Category Archives: General Discussion

Post-Truthing Conservation

Interview with Carina Wyborn, Research Advisor at the Luc Hoffmann Institute, by Victoria Pilbeam, Masters student in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford.

One of the biggest conservation challenges is how to translate what we know about the environment into meaningful action. In conservation circles, this is often discussed in terms of the ‘science-policy interface’, the ways that conservation science connects and relates to decision-making. In an era in which some political leaders claim that the general public are “tired of experts” and draw their evidence from “alternative facts”, critical thinking around the science-policy interface is perhaps more relevant now than ever before. As conservation scientists and practitioners, we all have to do some soul-searching about the role of science in a ‘post-truth’ world, says Wyborn.

Continue reading Post-Truthing Conservation

Advertisements

MSc BCM Vision: #Conservation2037

This past January 26th at The Linnean Society of London, we got together with four conservation Masters courses from different UK Universities1 to explore the ideas and drivers that suggest a transformation in the science, policy and practice of conservation. It was also an opportunity to voice and reflect upon the values, issues and practices which we would like to see at the centre of conservation 20-years hence. I was lucky enough to speak on behalf of MSc BCM and presented our vision of Conservation 2037 in front of the CEOs of Birdlife International, Friends of the Earth, Hampshire Wildlife Trust and The Biodiversity Consultancy.

This is what we, as BCM, want for #Conservation2037: Continue reading MSc BCM Vision: #Conservation2037

The Ghost of Winters Past

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-2-37-52-pm

Tweeted @Vailmtn Resort on January 25th.

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows’ Facebook page professed on January 24th, “Over 7 feet of snow in 5 days leads to a whole lot of powder. The skies will be clearing up this week, so don’t miss bluebird days and all-time conditions.”

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-2-35-46-pm

@Jacksonhole Mountain Resort posts pow shots on Instagram.

Whistlerblackcomb.com simply states “20+ FEET OF SNOW & COUNTING”.

While I sit overseas in rainy England, jealously scrolling through endless Instagram posts of friends slashing through chest deep powder I can’t help but wonder if the stoke for this epic snow year is overshadowing the fact that 2016 was globally the warmest year ever. Are we forgetting that in 2013 only 109 inches of snow fell over an entire year in Mammoth Mountain (this season it had already snowed more than that by January 4th)? Are we forgetting that Mount Hood’s Palmer Snowfield melted almost entirely in 2015 forcing Timberline Lodge Ski Resort to close over a month early? Are we forgetting that earlier this season the Beaver Creek Birds of Prey and Lake Louise World Cup races had to be cancelled due to lack of snow? But most importantly are we forgetting what this climate change trend means for the future of our sport?

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-11-13-22-am

NASA‘s image of temperature warming trends from 1880 to 2016 including 23 record warm years.

Research has shown that, unsurprisingly, skiers perception of climate change risks are much higher in warmer winters and much lower in colder, snowier winters. Our confidence in and reliance on resorts’ snowmaking abilities amplifies our denial in climate change and decouples the ski industry from the natural snowfall. The winter tourism industry is aware of the financial risks posed by poor seasons yet continues to contradict long-term sustainable business and environmental management to optimize short-term trail conditions and shareholder profits.

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-3-34-07-pm

First day lift lines at Arapahoe Basin CO. A-Basin is known for it’s early start date and late end to the season but this wouldn’t be possible without snow guns, which you can see working hard to create a snow cloud and what is known as the white ribbon of death down the center of an otherwise green run (image source angrysnowboarder.com).

News of an earlier opening date, a warm spell mid-January snow gunned over or a harder base lasting further into spring all excite us but snowmaking has long been known to be incredibly harmful to the environment (and the budget). 1 hectare of snow cover requires up to 1.5 million liters of water and up to 27000 kWh of energy. Artificial snow using imported water diverts the natural flow of the water basin and brings in foreign elements while the snowmelt of manmade snow melts much slower, all damaging fragile alpine habitats.

