Game Over in Africa? I. Empty Forests, Silent Plains

Studying UN projections on population trends a few weeks ago, my world view on the future of African wildlife took a severe dent from which, I fear, it may never recover. What the dry numbers indicated were that the number of people in Africa today will double by 2050 and double again by 2100 to reach 4 billion people – that’s more than half of today’s global population. To say that the pressure on land and natural resources will rise does not do these statistics justice. With nowhere else to go, the pressure on land is going to be immense. Will there be any room for wildlife in that crowded continent?

Andre Benamour’s award-winning photo of Libyan migrants.

“Arrival in Agadès” – Andre Benamour’s award-winning photo of Libyan migrants.

The squeeze on the wild is already evident. There used to be wild animals on view along many African roads, even the main ones – spotting giraffe, warthog or antelope was part of the fun of a drive – but no longer. Only baboons and nocturnal hyaenas seem to hang on outside the parks and reserves through a combination of boldness and ingenuity. At least we can take comfort that wildlife will persist inside the great African parks, right? Wrong! One of the authors of Limits to Growth (a generation-awakening book about the consequences of exponential growth in our demand for finite resources) looked again into his computer-enhanced crystal ball to see what was coming our way. What he had to say felt like a punch to the stomach.

graph by Jorgen Randers

Remaining Area of Wilderness (proportion of unused productive land).
Randers, J. (2012) 2052: A Global Forecast for the next forty years. Chelsea Green Publishing.

In Africa and other developing regions, the unused productive land (wilderness) is rapidly being converted to farmland. So much so that by 2035, all that will remain unused is some 15% of productive land. That’s about the area occupied by the current network of protected areas. There is not going to be much wilderness left after that – even inside the parks.

 Spread of farms south of Lake Kariba

Rise in the number of small farms on the south side of Lake Kariba.
Source: Cumming, D.H.M. 2008. Large Scale Conservation Planning and Priorities for the KAZA TFCA.

Conservationists want to believe that wildlife can provide livelihoods as well as inspiration, that it can earn its place in the crowded landscapes of the future. It would certainly make a difference if it did, and it should be possible in practice, except that one obstacle gets squarely in the way. Study after study reveals that people do not look after wildlife, fish, forests and other natural resources unless they have ownership, or at least long-term resource rights, on which to build sustainable management. Ownership is seldom on offer in rural Africa. Even under the trend-setting project ‘CAMPFIRE’ , ownership of wildlife in rural Zimbabwe was never devolved beyond the level of local government. There are successful exceptions in  Namibia and South Africa (which I will come back to in a later blog) but across most of the continent, central government keeps a tight grip on natural resources.

Rural Africans have an added burden to carry. They don’t have rights to enter parks and reserves, nor legal access to their wildlife, even when the parks are established on their own lands. So it is hardly surprising that the great majority of rural Africans don’t support protected areas or wildlife conservation.


Classic Africa – even Papa Hemingway might have been stirred by the sight of this elephant bull under Kilimanjaro and the goddamn perfect exultation of it all. Photo by Nick Ashley.

Whilst researching animal migrations across a famous African park in the 1980s, I lived a wild dream in the midst of magnificent beauty. I was hardly aware at the time that all 9 MPs from surrounding constituencies were voted in on an anti-parks ticket. In the words of social anthropologist, Marshall Murphree: “For generations, conservation policy in Africa has been socially illegitimate in the eyes of the continent’s rural people…” When there was lots of unoccupied space, it didn’t matter quite so much but today the rural population has filled the surrounding areas of many parks. It does matter to them.

Try as we might as conservationists, the problem for wildlife in Africa is hardening into an inescapable  syllogism:

Parks have no legitimacy in Africa
Wildlife is confined to Parks
Wildlife has no legitimacy in Africa

If their grievancies are not addressed, there is one inescapable consequence: people will move into the parks to graze their cattle and farm the land. They will kill the wild animals. In doing so the farmers will not be denying the wild, simply making a wise choice for themselves and their families given the constraints placed upon them.


On the other side of Kilimanjaro, farms are spreading across the landscape . Photo by Martyn Murray

It is not just rural people who don’t see the value of parks but senior government officials. If the Minister in charge doesn’t value a park, he or she won’t fight for greater investment in its management and development. In most African countries, there is much lower government investment in parks today than there was 30 years ago. In these circumstances, uncontrolled poaching and park degradation are inevitable.


Carved elephant tusk from the collection in the Suzhou Museum, Jiangsu, China. Photo by Alan R Sheffield

Lack of park investment coincides with booming prices for wildlife products in markets round the world. Enormous efforts by campaigners such as IFAW have alerted the buying public and, to their great credit, the young people of China have responded by rejecting ivory. Yet still the finely-carved works are sought after by members of the wealthy business community as part of their deeply-rooted cultural tradition of exchanging expensive gifts. And still the wild slaughter continues.


Part of a haul of 259 elephant tusks found by Dubai customs on 1 May 2013 in a container shipped from Mombasa. Photo © IFAW/D. Willetts

There is one more driver behind the collapse of African wildlife – corruption. Whether it involves high profile embezzlement or low level bribes to petty bureaucrats, corruption is a major force that destroys wildlife and natural resources. In recent years, corruption-assisted trafficking of wildlife products has become organized within criminal networks that use revenue from illegal sales to fund private armies in central Africa and a host of other illegal activities round the world. One small NGO, the Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA), which began life in Cameroon not long ago has shown the wildlife community how to approach this problem more openly and effectively. I salute them for their bravery and do not underestimate their potential. But as of today, corruption remains a massive problem for wildlife conservation in Africa.

We now have all the toxic ingredients for concocting a witches’ brew of wildlife destruction:

  •   huge pressure on African land which is increasing rapidly;
  •   parks without legitimacy in the eyes of the people;
  •   lack of government investment in park management;
  •   booming prices in wildlife markets; and
  •   bribery and corruption.

There are enough photos of mutilated elephants and other creatures as witness to the potency of this concoction and I don’t intend to post any more here.

