Saturday, 15 December 2007

What general practitioners, football coaches and rocket science have to do with conservation

Science plays a small but crucial role in conservation. It helps us to develop practical approaches to preserving biodiversity, ecological integrity and environmental values. We do this by identifying threats, work out the cause-effect relationships underlying these threats, and then clarify the means to counter them. In a more general context, conservation science guides our strategies, policies and management.

The results of scientific research should be to conservation what stars are to celestial navigation; when the skies are clear, the stars inform us whether we are heading towards our goal and how fast we are moving. And if we’re clever we could work out whether we’re on the right ship. The problem is often that our skies are far from clear. Conservation problems are complex and we rarely get a clear view of where we are heading and how to get there, let alone whether we are using the right tools.

People talk about something not being rocket science. Maybe this was a valid concept a century ago, but now rocket science is a lot more simple than conservation science. Conservation scientists who are trying to work out how to get to a conservation goal have to deal with ecology, politics, business and economics, social science, anthropology, environmental science, psychology, earth sciences, and a bit of legal studies thrown in for good measure. All these factors interact in often unexpected ways and understanding how to best intervene to reduce a threat is not easy. Compared to that, getting a rocket into space is peanuts (not sure where that expression came from—peanuts?). Just check the respective failure rates of rockets and conservation and you will get my point.

With so much complexity to deal with, how is conservation science trying to cope? Because of the scale of the problems, conservation scientists tend to be specialists on certain aspects of conservation problems. Most of us have backgrounds in ecology or other biological sciences. When faced with other science aspects of conservation we improvise as best as we can. Sometimes that works and sometime you end up writing really crappy economic analyses, like I did the other day. So when we need assistance from other science fields we ask a specialist for help. A weakness of that system is that you end up with a compilation of specialist input but not necessarily a good overview of the whole problem or anyone who understands what all the information together really means.

Lacking overview wouldn’t be a problem if we had rigorous measures in place to tell us how we were getting on. But most often we don’t, and once we decide on a certain heading or approach, we stick to it, often until it is too late to change course. For a parallel, think of medical sciences without general practitioners. Or a football team without a coach. The general practitioner should be able to tell us whether that nasty headache is just because we had too much wine the previous night, or because of that persistent neck injury, or something quite a bit nastier. Based on experience of the human body and its common failings, the practitioner will refer us to a specialist who will then try to deal with the core cause of our headache. Or if our team keeps losing games, we need a good coach to point out that if only that winger would go deep more often, link up with the accurate passes from the left back, thus drawing in the opponents defence, and freeing up our centre forward to go for goal.

Instead, conservation science often ends up with lots of specialist information: orangutan populations are dwindling, poverty is being reduced, oil palm prices are booming, the next governor’s election are coming up, people here don’t care about orangutans, and soil erosion is affecting coral reefs and ecotourism. But how do we usefully combine this to answer the simple question of what it takes to save some orangutan habitat? Which factors are actually important causes of particular conservation headaches? Should the focus be on economics, politics, psychology, or ecology?

I am neither a great fan of general practitioners, nor of most football coaches, and suspect that they get by on hunches and intuition rather than solid scientific analysis far more often than the public would want to know. But I actually suspect that conservation scientists are not all that different. Most of us address in our research a small fraction of the total problem, and may get a small answer but rarely if ever the full picture. How to resolve the issue is not clear to me, but good education is part of it. Most conservation courses still have a strong focus on the biological aspects of conservation. But these are only a small part of the total story. A good conservation curriculum should address all the science issues mentioned above, targeting students with broad thinking abilities and good strategic insights. I am not aware of any such conservation courses existing in the world—but please prove me wrong.

Going back to the general practitioners parallel, I hope that we won’t be seeing the same trends as in the medical sciences. Throughout much of the world in the last few decades, there has been an increase in the number and type of medical specialists, matched by a steady decrease in general practitioners. Among the reasons for this are the long working hours, the relative isolation of solo general practice, and the lower pay compared to that of most specialists. So let’s make sure that we reward our conservation generalists with a good, performance-based, financial compensation and pleasant working conditions. Let’s make sure they can speak openly to our senior management or make sure that they are senior management. And let’s pamper them a bit, because in the end their input will make or break our conservation work.

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Friday, 24 August 2007

The art of science

I always thought that the old Greeks knew what they were talking about when they lumped their sciences with the arts and put them under the patronage of one deity, Apollo. Although, in Greek mythology, Apollo is considered the god of the arts, archery, and divination, he is most often associated with the cultivated arts of music and medicine. And his role as the leader of the Muses establishes him as a patron of intellectual pursuits.

Since those early days, the arts and sciences seem to have each gone their own way. Many consider the two to be essentially different, not in the least because one is often thought of as serious, a little grey, and weighty, whereas the other is supposedly light, colourful, inspirational, and creative. But are they really that different?

I have had this discussion many times before with friends and colleagues and so far most have disagreed with me. But I am stubborn. My point is that the sciences just like art are creative. The painter has a palette with basic colours and endless hues in between. Any idea or vision is given shape and texture on a canvas. And then it’s art, either good or bad. The musician has a choice of instruments, basic keys to follow and a few blue notes to chose from. Give it some rhythm and there will be art.

So what about the scientist. Our palette is every written or otherwise recorded thought and all available data. Our brush is a range of methods that lead through hypothesis to tests and conclusions. And our canvas is a few pieces of paper with which we can reach our audiences.

The creativity lies in the use of a mental razor with which we cut up old believes and ideas. Throw in some data, old and new, and hopefully we end up with a new insight that is bigger and more meaningful than the sum of the individual parts. When I get to that point, I feel very creative, I am very happy and then I move on to the next project.

