Seal or Salmon? Sustainable meat with an adorable face

Winner of the 2017/2018 BCM popular science writing prize.

2017/2018 BCM Student Cathy Clegg
Twitter: @cathyfclegg

St. John’s, Newfoundland: where kissing a cod and eating seal are normal, b’y.  Source:

Let’s take a journey together to the frozen north-eastern coastline of Canada.
Newfoundland is surrounded by the vast and foreboding Atlantic ocean.
On shore are the welcoming and uniquely coloured houses – often with traditional Canadian music (yes, we do have traditional music) pouring out the windows and doors.  What you’re also likely to see are seals warming themselves on the shore.  What you are less likely to see, other than perhaps in a restaurant, are the salmon that live under the water.  This may come as sort of a weird question but, which one, the seal or the fish, would you like to eat?

No, this isn’t some weird blog version of “Would you rather…”. This is a legitimate question that Canadians must ask themselves.  While seal has been eaten by people in Newfoundland and Labrador for centuries, it is also an option in Canada’s largest city. Kū-kŭm Kitchen in Toronto has caused a really interesting stir (kitchen pun absolutely intended) by offering seal meat on their menu.  If you are cringing, you are not alone.  This has received a dizzying amount of negative international attention, not only from potential consumers but also from activist groups like PETA and IFAW.

Kū-kŭm Kitchen (and other seal hunting proponents) have fallen victim to the “cute and fuzzy factor”.  This trend is described as individuals, and more worryingly, conservation groups which give disproportionate attention to the animals that are cuter, cuddlier and who give great attention to their young.  In particular, this trend suggests that cuter creatures are put at the forefront of conservation efforts.

Shocked seal gif
Some seal populations have been reported to be close to 10 million individuals in Canadian waters alone.  Source:

This is often to the ultimate detriment of the uglier, less desirable creatures who may need more help from conservation groups.  This term is so perfectly epitomized by the seal issue in Canada; seal numbers are in the millions.  Many of the seal species are listed as abundant or of least concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC)

Let’s consider the other option: fish.  Newfoundland has been defined by its fishing culture and economy.  So strong is this culture that it is hard to imagine a trip to Newfoundland without some sort of a fruit of the sea.  But perhaps it is time for us to consider this choice more critically.  Not only was there a completely devastating collapse in cod fisheries in the early 1990s, there is now a huge problem surrounding Atlantic salmon.  While the cod have begun to make a comeback, the salmon are less likely to do so.  Many populations of wild Atlantic salmon or Salmo salar have been deemed endangered by COSEWIC.  More worrying is the fact that many of these populations have little or no chance of rescue.

Habitat destruction and changes to ocean ecosystems (eg. warming waters) threaten wild populations.  More interestingly, many of the wild populations have also been interbreeding with farmed Atlantic salmon that have escaped from their nets.  One could imagine that this interbreeding may not be bad especially
if they are the same species.

Salmon gif
It seems unlikely that Baz Luhrmann will do a modern adaptation of this Romeo and Juliet.  Source:

In fact, one might even personify the salmon as Romeo and Juliet – two star-cross’d lovers who have struggled against confines of net and ocean currents to briefly love and then die together.  The reality, while equally as tragic, is far less romantic.  The interbreeding of these two groups decreases the proportion of wild DNA, making these salmon genetically endangered.  Without going too far into the molecular biology, this endangerment can lead to the extinction of the wild genetic line.

Unlike the seals, Atlantic salmon have received less NGO or public attention – far fewer people want to donate money to save a stinky fish, instead believing they could save an adorably fluffy baby seal.  All is not lost for the salmon.  There are organizations like The Atlantic Salmon Conservation Foundation that are supporting projects to not only promote wild populations but also limit the amount of damage from farmed populations.  Additionally, consumers such as yourself can make more sustainable selections in restaurants or the grocery store.  So, if you are lucky enough to find yourself surrounded by the brightly coloured homes of Newfie fishermen listening to the music pouring out of kitchens, and you find yourself at a restaurant that serves both Atlantic salmon and seal, which choice will you make?

Palm Oil: Spare or Share?

Oil palm plantations viewed out the left-hand side of the plane from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu stretch as far as the eye can see

Flying east from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu in the northern Bornean state of Sabah, Malaysia gives two conflicting views of tropical forests. For those on the right-hand side of the plane, the view is a complex rainforest matrix of blues and greens representing some of the most biologically diverse forest on earth. For those on the left-hand side of the plane the story is very different; the reserve area surrounding Mt. Kinabalu rapidly falls away to a seemingly infinite horizon of pontillist green palms. This grand landscape exploitation for palm oil has been forcefully pictoralised in the diagrams of forest destruction seen in Gaveau et al 2014 – a root-like matrix of roads bringing palm oil to all but the most inaccessible areas of the island. This project can be thought of as a grand land sparing project, in which the intensification of agriculture allows for a similarly expansive reserve structure (seen in, for instance, Maliau Basin and Danum Valley).


In 2005, Green et al’s paper on Farming and the fate of wild nature suggested two general strategies for trading off nature conservation and agriculture on a plot of land – either spread the agriculture and the conservation over the whole plot (sharing) or intensify the agriculture in one area and gazette the rest for conservation (sparing). With oil palm production having doubled between 2003 and 2010 and almost 300 000 hectares of forests being converted to palm oil each year (Vijay et al 2016), the question of how to balance the demand for this ubiquitous product and the need to avert a sixth mass extinction of life on earth becomes ever present. The forcefulness of Green et al‘s paper demands an investigation into the impact of incorporating elements of conservation into oil palm landscapes but despite palm oil representing around 30% of the global vegetable oil market, and future vegetable oil expansion likely to be in palm oil, there are few empirical studies on the viability of land sharing strategies.

One study that has investigated this land sparing / land sharing debate is Edwards et al 2010. Based in Sabah, they looked at the abundance and species richness of birds in forest fragments of different sizes surrounded by oil palm (with large forest fragments within the landscape representing land sharing). The headline figure for their data is that, despite fragment size correlating with abundance and richness, to get levels similar to pristine forest, you would need fragments of 25 000 ha within the oil palm landscape. They supplemented this research by looking at the sorts of species that are present in the different landscapes and found that the fragments in the oil palm plantations were more like those in oil palm than in pristine forest. They concluded this by stating that “Wildlife-friendly oil palm plantations fail to protect biodiversity effectively”.

Despite the debate between land sparing and sharing providing a useful framework for coarse-scale theorising, there are some serious issues with the framework as it is applied on the ground. One clear issue is that of scale; the conservation of hedgerows on the edge of a field is land sparing (in that an area is being gazetted off for conservation) but as one zooms out from the scene and looks at multiple fields with multiple hedgerows it starts to appear a lot more like land sharing. This has potential issues for making planning decisions based on empirical sparing/sharing studies as most of the studies are not explicit about this issue of scale (Kremen et al 2015).