In the wasteland world lies a bleached bone
All that remains of a forested home.
The seeds he once planted lie on the stem,
The wells that he dug dry in the sun.
No bugle, no rumble, no smell of sweet dung
The heavy wise bearer of ivory’s gone.
No cloud in the sky, no hint of the rains
Just empty dead forests and silent parch’d plains.

All the fine planning by conservationists, all the beautiful films made about Serengeti, will not change this ending unless the people of Africa wish it. There may be one chance to begin again – with the EU acting as midwife – which I will discuss in my next blog.



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The Butterfly That Beat Its Wings

As we gaze into the future, the further forward we look, the more unpredictable it becomes. Despite our skills in satellite imagery, science-networking and super-computer processing which give us unsurpassed details about our planet and its resources and notwithstanding our understanding of people and their social behaviour which – with kinship and game theories adding additional insights – has never been greater, our gaze fails to penetrate the veil of uncertainty. Whether experts are forecasting the weather, the economy, an election outcome or the future of society on planet Earth, their vision extends only so far. We see through a glass, darkly. These days it’s called a prediction horizon as explained by physicist David Deutsch.

Earth Horizon image
Earth Horizon

Based on an image of Earth taken from the International Space Station (21 July 2003, NASA Photo ID ISS007-E-10807) and a fish-eye mosaic of the Milky Way (Bruno Gilli/European Southern Observatory), this composite image by

 If we transported a group of futurologists back before the agricultural revolution – let’s say we take them back 20,000 years – and then supply the surprised scientists with a few basic statistics about the prevailing human population and the pattern of climate change, I expect they could predict the shape of society some 500 years or even 1000 years into the future with considerable accuracy. We could not do the same today. I don’t think we have any idea what our society will look like in 300 years’ time. There is considerable uncertainty over what society will look like in 100 years’ time. The distance to the prediction horizon for human-related phenomena is not expanding. We have entered a new phase in our history in which unpredictability is increasing, apparently accelerating, and the prediction horizon is contracting in concert. One of the factors at work is a breakdown in modularity as nations and city-states lose their autonomous character. In their place a single complex global system is emerging. Mathematicians consider modular systems to be more stable: they prevent cascades and dampen down runaway behaviours. Ergo, our planet is becoming less stable.

What cliff edge might we, as an increasingly homogenous global society, be rushing towards? There are many possibles. Will our natural resources hold out? Will the moderate climate that we have enjoyed since the last Ice Age hang together? How will society behave as our lives online eclipse our lives offline? As machine intelligence continues to rise exponentially, when will it close with the so-called intelligence-singularity – the point at which interconnected machine intelligence becomes more capable of managing the Planet and taking big and small political decisions, than us? Even if we discount the sci-fi version in which self-aware machine intelligence emerges, we still end up in an entirely different kind of world. Religious fundamentalism is on the rise. Weapons of mass destruction could proliferate and become controlled by extremist groups. The human population is going through one last doubling and its impact on the planet is amplified by per-capita wealth which also keeps doubling. Global fishery yields have declined. Soils are being lost in mountain regions faster than they regenerate. Ancient aquifers are drying. Earth’s ability to absorb global pollution is being pushed to the limit. Hardest hit of all is nature and wild life.

Unfortunately none of this is science fiction. The global trends predicted are based on well-crafted models such as that described by Jørgen Randers, one of the authors of Limits to Growth. The reported impacts are verifiable. For instance, a long-running study that determines global changes in biodiversity, the Living Planet Index, measures the annual change in population size of more than ten thousand species of vertebrate; then takes the average across all species. The 2014 index shows a decrease of 52% between 1970 and 2010 at the global scale. In other words, over a period of 40 years, more than one half of Earth’s wildlife populations have been lost.

Aral Sea and Ships
Canal that gave access to shrinking Aral Sea

Following diversion of rivers feeding the Aral Sea to irrigate desert areas, the lake began shrinking. From 1960 to 1998 the surface area shrank by about 60%. By 2007, the sea was 10% of its original size.

Even so, not all agree about the shadow on the horizon. From what I have gleaned, there are at least three schools of environmental futurology: some, like the rational optimists, think we will invent our way out of trouble without having to change our behaviour; others believe that a population (Malthusian) catastrophe is inevitable; yet others heed the warning of environmental meltdown in our history. They hope we can turn back from the brink by carefully husbanding resources, attending to pollution, reforming our economic systems, and applying lots of diplomacy. The ‘hopefuls’ have studied how to reform institutions for greater sustainability, how to develop green economies, how to increase energy efficiency and how to restore ecosystems. More people than ever before have linked across the planet to engage directly with environmental issues. Western society is beginning to question whether GDP brings real life satisfaction.

Partial Restoration of the Aral Sea

Following construction of a 13 km dyke that prevented water from the river Syr Darya flowing south and evaporating, more than two dozen fish species fanned out from the delta as reeds spread in the shallow parts, providing spawning grounds and attracting millions of birds. Some fishermen returned to their former livelihoods.

 Transformations can be sudden and unexpected. In ecology, an ecosystem can flip from one stable state, such as old growth forest, to another such as acid bog, dense scrub or desert, almost overnight. That is why ecologists find it easy to understand how a society or civilization can grow and prosper for centuries only to vanish suddenly in the sands. Curiosity about such abrupt events led René Thom to develop catastrophe theory as an explanation of how they may unfold.

René Thom’s cusp catastrophe
Here illustrating the ‘flight or fight’ response of a threatened dog. Source: EC Zeeman‘s April 1976 article Catastrophe Theory in Scientific American.

There are plenty of signs to suggest that we are heading towards one of Thom’s dreaded birfurcations, some global transformation that we can neither predict exactly nor avoid: it lies just over the horizon. It this all sounds too alarming, take comfort from another philosophic observation. Even if we are unable to see the future, we are not helpless. According to David Deutsch we can influence our future by making general provisions of a sensible kind. Are we that sensible? One encouraging sign is the hint of revolution in the air. People are becoming very annoyed with the mismanagement of the planet and the micromanagement of their lives. There is more than a small stirring of unease at the failure of politicians to take on the corporations and financial giants. There is profound shock at the unfolding catalogue of afflictions visited on the poor, and our apparent inability to do anything about it.

