Tag Archives: Conservation

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. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1755-263X.2010.00107.x

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). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101654

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. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1106049

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). https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/6/4/044029

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). https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12845

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. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12286

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. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0159668

Lessons for Rewilding: Condors, Partnerships and a Bunch of Dead Cows

The California coast attracts visitors not only for the aesthetically pleasing ocean views, but also for the glimpse of a bird that puts vultures to shame: the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). Although spotting North America’s largest land bird is still a rare occurrence, the chances of seeing this critically endangered bird today are much greater than they were 30 years ago. Policy and education play a role, but a series of unusual partnerships may be to thank for the miraculous recovery of a species that has gained conservation fame. The successful reintroduction of the bird with a three metre wingspan can serve as a lesson for the future of rewilding in Europe.


California Condors once spread their wings across much of North America. Their notable population plummet landed them on the first ever United States Federal Endangered Species List in 19671, but the population continued to drop and the remaining 22 individuals were removed from the wild in 19822. Recovery is a slow and arduous process, but thanks to captive breeding programs and reintroduction efforts, the population has risen to just under 450 individuals, with about 60 percent of the population flying free in Mexico, California, the Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park. Despite lead poisoning from bullets still challenging recovery today, 2015 is viewed as a milestone in the condor community; it was the first year since reintroductions began that more wild California Condors hatched than died.


The success of the condor recovery program is primarily due to a number of strong, yet unusual, friendships. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service partnered with a group of NGOs and multiple zoos in the Western US to help rebuild the population. The union of zoos, NGOs, and the government seems standard, but the backing of some generous local citizens might come as a surprise. The Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS) was one such NGO that took on the challenge of reintroductions along the central California coast. Sal Lucido, a founding member of VWS, donated prime ocean view real estate to the cause. Now retired, Sal receives no income from transforming his property into a condor haven. Perhaps inspired by Sal’s generosity, another donor, who wishes to stay anonymous, gave a substantial amount of private land to extend the central coastal range towards Los Angeles. The nameless benefactor not only contributed prime condor habitat but also internship stipends, a cabin to house said interns, and financed the technological upgrade of condor monitoring by purchasing GPS transmitters for each condor released on their property. What motivated Sal and the secretive donor? Perhaps a love for the return of the colossal condor to the California skies outweighs the economic incentive of using their land for the hottest Airbnb. Whatever the reason, the condor recovery team would struggle without their generosity.


Even more unexpected than the relationship with local citizens is the partnership with the cattle industry. Excusing the ill-timed idiom, partnering with some of the many dairy farms in California kills two birds with one stone. US cattle farms experience a 6-8 percent calf mortality rate3, meaning central California has an abundance of dead cows. Removing the dead requires time and money, creating an incentive for farmers to seek an alternate removal method. This is where the condor steps in. Because condors struggle finding enough dead elephant seals to sustain the population and lead bullet fragments easily find their way into the condor’s diet of rodents shot by farmers and dead deer unclaimed by hunters, biologists need to provide condors with a safe food source to aid population recovery. The many dairy and cattle farmers in California are key to a win-win solution. Wildlife biologists remove deceased calves at no cost to the farmers and the condors are provided with a constant, safe food source. There are so many hapless calves that much of an internship with condor conservation entails the transportation of dead cows from farms to storage freezers to condor feeding sites. Tourists hoping to see a condor along California’s Highway One may just be lucky enough to spot interns on their way to deliver a tasty meal.

Partnerships, no matter how unanticipated, are key to species recovery. Proponents of rewilding Europe should draw from the condor experience by thinking outside of the box to make financial sense of this contemporary conservation strategy. Sir Charles Burrell, of Knepp Castle Estate, is just one instance of a prominent citizen becoming involved in this conservation movement. More Europeans should draw on the condor example to see what can occur when capital is donated: once locally extinct birds flying free in their backyards.