Fellow researchers as well as artists have argued with me that the scientists are hampered by their scientific method, whereas artists are free. I am not so sure. I believe that scientists like Darwin or Einstein were great, not because they followed the scientific method, but because they were able to make huge leaps of imagination, and formalize these through a process of scientific analysis and reporting. Whatever they did and however they did it, in the end they created beauty.

My scientific ambitions are not quite in the league of the illustrious duo above. But under the guidance of Apollo and his muses I certainly see a role for myself and other scientists in TNC to create some clarity in murky conservation waters. And whilst at it, in a good mood, and on a role, I feel as much an artist as any self respecting painter, sculptor, poet, singer, and dancer. I might even be cheerful about it.

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Saturday, 30 June 2007

Rare population of Land Rovers discovered

During a recent spell of Kalimantan field work, our survey team came across this hitherto undiscovered population of Land Rovers (Terraanglica perigrina Wilks 1947) (see note below, and photo on left). Quietly resting in the shade, these survivors of an EU-sponsored aid project, became isolated from the main populations in Britain, Australia and India when dispersal barriers prevented the flow of spare parts.

Attempts by the local government to translocate the population and revive genetic exchange with other populations were thwarted by legal stipulations saying that none of these Land Rovers were to be sold or handed over to other institutions.

Global Land Rover populations have declined significantly over the last 30 years. After a high of about 53,000 in the mid 1970s, less than 25,000 now remain, distributed across a highly fragmented metapopulation. Global climate change and increasing competition from low-emission vehicles are threatening the species.

When we encountered this group of Land Rovers it displayed rarely seen mass parallel parking behaviour. Normally this occurs only among juveniles and very young adults, generally before they leave the herd to establish their own home range. It is unclear why the Berau adults would have reverted to this behaviour. We are consulting a specialist now, and the initial suggestion is that this is a non-breeding population, possibly consisting of frustrated males only. Survival chances would in that case appear low.

We hope that this experience will prevent similar misguided species translocations. Our hopes are high. Despite our dependence on US funding, TNC have so far steered clear of introducing the invasive Hummer (Frutex fremens Schwarzenegger 1991). Instead we have focused on effectively managing populations of the indigenous Indonesian Kijang (Paramuntiacus toyotanus sondaicus), a subspecies of the typical Japanese Kijang (P. t. toyotanus).

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Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The future of conservation NGOs - A bit of provocation from an Indonesian perspective

This year something remarkable and unprecedented occurred. Both the presidents of the United States and Australia mentioned global warming and environmental conservation as a key concern to society. And many of the world’s political leaders seemed to agree. So far these are mostly words, but I can’t escape the feeling that within the next 5—10 years environmental issues will become increasingly prominent on the world’s political agendas.

This is a major achievement for the environmental conservation movement which has been fighting for many decades to get this level of recognition. Still not many seem to be celebrating. There is a healthy sense of skepticism. Words are just words after all. And the deeds are not there yet, or at least not to the extent that we wish for.

I wonder whether there is also a bit of a ‘now what?’ feeling among environmental NGOs. If this is indeed a victory, what will we do next? We don’t need to worry too much yet. There is still a considerable need for conservation expertise to help turn political words into sensible environmental management.

But are conservation NGOs the right organizations to do this? I suspect that with increasing political attention to environments our advocacy role will rapidly diminish. What remains is our knowledge of conservation and how to make conservation work in the field. The question is whether environmental NGOs will experience increasing competition from other conservation groups, including governmental, as well as commercial groups. This might happen because with conservation becoming politically more mainstream the amount of funding for environmental management might go up rapidly. Funding increases might occur through direct government budget allocations or through market-based mechanisms like avoided deforestation, carbon sequestration, and payment for environmental services; and of course our traditional private donors will chip in too.

But are we ready for the competition? The problem is that we do not really know. If we had been more diligent in our program monitoring and evaluation we might have been able to answer that question. Now it is hard to say what the status of conservation in Indonesia would have been without the input from conservation organizations. We lack the counter-factual evidence. We also don’t really know what aspects of conservation we are really good at: area management, advocacy, communication, research, or any of the other strategies that conservation NGOs normally use?

I foresee a future of commercialization of environmental conservation. Conservation will become big business. This may not happen today or tomorrow, but this change is almost inevitable. And in that changing world we will need to reinvent ourselves and our roles. An organization like TNC Indonesia needs to identify its particular niche and make sure we are stronger than, or at least as strong in the execution of that role as our present and future competitors. If we don’t, I expect that environmental NGOs will become increasingly marginalized and in the end largely redundant.

This might seem a hypothetical and rather pessimistic scenario. But looking outside our own traditional role indicates that similar processes have taken place in other issues that were of concern to society. I wonder what happened to organizational structures and inter-sectoral competition after, for example, wind energy transformed from a hippy’s LSD-induced day dream to a vibrant commercial industry, or once clean water became something not only NGOs cared about. Maybe other examples can be found among issues as diverse as suffrage and women’s rights, workers’ unions, and sustainable forestry. All these matters were once pushed by small groups of non-governmental activists, but once they became generally accepted in society, they were taken over by commercial groups or firmly embedded in every-day politics.

So, is this what the future of environmental NGOs will look like? Maybe we shouldn’t worry too much. If that prediction turns out to be correct and environmental issues become everyone’s concern and are effectively addressed by competent organizations, there would be less of a need for environmental NGOs. I am looking forward to that day when I can sit back in my rocking chair and look out over a world that has become responsible and manages to take care of its environments while still giving people a conformable life. I don’t really expect that day to be very near—and I don’t actually regret that because rocking back and forth in a chair gets tedious rather quickly—but I have started thinking what new skills are going to be required in conservation. What will “the new conservationist” look like in 10 years from now, and what do I need to do to be one of them?

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