Chaos theory teaches us that seemingly unpredictable events can be sensitive to starting conditions and even very small perturbations can have a major influence on what eventually unfolds. This is the butterfly effect – where the flapping of the butterfly’s wings at the right time and place became the starting condition for development of a hurricane that caused havoc in a far-off place. Perhaps our storm-birthing butterfly was a ‘blue morpho’, the large tropical lepidopteran that so impressed the Victorian naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, as it flew through the forest with its blue wings flickering in the sunlight.

Imagine a dark fringing forest set against tropical seas with the sun just rising above a great expanse of ocean, and touching the butterfly now resting with wings folded on its nocturnal perch. It lifts off beating its iridescent wings to go searching for fermenting fruit. The stirring of tiny air currents, jostles others, and the tiny vortex expands as it rises slowly. And so the swirling heart of a great storm begins to form.

Blue Morpho Butterfly by Martin Johnson Heade, 1864.

Blue Morpho Butterfly by Martin Johnson Heade, 1864. Such beauties inhabit the forests of Central and South America.

We are a bit like that butterfly, I feel. All around us, great atmospheric events are building with their climax hidden beyond the horizon. We seem feeble by comparison with such massive concerns. Still, we can flap our wings. Amongst all the wrongs worth causing a stir about, our environment is the one likely to cause the greatest mess. What is badly missing is an environmental ethic to guide our relationship with the living world, one which effects new policies for sustainable harvesting, generates a light ecological footprint tied to a high standard of living, and grants respect for all life. It doesn’t seem so much to ask but it crosses swords with two economic giants – the ungreen, free-market operations much beloved by the powerful world of business, and policies that increase gross domestic product (GDP) much beloved by politicians.

The question is: are we trapped in a contracting prediction horizon or are we the butterfly that beat its wings?

That little stirring in your or my mind may be like a tiny vortex stirred by the butterfly’s wing. The twisting current of thought could be picked up by companions and spun into a larger spiral that enlarges further as it ascends. In a few seasons’ time, one of the most potent forces on the planet, our environmental consciousness, might be unleashed…

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Islands in the Gulf – Fragmented World of Nature Conservation

I’d like to begin with three visual impressions of our disparate and sometimes uncomfortable relationship with Nature:

Last of the Buffalo

Albert Bierstadt’s vision of ‘The Last of the Buffalo’, completed 1888

Odile after being speared

Odile, a female African elephant, with spears in her head after an attack by disgruntled tribesmen in the Kenya Amboseli National Park.
Photograph by Amboseli Elephant Research Project (2004)

Rhino translocation in South Africa

Black rhino being translocated to a secure new habitat in South Africa to help conserve the species.
Photograph © Michael Raimondo, WWF (2011)

These connections with nature can be so contentious it is as if we were living on separate islands in a stormy gulf of disagreement. If we visited these islands we would find that people on each one have constructed their own unique way of connecting to nature.

On the ‘nature-as-family’ island, we would find folk that look after gardens, pets and working animals, many would also look out for their favourite wild creatures and wildflowers when walking in the countryside. Their connection with the wild is direct: nature is part of the family.

On the ‘institutional’ island are those who have an orthodox or professional relationship with nature. They are the experts who analyse the plants and animals, calculate their protective status, determine their provenance and distribution, assess their economic value and formulate programmes that may conserve them.

Two of the islands appear to be separated by depths as bottomless as the Mariana Trench. On one side is a ‘spiritual’ island whose inhabitants find their spirits soaring when communing with the wild world. Theirs is a sacred connection with Nature of the kind John Muir described when he walked in the Sierra Nevada or Ian Player as he trekked through the African bush.

John Muir in Yosemite National Park

John Muir, Yosemite National Park in 1902.
Scottish-born Muir became an early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States. He saw Yosemite Valley as the “sanctum sanctorum” (Holy of Holies) of the Sierra Nevada.

On the other side of the gulf is a ‘utilitarian’ island. The people there have a more pragmatic approach to nature; they look for the vital resources and services that can be found in every ecosystem. On this island the value of an elephant is measured in the ivory market, that of a maned lion by the tens of thousands of pounds a hunter will pay to bag it, and that of a Californian redwood according to the tons of atmospheric carbon it has locked away. For all their money-mindedness, the folk on this island are equally committed to nature, knowing it may hardly survive unless the marketplace is kept open and the resource managed carefully.

Gifford Pinchot, Chief of US Forest Service 1905-10. He fought for the principle of a managed use of forests.

Gifford Pinchot, Chief of US Forest Service 1905-10.
He fought for the principle of managed-use of forests.

These different ways of relating to nature are recognisable in the history of the conservation movement. Wildlife conservation as we think of it today began life on the spiritual island in the late 19th century when John Muir and like-minded pioneers helped found the world’s first national parks.

Despite steady growth in the numbers of national parks, it had become clear by the 1950s and 60s that wildlife was declining over huge tracts of territory and that a more organised and systematic conservation was required. A group living on another island, the ‘scientific’ island, joined in the conservation movement. This island was populated by scientists and naturalists with a broader understanding of the species composition and ecology of nature, including such well-known pioneers as Sir Peter Scott in Britain, Jacques Cousteau in France and Rachel Carson in USA. They realised that the perilous state of nature demanded classification, analysis, legislation and monitoring.

Peter Scott ringing cygnet

Peter Scott – British painter, ornithologist, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and co-founder of the World Wildlife Fund – ringing whooper swan cygnets in Iceland (1951)

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson, American marine biologist and conservationist, author of Silent Spring (1950s)

Jacques Yves Cousteau

Jacques-Yves Cousteau, explorer, filmmaker, author, founder of The Cousteau Society for the Protection of Ocean Life and pioneer of marine conservation. The Cousteau Society/AP Photo

In recent times many, perhaps most, conservation professionals have decamped to yet another island – that of the utilitarians. Here they advocate conservation by commodification of nature. Each ‘ecosystem service’ is reckoned on having monetary value that can generate wealth (see blog, Payment for Eden). Commodification of nature draws upon a Marxist doctrine which advocates marketization as the solution to environmental degradation. Hence a forest may be developed to produce numerous commodified services such as carbon fixation, water purification, water storage, climate moistening, pollinator upkeep, honey production, timber production, firewood supply, venison production, mushroom provision, tourism trails, and so on, all of which can be weighed in the balance of economics against alternative uses for land such as plantation forestry or farming. The idea of payment for ecosystem resources and services is neither new nor controversial when taken as one component of nature conservation. What is new is taking commodification as the paramount organizing doctrine of modern conservation. In that restrictive sense conservation has strayed far from its founding principles.