Rewilding Europe could mean Bearded Vultures (Gypaetus barbatus) once again populating the skies of Western Europe. Rewilding NGOs could take inspiration from the California Condor’s unusual partnerships and turn to local cattle ranchers and dairy farmers to provide a cheap food source to sustain the reintroduced scavengers. Vulture rewilding programs might even consider the Tauros, a new breed of cow that aims to revive the extinct Auroch, as an unexpected project partner. Despite the genetic engineering, the Tauros is still considered a cow, meaning disposal of the dead must follow Health and Safety rules. Instead of spending those hard-earned rewilding funds on abiding by regulation, why not follow the condor example and put those carcasses to good use? This potential partnership would save both Tauros and vulture management groups money. Perhaps one day, with a harmonious string of partnerships inspired by the California Condor, Europe will once again become wild.


  1. US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1984. Revised California condor recovery plan. US Department of Interior, Portland OR.
  2. Bakker, V.J., Smith, D.R., Copeland, H., Brandt, J., Wolstenholme, R., Burnett, J., Kirkland, S. and Finkelstein, M.E., 2017. Effects of Lead Exposure, Flock Behavior, and Management Actions on the Survival of California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus). EcoHealth, 14(1), pp.92-105.
  3. Jorgensen, M.W., Adams-Progar, A., de Passillé, A.M., Rushen, J., Salfer, J.A. and Endres, M.I., 2017. Mortality and health treatment rates of dairy calves in automated milk feeding systems in the Upper Midwest of the United States. Journal of Dairy Science, 100(11), pp.9186-9193.

Animal behaviour: it’s a tool conservationists can use

You’d be forgiven for thinking an in-depth understanding of animal behaviour has little to offer conservation. After all, what could detailed insights into the eating, sleeping and mating patterns of animals possibly offer to landscape-scale conservation problems such as habitat loss and invasive species?

Conservation problems have traditionally been addressed by tools including protected area designation, limits on species use and trade, and the establishment of breeding programs. Yet, recent success stories in the growing field of ‘conservation behaviour’ may provide new approaches for the conservation toolkit1,2. The key insight exists not in the mere understanding of behaviour as a fixed entity, but in the knowledge that it can be modified by individual experience (learned) and therefore manipulated towards positive conservation outcomes.

Let’s take a tour through some case studies, which demonstrate potential contexts where a behavioural approach could be applied.

Teaching native species to coexist with invasive species

In a vast country like Australia where eradication of invasive species (except locally) is often unfeasible, the focus has shifted to reducing impact on native wildlife. One way to do this is to help native wildlife learn to live alongside their invasive neighbours.

The cane toad, which was introduced to Australia from the Americas in 1935, is highly toxic when eaten owing to its venom-secreting poison glands. For large predators (such as quolls, goannas, crocodiles and snakes) that eat large toads, the high dose of poison is often fatal3. For smaller predators that prey on smaller toads, the dose of poison is enough to make them ill but does not kill them. Importantly, this provides an opportunity for learning, where a predator can understand to avoid toads in the future.

This insight provided the framework for a new conservation initiative. By making sure a predator’s first toad encounter is with a small toad rather than a large one, researchers were able to induce aversion by making them sick. The poor predators learned their lesson and were able to live happily ever after alongside toads4.

Cane toads are invasive species in Australia. Large predators such as this juvenile carpet snake are often fatally poisoned after eating toads.
Photo: “Juvenile Carpet Snake eating Cane Toad” by Andrew Mercer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Encouraging porpoises to avoid fishing nets

Wherever there is fishing, there is a bycatch problem – the accidental capture of non-target species. Animals including dolphins, sea turtles and seabirds are understandably attracted to fishing areas where they are sadly entangled in fishing nets and drown.

In the early 1990s, the bycatch of harbour porpoises in one fishery in the Gulf of Maine was recorded at around 2000 individuals per year, more than twice the legal limit1. Understanding how harbour porpoises use sonar, researchers developed acoustic alarms or ‘pingers’ that would induce aversion and encourage porpoises to avoid the area. This was shown to reduce harbour porpoise bycatch by up to 90% across multiple fisheries4.

Being able to manipulate harbour porpoise behaviour using acoustic alarms was such a significant insight that it encouraged further research into alarms for other cetacean species and has become the legal standard for fishing vessels in many jurisdictions (including the UK).

