latest move into nature documentaries, Our Planet, and see if it delivered on their promise to showcase the anthropogenic dangers that ecosystems face today.

What They Did

The methods here were pretty simple. The scripts for Our Planet, as well as three other recent David Attenborough led documentaries (Blue Planet, Blue Planet II and Dynasties) were analysed. The percentage of the word count which dealt with threats to the natural world was calculated, as well that which dealt with success stories regarding species and ecosystem conservation.

What They Found

Our Planet did spend more time talking about the dangers to the planet than the other three documentaries, with only Blue Planet II having a similar word count. Blue Planet II  actually spent more time on conservation success stories than Our Planet (although most of this was packed into one final episode). One of the issues present though was that the visuals remain largely unchanged, with human impact on nature largely confined to Attenborough’s narration. This may have lessened the show’s impact on viewers and given the impression of nature as constantly stunning and untouched.

The constant portrayal of nature as untouched by humans can give a false impression of how brutal the effects of fragmentation and habitat disturbance are

The constant portrayal of nature as untouched by humans can give a false impression of how brutal the effects of fragmentation and habitat disturbance are (Image Credit: Sam Perrin, NTNU, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Problems?

There aren’t problems with the study itself so much as with the questions it posts. Sure, Our Planet spends more time talking about issues like climate change and deforestation, but does that translate to a tangible effect? It’s extremely difficult to study the effect of nature documentaries on conservation efforts. One tangible example that the paper brings up is the UK policy change on marine plastics, which is somewhat credited to the final episode of Blue Planet II. Even then, how much the documentary actually played into the policy decision is debatable.

So What?

It’s a problem faced by nature filmmakers everywhere – you want to show the truth, but are worried that anything too depressing or severe will reduce viewership. And as stated above, even if documentaries do start to bring the impact of humans on nature more front and center, it’s difficult to know whether this aids conservation efforts. For starters, people who watch nature documentaries are likely to already have some sort of interest in nature, which makes viewers a biased sampling pool. The good news is that there are a growing number of methods which could be used to deal with these issues. Hopefully we will start to see some tangible effect of the work of Attenborough and the rest of the nature documentary industry some day soon.

Going Beyond Range Size in Analysing Extinction Risk

Animals of wildly different sizes may have different likelihoods of extinction, but it could all depend on their range sizes (Image Credit: Harvey Barrison, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)

Constraints on vertebrate range size predict extinction risk (2019) Newsome et al., Global Ecology and Biogeography, http://doi/epdf/10.1111/geb.1309

The Crux

To act to prevent a species going extinct, we have to know that it’s at risk of extinction. Ecologists and conservationists simply don’t have the time or resources to make sure that all species remain safe. So having reliable methods of predicting species extinction risk is crucial.

On a global scale, the relationship between a species size and the area that it is found in (geographical range) has been studied intensively since ecology’s inception, both in existing and prehistoric species. Initial research showed that in general, the larger a species is, the larger its range size needed to be, with large species that had relatively smaller range sizes more prone to extinction. However more recent work has shown (naturally) that there are exceptions to this, with mammals viable range size actually decreasing up to a certain ‘breakpoint’, after which the size grows again.

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The Changing Face of Ecology: Part Four

This installment includes thoughts from (left to right) Dag Hessen, Erica McAlister, Rasmus Hansson and Prue Addison (Image Credits: Dag Hessen, University of Oslo; Erica McAlister, CC BY-SA 2.0; Miljøpartiet de Grønne, CC BY-SA 2.0; Synchronicity Earth, CC BY 2.0)

Running EcoMass means we get to sit down with some exceptionally interesting ecologists, conservations, and in this post, even environmental politicians. Most of these individuals have been a part of the discipline for much longer than we have, so when we get the chance we pick their brains about how ecology has changed over the past decades. It’s always interesting to hear which aspects of ecological life we take for granted simply weren’t there 40, 30 or even 10 years ago.

You can also check out parts one (link), two (link) and three (link) of our Changing Face of Ecology specials, and click on the names below to read our full interviews with each of this issue’s respondents.