Karl Marx in London

19th Century Engraving of Karl Marx speaking in London

Although there is some island-hopping and island-sharing – for instance institutional conservationists may have their households full of pets, scientists may work closely with individual animals, and those living on the ‘nature as family’ island may follow the progress of conservation science – by and large the conservation world operates as an archipelago of island states separated from one-another by a sea of disagreement and misunderstanding. If there is a solution to this unfortunate state of affairs, it would appear to lie in bridge-building.

If asked, many conservationists might agree that each kind of connection with nature has its own substantive value. We need material support – food, shelter, medicine and freshwater – and the rural jobs that developed wildlife can provide. We also need companionship from nature, inspiration, scientific ideas, and quiet places where nature-goers may find the mental space to be themselves.

Perhaps fewer conservationists would accept that ethical codes of conduct should govern our multiple relationships with nature, although the movement for environmental ethics, so ably developed by Aldo Leopold in the 1940s, is perceptibly gaining strength. The main difficulty to progress appears to be in persuading the global economy which is based on a short-term business cycle to adopt long-term sustainable and ethical principles.

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold, American ecologist, forester, environmentalist and author of A Sand County Almanac, circa 1942 .

What else is on offer? Media democracy? This has the advantage of involving more people but the disadvantage of creating its own division. On one side of the division are the elite with conservation knowledge who make policies and plans and on the other side are those who consume their seductive messages. We may end up, perhaps we have already ended up, not so far from where we started off – on an archipelago of island-states except that now each island-state is broadcasting the importance of its own appealing message.

What else then? Can governments, the ultimate institutions, build a set of bridges? Can they, for instance regulate our spiritual and aesthetic connections with nature? I doubt if they are equipped for such a role but they might assist with legislation against mistreatment and misuse of wildlife.

Marabou on Satellite Dish

Marabou Stork roosting happily in Kampala, Uganda where it helps to keep the streets clean. Photograph by Martyn Murray

For my part I like to begin at the very beginning when people shared a common way of life and knew themselves to be a part of wild nature. That is our starting point and I believe it is with us still. No matter how sophisticated our culture, our inner nature still has its origin in the wider realm of the larger nature surrounding us. We remain connected. From this perspective it is self-apparent that our modern ways of engaging with the environment should incorporate care and respect for nature – just as we try to bring these same qualities to dealings amongst ourselves. But we surely need something more assertive as well, a positive and powerful movement in which all can participate. It should be a celebration of nature and ourselves, and have the capacity to unify the archipelago of our connections with nature. Where will it come from? My guess is that rewilding is the way forward. I will write more about it in a future blog.

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Advice for a Young Conservationist

Dear Young Conservationist,

It’s always a pleasure to write to someone who is interested in wildlife conservation. I think the best way I can help you at the outset of your career is to give a brief overview of the history of conservation, then say something about where it may be heading in the future, and finally try and give you some general pointers.

As perhaps you know, wildlife conservation has quite ancient roots but it emerged as a major field of human endeavour in the 1950s and 60s when it was recognised that a more global response was needed for the decline in wild species and their habitats (old growth forests, wetlands, coral reefs and so on). A little later the scientific discipline of conservation biology came together with the aim of informing the conservation community, and ultimately the wildlife authorities, about the state of nature and about the best policies and management options for more effective conservation. Another job for scientists was to diagnose the immediate causes of species declines and spearhead new techniques such as camera trapping (where cameras and motion sensors are positioned on trails) and environmental DNA surveys (extracting DNA of wildlife from hair, faecal material or the blood meals of leeches and biting flies) to find out where hidden or cryptic species occur. The main effort by the wildlife conservation community at that time, and still today, has been focussed on slowing the rate of wildlife decline.

It is perhaps worth adding that these days the term ‘wildlife conservation’ is often included in the more general expression ‘conservation of biodiversity’. Beyond that we have general environmental problems to consider – see my blog Advice for a Young Environmentalist.

So the overarching concern of conservationists today is to reduce the impoverishment in biodiversity that we humans are bringing about. The immediate causes of decline are well known and have not changed much through the years:

  • Habitat loss and fragmentation;
  • Species loss directly from overhunting and overharvesting;
  • Arrival or introduction of alien species that predate on, parasitize, spread disease or compete with local species for vital resources, or which otherwise change the local ecology to the detriment of native species; and
  • Ecosystem/habitat degradation from introduction of livestock, pollution or other human misuse.

To this list we can add a more recent arrival:

  • climate change with its impacts on ocean currents, weather systems, polar icecaps and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems (it is still hard to predict how climate change will manifest itself and how it will interact with the other problems).

Two underlying drivers are responsible for all the above:

  • Human population growth – this fuels demand for land and sea resources;
  • The western economic system that aims for year-on-year economic growth, It has been widely adopted throughout the world, fuelling demand for more land and sea resources and for short-term (unsustainable) extraction of resources.

The way it works is that these two underlying drivers are now causing intensive exploitation of the Earth’s renewable natural resources – such as timber, non-timber forest products, fish and shellfish, game animals and their products (like ivory and rhino horn), fresh water (including aquifers that are recharged by rainwater), soils, etc. The exploitation of these resources is often at an unsustainable rate. To give just one example, much of China’s agriculture is based on underground water supplies which are being extracted at unsustainable rates. Consequently Chinese food production is predicted to decline by 37% in the second part of this century placing an enormous strain on the productive capacity of the rest of the world.

