Giving conservationists and nature lovers (some) reason to hope for the future


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It’s high time I write something which doesn’t seem to be the work of a manic-depressive. Many of my blogs have majored on the negatives, but I honestly wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t have within me a deep-rooted hope for the future. As I have remarked before, conservationists are a wonderful band, but put a group of ebullient conservation friends together, and within half an hour the conversation has quieted down, turned grumpy, and you need to watch out in case any of them looks as though they are contemplating jumping from the office balcony or a handy cliff. We don’t celebrate the successes, or even the potential ones, enough. It’s a cliché to say that the war is being lost while battles are being won, but we should at least encourage each other with battle victory parties.

I’ve just left Beijing after attending the Annual International Congress of the Society for Conservation Biology. Despite being the 23rd such Congress, it was the first time it had been held in Asia, so as you might expect, there were many participants from China and elsewhere in Asia.

My first speaking duty was on a panel at the end of a session convened by Shan Shui on ‘Conservation in China’. The moderator asked the panelists to briefly critique the papers we had heard, and put them into an international context. And she told us that she expected us to develop new hope for conservation in China. My hope did indeed increase – not just because of that session’s papers but to a large extent because of the scores of mainly young Chinese conservationists who were in that room, and all those who presented in the many parallel sessions.

Being surrounded by lots of optimistic, ambitious, and wholly dedicated young people from a large range of countries can’t but cut through the sticky layers of cynicism and despair that seem to build up over time. There were also many solid papers by older Chinese conservationists in workshops and seminars (notably, for me, the plenary address by Professor Wei Fu-wen (doc) on a masterful summary of why we should be hopeful for the future of Giant Pandas). The number of Chinese conservationists is not remarkable in itself – it’s a huge country – but because 17 years ago when I first worked in China, you could count Chinese conservationists on the fingers of one hand (and even have fingers left over).

For those who live and work in China, it is clear that once it is decided at the top levels that something will happen, it will happen – be it a massive dam, a logging ban, an outstanding Olympics, or improvements in Beijing air pollution.

One such high-level decision seems to have been that the South China subspecies of tiger, (functionally) extinct in the wild, will once again roam (fairly) free in at least some of its former haunts. I blogged on tigers just over a year ago which resulted in a torrent of comments from readers. During the Annual International Congress, Philip Nyhus presented a paper on the conservation of the South China tiger on behalf of a number of co-authors. He reported that a number of sites in Hunan and Jiangxi have been identified as potential sites for reintroduction, perhaps using the animals being ‘rewilded’ in South Africa by Save China’s Tigers. None of the sites is without its major problems – not least the paucity of prey and large numbers of people in and around the nature reserves – but there is something inexorable about the bold plans. The management of one or a few areas that would allow some South China Tigers to sustain themselves would have all sorts of immediate and induced benefits for Chinese biodiversity, in a part of China which does not have that much to boast about biologically.

My final pleasurable duty at the Congress was to help launch the Directory of Important Bird Areas for Mainland China. Half of those in the large room were from Conservation Leadership Program, a subject for hope on its own. But for me the hope from this publication derives from the scores of local birdwatchers who submitted and checked information about the 512 identified sites. Some of these people are professional biologists, but many are not; some are the ‘local guardians’ of the sites, a full quarter of which do not enjoy any sort of formal protection.

The meteoric growth in the numbers of Chinese birdwatchers is at least partly due to the translation of China’s first field guide to birds which the World Bank supported nearly 10 years ago. Go out to a good birding spot near Beijing on a weekend and you will see people carrying spotting scopes, binoculars, and this well-thumbed book nestled into their arm. These people are the middle-class drivers of environmental movements, just as has happened in many other countries.

Of course, together with the hope for the future come critical thoughts: that many of the young and rising conservationists aren’t cutting their teeth on good solid fieldwork; not getting their knees dirty, or face time with their animals or plants in the wild, or earning their stripes through hardship the way many of us did when we were their age. Many seem to be tending towards doing desk reviews of others’ syntheses of executive summaries.

I must stop; I’m becoming a grumpy old man again.



Join the Conversation

July 27, 2009

I thought you'd find it interesting to know that at the SCB meeting I was given some unsolicited career advice by a high-ranking person at a major conservation organization which will remain nameless. He told me to give up field work, start publishing on socio-economics, and expect a desk job. He also called George Schaller a "negative role-model," with the meaning that that type of career heavy on single-species field research is no longer feasible.

Conversations with my mentors at university are similarly discouraging, though as academics, they tend to focus on issues relating to publications. Conservation field work yields a relatively low number of publications per time unit spent on research, they argue, and the resulting papers are generally less broadly applicable and less cited. And working with a rare species does not enable you to have large sample sizes and thus statistical power. Since publications are key to getting an academic job, they urge me to take the quick and publication-heavy route of studying some aspect of the evolutionary biology of a common species found close-to-home, or as you describe, write reviews of others' work in order to increase one's number of publications.

The funding setting for young conservationists is also not encouraging in the US. Every doctoral student I know at my university who carries out field research pays for a good part of it out of their personal stipend. This is not true for the students who carry out laboratory research, which is often also expensive, but for which there is more funding. This is limiting young people's time in the field as well. I would have been in the field for 6 months this year, had I found the money - instead I will be in the field for 1.5 months.

July 27, 2009

I agree with the last comment (sorry Tony, here we go down the depressing route again)...My own anecdotal experience bears the comment out. I shared a lab with a wonderful gentleman who did no field work, but instead did multiple analyses on a pre-existing data set that someone else collected. He finished his phd in record time (less than 3 years!) with over 5 co-authored papers. Is he a conservation biologist or a computer scientist working on conservation datasets? On the other hand, I spent 18 months in the field working in a protected area (having spent much time beforehand cajoling them into supporting my efforts) and emerged with only one paper. I was harried by my advisor for so wasting my time.

Conservation biology in the ivory tower is focused on publications, not conservation results. Editorial boards are not interested in on-the-ground, in-the-dirt research but rather large, general conclusions that are not actionable. After all, anything that is actionable runs the risk of being implemented and found wanting. Something no academic, or publication, wants. The ivory tower has escaped its anchor to the field and is becoming less and less relevant to practice. A shame for a policy science that was brought into existence by a call to relevance, by people declaring that it needed to be problem-focused and context-dependent. There are simply too many people with a methodology in search of a dataset that have happened upon conservation biology, and too few people who are interested in alleviating the systemic and random obstacles to ending extinction that apply whatever methodology is most useful.

Stephen Ling
July 28, 2009

When I studied conservation biology as an undergraduate, the advice I got from a couple of prominent persons was not to go into conservation (as opposed to academia with some link to conservation issues) as a career. If people do go into the field, there are few options for stable employment - most people do it for a couple of years when young and then move into a desk job of some sort. Those who stay in the field are generally the few who really can't abide doing anything else, and often have to scrape by stitching together short term contracts, or if very lucky on a meager museum salary.

At a recent Bank BBL, I suggested that to have a significant impact of adaptation of biodiversity to climate change, we are going to have to create a whole cohort of practical restoration ecologists that simply don't exist in most parts of the world, and questioned how we can do it. The answers were mainly along the lines of engaging young people in conservation issues, but I think this largely misses the point. In many cases young people are very interested, but viable career options don't exist. Out of the 90+ students in my Zoology class at university, most took the conservation bology and other ecology courses, but I don't know any who now work in field ecology.

August 03, 2009

I totally agree with Anonymous, publications became the main target rather than field research/results nowdays! Many people are doing PhD and most tend to choose the 'easy' way around and funding for development related field work are lacking.