Teaching captive bred animals to live in the wild

Of all conservation problems, understanding animal behaviour has perhaps the most obvious applications to the reintroduction of captive populations of endangered species into the wild. The selective pressures experienced by captive animals differ significantly from animals in the wild (e.g. less predation pressure), which complicates reintroduction efforts. To alleviate this, conservationists have shown that pre-release training of captive animals can improve reintroduction efforts by conditioning animal behaviour to adapt to situations they could expect to encounter in the wild.

For example, pre-release training of captive-reared critically endangered Puerto Rican parrots involved flight conditioning to increase stamina and predator aversion training. These behavioural modifications were believed to significantly contribute to a higher-than-expected first-year survival rate of 41%6. Similarly, antipredator behaviour training of captive-reared prairie dogs using alarm vocalisations resulted in significantly higher post-release survival for trained animals compared to untrained animals7.

Using behavioural training techniques as part of the reintroduction process has improved the post-release survival of captive-reared Puerto Rican parrots. 
Photo: “Puerto Rican parrot” by Tom Mackenzie is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Let’s add behavioural biology to the conservation toolkit!

What insights can we gain from these case studies? Broadly speaking, there is common ground in the way animal behaviour is understood as a complex and dynamic property that can potentially be manipulated for positive conservation outcomes. However, looking at the finer details, each specific behavioural intervention will necessarily be highly situation and context-dependent. Designing an appropriate intervention will of course require vast knowledge of animal behaviour, but just as importantly, it will also require a high dose of creativity, interdisciplinarity and forward-thinking.

Human activities causing land use change, non-native species introductions and climate change (to name a few), are creating completely new ecological ‘scenarios’ with many potential ‘behavioural unknowns’8. This presents a great need to understand more about behavioural responses to change, but also an opportunity for experts on animal behaviour to be involved in conservation issues.  Of course, behavioural study will be neither appropriate nor a priority in many circumstances, but occasionally, it may just inspire an innovative solution to a problem where traditional methods fail.


  1. Buchholz, R. Behavioural biology: an effective and relevant conservation tool. Trends Ecol. Evol. 22, 401–407 (2007).
  2. Berger-Tal, O., Polak, T., Oron, A., Lubin, Y., Kotler, B.P., Saltz, D. Integrating animal behaviour and conservation biology: a conceptual framework. Behav. Ecol. 22, 236-239 (2011).
  3. Shine, R. The ecological impact of invasive cane toads (Bufo Marinus) in Australia. Q. Rev. Biol. 85, 253–291 (2010).
  4. O’Donnell, S., Webb, J. K. & Shine, R. Conditioned taste aversion enhances the survival of an endangered predator imperilled by a toxic invader. J. Appl. Ecol. 47, 558–565 (2010).
  5. Cox, T. M., Read, A. J., Swanner, D., Urian, K. & Waples, D. Behavioral responses of bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, to gillnets and acoustic alarms. Biol. Conserv. 115, 203–212 (2004).
  6. White, T. H., Collazo, J. a & Vilella, F. J. Survival of captive-reared Puerto Rican parrots released in the Caribbean National Forest. Condor 107, 424–432 (2005).
  7. Shier, D. M. & Owings, D. H. Effects of predator training on behavior and post-release survival of captive prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus). Biol. Conserv. 132, 126–135 (2006).
  8. Paz-y-Miño, C. Behavioral unknowns: an emerging challenge for conservation. Conserv. Biol. 4, 2 (2006).


Does fishy science leave nature scraping the barrel?

This month, November 2017, a new season of scallop fishing begins in Cardigan Bay, off the west coast of Wales.


Cardigan Bay. Janet Baxter. Web. Accessed 12/11/17. https://www.cardigan-bay.com/llangrannog-cardigan-bay-wales.php

At first sight this seems unremarkable – Cardigan Bay has supported a high abundance of king scallops and a profitable scallop fishery for many years. But conservationists are not so sure.

The scallops in Cardigan Bay are harvested by dredging – towing steel rakes and a collection net along the seabed, including an area which has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Dredging inevitably results in disturbance and damage. The SAC contains reefs and sandbanks, and the UK’s largest breeding population of bottlenose dolphins. Defra defines SACs as ‘strictly protected’, and as making a ‘significant contribution’ to conservation.