In tandem with overexploitation of renewable natural resources, we have increasing exploitation of the Earth’s finite natural resources – these are the fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) and certain ancient underground aquifers. Burning fossil fuels is contributing massively to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and hence to global warming and climate change.

There are some important issues which make the above conservation problems even harder to deal with:

  • Different sectors of society have different ‘wildlife values’ and this causes conflict. For instance commercial users of renewable natural resources (like farmers and gamekeepers) naturally enough are interested in economic values and may attempt to exterminate wildlife which they see as pests or competitors; others who appreciate wildlife for its beauty or recreational value don’t like this (see my blogs Payment for Eden and Islands in the Gulf);
  • An enormous gap between the richest and poorest in society which ferments conflict over who as access to, and rights to harvest or use, wildlife resources;
  • Loss of local cultures which have used their local natural resources in traditional ways that are often more sensitive and more sustainable (but not all local cultures are perfect!);
  • A fundamental disconnection between people in modern society and nature. In fact this issue is like the ‘one ring that rules them all’ – it underpins all other problems. Ultimately the solution to the decline of wild nature can only come from a change in the human relationship with nature, which is what I talk about in The Storm Leopard.

So with this preamble in mind, how do we reduce conflict, improve conditions of the poor, protect other cultures and save biodiversity? These are deep and challenging questions!

Sea eagle by Mull

Sea eagle off the Isle of Mull, Scotland
Photograph by Jacob Spinks

Recently a new narrative has begun to emerge in conservation – ‘rewilding’. Rewildling began life as a useful word to describe the reintroduction of animal and plant species to areas of their former rangeland. The release of white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Rum and European beavers in Knapdale are examples from Scotland. Some people are now using the term to describe the rehabilitation of entire ecosystems. Rehabilitation of the ancient ecosystem on Rum would mean a return to extensive woodlands (oak, holly, rowan, birch, hawthorn, aspen, Scot’s pine etc) supporting populations of wolves and bears. Rather than thinking about slowing the loss of biodiversity, rewildling is about recovering species and restoring intact ecosystems. It could revitalise economies and the ‘human spirit’ or, in less emotive terms, it could restore belief in ourselves and the motivation to create beneficial change in the environment. This idea has huge potential and I think it will grow in importance.

If I now try to answer your career questions in a more practical way, I would advise keeping a weather eye on the topics where the main funds for conservation are going. It’s a bit of a lottery trying to guess the future, but some of the hot topics emerging, or likely to emerge in the near future, are:

  • Climate change and the carbon market (the discipline ‘environmental economics’ looks at ways of reducing CO2 emissions and many other topics relating to markets);
  • Legal reforms in the environmental sector which are often a response to international environmental treaties (the discipline is ‘environmental law’);
  • Building networks of protection across large landscapes and seascapes with corridors, islands, habitat restoration, etc. (‘landscape conservation’);
  • Costing and budgeting ecosystem services (‘green economics’);
  • Developing better mechanisms for monitoring natural resources and their exploitation (this kind of work seems to be developing in three directions: (a) remote sensing by satellite to monitor all kinds of changes; (b) use of DNA and other molecular techniques to determine which species are present in the sample of material obtained and even where the species originated from; (c) networking of information using website-mounted databases, and also projects that use ‘citizen science’ and ‘crowdsourcing’;
  • Improving social mechanisms for solving natural resource conflicts and human-wildlife conflicts and other problems relating to governance of natural resources (taught in courses in the social sciences and in environmental economics);
  • Designing efficiency into every aspect of modern life – buildings, transport, lifestyle, communications and commodities.

Similarly it is worth reflecting on the regions of the world and the ecosystem where we might expect major expansion of environmental work and conservation. They surely will include Antarctica and the southern oceans, the Arctic and Northwest Passage, China and East Asia, river catchments, coastal waters, and various arid regions in relation to water management. The plight of rainforests and coral reefs will continue to be critical because of the enormous variety of species.

I’m not sure that all these word pictures are going to help that much, when I imagine what you really want is practical advice about what to do next? The real decisions are in your hands but I can perhaps offer a few tips. Study hard to get a good grasp of the basic set of concepts and associated jargon that make up conservation biology. Keep aware of the big picture (sketched above) about wildlife conservation in relation to human demands on ecosystems. Most importantly, develop a specific skill or specialization on top of your general knowledge about conservation. It will become both your joy, and bread and butter. It could be the skill to negotiate over resource conflicts, or to design wildlife corridor, or for revising the laws that protects the legal rights of indigenous peoples. Skill in economics will be needed for costing the ‘ecosystem services’ being supplied by forest ecosystems, mountain ecosystems and coastal ecosystems; other skills are needed for monitoring pollution in Arctic waters, or for designing energy efficiency into different kinds of building or enterprise. Any skill that you find interesting and challenging, and which can be applied to the environment and humanity, is surely worth developing – teaching, taking part in wildlife surveys, animal care (of orphaned animals or oiled birds for example), leading campaigns, artistic interpretation, and so on.

A completely different approach is to become an expert on one species, perhaps a symbolic animal like the peregrine, otter or basking shark in Scotland, or if looking abroad, like the large cats (lion numbers are in steep decline), elephant and rhinos (constantly under threat from poaching) or the stunning river dolphins (also under enormous threat from polluted and managed rivers), and then that species can become a tool for much wider conservation applications to save their habitat and related species.

To get this extra skill means seeking out training either when applying for university courses or when working for a conservation organisation, or just in your own time by taking opportunities that appeal when they come along. The important point is that you need conservation knowledge and something. This something will give you an edge over others and will open doors that are otherwise closed.

Universities – many offer conservation courses. You will need to do your own research as the situation is constantly evoloving. Here in Scotland, Stirling is becoming a centre for conservation. Aberdeen University is also good and has the new James Hutton Institute nearby but that has more of an environmental than conservation focus. Glasgow University Zoology Department is strong on animal diseases in relation to conservation and has major research projects in Africa, and the University of St Andrews is strong on marine ecology and conservation. In England, universities with good reputations for conservation are: Cambridge (largest single gathering of conservation groups anywhere in Europe, I imagine); Oxford (it benefits from David MacDonald’s ‘WildCRU’ which pioneers new techniques like camera-trapping). The University of Canterbury is also very strong with its Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology and it would be worth taking a look at the Universities of Lancaster and Exeter. I’m sure I’ve missed out lots of worthy candidates – so look closely at all of them and focus on what the departmental research staff are doing.