Powder Magazine recently came out with an article showing ski industry executives including Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort President Jerry Blann and owner Jay Kemmerer and Mammoth Mountain CEO Rusty Gregory supporting and donating large sums of money to climate change denying congressional candidates who are actively fighting greenhouse gas and CO2 regulation legislation. If these political decisions that are made in light of rising ticket prices with worsening conditions confuse anyone, you are not alone. Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Company’s vice president of environmental sustainability says “Right now, supporting these guys is like we’re saying: ‘Hey, we’ll give you money, just as long as you can guarantee you’ll destroy our livelihood.’”

The costs, already exorbitant (Australia invested $82 million USD in snowmaking infrastructure, Tyrol Austria spent 55 million Euros while resorts in Switzerland reported that each kilometer of a ski run cost 650,000 Euros on average to cover with artificial snow), to maintain snow conditions amplify the fact that this tactic cannot be sustained, environmentally or economically.

19slopes-1-600

 

A helicopter bringing in a load of snow to help cover the track of the famous Hahnenkamm Downhill in Kitzbuhel Austria in 2007. Venues are hesitant to cancel races as they bring in money, but these types of conditions are increasingly common across the World Cup circuit. (Source New York Times/Kerstin Joensson)

Multi-resort passes such as the Mountain Collective, Epic Pass and the MAX pass have been popping up for exactly this reason. Localized weather variance with climate change has increased risks in snow supply and demand from skiers at each ski resort. However by diversifying geographically, resorts can ensure passes are bought and skiers have the option to follow the snow wherever it may fall.

Ski resort corporations may be marketing, selling, politicking and scattering their way around climate change, but we as skiers (and consumers) are eagerly eating this all up. We play along as we post photos of powder days past on Instagram when resorts are closed, watch ski films showing endless snowcapped peaks not questioning the increasingly remote locations and rave of epic January mountain bike rides when things go real south. We forget our role in the cause of climate change but more importantly in the solution.

As the first downhill races of the season were being cancelled due to lack of snow some athletes like Steven Nyman felt “it brings to light the whole climate issue, which I believe is the real deal.”, but others were less certain of the link to climate change. Dustin Cook, a Canadian Alpine Ski Team member told the Toronto Sun “I look at the term climate change, and I think that’s definitely affecting things, but also it’s just early in the year… I just don’t buy that it’s too warm.” US Mens Head Coach Sasha Rearick said “I’m bummed FIS (International Ski Federation) didn’t have more confidence in the snowmaking to pull this thing off last minute.” None of the news articles from various papers covering the cancelled events showed pictures of the grassy slopes instead pictures from previous years and different races accompanied the articles.

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 4.03.08 PM.png

The Denver Post cites lack of snow as reason for cancelling the Birds of Prey race but shows a snowy picture from last years race.

Research on skier behaviour shows that nearly all skiers, particularly experts and die-hards are willing to travel upwards of 2 hours farther (70 percent would travel to another region) and pay 10 percent more for reliable snow conditions. No one in the study indicated they would stop skiing!

We won’t stop skiing and are willing to adapt, but can we change our behaviour and that of our resorts enough to ensure we don’t create a situation that forces us to stop?

Some people are trying to do just that. Films like Salomon’s Guilt Trip; A Climate Change Film with a Skiing Problem (watch here), books like Porter Fox’s DEEP; The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow and organizations like Protect Our Winters (POW), Outdoor Industry Association and SHIFT are all starting a positive conversation of not just how climate change impacts us, but how we impact the environment and our responsibility as skiers to act. As skiers we have to think about how our actions are contributing to this conversation. Whether it’s through writing news articles, posting photos to Instragram or choosing which ski resorts to support our words and actions must align with and push our industry to meet our collective goal of a snow filled future.

We have to continue the climate change conversation, remembering the rainy days of the past and fearing snowless days of the future, as we shred the epic winter of today.

 

 

Fishy Business: Can blockchains provide supply chain transparency?