Further, just looking at the direct biological impact of a management scheme does not take into account the wider governance strategies that can, in some cases, even reverse the general expectation that land sparing will have a higher overall biodiversity. One fascinating example of this comes from Peru, where researchers found that smallholders, whilst taking up more land in total, used less of the old growth land than large agri-businesses. In this case, as only the large industrial groups could negotiate for the secure land tenure of the old growth forests, the smallholders that employ a generally more land-sharing approach did not encroach on the biodiversity-rich old-growth forests (Gutierrez-Velez, 2011).

Gutierrez-Velez 2011 show that despite smallholders using more land overall, they use less of the old-growth forest

Similarly, in 2014 Lee et al took a modelling approach to oil palm planning on Sumatra and predicted which land would be taken up by either a shift to more smallholders or to more industry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a shift to smallholder dominance lead to higher levels of lowland forest loss. However, a hybrid approach that has an increase in yield and efficiency of smallholders does not show this loss in forest and has positive socioeconomic benefits.

All this is to say that perhaps the debate between land sharing and land sparing could be made more interesting and real-world through a fuller understanding of the multidimensional, multiscalar issues that such a complicated industry contains. As oil palm expands into new frontiers a shift from an either/or biodiversity/production trade-off to something more complicated, a both/and framing (Kremen et al 2015) with an understanding of these issues, may be the only way to ensure that we can feed the world’s human population whilst keeping our companion species alive for the ride.



Edwards, D. P., Hodgson, J. A., Hamer, K. C., Mitchell, S. L., Ahmad, A. H., Cornell, S. J., & Wilcove, D. S. (2010). Wildlife-friendly oil palm plantations fail to protect biodiversity effectively. Conservation Letters, 3(4), 236–242.

Gaveau, D. L. A., Sloan, S., Molidena, E., Yaen, H., Sheil, D., Abram, N. K., … Meijaard, E. (2014). Four Decades of Forest Persistence, Clearance and Logging on Borneo. Plos One, 9(7).

Green, R. E., Cornell, S. J., Scharlemann, J. P. W., & Balmford, A. (2005). Farming and the fate of wild nature. Science, 307(5709), 550–555.

Gutierrez-Velez, V. H., DeFries, R., Pinedo-Vasquez, M., Uriarte, M., Padoch, C., Baethgen, W., … Lim, Y. L. (2011). High-yield oil palm expansion spares land at the expense of forests in the Peruvian Amazon. Environmental Research Letters, 6(4).

Kremen, C. (2015). Reframing the land-sparing/land-sharing debate for biodiversity conservation. In A. G. Power & R. S. Ostfeld (Eds.), Year in Ecology and Conservation Biology (Vol. 1355, pp. 52–76).

Lee, J. S. H., Garcia-Ulloa, J., Ghazoul, J., Obidzinski, K., & Koh, L. P. (2014). Modelling environmental and socio-economic trade-offs associated with land-sparing and land-sharing approaches to oil palm expansion. Journal of Applied Ecology, 51(5), 1366–1377.

Vijay, V., Pimm, S. L., Jenkins, C. N., & Smith, S. J. (2016). The Impacts of Oil Palm on Recent Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss. Plos One, 11(7), 19.

‘Trade it to Save it’: a Dubious Compromise in Rhino Conservation

On 23rd August 2017 took place the first ever legal online auction of rhino horn. Regardless of the CITES ban on international rhino horn trade, South Africa decided to lift its 2009 moratorium on the domestic ban to sell rhino horns. Rhino horn is traditionally used in East Asia for its alleged medicinal purposes – which have never been proven scientifically. This auction sparked debate among conservationists on whether the only viable way to save the mega-herbivore is through creating a legal trade for its horn: the answer, both from a pragmatic and ethical point of view, should be negative. Why? Simply because economic uncertainties are too high. This blog post will draw your attention to the knowledge gaps with regards to the rhino horn trade – what trade proponents cannot calculate or purposely choose to omit – hence demonstrating that no viable trade can be established.

Rhino Horn Powder and Libation Cup
Rhino horn is transformed into powder and libation cup to be used in traditional medicine. Images credit: African Travel Guide and WorthPoint auction

Among the five species of rhinos present worldwide, three are now critically endangered. African rhinos could go totally extinct as soon as 2025 and this is mainly explained by a spike in poaching rates since 2008 (Ayling, 2013). In particular, poaching occurs in South Africa since the country is home to 93% and 40% of the total white and black rhino populations respectively. Sadly, 1,054 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2016 alone (Taylor et al., 2017). If the logic to save a species through trading some of its body parts is morally highly controversial, we purposely choose to ignore ethical arguments in this article in order to show that, even when adopting a purely pragmatic perspective, the rhino horn trade cannot be defended as a sustainable future for wild rhinos.

Reported numbers of African rhinos poached from 2006 to 2015.  Data from AfRSG, TRAFFIC and CITES Rhino Working Group in collaboration with range States.
Reported numbers of African rhinos poached from 2006 to 2015. Data from AfRSG, TRAFFIC and CITES Rhino Working Group in collaboration with range States. Figure credit: Milliken et al., 2016.

Proponents of the rhino horn trade base their argument on classic economic thinking. Namely, legalising the trade would increase the supply, hence reduce the price of the good and this would have the cascading effect of reducing the incentive for poachers to kill. This is, however, a highly doubtful line of reasoning, as the case-study of ivory offers a contradicting precedent. Indeed, the legal sale of ivory to China and Japan in 2008 demonstrates the price did not go down (Hsiang and Sekar, 2016) and that, on the contrary, poaching rates increased (Ayling, 2013). This illustrates that poached rhino horn could similarly be smuggled onto the legal market more easily.

In the midst of competing economic arguments, there exist surprisingly very few articles in the academic literature estimating figures of the supply and demand for rhino horn. The most recent study on the topic foresees that between 5,319 and 13,356 kilograms of horns can be harvested annually within South Africa (Taylor et al., 2017).

Albeit being ground-breaking in its attempt to put a figure on the amount of harvestable horn, this study remains fundamentally limited. To begin with, primary data is obtained from feedbacks of private rhino owners, who are largely pro-trade and, therefore, may be tempted to inflate the amount of horn they are capable of harvesting. John Hume, South Africa’s largest rhino breeder, was in fact leading the August auction: having collected through his Captive Breeding Operation, his genuine motivation to advocate for the trade can be questioned. Since rhino horn is sold up to $75,000 per kilogram in Vietnam (Ayling, 2013), Hume could make huge profits from his current 1,405 rhinos and 5 tons of horns collected over time.