Tim Robertson, Head of Informatics, Global Biodiversity Information Facility

Biological Data Management

I would say that I see much more collaboration today across our community, and willingness to work together and share data than when I joined 12 years ago. I think there’s less competition and there’s more willingness to share content, software and expertise. That has been a very rewarding thing to be part of. I work at GBIF, which is really more of a community than an organisation, and as a product of that change the community has grown very healthily.

Dag Hessen, Professor, Section for Aquatic Biology and Toxicology, University of Oslo

Aquatic Biology, Ecological Author

I think ecology is probably one of the topics that have changed the least. We got the basic concepts like food webs, trophic cascades etc. decades ago. But since then I think ecology has evolved too little.

I think what has changed is the type of analysis that’s done. You used to be able to go to a conference and present data from “your lake”. Just one lake. And there was someone in the audience who might raise their hand afterwards and say, maybe that’s what happens in your lake, but not in my lake. It was a very phenomenological way of thinking, which isolated case studies didn’t help. So the advent of meta analysis, time series, large spatial studies, these things that were seen as pretty laborious before have now become hot stuff. And it’s helped improve our statistical analysis.

Erica McAlister, Senior Curator, Diptera, Natural History Museum, London

Entomology, Evolutionary Genetics

We’re becoming very difficult to understand to the layperson. If you’d walked into a genetics talk at a conference these days today with no understanding of molecular incrimination, you would have struggled. We have to think about how we can communicate better. When we communicate to a wider, maybe not scientific, audience, it would be better to focus on what we’ve understood from the data, not get tangled up in methodology and vernacular. I do think we’re becoming more and more exclusive within science and in disciplines – we’re having issues communicating amongst ourselves at times due to such much science speak.

On the plus side, we can ask so much now. I don’t have to be a specialist in one discipline anymore, I can facilitate and work alongside other people with other backgrounds, which is great. I’ve got sequencing projects, morphology projects and then biodiversity projects and food security projects. I get to do all of that. So in many ways it’s brilliant that we’ve got all this technology, we’ve just got to be careful how we use it and phrase it.

Carsten Rahbek, Professor, Natural History Museum of Denmark

Global Ecology, Evolution and Climate

When I was doing my PhD thesis at the Smithsonian, I could go down to the library and sit there, and go through all the relevant journals in my field, and get an overview. That’s impossible today. The success and the relevance of ecology has caused a massive explosion of data and knowledge. So the amount of scientists working with this is immense.

Now sometimes we have the view that the more information we get the better. But massive information can lead to us not being able to tell up from down. So now we have the challenge of figuring out how to deal with all this information, so we can still extract and deduct sensible things out of it. Because if we’re just taking the consensus or the average, it’s going to be very skewed. So how do we deal with that?

Prue Addison, Conservation Strategy Director at the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust

Conservation Ecology

I think the most relevant change for me is the emergence of the field of applied research and knowledge exchange, actually achieving research impacts. It’s a growing discipline, and more and more scientists are really jumping into it. They’re asking how do we make our research more relevant, and we do that by working with end users, decision makers, the people who use the science, in a far more collaborative way. Rather than “scientist does research, publishes paper, expects the world to read it”. This is far more about, “scientist produces science that will help influence real decisions”. We want to have environmental benefits, we want to go and work out who we can work with that has the power to make decisions. To change how the environment will actually be in the future.

Whilst it is definitely improving, it’s still quite slow. The talk is happening. We know that research needs to have real societal impact and become more relevant. But metrics aren’t in place yet to evaluate whether Universities are actually doing that.

Rasmus Hansson, former leader of the Norwegian Green Party

Environmental Politics

When I grew up there was no ministry of the environment. There were no environmental studies, there was no environmental law. There was no environmental technology. There was no sector of business that made jobs and profits out of environmental solutions.

I would argue that environmentalism and everything connected to it is the biggest political and social change that has happened in Western society in the last 50 years. It is the most important project in any society. Even Russia and China have now had to become environmentally conscious. The change is colossal. The first environmental minister in Norway, more or less the first environmental minister in the world only came along sometime in the 70s. If you go back to the 1960s and take away environmentalism the world would be hell today. It would be absolute mayhem. So that’s the difference. The problem is whether development has already gone too far. Are we too far gone in terms of carbon emissions, land use? But either way, we have slowed our planet’s descent down enormously compared to what would have happened if [the environmental] movement had not started in the 1970s.