Transparency of product supply chains has become a key issue in recent years. Increasingly, we want to know what’s in a product, where it’s from, how it was made and by whom – just think the horsemeat scandal, stricter EU food labelling standards, and the creation of the UK National Food Crime Unit.

Continue reading Fishy Business: Can blockchains provide supply chain transparency?

Love Christmas. Hate Climate Change. Will Climate Change corrupt Christmas?

Alas! The season to be jolly Fa la la, la la la, la la is coming to an end. It is time to pack away our fantastically gaudy Christmas jumpers adorned with outlandish images of happy snowmen and dancing polar bears, our glittery reindeer antlers and eccentric penguin socks.  

The tackier the better!!
The tackier the better!!

 

But will there always be good cheer and great tidings? Climate change is now jeopardizing many of the iconic symbols of our December celebration. (Please note, this is no way is related to the birth of baby Jesus, no religious connotations here!)

On Christmas Eve 2015 (somewhat fittingly), the IUCN changed the Rangifer tarandus – aka Dasher, Dancer, Prancer etc. –  conservation status from “least concern” to “vulnerable”, skipping over the “near threatened” category. A 40% plummet in their population over 25 years was primarily due to warmer climates bringing in more rain than snow.  This rain freezes on the ground creating an ice sheet up to 5 cm thick. Rudolph often cannot penetrate this ice-crust to reach his diet of grasses and herbs underneath and expels large amounts of energy attempting to; contributing towards reduced survival rates of Santa’s sleigh pulling ungulates.

“Vixen! Comet! Let’s trick Father Christmas and pretend to be Christmas trees” "Ok, Blitzen"
“Vixen! Comet! Let’s trick Father Christmas and pretend to be Christmas trees” “Ok, Blitzen”

 

Not only does climate change melt dreams of a white Christmas, research published in the journal of Forest Ecology and Management reveals that our Christmas trees could suffer too (dependant on tree origin). The iconic Norwegian Spruce will become increasingly vulnerable due to reduced snowpacks to the Boreal forests during winter, which can limit shoot growth in the following spring.

Could this get any worse?!

Yes

A generous dollop of cranberry sauce completes the Christmas lunch.  However, cranberries are not compatible with extreme weathers brought about by climate change; heat waves and frosts & floods cause rotting and yield cuts respectfully. In 2012 in Massachusetts an early spring coupled with extreme heat, resulted in a drop of 23 million pounds in cranberry production; enough to leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

“All I want for Christmas is yo-… FOOOOD!!!”
“All I want for Christmas is yo-… FOOOOD!!!”

What’s more, polar bears have long been the face of the climate change movement.  Listed as a threatened species since 2008, there are only 20,000 to 25,000 estimated to be living in the wild.  Scientists warn that rising temperatures in the Arctic could reduce the polar bear population by a third over the next few decades. Of course, the loss of ice also threatens our other favourite charismatic species often pictured on our Christmas cards; penguins, artic fox and seals.

Christmas cards for one and all!
Christmas cards to all those relatives we didn’t even know existed!

And finally, the great man himself. Father Christmas.  Earth’s northern pole is drifting rapidly eastward, and scientists blame climate change. The rate of shift of the magnetic pole is on the increase and it seemed that in the past decade it had moved a distance close to the distance it moved in the past century.  With the wandering magnetic pole and ice sheet melting, our fantasies of him reading our Christmas letters by the fire in a log cabin on the North Pole, could be lost within the century.

“Penny, Martin, Dana – Good list! Paul, however is on the naughty list!”
“Penny, Martin, Dana – Good list! Paul, however is on the naughty list!”

Whilst discussing such a sombre topic you may have noticed the images of this blog maintain humour and positivity; there’s no shocking pictures of reindeers starving nor graphs to map the extent of sea ice loss in the arctic. Partly because it is the season of good cheer, but also this is done to engage with our emotions.  Sometimes, it is much easier to feel compelled to act upon something which we see and know and hold fondness towards, rather than see the negative images shown in the news.   This blog will not discuss how we as individuals can mitigate the effects of climate change- there are plenty of articles which do that, rather this blog hopes for people to understand that we cannot take everyday happenings (or in this case, annual celebrations) for granted.