A dehorning operation in progress. Image credit: Save the Rhino

Secondly, the very physical properties of rhino horns make the authors’ estimate very vague. As horns are taken from live animals, the exact rate of harvesting ranging between one and three years and cannot be calculated. What is more, horns do not grow back at the same rate and their growth rate diminishes as rhinos get older. Dehorning operations remain costly (veterinary costs, labour and possible air support) and risky, especially since the risk of death increases from frequent exposure to sedation. Scientists assessed the cost-effectiveness of dehorning operations and found that dehorning must be done annually if poaching is to be made unprofitable (Milner-Gulland, Beddington and Leader-Williams, 1992). At this rate, dehorning alone is unlikely to effectively prevent poaching due to the risk of mortality associated with the operation.

Dehorned rhino
This blindfolded white rhino, living on John Hume’s rhino farm, has just been dehorned. Image credit: National Geographic

The main drawback of Taylor et al.’s paper is to solely tackle the supply side of the rhino horn trade. This can be generalised to the broader academic literature: there is no study quantifying the demand for rhino horn. If demand is acknowledged to be mainly coming from South Asia (Ayling, 2013), there is no scientific figure on how much horn is actually consumed and, even more worrying, how much horn buyers would get if there was an infinite supply. This is a crucial knowledge gap as estimates merely tackling the supply side of the trade cannot provide sufficient evidence on which to base a legalisation. Legalising the trade could furthermore reduce the stigma commonly associated with a prohibited good, hence encouraging new buyers to acquire this now accessible product (Hsiang and Sekar, 2016). Internet also dangerously facilitates access to wildlife products: the 500 kilograms of horns sold at the August auction were supposedly intended to stay within the South African territory, the auction’s website was ironically translated in Mandarin and Vietnamese, hence clearly aiming to reach out to international buyers.

In short, the rhino horn trade debate is pulled in opposite directions by conservationists, on the one hand advocating for a regulated trade to allegedly generate revenues to local communities and conservation projects, whilst on the other hand being heavily criticised for selling the soul of conservation’s normative principle to protect a species. Yet, it should not be hard to make up your mind on the question. By assessing the consequences of a trade through an economic lens, this blog post proves that, pragmatically, legalising the rhino trade is not viable.

Proponents of the rhino horn trade indeed base their argument on lofty estimates with regards to both the supply and demand for the fingernail-like good (both are made of keratin). The latest estimate of supply made by Taylor et al. is largely limited and there is an evident knowledge gap with regards to accurately project the demand for rhino horn. Thus, the basic economic argument that supply will match demand does not hold true. Without such estimates on demand, we can only turn to lessons from the past with the precedent set by the legalisation of one-off sales of ivory. It then becomes even clearer that legalising the rhino horn is likely to trigger a spike in poaching and a surge in demand for horns, as shown in 2008 sale of ivory.

Let’s face it: the August online auction, slyly directed to international buyers, was a mockery to international CITES law and to any attempt to effectively save rhinos from extinction. Conservationists should rather focus on reducing the ratio of demand over rhino horn supply (Ferreira, Botha and Emmett, 2012), as well as promoting projects based on eco-tourism, following the example of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which could create incentives for local communities to look after their wildlife.

Further references

  1. Ayling, J. (2013) ‘What Sustains Wildlife Crime? Rhino Horn Trading and the Resilience of Criminal Networks’, Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, 16, pp. 57–80. doi: 10.1080/13880292.2013.764776.
  2. Ferreira, S. M., Botha, J. M. and Emmett, M. C. (2012) ‘Anthropogenic Influences on Conservation Values of White Rhinoceros’, Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE, 7(9), pp. 1–14. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045989.
  3. Hsiang, S. and Sekar, N. (2016) Does Legalization Reduce Black Market Activity? Evidence from a Global Ivory Experiment and Elephant Poaching Data? Cambridge, MA. Available at:
  4. Milner-Gulland, E. J., Beddington, J. R. and Leader-Williams, N. (1992) ‘Dehorning African Rhinos: a Model of Optimal Frequency and Profitability’, The Royal Society, 249(1324), pp. 83–87. doi: 10.1098/rspb.1992.0087.
  5. Milliken, T. et al. (2016). ‘Report from the IUCN Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC) African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC to the CITES Secretariat pursuant to Resolution Conf. 9.14 (Rev. CoP15)’, CoP17 Doc. 68 Annex 5, 1-21. Available at:
  6. Taylor, A. et al. (2017) ‘Sustainable Rhino Horn Production at the Pointy End of the Rhino Horn Trade Debate’, Biological Conservation, 216, pp. 60–68. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2017.10.004.


A trophy for Trump, or trump for the Trophy?

In a recent announcement to the world, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) lifted and backflipped a ban on the importation of elephant trophies. What are the implications on conservation and from a socio-economic perspective to the countries involved on a ban on the importation of elephant trophies?

Elephant pic one blog
African Elephant (Loxodonta Africana) mature bull. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe ©Ross Sayer, (2016).

What is trophy hunting? Trophy hunting is a legal type of hunting where a portion of the animal is kept as a souvenir to memorialize the experience. It is not illegal and should not be mistaken for poaching.

The African Elephant is listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act and is regulated under a special rule. Being one of the species listed as vulnerable by the IUCN elephants are major contentious species in Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) discussions on trade restrictions. World populations have been declining globally with trade restriction proposals on its trophies meeting contention from countries like Zimbabwe. The initial decision to suspend importation of elephant trophies taken in Zimbabwe was due to the USFWS having insufficient information on the status of elephants in Zimbabwe. This trade ban imposed on Zimbabwean elephant’s trophies went into effect April 4, 2014.

Known for its sustainable management of elephants, the Zimbabwe elephant population currently stands at 84 000, greater than the ecological carrying capacity for the country can hold. This means that there are more elephants in Zimbabwe than what the environment can sustain, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the country. The 2014 ban over the years resulted in an increase in human and elephant conflicts in the country and its removal will therefore be welcome towards depopulating the elephant populations, improving community livelihoods and reducing environmental damage to protected areas. Proceeds from trophies have benefitted communities in Zimbabwe through the CAMPFIRE program which has seen direct development and investment in communities through sales of trophies.

Tusks inventory Zimbabwe
A Zimbabwe Parks official inspects the country’s ivory stockpile ©Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, (2016).

Historically the United States is the largest trophy importer from Zimbabwe. The initial 2014 ban however did not prohibit U.S. hunters from traveling to Zimbabwe and participating in elephant hunts, so hunters kept coming to the elephant rich country resulting in stockpiling of ivory. Currently stockpiles of ivory in Zimbabwe weigh about 70 tonnes and are  worth an estimated $35 million dollars which could be put to good use in the Southern African country if institutions guarding against issues like corruption are adequately put in place.