Whatever you choose, you will be engaged in one of the most worthwhile causes on the Planet; it may not bring you a great fortune in gold but it will reward you with a lifetime of brilliant memories and the fellowship of many excellent and committed friends.

Best of luck with your career,


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Ponticum and Me: An Alien-Plant Love Story

Ponticum at her most beguiling

Ponticum at her most beguiling

This afternoon I drove along a small winding road above the Kyles of Bute passing through a forest of rhododendrons daubed by nature’s brush with splotches of pink and purple. The flowers picked out the natural shape of shrubs and from a distance painted crimson contours across the tumbling hills. Rhododendron ponticum, to give this shrub its official name, translates from the Greek as  ‘rose tree of the Pontic Alps’ – the latter part referring to a range of forested mountains lying to the south of the Black Sea. The district of Pontus also has Greek roots with the meaning of ‘sea’ so what we really have adorning the hills of Argyll is a glorious thicket of the rose tree of the Sea Mountains.

Tunnel through the rhododendrons

An irresistible invitation to wander

As I drove, I recalled the fun I’d had as a boy exploring the coastal pathways in amongst the rhodies along the shores of Loch Riddon over fifty years before. In my imagination there were escape tunnels and dens where I might hide should a longship happen to come round the far island full of invading Vikings. And then I remembered the bumblebees that liked to visit the rhodie flowers in my school playground. Big bees moving about big flowers; it fascinated me. I made a paper snapper and captured one of them. It buzzed a lot and when I peered inside it had pollen on its legs. I let it go. Ponticum and I were chums well before I learnt about ecology and conservation. As my car rounded a sharp bend, I caught a glimpse of blue water below; next second a high rocky crag flashed by, glinting in the sunlight. Through my sunroof, I could see afternoon clouds massing above and before I reached Glendaruel the first drops of rain hit the windscreen. It was sublimely beautiful.

Below my road, along the shores of Loch Riddon, the conservation authorities are intent on controlling this invasive shrub. The language is heavy duty – hydraulic flails mounted on armed tractors bases, chainsaws that cut down the older tree-like shrubs and herbicides that can be sprayed or injected into stems to prevent regrowth. The common rhodie is no laggard. It spreads rapidly from seeds or more steadily as a super colony that sends out roots from drooping branches. As it covers the ground it shades out other plants, denuding the chuckling streams of invertebrates, robbing our native woodlands of specialised butterflies and even, we are told, starving out the sleepy dormouse. The fact that these little furry balls are entirely absent from the woods and hedgerows of Scotland should not detract from this oppressive list, nor should the fact that their distant cousin – the tiny large-eyed wood mouse which is present in the woods and thickets of Argyll – actually benefits from the rhodie. All thicket-forming plants impact on local wildlife as is surely self-evident but let us not be misled by this inconvenient detail. Afterall, the rhododendron is an invasive alien creature on the rampage, a fifth column of unstoppable triffids that is driving native wildlife from the land.

Pause, two, three… I should not get carried away on a wave of opposing narrative. Yes, there is a real need to control rhododendrons, especially in the national parks and reserves that are designed to protect native habitats such as the fantastic Atlantic oakwoods of the West Highlands. Heavy management may be needed here and I am not agin it per se, but I do take issue with our habit of demonizing plants and animals the minute we stumble across some conflict involving them and us. Conservation is not just about science (where impartial criteria determine which species are to be protected, and which eradicated), nor for that matter is it just about economics (which justifies conservation on the added value obtained from harvesting resources and selling services), it is about our appreciation of the natural world. In the time it takes for a cormorant to filch a farmed trout, a wild creature can be labelled  a pest on economic grounds. I object to the buccaneering dominance of economic values and scientific ones for that matter.  I seek holistic conservation which includes these values, and others – a sense of cultural and historic importance, of community ownership and of the artistry and beauty in nature. Against all scientific advice, I like to anthropomorphise my encounters with wildlife. It seems to me that we have much more in common with wild animals than those differences that divide us. This does not mean I am unaware of evolutionary theory and its stringent rules when I consider wildlife, it just means that I am communicating at more than one level.  So when I look at two species, one native and one alien, I do not just see the scientific distinction between them or accept the management consequences. I see the whole organisms and I empathise with them. I think we should all learn to see nature in that way. Before you label me as mad and a danger to the public, let me explain why.

Smudge 9000 grey_squirrel

Grey squirrel – does it have a place in the British countryside?
Photo – Smudge 9000

Take the grey squirrel. It is a fantastic little critter – full of talent and up to all kinds of tricks, yet because they are alien here in UK we are told they are vermin. The problem, as is well known, is that the greys are replacing our native reds. There is no room in the prevailing management narrative on these islands for enjoying the grey as a clever and endearing woodland creature, let alone for looking after it. Because of the force of this management narrative, our authorities do not expect objections from the public to their policy of trapping, shooting or poisoning them. The press seems to accept this line of argument. In fact anyone expressing an alternative view is likely to be dismissed as a sentimental, bunny hugging, city-living ignoramus who is completely out of touch with biological reality. The red squirrels on the other hand, because they are native, are the good guys. It is okay to want to cuddle them. You would not be denigrated for talking to Squirrel Nutkin if you met him in the woods, although some might think you a little nutty.

I don’t like this hard distinction between red and grey squirrels, which is somehow oblivious to the glaring fact that, genetically speaking, the two animals are 99.9% identical. Sure, only one species is native. The reds arrived in Britain about ten thousand years ago as the ice retreated.  Subsequent arrivals of new species on these islands (at least the larger ones) usually made it with a helping hand from our ancestors. The house mouse arrived with Neolithic people probably soon after the arrival of the red squirrel; rabbits arrived with the Romans as did fallow deer.  Many of these ‘aliens’ have been around for so long that they are accepted as part of our British wildlife. It is nor surprising that we have mixed feelings when experts tell us that they are undesirable and should be cleared from the countryside. Take for example the noble beech. This majestic tree was also thought to have arrived with the Romans and some woodland managers in the north of England began to fell the invading giants as if they were marching triffids. Now we learn from pollen analysis that the beech has been present in England since the last ice age. So it is okay to love them again. Presumably that means we should plant them out and help them along. But what if someone discovers that they actually arrived with the help of Neolithic tribes? Must we then hate them again?