After a big increase in dredging during 2008, conservation bodies complained that continued fishing was unacceptable in the SAC. These complaints centred on the impact of dredging on the benthic ecosystem that supports the dolphin population. This led to a fierce campaign and a petition signed by over 30,000 people. So why are fisheries continuing to disrupt this habitat?


Protest to protect Cardigan Bay from dredging. Julie Makin, 2016. Web. Accessed 12/11/17. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-mid-wales-38188097

Time for a restrictive regime?

In response, the Welsh Government decided to enforce a more restrictive regime, including a ban on dredging. This was to be an interim arrangement until 2017. Meanwhile, a Scallop Strategy Group, led by Seafish – a statutory body representing the UK sea fishing industry – and including Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales, scientists from Bangor University, and commercial fishermen, was convened to determine future strategy. Their task: to include new research, seabed mapping, studies of the impact of different fishing intensities and trials of technology to monitor the use of dredging gear (Welsh Government, 2015).

On the face of it, with a strong framework of statutory controls, independent research, governmental accountability, and a wide consultancy process, this would appear to be everything conservationists strive for in decision making.

After two years, the Bangor University scientists concluded there was in fact little evidence that scallop dredging causes significant damage to the ecology of the SAC, because the disturbance caused was no more significant than that resulting from natural dynamic processes of the Bay (Lambert et al., 2015).

The end result was that the fishery reopened, with the lifting of the restriction on dredging.


Aberystwyth Harbour. Jane Baxter. Web. Accessed 12/11/17. https://www.cardigan-bay.com/aberystwyth-cardigan-bay-wales.php

Not as it seems

So – what’s the problem? A closer look illustrates how the outcome of a process ostensibly designed to balance ecological, political, and economic interests can be skewed from the outset to produce results that favour one side.

In this case, the Scallop Strategy Group was chaired by an industry body. Conservation NGOs were notably excluded on the claim that Natural Resources Wales represented the conservation sector as a whole. In reality, it also spoke for industry interests.

Reporting on the Bangor University research in 2015, environmental advocate George Monbiot pointed out that the starting point for the comparisons was wrong – areas of seabed that had been dredged for scallops should have been compared with areas that had never been dredged. Instead, they were compared with areas with a long and recent history of dredging. This is bad science. He quoted marine biologist Professor Callum Roberts at the University of York:

“This is a dreadful piece of science. Imagine that you stop cutting the lawn for five years. Would you have a highly biodiverse oak forest at the end? No, it would be a scrappy patch of weeds. Protect a heavily dredged piece of seabed for five years and you will have the underwater equivalent of weeds.” (Monbiot, 2015)

The public consultation had produced well over 5,000 responses. The clear majority expressed opposition to the proposed regime, and those in favour were almost exclusively from commercial fishing interests. Although a review of the objections was undertaken, some of its premises are telling. This review restricted itself to a narrow “scientific” perspective and did not include an examination of the claims made in support of the resumption of dredging – in other words, the presumption was that dredging should be resumed unless clear evidence of harm could be produced.

Objections based on political principle (the protection of the designation), the precautionary principle (a presumption in favour of no intervention), or simply on a wish not to see industrial activity in a culturally and spiritually significant landscape were not even considered (Welsh Government Fisheries Science Department, 2016).

In summing up their concerns about the opening of this year’s new season, the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales pointed out,

 “The sustainability of the other aspects of the site, other than the economics of the fishery, such as the wider marine ecosystem, social and other economic activities that rely on the protected site, have been overlooked.” (The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, 2017)

A lesson in management

For conservationists, this is surely a hard lesson. A model that appeared watertight has failed, despite apparent checks and balances, scientific rigour, and consultation. The designation of Cardigan Bay as a Special Area of Conservation has, in practice meant only that those interested in exploiting it have to pursue a more complicated route to achieve their ends. It has not contributed significantly to that protection. Perhaps of even more concern is what it says about how “independent” scientific research can be skewed by the most powerful political and economic actors in the process. A review of the Bangor research described it as meeting the criteria for ‘Best Available Science’ for fisheries and environmental science policy and management (Stokesbury, 2016). Yet the concerns voiced by the local Wildlife Trusts remain unaddressed.