However, this move could be an undoing of the great work and effort that has been put towards conservation of the African elephant. This leads to questions being raised on the commitment of US towards protection of the species and on the role, that lifting the 2014 ban will lead to in terms of the illegal wildlife trade systems governing the elephant. As global efforts try to put in place mechanisms to manage the trade worth billions of dollars annually.


African elephant conservation issues have received significant attention within CITES According to CITIES regulations, the African elephant is on CITES’ Appendix I, except for those populations in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, which are on Appendix II.  The normal CITES rules for Appendix I-listed species is that commercial, international trade in specimens taken from the wild is prohibited. For Appendix II listed species, the rules allow commercial, international trade, subject to first obtaining the necessary permits. Zimbabwe has strongly resisted embargos on trophy hunting involving elephants.

Zimbabwe has had an active elephant hunting program for more than 20 years and imports of elephant trophies into the United States have occurred since 1997 when its elephant population, was reduced through a process known as down listing to Appendix II of CITES. The US published a notice that acknowledged that, as these elephants were classified in Appendix II, no permit to import into the U.S. would be required for trophies.


The recent 2017 reversal of the ban, legitimizes claims by Zimbabwe that it has proven and successful conservation records to continue harvesting the elephants. The USA through this action recognizes that Zimbabwe has established laws and regulations, which provides a strong basis for elephants sustainably utilization and management and has reviewed the status of the population and concluded that the total management program for elephants ensures the promotion of their conservation.

Trophy for Trump
A trophy for Trump ©Akim Reinhardt, (2014)

Elephant hunting is one of the biggest revenue contributor to the country, hence the re-establishments of traditional markets in the USA which had been lost will be of notable value. The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Department receives no funding from the central Zimbabwean Government and relies primarily on hunting revenues, hence the importance of opening trade markets for trophy sales is a major boost for conservation in the country. In Zimbabwe, annual revenue from hunting trophies could be as much as $130m, mainly from the US market and is a significant source of revenue.

The lifting of the 2014 ban, recognizes that hunting is beneficial to wildlife and that Zimbabwe can sustainably manage its elephant populations. Zimbabwe is currently vigorously marketing trophies around the world and within the US market.


The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) however states that the lifting of the ban will promote the hunting industry, not conservation. AWF is concerned for the protection of the endangered species as poaching has led to a catastrophic drop in elephant populations around the world over the last 15 years. (Burn et al, 2011). A petition to ban trophy hunting , shows that some people find trophy hunting reprehensible with some suggesting that countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia could make much more money from tourism instead.

Trump for the trophy
Protesters at the Fifth Annual International March for Elephants ©Jeff Malet, Newsroom, (2017).

The USFWS decision to lift the ban was announced at an event co-hosted by Safari Club International (SCI), a hunting rights group. The Safari Club and the National Rifle Association, both pro hunting organisations have been against the initial 2014 ban from the start and even took the USFW services to the courts over the ban.  Opponents of the lifting of the ban like the US Humane Society highlight that Secretary Zinke just like Donald Trump’s sons are well-known hunters, therefore this position moves in favour of the US hunting sector and shows a biased relationship between the hunters movement and the Trump administration. Trump’s son Donald Jr made headlines when photos surfaced of him posing triumphantly with dead animals he’d killed on safari in Zimbabwe alongside younger brother, Eric Trump.

African Elephant
African Elephant (Loxodonta Africana) mature bull. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe ©Ross Sayer, (2016).

US government officials at the creation of the International Wildlife Conservation Council  and the USFWS spokesman however have stated that this move would boost economies, enhance wildlife conservation by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation and is part of a sound management programme that can benefit the conservation through providing incentives to local communities. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has in so saying stamped that the hunting and management programmes for elephants in Zimbabwe will enhance the survival of the species in the wild.

What then are the implications for development vis-a-vis the trophy hunting conundrum? Shall we give Donald Trump the trophy for promoting social and economic development in under privileged countries sustainably managing their elephant populations, through lifting a ban on the trophy importation, or shall we march and trump against the trade in ivory?


  1. Burn, R.W., Underwood, F.M. & Blanc, J., 2011. Global trends and factors associated with the illegal killing of elephants: a hierarchical Bayesian analysis of carcass encounter data. PLoS ONE, 6(9), p. e24165.
  2. Elephants in the Dust, CITES Report at
  3. Jansen, D.J. 1990. Sustainable wildlife utilization in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe: economic, ecological and political trade-offs (paper presented at Ecological Economics Sustainability: An International Interdisciplinary Conference). Washington, D.C., World Bank.
  5. Zimbabwe’s 5th Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity at
  6. Zimbabwe National Elephant Management Program (2020 -2050) at

Role Plays in Conservation Education: A Lesson for Zimbabwe

In order for the overall goal of nature conservation to be achieved, a multi-faceted approach, which draws from an array of expertise and activities, should be applied. I think of the degradation of nature as a balloon that is expanding at a rapid rate, and conservationists as people who are pushing against this balloon in order to burst it, in the best case scenario, or deflate it, in the least. However, pushing against the balloon from only one side will only cause it to change shape or move, but applying the pressure from all of its facets is more likely to result in success. As such, professionals work towards conservation from various facets (ecology, economics, policy, technology, education etc.). However, my niche in contributing to the broader goal has largely been in environmental education. I came to study in a different environment from my previous one so that I could gain insights into other methods of carrying out this environmental education in my country. I was gratified to see this objective being fulfilled through a role-play exercise that was carried out on my course.

The role-play exercise was based on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Conference of Parties (CoP). It was led by Dr Paul Jepson, Course Director for the Master of Science degree in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management and Mr Noel McGough, Member of the CITES Plants Committee and former Head of the United Kingdom (UK) CITES Scientific Authority for Plants (1988 – 2014). Prior to this exercise, each student on the MSc course was assigned either a country (which was not necessarily their country of origin) or an observer organisation / lobbyist (conservation NGO or trade body) to represent. I represented Zimbabwe. The issue at hand was a proposal from Germany, on behalf of the European Union (EU), to list the tree species Cedrela odorata (cedar) onto CITES Appendix II due to its over-exploitation for timber.

Cedrela Odorata
A Cedrela odorata (cedar) tree. Source:

The cedar has several uses such as furniture construction and the making of cigar boxes. Up-listing it would mean that in order for export of this tree to occur, the Scientific Authority of the exporting country would need to conduct a scientific survey whose results must prove that the export in question will not pose a threat to the species in the wild.

