Tag Archives: conservation

Kath Handasyde: Charisma, Culling and Conservation

Koalas are gorgeous, no doubt. But does their overwhelming charisma mean that we forget about other species?

Koalas are gorgeous, no doubt. But does their overwhelming charisma mean that we forget about other species? (Image Credit: Erik Veland, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Australia plays host to a wonderful range of very endearing species. Tourists come from the world over to get up close with kangaroos or koalas. But the charisma of these animals can often lead to issues, whether it’s prioritisation of resources for them over other more endangered species, or even to the detriment of the species themselves.

Doctor Kath Handasyde of Melbourne University has been working with Australian field wildlife for almost 40 years, and is perhaps the most charismatic teacher I had during my Bachelor’s at the same institute. During my time in Melbourne, I had the chance to talk to Kath about the sometimes problematic role of charismatic species in Australian wildlife conservation.

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Why Do We Only Care If It’s Fluffy?

Species like koalas are cute and fluffy, and thus easy to provide funding for. But how do we save species that are more threatened and less charismatic?

Species like koalas are cute and fluffy, and thus easy to provide funding for. But how do we save species that are more threatened and less charismatic? (Image Credit: Jesiane, Creative Commons CC0)

After my recent talk with Marlene Zuk (which we’ll be publishing later this week), I have been thinking more about the species we focus on in ecology and the species we neglect. Dr. Zuk is a specialist on insects, who has remarkably been able to sell the importance of topics as obscure as cricket sex and parasite wickedness to the public (as you can see in her brilliant TED Talk). However this is more the exception than the rule. In ecology, conservationists have traditionally focused on a select few animals. So why do we care about saving the pandas that do not want snuggles (or to get it on), and ignore the native worms that are being replaced by invasives? Can we change what the public cares about, and ask them to focus more on the role of a species in an ecologic system?

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Finding the Key to Reef Shark Conservation

Reef accessibility impairs the protection of sharks (2018) Juhel et al., Journal of Applied Ecology 55

Species such as this Carribean reef shark have higher extinction risks than most fish. But how effective are our management efforts?

Species such as this Carribean reef shark have higher extinction risks than most fish. But how effective are our management efforts? (Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

The Crux

The importance of sharks goes well beyond what Jaws did to Hollywood, or one week in the USA each July. In any reef ecosystem, sharks perform a key functional role, exerting top-down pressure, stabilising food webs, and improving general ecosystem functioning. They’re also ‘charismatic’ species, meaning they’re easier to raise funding for, and bring money in through tourism. Yet pressure from fishing suggests that reef shark populations may be under threat, and with high body sizes and long lifespans, their populations are more sensitive than most to overfishing, making extinction risks higher.

Yet the lack of data on shark populations means that the effectiveness of the few existing management programs is largely untested. This paper looks at Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), areas in which national or international bodies prevent fishing or even entry, to see whether or not they are an effective conservation method for shark populations.

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Costa Rica: Sustainability in an Animal Paradise

Costa Rica has taken huge steps forward in the last 30 years to save their ecosystem, with the tourism industry benefiting enormously

I’ve just returned from a two-week vacation in Cosa Rica. While ostensibly a holiday, if you’re an ecologist in a country where ecological conservation forms the basis of their tourism industry, it can be hard to switch off. So amongst a plethora of monkeys, iguanas, basilisks, hummingbirds and crocodiles, I noted a few things which are worth briefly discussing before we get back into our regular blogs next week.

A warning though. Whilst a fair bit of well-researched content appears on this website, the observations here are much more general, and by no means applicable to the whole country.

  1. The Plastic Addiction

I know this isn’t exactly a hot take. Plastic consumption is one of the world’s foremost environmental catastrophes, and if the enormous soup of plastic in the middle of the Pacific wasn’t enough to ram the point home, the four others forming around the world should be.