This problem is echoed in other anecdotes in marine governance around the world. For example, the most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita porpoise, appears to be headed to extinction despite extensive legislative attempts to protect it. The highly lucrative totaba fishery in the Gulf of California is so valuable that it has proved impossible to limit vaquita loss.

If this can happen in a society with a political and civil society as developed and intricate as the UK or the USA, then it will surely be even harder in those where public accountability is weaker. It is important that conservation decisions rest on conservation priorities, and not the interests of those who see the environment as a seabed to be dredged. Hook, line and sinker.


Countryside Council for Wales, 2009. ‘Cardigan Bay European Marine Site: advice provided by the Countryside Council for Wales in fulfilment of regulation 33 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) Regulations 1994’. Countryside Commission for Wales, Cardiff.

Lambert, G.I., Murray, L.G., Hiddink, J.G., Hinz, H., Salomonsen, H. and Kaiser, M.J., 2015. Impact of scallop dredging on benthic communities and habitat features in the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation. Fisheries and Conservation Report No. 59. Bangor.

Monbiot, G., 2015. ‘Allowing scallop dredging in “strictly protected” dolphin reserves is madness’ Guardian. 9th November. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2015/nov/09/allowing-scallop-dredging-in-strictly-protected-dolphin-reserves-is-madness Accessed 11th November 2017.

Stokesbury, K.D.E., 2016. ‘Scallop Dredging of Cardigan Bay – Peer Scientific Review of underpinning data and evidence’. Correspondence submitted in evidence to Welsh Government. 9th February. http://gov.wales/docs/drah/publications/161019-peer-review-profesor-k-stokesbury-university-of-massachusetts-scallop-management-cardigan-bay-en.pdf Accessed 11th November 2017.

The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, 2017. ‘Proposed new management measures for scallop fishing in Cardigan Bay’ https://www.welshwildlife.org/uncategorized/proposed-new-management-measures-scallop-fishing-cardigan-bay/ Accessed 11th November 2017.

Welsh Government, 2015. ‘Consultation Document: Scallop Fishing in Cardigan Bay – new management measures’. Welsh Government, Cardiff.

Welsh Government Fisheries Science Department, 2016. ‘Evidence Review of Scallop Consultation  2016 Responses’ Welsh Government, Cardiff .

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: pexels.com

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: giphy.com

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: giphy.com.

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?

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.

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 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?



Small islands or big oceans?

How big do you think the Pacific islands are?

To paraphrase,  Epeli Hau’ofa when we think about the Pacific are we talking about small islands in a distant sea or are we really talking about a sea of islands? Are we talking small islands or big oceans?

The answer is very much a matter of perception but it has a big impact on the way we think about the role of small island states in conservation and our own responsibilities towards the world’s oceans.  Especially, given the rapid increase in large marine parks in the Pacific. Continue reading Small islands or big oceans?

Hoping for some splattering success

Last term, the decision to take up the ASEAN Environments elective was a no brainer to me. Being someone from the Southeast Asian region and most probably returning to Malaysia for a colourful career (fingers crossed) in conservation, it was the most natural choice. Choosing the Hilary term elective however was more of a challenge. I was torn between going for a technical course in the form Analytical Geographic Information System (GIS) techniques or more electives that would be similar to the other modules – involving the reading of a few journals followed by weekly classes.


In the end, along with a few other brave BCMers I chose the former. On the first day of class, our elective leader Rob made it very clear to us that this was a self-taught course of which he will pop in on a weekly basis to help out. We are to decide on an individual topic and focus our energy in the coming weeks to cough up a respectable 4,000 word elective essay complete with ‘pretty maps’. Yes, he said pretty maps. That left us all with a problem – how could we with barely any knowledge of what GIS could do, settle on come up with a pertinent research question let alone a mini research topic?


The answer was to learn on the job. And today, 6 weeks into the course and 2 binned ideas (I’ll be more than willing to share about my failures) later I would like to think I have pinned down a potential topic!