The Lead Up to CITES CoP Oxford – 3 November 2017

As, in practice, many of the negotiations are carried out before the actual meeting, there were interesting interactions that occurred between participants of the workshop. Two groups invested the most effort into these interactions. The first was the EU, led by Germany and the Netherlands, who was the chief proponents and had prepared the proposal respectively. The second were the observer organisations / lobbyists who, because they knew they were not permitted a vote to put forward on the day, desperately and relentlessly tried to convince participating states to adopt their position. The observer organisations / lobbyists mainly targeted the Non-Range states (countries in which the tree does not occur, such as the one I was representing) as there was a better chance to convince them given that they had less to gain directly from the ultimate outcome of the meeting compared to the EU and Range States. Both proponents and antagonists of the up-listing proposal approached me several times to inquire of my stance and convince me to vote in line with them. It was hilarious to see the mock dismay on the faces of the proponents and antagonists of the proposal each time I countered an argument with which they had tried to persuade me. But with this disappointment came a distinct determination to go and conduct further research, reflect on the issue again, and make a rebound. Verily, on that very same day or on the next at the latest, each proponent and antagonist would approach me again using a different angle of argument. Some “government delegates”, including myself, received emails from the exercise coordinators posing as the delegates’ foreign offices, advising them of what national interests they were to take into consideration when deciding on and casting their vote.

Settling on a vote was not an easy task for me, for two reasons. Firstly, the arguments that were being put up by both camps were nearly at par in strength. This simply reflected how determined, well-researched and eloquent both camps were. Secondly and more importantly, I had to act in a manner in which my country’s government would have, although I did not personally agree with any of the reasons for the stances it would possibly take, and this is a common real-life scenario. The Zimbabwe government would most likely have wanted to oppose the EU given that many of the government’s members were under EU financial sanctions. However, the fact that the EU supported Zimbabwe in the bid to prevent an ivory trade ban (an up-list onto Appendix I) at CoP 17, turned the tables such that Zimbabwe would thus want to vote in line with the EU to maintain this support, and continue to receive an income from ivory trade. I took the latter stance.

CITES CoP Oxford – 3 November 2017: The Day

On arriving at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment, I was greeted at the foot of the staircase by an official-looking sign post that indicated the meeting.

CITES Signpost
Signage for the CITES CoP (role-play) at Oxford, 2017. © Cedric Maforimbo

This gave the event an air of reality. On arriving in the room where the exercise was being held, I found the tables set up in official CITES format, with each group of parties sitting on a given table.

The Chair (Mr McGough) opened the meeting and sought confirmation from the Secretary (Dr Jepson) on whether credentials from all parties had been submitted. The Secretary, in response, announced outstanding credentials from three countries (without which none of them could vote), but these all trickled in slowly during the debates until seconds before the voting process. Germany was then given the floor to put forward the EU’s proposal which the German delegate conveyed very professionally.

The representative for Germany, proponent of the up-listing of Cedrela odorata presents ,the proposal as I look on. © Mari Mulyani

The following was an array of well-presented arguments for and against the listing. I was very impressed with the mock seriousness of the Chair and the Secretary and the mock passion that the participants exhibited as they argued. As the meeting progressed, the Chair also sharply warned parties when they used informal language, spoke too fast for the (non-existent) translators to follow, exceeded the allocated speaking time or exhibited boisterous behaviour. Many of the delegates were dressed according to their roles, with some in wigs and fake moustaches and others in business attire (when they were representing business trade bodies). Various accents were flung about by speakers to give their speeches a representative flair.

The result. The motion to up-list the cedar to Appendix II narrowly missed attaining majority vote, but let alone the two-thirds vote that it required in order to be passed.

Reflections and Discussion

I have not encountered much role-playing in natural resource teaching in Zimbabwe, yet several studies have demonstrated role plays to be highly effective methods of teaching, promoting group work and increasing students’ awareness of their own and others’ feelings  (DeNeve and Heppner, 1997). They are also an effective research tool in the determination of the behaviour of communities under varying environmental protection regimes (Villamor and van Noordwijk, 2011). Role play exercises fall within the category of experiential learning. Several researchers namely Kolb (1974) cited in Healey and Jenkins (2000), Ajiboye and Silo (2008), Elsgest (1987) cited in Ajiboye and Atijoni (2008) found that experiential learning facilitated a better grasp of environmental concepts as compared to theoretical learning, and a higher likelihood of the application of the learnt concepts to practice.  As such, their use in nature education in Zimbabwe should be up-scaled in order to harness their benefits.


Ajiboye, J.O., Ajitoni, S.O., 2008. Effects of full and quasi – participatory learning strategies on Nigerian senior secondary students’ environmental knowledge: Implications for classroom practice. Int. J. Environ. Sci. Educ. 3, 58–66.

Ajiboye, J.O., Silo, N., 2008. Enhancing Botswana Children’s Environmental Knowledge , Attitudes and Practices through the School Civic Clubs 3, 105–114.

DeNeve, K.M., and Heppner, M.J. 1997. Role Play Simulations: The Assessment of an Active Learning Technique and Comparisons with Traditional Lectures. Innovative Higher Education. 21, 231-246

Healey, M., Jenkins, A., 2000. Kolb’s experiential learning theory and its application in geography in higher education. J. Geog. 99, 185–195.

Villamor, G. B., and van Noordwijk, M. 2011. Social role-play games vs individual perceptions of conservation and PES agreements for maintaining rubber agroforests in Jambi (Sumatra), Indonesia. Ecology and Society 16(3): 27.


Peruvian peatlands: Carbon sinks only?

Peatlands play a significant role in tackling climate change thanks to their carbon storage capacity, which is considerably high below ground due to the waterlogged condition of the soil. Recent research (Draper et al., 2014) shows that they can store  ̶ including below- and above-ground carbon ̶  near half the amount of the above-ground carbon in all of Peru’s forests, even when these peatlands represent only 3% of the Peruvian forest area. However, their importance covers more aspects than the environmental. This article attempts to give a more comprehensive approach about peatlands, specifically from Peru, and how they fit into the country’s dynamics. Peruvian peatlands are shown from different perspectives, considering their ecological, social, economic, and cultural importance. Consequently, their conservation must be a national-level priority.

Continue reading Peruvian peatlands: Carbon sinks only?

Bear bile farming in a changing world: reconciling tradition with China’s role on the world stage

Bear bile farming throughout Southeast Asia is on the verge of major consumer and policy changes. Is this the first major step in China’s new push as a global environmental leader?