Nancy Knowlton: The Importance of Earth Optimism

Whilst it might seem like little guys like this don’t have much to smile about these days, being optimistic about the state of the environment is more important than ever, according to Nancy Knowlton (Image Credit: Rosalyn Davis, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)

At the very beginning of my PhD, I was in the audience at the STARMUS Festival when American reef biologist Nancy Knowlton gave a talk about Earth Optimism. It came just after the American President had withdrawn his support for the Paris climate agreement, and smiles regarding the state of the planet were hard to come by. So seeing an esteemed member of the scientific community give a reminder that there was hope for one of the earth’s most vulnerable ecosystem was inspiring.

At this year’s International Barcode of Life Conference in Trondheim, I had the chance to sit down with Nancy and talk about why optimism is so important in the face of the many ongoing problems that the planet faces.

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Frivillig vern sin rolle i naturvern

Image Credit: Endre Grüner Ofstad, CC BY-SA 2.0

Guest post by Endre Grüner Ofstad.

Privately protected areas provide key opportunities for the regional persistence of large‐ and medium‐sized mammals (2018) Clements et al., Journal of Applied Ecology, 56(3), https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13300

Det Essensielle

Da mennesker slo seg ned i nye områder, bosatte de seg som regel i de mest produktive og artsrike områdene. I dag, mange år senere, er disse områdene fortsatt produktive og i private hender. I dag, derimot, blir flere og flere arter utrydningstruet og vi iverksetter tiltak for å redusere tapet av arter. Et av disse tiltakene er verneområder. Verneområder er områder som er satt til side for å sikre tilstedeværelse av gitte arter eller naturtyper ved å begrense høsting eller annen menneskelig innflytelse. Utfordringen er at dette ofte er kostbart da disse artsrike områdene ofte overlapper med områder som har viktige jordbruk- eller andre naturressursinteresser. Dette resulterer i at vernede områder ofte blir lagt til økonomisk marginale og/eller statseide områder. For å kontre dette kan en inkludere områder tilbudt frivillig av grunneiere. Spørsmålet blir da, hva er verneverdien av de områdene som blir tilbudt? Dette er spørsmålet som Clements og medforfatterne spør seg når jobber med Cape Floraregion i Sør-Afrika .

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The Role of Private Property in Conservation

Image Credit: Endre Grüner Ofstad, CC BY-SA 2.0

Guest post by Endre Grüner Ofstad. Norwegian version available here.

Privately protected areas provide key opportunities for the regional persistence of large‐ and medium‐sized mammals (2018) Clements et al., Journal of Applied Ecology, 56(3), https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13300

The Crux

When humans settle down in new areas, they usually settled in the most productive and species-rich areas. Now, years later, these productive areas are usually still productive, but often still in private hands. However, today more and more species are facing extinction, and many would be helped by the protection of these areas. Protected areas are areas that are set aside to ensure the viability of certain species by limiting human exploitation of the local natural resources. However, this might be costly, and these hot-spot areas likely overlap with agricultural or other natural resource exploitations, with the result that protected areas are often located to economical marginal and state-owned lands. To counter this, one might include lands offered voluntarily by private owners. But are the lands they’re offering of any conservation value?

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Rasmus Hansson: The Intricacies of Environmental Politics

Rasmus Hansson, former leader of the Norwegian Green Party and the Norwegian WWF (Image Credit: Miljøpartiet de Grønne, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Environmental politics is a tricky business. We live in a world where environmental crises are at the forefront of the news cycle, and in which science is simultaneously becoming the subject of distrust. So it makes sense that at this point, politics should be adapting and evolving as science does.

So when Rasmus Hansson stopped by NTNU last month, Sam Perrin and I took the chance to sit down with him and see whether this was the case. Rasmus studied polar bears at NTNU in the 70s, before later becoming the leader of the World Wildlife Fund in Norway and then of the Norwegian Green party. We spoke with Rasmus about the transition from conservation to politics, the clash of ideologies and the future of environmental politics.

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