Since we are only doing a short term project, it is almost impossible to do manual data collecting so most of us are relying on bits and pieces of data we can muster from the miracle known as the internet. We literally spend hours scouring the far reaches of the world wide web (just to add a little drama) for usable data. Among the few popular sites include WorldClim (climate data), GBIF.org (biodiversity data) and Magic (most environmental data in the UK). Trust me when I say this – data is your best friend when it comes to GIS.


Coming back to my topic, I initially wanted to map out changes of seahorse distribution in the Johor Straits and relate it to seagrass coverage obtained from satellite imagery. The hopes of doing so were crushed by the low resolution and data limitation of satellites since:

  1. Data is in 30m resolutions when my area of interest was only about 150m long and
  2. The seagrass bed I was looking at is fully submerged at low tide.


It was a long shot to begin with.


Moving on, at that time, the report of a wild tigress being run over by a Multi Purpose Vehicle (MPV) made the headlines in Malaysia. It gained a huge social media following as well. This was since the tigress was found to pregnant with two cubs at the time of death. The incident was a huge loss to the already dwindling tiger population in Malaysia. It was then that I mulled the possibility of doing a project on roadkill.

tigerImage taken from online news portal FreeMalaysia Today (http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2016/02/07/tigress-killed-in-road-accident-was-a-mother-to-be/)

After some soul searching followed by some actual internet searching, I was surprised that there was an existing citizen science database for roadkills known as Project Splatter run by Dr Sarah Perkins of Cardiff University. The project allows people from all around UK to record basic details of observed roadkill including. According to the Project Splatter wordpress blog, the data collected will be used to estimate the impact of roads on UK wildlife. A few emails later, Dr Sarah agreed to provide me with the actual database to work on. Bingo! A first breakthrough in weeks.


Getting the data is one thing, knowing what to do with it is another. As of now, I’m trying to map out roadkill prone roads in the UK and try to ground truth it with Project Splatter data. This is in hopes to identify areas in the UK where no observations were recorded there from the lack of citizen scientists. Easier said than done of course.



Mapped out distribution of roadkill by Project Splatter

From my readings, different taxa are affected by different conditions. For example, Rosa and Bager (2012) identified that bird roadkills in summer can be attributed to increase traffic from transport of grain and vacationers in Brazil. Aside from this, Farmer and Brooks (2012) identified 8 risk factors for vertebrate roadkills in Southern Ontario of which the main 4 were distance from wetlands, habitat diversity, maximum daily temperature and posted road limit.


Admittedly, the data collected data might have some potential biases. Ratton et al., 2014 cautioned about the carcass permanency and removal rates. The idea is that roadkill only persists for a short amount of time and this could affect data quality. Another obvious factor to consider is reporting bias. Some areas might have more enthusiastic or diligent citizen scientists than others resulting in a huge data skew. In the Project Splatter map above, you can observe that England has significantly more data points than Scotland.


Once my project is completed, potential mitigation measures could be put in place to reduce the occurrence of roadkills in the UK. Magnus et al. (2014) suggested mitigation via animal behaviour change from the use of ultrasonic whistles as deterrents. The effectiveness of this technique was proven to be low. A more realistic measure that could be put in place was the placement of road signs to stimulate human behavioural change (Coulson, 1982, Dique et al., 2003). Another measure suggested by Seiler (2005) was to increase roadside mowing leading to an increased visibility of which would potentially reduce roadkills.


In the weeks leading to submission, it is highly likely that I would be spending inordinate amounts of time in the computer lab at the department struggling with the beast that is GIS. Wish me luck!


Do also contribute to the amazing citizen science database that is Project Splatter by reporting roadkill or follow them on twitter @ProjectSplatter for more information.

Roadkill_Aaron_Flickr's creative commonsRoadkill – A matter or survival

(Flickr creative commons, Username: Aaron)


Coulson, GM (1982) . Road-Kills of Macropds on a Section of Highway in Central Victoria. Australian Wildlife Research 9 , 21–26.