What surprised me here was that despite the emphasis the Costa Rican government places on the conservation of biodiversity, there appears to be no effort in the tourism industry to shy away from easily avoidable plastic use. Plastic straws and cups were in abundance, but the real mind-boggler was the use of small plastic bags to contain cutlery. Having knives and forks handed to me in new plastic casing at half the restaurants we visited was an odd experience, and one which seems easily avoidable.

However we encountered a few places which eschewed the plastic wrapping and provided cardboard straws. Hopefully this is a growing trend.

  1. Animal Sanctuaries

One thing Costa Rica was far from short on was recovery centers for injured animals. We visited one in Cahuita, and were impressed by the number of volunteers they had managed to attract, most seemingly without any background in zoology. Other centers had one-day volunteer programs advertised, which were often tailored to getting children involved. The centers require government permission to release any individuals back into the wild, which seems to be an effective communication pathway. Yet like all dialogues between organisations with different priorities, it produces disagreements. We heard many examples of rehabilitated animals that the government considers too used to human exposure to reintroduce.

The center we visited did seem to focus more on animal welfare than population conservation (though they certainly did not ignore the latter), and associates who have previously volunteered at these centers seem to agree. There were several examples of animals who, even with rehabilitation, were incapable of contributing to population viability, or whose injuries were not directly or indirectly caused by humans, some whose removal from the population could be considered important contributors to genetic and behavioural evolution. However staff made the excellent point that with the number of these species that receive injuries from human activity every year, the least they could do is try to treat a few injuries that weren’t.

Whilst iguanas used to be a food source for the locals, local hunting is now restricted

Whilst iguanas used to be a food source for the locals, local hunting is now restricted (Image Credit: Sam Perrin, NTNU)

  1. Conservation Laws

Costa Rica’s conservation laws prohibit the killing of many species found throughout the country. No complaints here. Many of these species are integral parts of the Costa Rican ecosystem and tourism industry. However a guide from the Caribbean side of the country was discussing his family’s traditions of hunting many of these animals, and how the government provided no alternatives to these traditional food sources when the laws were introduced. Whilst I am all for criminalising the killing of endangered species, having a government tell your family to change their lifestyle, whilst they continue practices that have a much larger impact on the native ecosystem (ongoing deforestation and commercial harvesting amongst them) must rankle somewhat.

Having said this, I live in a country where hunting quotas are strict and easy to monitor, and contact between hunters and the government is frequent. Commercial harvesting is potentially an easier way to manage sustainable population of harvested species, and a source of employment for families in need of new income.

 

In conclusion, I’ll reiterate that much of the above may be a product of observational bias. Bias also leads me to suggest that regardless of your thoughts on the above, you go and check out Costa Rica for yourself. It’s marvellous.

Bringing Back the Wolverine

The Swedish government changed tactics at the end of the 20th century, giving incentives to farmers when there were successful wolverine reproductions in their area

The Swedish government changed tactics at the end of the 20th century, giving incentives to farmers when there were successful wolverine reproductions in their area (Image Credit: Vojtěch Zavadil, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Paying for an Endangered Predator Leads to Population Recovery (2015) Persson et al., Conservation Letters, https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12171

The Crux

Humans have a long history of driving dangerous predators out of their backyard. Wolves and wolverines have been driven out of different parts of Europe at different points in history at the behest of farmers looking to protect their livelihood, and the Tasmanian Tiger was driven to extinction for the same reason. But with the realisation that these predators bring enormous ecosystem benefits, governments have been searching for ways to bring about co-existence between predators and locals.

This study looks at a scheme introduced by a Swedish government in 1996, where reindeer herders had previously been compensated for any wolverine related losses. The new scheme introduced compensation for successful wolverine reproductions in the area. Persson et al. decided to have a look at how it fared.

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In Defense of Aliens

It's important to remember that not all alien species are harmful, and we shouldn't treat them all as such

Building on last week’s article on defining invasive and alien species as well as the work of Professor Mark Davis, I am going to do the unimaginable for an ecologist and argue that maybe alien species aren’t always a bad thing. I want to emphasize that maintaining biodiversity is essential, but maybe we should focus on the role of species in their environment rather than their place of origin.

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