Keywords: conservation, wildlife trade, bear bile, China

China’s relationship with animals dates back thousands of years. Evidence of the Four Symbols in which each section of the sky was assigned to a mythological creature (the Azure Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, the Black Tortoise of the North, and the Vermillion Bird of the South) has been found on Henan tombs from the Neolithic period (some 6,000 years ago). Yet more recent news headlines draw a more tenuous link between the country and animal welfare standards. A recent article from the BBC notes that “Yulin dog meat festival begins despite rumors of ban” while a Guardian write-up highlights how the demand for elephant skin and trunk have fueled a dramatic rise in poaching in Myanmar. One issue that has yet to be fully explored by the media and policymakers, however, is the bear bile farming trade. While this trade is valued as high as $2 billion, experts including Chinese physicians have inconclusive scientific evidence of bear bile’s medicinal value.


A worker initiates the process of draining bile from a bear in China. Source: South China Morning Post 

Bile bears is the term used to describe bears in captivity that are used for extracting bile, a digestive fluid stored in the gallbladder that is heavily applied within some traditional Chinese medicine circles. One estimate has put the number of battery bears within South Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and China to be more than 12,000. While the Asiatic black bear is the most commonly used species in this regard, the brown bear and sun bear are also actively involved within the system, and both the sun and Asiatic are present on the Red List of Threatened Species.


The actual harvesting of the bile, despite a range of methods, requires invasive surgery that leaves some sort of permanently inserted catheter or fistula. Critically, a number of bears die from either the stress of the surgery or the resulting infections that may surround the wound. In addition, the enclosure habitats for the bears continue the trend of compromised health standards, with most housed continuously within “crush cages” that restrict even the smallest changes in positioning, and some have been kept in these conditions for over 30 years. Within the industry, however, bear bile farming is viewed as the most humane way of extracting the product, as evidenced by Fang Shuting, the head of the Chinese Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine: “The process of extracting bear bile is like turning on a tap: natural, easy, and without pain. After they’re done, the bears can even play happily outside. I don’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary! It might even be a very comfortable process!”


Yet recent developments and policy initiatives have made the issue of bear bile farming one at the edge of cutting science and potentially new developments in animal welfare. Pressed for decades by international activists, Kaibao Pharmaceuticals, supplier of over 50% of the product consumed in China, recently announced plans to develop a lab-produced bear bile alternative through the use of government funding. As Chris Shepherd, regional director of Southeast Asia noted, the shift must come from within the community: “This is an opportunity for practitioners and consumers to make a shift from using threatened species, to legal and sustainable alternatives, illustrating the [Traditional Chinese Medicine’s] community’s commitment to conservation of wildlife and legal trade.”


In addition, recent research has concluded that the original intent of bear bile farming, to discourage the seizure of wild bears, has not been successful. Before the rise of these farms in the 1980s, participants in the trade would kill a bear in the woods and remove its gallbladder with the bile inside. Instead of relieving pressure on wild bears, it is now believed that more bear bile on the market has actually increased demand for the substance for use across a variety of ailments and diseases. In addition, bear sanctuaries have noted that up to 30% of their bears have either missing limbs or scarring from snare traps, indicating that wild-caught sources still play a significant role in the industry.


Assembly workers in Kaibao offload synthesized bottles of bear bile. Source: South China Morning Post

These findings have compelled the Chinese government to signal a tidal wave shift in regulating the practice, with the administration first committing to rescue 500 bears in China’s Sichuan province through an agreement with Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation. This partnership will be expanded throughout China over the next 10 years, and demonstrates an overall shift in China’s approach toward environmental policy, coming during a period in which the government has stepped up as a global leader in climate negotiations and recently banned the domestic trade of ivory. How much these new developments will affect the bear bile industry, and how long it will take to do so, will have the whole world watching.


Evolving Architecture for Internet of Things and Wildlife Conservation

The Internet was neither inevitable nor a simple happy accident. Similar to the evolution of our planet, the creation of the internet was a mess of interactions and a series of colliding forces and experiments. Most histories of the internet focus on geniuses that changed the world of computing; but they ignore the larger picture that the internet and its architecture was defined by an evolving society. As we enter into the era of ubiquitous computing, in which our computational interfaces will be ever more ingrained into our surrounding things, we will have the ability to monitor our environments anytime and anywhere. Also known as the Internet of Things (IoT), this new wave of computing should be expected to have a different architecture than that of the modern day Internet. Because it is embedded into our environments, it might even be expected to be a changing and living complex structure best defined by our environmental societal values and natural systems.

 The Internet of Things is defined in two components: (1) digital sensing technology embedded into surrounding things such as temperature or gas sensors, GPS, or video and audio data collecting devices; and (2) a networked communication system that shares the digital sensors’ information through nodes and connections. With these two components, a number of new environmental initiatives have started to employ IoT projects for conservation. In the paper “Adopting the internet of things technologies in environmental management in South Africa,” the authors noted examples including the monitoring ability of microchips on buildings or in streams to relay data about air pollution, nuclear radiation leaks, floodwaters, and e coli outbreaks. It further discussed even including animals into the Internet of Things and cited that homing pigeons have been equipped with GPS and air quality monitoring technology to relay information back to systems in real-time.

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Figure 1: Simple graphic of Internet of Things structure

While these are all cases of innovative ways to use digital sensor technology, the second component of the Internet of Things, the architecture of the IoT networked communication system, is more complex. Similar to the Internet, values and governance standards will help define the architectures for these types of systems and so they will reflect intended societal goals. Within the same paper, an example of architecture is discussed. To aid rangers in their protection of animals from poachers, a system of collars is worn by zebras to detect heard movement. The paper describes this as, “The system measures the GPS location of each animal and communicates the information using peer-to-peer short range radios. In addition to the mobile zebra collar nodes, the base node is mobile within the network, receiving information from whichever nodes are nearby through long-distance radio during fixed communication windows.”

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Figure 2: Leopard fitted with GPS collar from Savannah Tracking

This system resembles structures of the web in which the base node (a single piece of hardware that controls all data flows) can receive information from other nodes nearby. However, our large-scale Internet does not rely on one base node to relay this information. Having one base node leaves the project with low survivability and vulnerable to breaking down. Overall cases like this field-based IoT project will have to cycle through a number of structures depending on the governance of specific monitoring projects. Cases of high security (monitoring poaching) will require higher survivability and have a higher degree of locked information centrality between the component parts (the information is in a controlled and private network with few people receiving the information). On the other hand, projects intending to engage the public in greater citizen science and awareness will look to have an open-source and decentralized structure potentially allowing for new hardware nodes to be placed in my amateurs themselves. One example might allow citizens to place their own digital sensor into a soil project and it immediately joins the other soil monitors’ network over a mobile app.