Dique, D. S., Thompson, J., Preece, H. J., Penfold, G. C., De Villiers, D. L., & Leslie, R. S. (2003). Koala mortality on roads in south-east Queensland: The koala speed-zone trial. Wildlife Research, 30(4), 419–426. doi:10.1071/WR02029

Farmer, R. G., & Brooks, R. J. (2012). Integrated risk factors for vertebrate roadkill in southern Ontario. Journal of Wildlife Management, 76(6), 1215–1224. doi:10.1002/jwmg.358

Magnus, Z., Kriwoken, L. K., Mooney, N. J., & Jones, M. E. (2004). Reducing The Incidence Of Wildlife Roadkill : Improving the visitor experience in Tasmania, 42. Retrieved from http://www.crctourism.com.au/wms/upload/resources/bookshop/Wildlife_RoadKillFINAL.pdf

Ratton, P., Secco, H., & da Rosa, C. A. (2014). Carcass permanency time and its implications to the roadkill data. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 60(3), 543–546. doi:10.1007/s10344-014-0798-z

Rosa, C. A. da, & Bager, A. (2012). Seasonality and habitat types affect roadkill of neotropical birds. Journal of Environmental Management, 97(1), 1–5. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2011.11.004

Seiler, A. (2005). Predicting locations of moose-vehicle collisions in Sweden. Journal of Applied Ecology, 42(2), 371–382. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2664.2005.01013.x

The weekend when The Jury’s Inn filled up with Herpetofauna workers

48 hours of fascinating talks, workshops and exciting chats with interesting people. This is what went on in Oxford last weekend, 7th-8th of February: Herpetofauna Workers Meeting 2016 (HWM). I was lucky enough to be able to attend this amazing yearly event, where I was surrounded by really inspiring people.

Thanks to the cake and coffee reception first thing in the morning on Saturday, everyone forgot about the horrible weather encountered on the way and started chatting and pouring copious amounts of coffee in their cups. At reception, I received a name tag and the programme, which featured several talks and one workshop per day. After a few croissants and handshakes, the other delegates and I made our way to the main hall for the morning session of talks.

The welcome pack

Kicking off was Mr Ben Tapley, from the ZSL, presenting his and his team’s current work in China with the Critically Endangered Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus). Chinese Giant Salamanders have been experiencing extreme declines mainly due to overexploitation: they are often consumed as a delicacy, and this has caused both their disappearance in the wild and the expansion of their farming industry. Therefore, survey work is carried out to discover more about the remaining population abundance, distribution and threats, and to set a long-term monitoring programme. But social work is also sorely needed, as farms are often in bad conditions, and the local perception of this animal usually is negative: they are commonly thought of as scary and ugly. By partnering with local organisations, this project is hopefully going to change the perception of Chinese Giant Salamanders to amazing animals which deserve protection.

Following Ben, Mr John Baker made our wandering imaginations return to the UK, where he has been monitoring adders in Norfolk for more than 10 years. Local habitat restoration impacted the adders, as they were not taken into account during the plans: however thanks to John’s data hopefully in the future management will consider protecting adder hibernation sites and areas around these during major habitat restorations.

Finally, right before the first workshop, Mr Paul Edgar and Mr Rob Cameron updated us on the recent changes in Natural England’s (NE) views, structure and projects, underlining NE’s major interest for new achievements on the ground. It is a time of great change due to an increase of licences granted, the feedback that the UK received on the British EPS, and other major changes within the Government. NE intends to have a greater focus on habitat provision (such as securing habitat for great crested newts), grant advice at earlier stages of developments, as well as targeting the efforts to where the risks are greatest. I was able to participate to their workshop which followed right after, where we discussed four main proposed licensing policy changes. These, if approved, could majourly influence surveying efforts needed, exclusion-trapping-relocating requirements as well as habitat compensation requirements.

Mr Paul Edgar talking about mitigation guidelines

After a tasty and well-needed lunch, another set of presentations got us back in the mood for more herpetofauna talk. From grass snakes monitoring, to toad night patrols in Kent, and a very thorough presentation on the aquatic invertebrates a pond surveyor is most likely to find, everyone’s eyes and ears remained fixed on the presenters all afternoon. Rob Gandola, from the Herpetological Society of Ireland, closed this last session with a witty talk about the recent, amazing work carried out by the Society and some students on North Bull Island, the heart of the newly designated Dublin Bay UNESCO Biosphere reserve. Their citizen-science led monitoring project was able to identify the presence of both frogs and lizards on the island, and discover that their populations are healthy and breeding.  Some funny anecdotes, such as confused frogs hopping into the surf at night, made everyone leave the hall with a smile.