Usually alien species cause little trouble. Out gardens are full of them. But occasionally, as in the case of grey squirrels, there is a serious conflict with some native species. When I first learnt (some 30 or 40 years ago) about the peculiar way that reds were steadily giving way to an advancing wave of grey squirrels, I didn’t accept the then popular view that the greys were more macho, possessors perhaps of a killer gene which enabled them to knock out the feeble reds directly. It seemed more likely that the persistent advance of the greys was mediated by some disease. The macho gene view still persists but there is now evidence in support of a disease explanation – grey squirrels carry a parapoxvirus which is fatal to reds. If this proves to be the principal factor, then one potential method for controlling the conflict would be to ask epizootiologists to develop an oral vaccine. Whether that would work with squirrels, I don’t know, but it would be a starting point for effective control without the madness of demonizing greys and cosseting reds.

Why should we even consider spending money on a vaccine when we can shoot or trap the greys and sort things out that way? In my view, caring about plants and animals is important. In fact I would say it is the single most important component of wildlife management, as well as being the least commonly practised one. Care should be at the heart of our wildlife management policies because every other kind of argument for looking after nature, whether based on economic services, sustainable resource use, the diktat of the European bird and habitat directives, or whatever else, is fabricated. Ultimately it can and will be dismantled when the pressure for alternative uses of species and habitats becomes strong enough. On the other hand, by nurturing our natural affinity for plants and animals, we can begin to protect them because of that affinity and because of our shared place in nature. In doing so, we not only protect our ‘brothers and sisters’, we protect nature itself and in doing that we prevent ourselves from going right off the mental rails. That is just my opinion of course, you will need to look at the facts and make up your own mind.

So that is why I love the rose tree of the Sea Mountains, just as I love the Scots Pine, and whilst I accept that he is a bit of a wild boy who needs to be reined in from time to time, Ponticum is still my chum, and I look out for him each year with eager anticipation.


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What is freedom?

And what is servitude? Not difficult questions for those living under tyranny, whether at home, behind prison bars or under the watchful eye of a ruthless state. But for those of us living in happier circumstances, fragments of freedom and oppression lie scattered across our lives like an abstract painting. Are you free? Is your partner? Your child? Your boss? Your assistant? How do we make sense of the confusion?

Mirosa painting

The Thames Sailing Barge ‘Mirosa’
by Anthony Blackman, 2012

As someone who loves boats, this painting of Mirosa, a Thames sailing barge, surging down river under a press of canvas speaks to me of one man’s freedom. I can imagine the skipper as a boy dreaming of owning his own sailing craft, and years later as the proud owner taking her helm for the first time.

Forgotten dreams

Sailing barges on the Thames River – abandoned, not forgotten
Photo by Mick Nolan of the Thames Sailing Barge Trust

There is little room for such dreams in today’s high speed world but we sometimes cling to the past, unable to keep the dreams alive, unwilling to let them go. These almost forgotten dreams are important. They may contain clues to the kind of freedom we aspire to, the kind we would hope to enjoy in an open society.

If we look again at Mirosa, we may find that her comely oak prow is pointing at the essence of freedom itself. What she teaches is that personal freedom is found wherever your dreams can be brought to life. That, I believe, is the heart of the matter. Freedom is found wherever people can bring their dreams to life, whether in the family, workplace, or society.

I was fortunate to grow up in the sixties and seventies when freedom of this kind abounded and Britain was a creative powerhouse. I am concerned that opportunities are dwindling today and age-old liberties are being curtailed. It prompted me to write a book . It’s not yet available but it tells the story of an old wooden ketch, Molio, which I found in a backwater and brought back to life.

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Payment for Eden?

‘Payment for Ecosystem Services’ or PES is the latest mantra in wildlife conservation. It is not a new concept but was brought to central stage in 2005 by the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It takes the conservation movement another step on a journey towards its economic Nirvāṇa – conserved global biodiversity in the marketplace. Like its 1980 predecessor, IUCN’s World Conservation Strategy, it seeks to justify biodiversity over agriculture and other developments on the basis of monetary value.  It has borrowed the adage ‘if it pays it stays’ previously aimed at game animals and applied it to ecosystems. PES promises tangible benefits to people and wildlife but it has become mired in misunderstandings.

1. Definition bulge

In the first place PES has been saddled with an overly generous definition. It conflates real ecosystem services, like water purification, carbon sequestration and pollination, with the better-established ‘use of natural resources’ (timber, NTFPs, pasture, fish and so on) and other less tangible values of ecosystems such as biodiversity (species richness, rarity, endemism, etc.). Definitions are important and PES has swollen so much that it has become a double acronym: its other persona ‘payment for environmental services’ now growing in popularity. The concept is in danger of dissipating into a catchall ‘payment for any and every economic value of the environment’ or simply ‘environmental payments’. So a good start would be to revisit the definition and pin it down to something useful.

2. Panacea or pipedream?

Secondly, PES is used far too easily in the conservation literature as some kind of panacea for ensuring sustainable development and biodiversity protection. In the real world, it is difficult to implement because it requires change to firmly-established fiscal policies, systems of governance or trading agreements. Take REDD for example. It is held up in conservation writing wherever one looks, or so it seems, as a joint solution to deforestation and climate change. Yet even on its own terms, REDD (and REDD+) are not working. The market for forest carbon is tiny and the price has collapsed. We await agreements.

What price for tropical rainforest?