Ubiquitous computing for the environment should be expected to be as multi-layered and chaotic as environmental governance itself with scales of power and a variety of structures. Analyzing the architectures and agendas of our environmental entities will allow for us to better create appropriate networks for the Internet of Things. Perhaps the constantly editable and evolving nature of digitality and the environmentally embedded nature of ubiquitous computing will bring environmental institutions into the 21st century. With this technology spreading rapidly, we are left with an exciting future some questions of design for our relationship with animals and the environment: How will we design IoT systems that are as resilient and fluid as needed for the coming rapid environmental change? Will the structure of these IoT networks change the way we value citizens as active participants in science and conservation? With machine learning, how can we design these IoT architectures to learn and respond to data fluxes and best communicate what is happening between ecosystems to us?


  1. Dlodlo, N. “Adopting the internet of things technologies in environmental management in South Africa.” 2012 International Conference on Environment Science and Engineering. (2012).
  2. Al-Qaseemi, Sarah, et al. “IoT architecture challenges and issues: Lack of standardization.” Future Technologies Conference. (2016).

Lauren Neville is american student thrilled to be joining the BCM community! With two degrees in Environmental Studies and Communication, Culture & Technology, she is passionate about the role that emerging technologies including drones, sensors, and artificial intelligence can play in biodiversity citizen science initiatives. Before coming to Oxford, she was an urban beekeeper caring for up to 80,000 honeybees in Washington, D.C. and worked at non-profits including the Jane Goodall Institute and Conservation International’s fieldwork office in Fiji.

Divided Desert: New Wall & Biodiversity in the Borderlands.

The border between USA and Mexico spans approximately 2000 miles and the region has been under continuous socio-political and ecological struggles (Lorey, 1999). Mexico is the nearest and therefore the easiest way into the U.S. for the Latin-American organized crime cartels and the traffic between these nations creates social circumstances with the majority resulting in violence. The volume of illegal activity such as the movement of money, weapons, people and narcotics from all regions of Latin America have prompted federal departments from both nations to tackle these activities. The U.S proceeded more ambitiously compared to Mexico by building a non-continuous wall in 1994, composed of a series of approximately 15ft tall structures of rusted corrugated steel salvaged from the Vietnam war-era helicopter landing pads. During its construction a number of environmental laws were waived, and now scientist are beginning to identify the same problems that those laws were originally designed to prevent.

Dr. Rurik List from the Institute of Ecology at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) administers surveys of bison herds (Bison bison) that utilize aspects of habitat on both sides of the border in the Chihuahua desert (Figure 1). During their seasonal migration the buffalo have been spotted crossing the border which at the time was a broken-down barbwire fence that the buffalo broke themselves on earlier occasions (List et al. 2007). Meetings conducted with local ranchers on each side of the border highlight the importance of habitat use in these borderlands. Dialogues with the local rancher on the Mexican side indicated that several bison visited a pond on his land almost on a daily basis since it was the only year-round water source. In contrast, the American rancher explained how they came to a certain pasture on his land, where condition allow for a special kind of native grass (Schlyer. 2016).

range map
Figure 1. South limits of the historic range of American bison, highlighting paleontological, archaeological and historical accounts of species presence (List et al. 2017).

The current conditions on the border not only pose obstruction due to the barrier but the situation also brings road infrastructure, constant bright lights and border militarization which contribute to habitat degradation and anthropogenic pressures. The majority of the wall is not solid therefore small creatures such as reptiles, small mammals, insects and bugs can pass but the major concern lies on larger vertebrates. Such structures can divide populations and can pose a major threat on species genetics. For example, in the Arizonan side of the Sonoran Desert a herd of Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) began to show low levels of reproduction after the construction of a segment of the wall. After further investigation, scientists learned that when the barrier was built, all the male pronghorn except for an old non-breeding male were separated by the fence (Heimbuch, 2014). When in non-breeding conditions male pronghorn disperse and live nomadic lives (Min, 1997). When the breeding season approaches the males return looking to reproduce but due to the construction of the barrier the herd was separated and unable to reproduce. Herds of wild herbivores in the south limits of their ranges have the potential to provide some of the necessary genetic material and along with it the associated physical adaptations that are required to survive and flourish in southwest North America. A man-made barrier dissecting these ranges and migration routes can pose additional complications to the already existing anthropogenic pressures that biodiversity face in the 21st century (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Some vertebrate taxa affected by the proposed wall in the Rio Grande riparian areas of southern Texas (University of Massachussets Amherst, 2016).

In south Texas the majority of the impacts have been habitat destruction and fragmentation much earlier than barrier problems. Government programs in the 1980’s paid ranchers to burn native thorn habitat then leading to construction of wall segments. The Rio Grande valley is of high biodiversity value because aside from semi-tropical and temperate zones meeting, it is also a geographic merger of  the two biogeographic realms of the Americas, the Nearctic and Neotropic. Due to these fusions, the fauna and flora that exist in this region does not appear anywhere else in the U.S. This is a major concern, such that if habitat degradation continues it will likely pressure certain species to local extinction levels which will cause ecological problems for the residents of borderlands. For instance, five of six North American cat species live in the border region and three of those species do not exist anywhere else north of that. The jaguar (Puma onca), ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) and jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) are classified as critically endangered in the U.S and despite other pressures their ability for these felids to migrate to and from Mexico will be crucial to their real recovery (Grigione et al. 2009) (Plate 1).

balance on the border
Plate 1. Adult mountain lion finding balance on the existing border wall (Arizona Fish & Game Department, 2017).

The major problem does not only lie in the damage inflicted to wildlife and landscapes but on the social and political realm of the situation. In 2005 the Real ID Act authorized the U.S Department of Homeland Security to waive all laws on the border to allow for intervention and construction of the barriers. Thirty seven laws have been dismissed in the region so far, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Eagle Protection Act and many more (Nixon, 2017). The turndown of environmental law not only impacts species like puma, wolf, bear and deer but it sets a terrible example that it is acceptable for governments to ignore law and take action without considering the consequences to the natural world. With the recent proposals of the U.S government to build a more sophisticated wall (Figure 3) regardless of who pays for it, brings additional pressures on the wildlife local to the region.

trumps wall
Figure 3. Description of the proposed “Trump’s wall” in comparison to the existing structure (Al Jazeera, 2016).

The new wall is presented to be twice as high as the existing one and will be solid and mostly continuous (Plate 2). Eight designs from hundreds selected by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are in a bidding process. The concrete and steel edifices will be tested in various ways, particularly measuring the levels of difficulty to get across the barrier. Once selected new constructions plans will be in process across the 3,145 km border, costing an estimated $ 21 billion (Wong, 2017)

wall prototypes
Plate 2. Prototypes of the new border wall outside San Diego, California (Tuffs, 2017).