However, the first day of the HWM did certainly not end here. In the evening everyone gathered again for informal drinks, before suiting up (or not) and heading back to the main hall – which was in the meanwhile turned into a fancy dining hall. A three course meal (featuring my first sticky toffee pudding ever!), accompanied with great chats and banter really livened up the night. After an exhilarating herpetofauna-based (obviously) quiz, which included a hilarious masquerade round, a few more drinks and jokes, everything turned into a great party.

The masquerade round

The great party meant that Sunday morning was a bit of a rough start, but equally extremely interesting. The day started with the second workshop – which for me was on Reptile Surveying Guidelines. There were many consultants and experts in the workshop, which made it really valuable for me since I have very little experience in the field. We discussed pros and cons of different existing guidelines, as well as proposing our own ideas on what guidelines should include. After a second round of coffee and chocolate biscuits, we had two sessions of talks. In my opinion, the most interesting talk was Dr Jeremy Biggs‘ from the Freshwater Habitats Trust, which was on the use of eDNA analysis for detecting great crested newts. Last year the first successful national survey of these newts was completed succesfully. This methodology revealed itself to be very inexpensive and easy to use for volunteers as part of the PondNet project, through which almost 350 ponds were analysed – 25% of whuch were found hosting great crested newts. eDNA stands for “environmental DNA”, which is DNA that is released into the water by organisms from their skin, eggs and other means, and can be analysed to find out what organisms live in the body of water sampled. Volunteers are given a simple eDNA kit to collect water samples, which can then be sent to a lab for analysis. To date, eDNA cannot be used to evaluate abundance of organisms yet, but research in the topic is advancing quickly. The PondNet project is picking up again this year, and hopefully 2017, which will provide national trends as a basis for long term monitoring.

Other great talks and discussions continued for the rest of the day, until about 4PM, when we sadly had to start to pack up. It was such a wonderful and inspiring weekend! I particularly appreciated the diversity of people present, with the most varied backgrounds but unified by a common passion. Many thanks to ARG UK and ARC Trust and all the organisers of this amazing meeting, I definitely hope to be able to participate next year!


Vice to Virtue: A journey of Conservation

On Sunday, 24 January,  the Oxford MSc-BCM class took a break from readings and took a walk in the 18th century.  The Stowe gardens, we were told, are the birthplace of conservation science and practice. After the study day, I sat astounded on the way back in the bus. After witnessing the manner in which conservation began as a practice, it is no surprise that it is on the precipice of radicalisation today; I, for one, am of the opinion, that we should have found ourselves critically questioning our story much sooner than a 150 years after conservation came to be.

In brief, this is what the birthplace of conservation practice looks like – a garden whose visitors were only elites; a temple built for ‘men only, to get away from the ladies’ to sit together and decide what is best for all of society over a drink; a valley that is the result of hundreds of labourers digging out a mountain so as to make a lake – all for one person’s political ambitions; and lastly, a stream into which black sand was poured so as to symbolise evil . This manipulation of land, exclusion of common people and decision making in the shadows is how our story began. So is it really surprising that conservation is infused with political agendas and monetary connotations – all directed at the profit of a few at the cost of many?

The gardens scream of the ambition of human dominion over nature,  man’s mission to gain complete control over his surroundings even though he can’t achieve an ounce of it over himself. However, all hope is not lost. Despite being everything I have stated above, the place is beautiful. It serves as an education ground for students from schools and universities all across Britain and is a landmark of cultural importance in British Conservation history. This puts the responsibility back into our hands. Though history has undoubtedly shaped a lot of the attitudes and tendencies of conservation science that have today become its fallacies, the future lies in our hands. And Stowe – the garden of virtue and vice, does a good job of bringing forth the urgency with which we need to act.


The light at the end of the tunnel, a better, more inclusive conservation practice?