Do we ourselves bear some responsibility for climate change affecting Christmas? Maintaining our traditional usage of inordinate amounts of sellotape, ribbons and associated paraphernalia, we contribute directly, to non-degradable pollution in our terrestrial and marine environments. Maybe we need to re-think our traditions and stop creating an annual slap in the face for our planet.

And to President elect Trump and his army of climate change sceptics, it’s not only Christmas that is affected – our summer’s day fish and chips take away is in jeopardy too.

 

Sophie is an MSc student in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Management. She is particularly enticed by arts & the environment, science communication and conservation governance, and often likes to tweet about these things @sophierpierce

 

Save

The Cost of Biodiversity and Conservation: Can the Anthropocene Truly Not Afford to pay it?

Whilst the topic of wildlife trade is vastly discussed in scientific papers and news reports highlighting on the charismatic and flagship species like sea turtles, tiger, and elephants across the global, there has been a rapid growth of research interest on the online wildlife trade reflecting the internet provides more opportunities for trading wildlife on e-commence websites with unregulated and loosen enforcement. Until a report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) focusing on online wildlife trade in global recently, it indicates that China is the foremost country trading the majority wildlife online while earning the profit of $2.7 million. The statistical is also striking that approximately 544 items traded in 2008 were illegal wildlife species which are listed under CITES Appendices. In short, online wildlife trade is very likely not only posing the wildlife in peril. Meanwhile, it also triggers the challenges on protecting wildlife conservation via the internet.

Continue reading The Cost of Biodiversity and Conservation: Can the Anthropocene Truly Not Afford to pay it?

Misplaced compassion in a starving nation.

Place: Connaught Place, New Delhi. Time: Early morning hours. On my way to board the airport express metro train (revered as a top class facility in the world) I was caught by a pleasant surprise when I witnessed a middle-aged lady tossing several kilo of grains on the pavement for birds. This pleasure was short-lived as my eyes stumbled on a starving and shivering man on the other side of the same road. The elevated metro line gave me a snapshot of my historical national capital, rivalling the status of other mega cities, with “a large baggage” of its religiously inclined middle and lower class population surviving hand to mouth.

With 15.2% of its population undernourished, and 194.6 million people going hungry everyday, India has the largest undernourished and hungry population in the world

map
Image: Food loss and waste (tons/year on a log scale) generated from human food production.Screenshot from: Ecological and evolutionary implications of food subsidies from humans, Ecology Letters, (2013) 16: 1501-1514 

The same nation feeds several metric tonnes of grains, fruits, vegetables, etc. to feral animals in its cities, towns, and villages. Unlike the West, animal feeding in India is largely motivated by religious purposes, aimed to seek after life benefits, or to request relief from sins. An age-old compassion for animals (as forms of incarnations or vehicles of Hindu Gods), which essentially has aided the conservation success in a billion strong nation, shall have some serious considerations over the economic and ecological repercussions of many food offerings to our animal friends . Few snippets: Continue reading Misplaced compassion in a starving nation.

But they smell so good – are real Christmas trees a problem?

Christmas trees are everywhere

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, it is nearly impossible to ignore the decorations that pop up everywhere around the holidays. Shops, city streets and homes spend the month of December decked out with lights, garlands, and most prominently, Christmas trees. Compared to the blatant consumerism of the holiday season, Christmas trees seem so harmless and wholesome. Who doesn’t love the warm glow of the lights and of course that evergreen smell.

The Christmas tree industry is huge – over $2 billion was spent on real and fake trees in just the USA last year. In Canada that number is smaller, but ever rising – sales of fresh trees grew by over 20% in the last two years. Any industry this large has the potential for huge environmental impacts. Are real Christmas trees an environmental problem? And are fake trees any better? For consumers hoping to make conscientious decisions, it can be hard to find the kind of information that will put these questions to rest.