Donald Trump’s border narrative has met heavy opposition from the borderland communities such as lawmakers voting to expand funding to increase the use of technology and personnel instead of providing $ 3.6 billion for 100 miles of barrier (Wong, 2017). In addition, NGO’s have sued the Trump administration for failing to study the environmental impact and the decision to use law waivers is unconstitutional (Nixon, 2017). Organized crime on both sides and law enforcement can be thought of as two actors locked in constant competition, always attempting different methods to outsmart one another, with constant violent activity. The creations of their actions affect the landscape and its nature in drastic ways, this new barrier may just be another step in their evolution. For biodiversity, conservation plans and local residents this seems hopeless.

Solutions may lie in developing a more effective cross-boundary conservation mission and professionals need to collaborate more broadly on interdisciplinary issues. International cooperation such as assisted migration projects, mitigation for wildlife-crossing with a combination of mutual law enforcement, can lead to a much deeper understanding of this ecosystem flow. The Northern Jaguar Project based in Tucson, Arizona has been an example for such efforts (Plate 3) however homeland security issues will always focus on the human factors. By building cooperation and tolerance for each other on both sides, a collective binational solution can be produced. The conservation of the region’s natural heritage and maintenance of its complex processes are essential for the resilience and recovery of intrinsic value in the cognitive perspective of both nations.

sonoran jaguars
Plate 3. Pair of Sonoran jaguars stalk the borderlands in south New Mexico (Naturalia, 2015).



Grigione, M.M., K. Menke, C. Lopez–Gonzalez, R. List, A. Banda, J. Carrera, R. Carrera, A. J. Giordano, J. Morrison, M. Sternberg, R. Thomas, and B. Van Pelt. (2009) Identifying potential conservation areas in the U.S.–Mexico border region for neotropical cats: Integrating reliable knowledge at a landscape level. Oryx. 43:1 78-86.

Heimbuch J. (2014) How would a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico affect wildlife. Mother nature network Wilderness and Resources. December 4th

List, R., G. Ceballos, C. Curtin, P. J. P. Gogan, J. Pacheco y J. Truett. (2007). Historic distribution and challenges to bison recovery in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. Conservation Biology 21 1487–1494.

Lorey D. E. (1999) The U.S.-Mexican Border in the Twentieth Century. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources.

Min S. E. (1997) The effect of Variation in Male Sexually Diamorphic Traits on Female Behaviour in Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana). Ethology. 103. pp. 732-743.

Nixon, R. (2017) Homeland Security to Bypass Environmental Laws in Border Wall Works. New York Times: Politics, August 1st

Schlyer K. (2016) New Film: Border Walls and Boundaries.
(Acquired at:

Wong J. C. (2017) The shadow of Trump’s wall, locals remain unimpressed. The Guardian
Politics: Tuesday 24th October

Sleepwalking towards Armageddon? We need more long-term ecological studies

Widely-reported research has led some to suggest we are “on course for ecological Armageddon”. Behind these headlines: an analysis of a German dataset spanning nearly three decades detected a 76 percent plummet in flying insect biomass. So is now the time to be building our apocalypse bunkers?

Forming the base of most food chains and providing vital services such as pollination, insects play a unique role across terrestrial habitats. Due to their sensitivity to environmental change, they are the ‘canary in the coal mine’. If the research findings from Germany are representative of wider insect populations across Europe, the implications for ecosystems and human wellbeing are likely to be catastrophic.

The windscreen phenomenon: anecdotal evidence for flying insect declines has come from a reduction in the bugs splattered on the front of cars. Image: RiverNorthPhotography/iStock (RF)

The recent research from Germany paints a much bleaker picture than previous studies of insect populations. Data from a large network of standardised light traps spread across the UK revealed that macro moth numbers had ‘only’ declined by a third since 1968. A smaller network of suction traps operated since the 1970s by the same organisation, Rothamsted Research, showed that total insect biomass was only declining in one of the four sites studied.

Ignorance is bliss?

The idiosyncrasy of these findings demonstrates the need for further long-term ecological studies. Are these divergent trends suggesting that insect declines have been worse in some countries? Are different groups of insect faring differently? We simply don’t know.

The design of long-term studies may contribute to the uncertainty. To detect accurate abundance changes, sampling should aim to minimise confounding variables, such as location. Surveys should ideally occur over consecutive years in the same place, allowing individual trends to be calculated (which can then be averaged over multiple locations). However, over half of the sites visited in the German study were only sampled for a single year during the 27 year study period. Did this imperfection affect the findings of this study? We need further long-term studies to be sure.

Malaise traps, which funnel flying insects into a collecting vessel, were used to measure biomass in German protected areas. Image: Hallmann et al., 2017/PLOSONE.

The assumptions made in these studies are also important to consider. Biomass is not the same as abundance (although it is usually a good proxy). In theory, the declines in insect biomass could just be due to the loss of a handful of very large species. Only with additional research are we likely to be able to understand exactly what’s going on.

Good science often takes time

Systematic ecological monitoring over extended periods of time is expensive; shortage of funding is a key barrier to good science in this regard. Long-term continuity is vital; however, most research grants are for less than five years. Publicly-financed long-term projects are heavily underfunded and are often seen as dispensable when times are hard.

In Australia, the decision was recently made to axe funding for a nationwide, biodiversity and ecosystem monitoring project; the network, which was established in 2012, consisted of over 1100 plots and was intended to run until at least 2025. It’s ironic that a project designed to inform billion dollar land management decisions was terminated for the sake of saving less than a million dollars a year.

It seems intuitive that long-term ecological studies are beneficial; however, the advantages have also been demonstrated quantitatively. Trends become more obvious and predictability is improved as more data is amassed. Furthermore, long-term studies tend to have more impact, and frequently influence environmental policy.

Long-term studies allow trends to be discerned in noisy data. Figure from The State of Britain’s Larger Moths, showing how the abundance of macro moths has changed in Britain.

The value of long-term monitoring studies may also extend beyond simply being descriptive. With careful analysis, it might be possible to tease out the mechanisms responsible for change. A study using three decades of data from the UK’s Butterfly Monitoring Scheme showed declines were steepest in areas of high neonicotinoid pesticides use. While it is impossible to prove causation from such studies, they can highlight factors for future experimental study.

On the way out?

Just like the organisms they monitor, long-term ecological studies seem to be in decline. The study of natural history has fallen out of fashion, while simplified predictive models are in vogue. There is no substitute, however, for well-designed observational studies. Citizen science approaches have become trendy but their power to examine long-term trends in populations is likely to be limited in most cases; meaningful and rigorous analysis of population trends typically requires standardised methodology and high-quality data.

Once funding is pulled from existing long-term studies, we lose the ability to track the pervasive effects of contemporary environmental change. This is a scary thought when we consider the diminishing flying insect populations in German reserves. How many similar biodiversity trends are going undocumented? We may not be headed for ecological Armageddon, but being in the dark about the health of our ecosystems should be just as worrying.

This content was first published on in December 2017.