Take water provisioning by forests as another example. From my own experience in Africa and the Balkans, progress is not promising. For instance in one East African country where I was engaged recently as an environmental consultant, my counterpart (a national expert in forest ecology) asked a senior representative of the Ministry of Water if they would consider payments to villagers living in mountain forests. The logic was that payment would be in return for cessation of deforestation activities, which would in turn maintain long term water supply to downstream users of water in commercial farms and cities. The representative laughed saying that they were in the business of charging villagers for their use of water not paying them (see my earlier post – Post Rio Blues).  I don’t want to appear flippant or defeatist.  I simply wish to point out that a huge amount of work is required on fiscal policy, governance of ‘social-ecological systems’ and trading agreements in order to get PESs up and running. We need to face up to these real challenges.

3. Appropriation of the commons

Thirdly, the international development community is beginning to work with conservationists to open up nature-based markets. Suppose they are successful in putting PES into widespread use. What will be the consequences? One outcome we should be aware of is an expansion in the environmental influence of wealthy investors, multinationals and governments as they begin to purchase and profit from ecosystem services – the same goods that were once held as common property by local people and on which they depend for their livelihoods. By promoting open markets and international trade, PES threatens the traditional rights of local users of common property resources.

It might be argued that having ‘trees’ with PES is better than losing ‘trees’ altogether. But surely what we want is trees that local people engage with and wish to maintain. At the very least, the conservation movement should give equal weight to understanding and supporting self-governance of common resources, including the collective-choice and self-determination principles advocated by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues. (Here is an excellent radio interview with Elinor Ostrom, Njabulo Ndebele and Manju Kapur.)

4. Beware the economic boomerang

Rice terraces on forested slopes of the Himalayas prevent soil erosion
Photo by Eric Monfort

Fourthly, we should have reservations about a conservation rationale that is exclusively based on economic value. Why? For one thing, because economic value is like a yoyo: prices go up and down. An ecosystem that has high value for tourism this year may have higher value for wheat fields next year. If price is the only reason to keep a place wild, then wildlife will soon disappear. Furthermore, most ecosystem services can be duplicated in agricultural landscapes. Even those in a complex natural habitat like a tropical forest can be duplicated by ingenious farmers. As a previous post mentions (Tropical Rain Forests),  terraced rice paddies with a few shade trees and perhaps a reed bed at the bottom could provide most of the water retention and purification services of a catchment forest.

Beekeeping in the Yildiz Mountains of Turkey

The extra payments for this ecosystem service might, perversely, just tip the balance, making the conversion of forest to fields profitable. Similarly, replacing deciduous woodland with fields of angiosperm crops such as pulses, crucifers or fruit trees, together with suitable management of field verges and hedgerows should provide the nectar necessary for bees to deliver honey as well as pollination services.

Despite these problems, could PES be the only worthwhile game in town when it comes to dealing with developers? I think this is where we begin to approach the true nature of the biodiversity dilemma, which has more to do with ethical values than pounds and cents. Take an example in the news concerning the future of Serengeti National Park. Many have argued that the future of the park is safeguarded by foreign exchange takings that have great significance for the Tanzanian economy.  Proliferation of lodges and hotels inside the park has certainly raised the takings enormously over the past 15 years. Nevertheless, the government recently proposed road construction across the north of the park to provide a transport link between Lake Victoria and the Coast. Wildlife managers pointed out that a main road would soon require fencing and that fencing would prevent the migration of wildebeest. The inevitable consequence would be a collapse in numbers of wildebeest with a related collapse in large predators. The substantial economic value of the Serengeti National Park (and neighbouring Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya) would decline sharply.

This is about as strong a case for wildlife conservation through PES as you can get. Serengeti provides a tourism service, road construction will destroy tourism, and therefore the road should not be supported by government. How often will it be possible to mount a PES case against road building of equivalent strength? Few wildlife areas make as much money from tourism as Serengeti; most make little or none. Even so, the economic arguments for stopping the road fell on deaf ears. Government was contemplating a larger economic and political picture: the advantages of connecting the burgeoning Lake Victoria region to the port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean, and the prospect of massive agricultural developments and increased trade. What stopped the threat at the last minute was national and international outrage at the impending desecration of natural heritage. Government relented and agreed to construct a longer road that would pass to the south of the park. It was the sense of unique natural value in Serengeti, strongly communicated by concerned people in Tanzania and beyond which apparently swayed the politicians. No doubt wildlife economics played a supporting role in changing the heart of government, but not the primary role.

Faith in core values

PES offers some real benefits in the difficult task of conserving biodiversity. It can direct the attention of development planners to hidden uses of nature which might otherwise be overlooked. It can provide farmers with new incentives for practising wildlife-friendly agriculture. For instance, it may persuade some to leave an unploughed verge alongside streams or to plant a windbreak of native trees. If we include natural resources within ecosystem services (I’d rather not), then the profits obtained from their sustainable exploitation could ensure their long-term future. It is extrapolation of this kind of thinking which has positioned economics at the centre of conservation policy today. But this is where I part company with PES. I am worried by the narrowness of the economic narrative which now pervades the entire conservation movement. I think it will take us on a wild economic goose chase  as the market economy adjusts to future shortages.

Each society strives to protect what is vital: it cares for its children, the sick and elderly; it protects personal security, public health, electrical power, safe drinking water, and so on. Few nations entrust these vital concerns entirely to the marketplace; usually protection is a matter of policy.  Likewise a strong case can be made for protecting vital ecosystem services through policy, such as water supply. But what about nature in general? We cannot pretend it is all vital to our immediate wellbeing. Each society determines the level of protection it wishes to offer its biodiversity depending on its core values. It determines what wildlife it should try to keep and what wilderness areas. One of the most crucial decision-areas for us today, I believe, concerns our collective relationship with nature. Its variety, wonder, wildness and richness should be protected, not because of economics, but because they are vital to our imagination and our humanity. In the short-term we may do without them, but in a longer timespan our spiritual life will suffer. That bears thinking about. In the rush to develop wealth for a nation, the deeper truths are in danger of being forgotten. I would like  the conservation movement to promote a broader philosophy of humans and nature to guide our development planning and protect our biodiversity. It might start by putting its own house in order by restoring its faith in the core values of nature. That is where Eden begins and that is where its future lies.

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