In writing this post I hope to dissect some facts about the tree industry, to weigh real trees against fake in terms of negative environmental impact, and to suggest ways for those of us who couldn’t feel festive without a tree to make more informed decisions. Continue reading But they smell so good – are real Christmas trees a problem?

Embracing Change

I was fortunate to know from a relatively early age where I wanted my life to go. I had a vision and crafted a path to get there and all in all (and after a lot of work!) things came together rather well. Of course through the years as I learned more the vision matured and developed but it always existed in the realm of wildlife conservation. Immediately after graduating with my undergraduate degree, I moved my life to Namibia to start my ‘dream’ job.

20160706-7720-pano-edit

Working on the ground in ‘front-line’ conservation for a very well respected organisation was everything I had hoped… and more. The once-in-a-lifetime experiences, professional (and personal) skills gained, and knowledge acquired were so worth the years of work invested to get to this point.

Zinzi Darting
Photo: Bobby Bradley

20160608-6900

I was working first-hand with my favourite species in one of the most beautiful places on Earth doing things that very few people in this world have ever done. So, I get the question all the time ‘Why did you leave?’, and its answer is something I have to remind myself of frequently.

20160625-7447

Planet Earth is the most unique and precious thing that exists in our wide wide universe (if you haven’t seen BBCs ‘Planet Earth II’ do yourself a favour and go check it out), but everything that makes it such an incredible place to call home is under immense threat. AND, as ironic as it would seem, we humans are to blame. There are those who have committed themselves to fighting these threats, and victories have been won here and there. My organisation for example had done an incredible job at addressing the threats to this species in Namibia, and is currently working very hard at expanding its programmes throughout Africa. However, on a global scale we are failing.

This being said, we gain more and more ground every year and I know that we can win this fight if enough of us are (actually) willing to get up and do something about it; I can’t let myself believe anything else. I loved my job and loved the work I was doing, but I felt that there was so much more that I could do (and needed to do) and that is why I left to continue with my studies.

20160306-4821img_4756

This is not at all to say that what I was doing before was not meaningful, or that the work of my organisation was not good enough. It’s just that I felt for me there was more to do and I knew I needed to go and find what that was. Though life in Oxford is not particularly for me, I’ve joined a community of people committed to the same goal (or set of goals at least – check out the other awesome entries on the blog!) and though I’d probably rather be back in the bush, I know that this experience is a necessary step to achieve my vision.

That childhood vision is alive and well, but I now realize that there is not necessarily one place it leads to. Just like in conservation science, as I continue to learn and experience more in this messy world, my vision for the future will continue to shift and grow… I (and we) just have to be willing to embrace whatever change that may bring to our thinking and our reality.

all photos by Eli Walker unless stated otherwise

20150514-2082

Looking beyond the Fortress: Expanding the Conservation Workspace in India

The year 1991 marked a major milestone for the Indian economy – a period when India opened its arms to the private sector, a giant leap forward for the country in its attempts to enhance the well being of its citizens. It is a popular discourse that increased growth (a given after liberalisation) would definitely put a strain on the environment and affect our natural resources. The battle between environment and development is an everlasting one. Adopting a Utopic Model of no growth will rupture the economy. On the other hand, renowned economists have always felt that India is too poor to be green. Economic liberalisation was seen as a holy grail to spur the country’s economy and bring millions out of chronic poverty.

The important question is, has India undergone complete liberalisation? While it is safe to say that the Indian economy is booming, have all sectors of the Indian market been opened up in its truest sense? Some sectors in India are still government controlled, bureaucratic and top-down with minimum contribution from outside actors. ‘Conservation’ is one such sector.

India is infamous for its ‘gun and guard’ approach towards conservation. Indira Gandhi the ‘Iron Lady’ of India, is remembered for the legacy that she left behind in the conservation movement in India. It was under her visionary guidance that fortress based conservation policies and legal frameworks were laid down. Her unbinding love for wildlife resulted in the formation of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. It was under the umbrella of this legislation that protected areas were formed which constitutes wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. These areas act as fortresses’ which protect the country’s rich natural heritage with minimal human intrusion and net zero development.

indira-gandhi
The ‘Iron Lady’ of India

The conservation scenario in India, despite Ms Gandhi’s and environmentalists’ efforts, is at risk of being plundered by a Government with a single minded focus on improving the economy. Forests are diminishing with increasing amounts of land being allotted for development, resources are being plundered and functional ecosystems are destroyed.

The Fortress model in such a scenario can best be described as a utopic baseline that has limited relevance and context. Conservation in the 21st century has assumed a complex hue; there are several stakeholders who play a key role in this milieu and it is important to envisage a potential scenario that is dynamic and inclusive.

We need to explore solutions that go beyond the ‘fortress’ to achieve conservation that is relevant in today’s context. 24% of the country’s landscape is forested, while protected areas encompass only 4.89% of India’s area. A significant proportion of the forest cover outside the PA is degraded. In the past 30 years, India has lost large areas of forests to 23,716 industrial projects. It is not just loss of species that is an alarming issue, but the loss of functional ecosystems. These act as green infrastructure that is the backbone to the country’s economy. It is absolutely essential that India’s lost functional ecosystems be restored. For every habitat that has been lost, compensation must be carried out. Payments must ultimately result in the creation of lost natural capital.

mining
Mining in Bihar, India. Shows severe habitat degradation in the area. Coal still is the source of 60% of India’s power.

Compensation schemes through natural capital restoration form the basic premise of biodiversity offsetting. India is still at the rudimentary stage of implementing such schemes. One such policy intervention in the Compensatory Afforestation Bill in 2015. According to this bill, the developer has to pay the net present value of the forest land cleared for a project in addition to the costs of afforestation of an equal area of non forest (or double the area for a patch of degraded forest). This money goes into a Government managed fund that is used for afforestation purposes. This fund in India is worth more than Rs. 40,000 crores (5.9 billion USD).

Such Biodiversity offsetting programmes has polarised the conservation community globally. The Compensatory Afforestation Bill has faced major criticism in India for improper implementation. Some conservationists construe it to be a ‘sham’ that is a one- way ticket to promote monoculture timber plantations by the government. With rapid development as the norm, which is here to stay, it is necessary to start ‘internalising our environmental externalities’. The ‘handsome kitty’ sitting in the Government fund can be used to compensate every habitat that has been lost to development projects and to restore ecosystems in sites that are degraded, mined; abandoned agricultural land that is no longer cultivatable; restore corridors connecting protected areas. Most importantly, forest communities can be mobilised for ecological restoration augmenting incomes. This fund can strengthen our green infrastructure, create jobs, and be a source of ecological, social and economic security ultimately boosting our country’s economy.

The face of the ‘Corporate Sector’ in India is undergoing a change. As per the Companies Act, 2013, corporates have to spend 2% of their profits in the preceding three years towards social causes. Corporate Social Responsibility can be used to catalyse corporate funding in ‘voluntary biodiversity offsetting’ programmes. This multi-billion dollar industry can make a huge impact with regard to building green infrastructure and brand equity.

With 1.2 billion people, the war between environment and development is still in its preliminary stages in India. Whether we like it or not, we no longer live in an era where conservation is only about maintaining pristine wilderness, which is barely 5% of India’s landmass.  We need larger functioning healthy eco systems.  We cannot consider ‘man’ and ‘nature’ to be separate entities. The Conservation workspace should no longer be limited to just the ‘Government’ or wildlife enthusiasts but to all stakeholders who believe in its value and significance.  Will 21st century India see the onset of a diverse and dynamic array of conservation actors – Corporates, Activists, Communities, Ecologists and Government representatives working in unison to forward the Conservation cause in India?