Wild Revival?

The ‘wild’ delights and terrifies us, conjuring in one organic breath raw nature in her elemental glory and savage beasts lurking in the wastes awaiting their chance to pounce.

Serengeti lion

Serengeti lion at a fresh kill
Photo by M Murray

But what really is the wild? Is it something we should continue to civilize until it is cast into the history books or might it be something we depend upon a little more each year just to retain our humanity? In this posting I introduce two recent publications which explore the meaning of the wild for us personally and the implications if we do nothing about it.

The first is a conservation article Wild Pathways of Inclusive Conservation which for a few weeks can be accessed here. It frames a wild revival strategy in four questions:

  • What do we mean by the wild?
  • Why should humans pursue wild-life conservation?
  • If they do, what pathways lead to the wild?
  • What kinds of outcomes result from different conservation strategies?

The second is a travel book, A Wild Call, which tells the story of my quest to find an old wooden ketch, sail her to Scotland and make a solo passage to St Kilda beyond the Outer Hebrides. It is a search for personal freedom in my father’s country, the story of a star-crossed relationship and an adventure in a small boat on a big sea. This first advance review captures something of its essence.

Author's boat 'Molio'

Author’s boat ‘Molio’ in sheltered pool on Harris

Posted in A Wild Call, Boats, Freedom, Molio, Nature | 2 Comments

Call for a Parks Red List

Cause for Concern

Whilst assessing the state of protected areas in Ethiopia I became concerned at the number of parks occupied by cattle for large parts of the year, or all year round in some cases. Farming had encroached into several parks, covering up to 80% of the territory, large mammal populations were severely depressed and many species had disappeared entirely.

Afar herdsman in Awash National Park

Afar herdsman at Filoha Springs in Awash National Park, Ethiopia
Photo by M Murray

The same desperate state is found elsewhere. The Angolan National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (2007-2012) states: “the situation of the Kissama, Cangandala, Iona, Bikuar and Cameia National Parks is one of almost total abandon, without equipment or staff. Part of these areas are today occupied in a disorganised manner by people that practice hunting and bush-burning at levels that have already led to the disappearance of big and small mammals. In some cases, the number of people living or farming in the protected areas is very high.

Filoha Springs

Cattle in Filoha Springs, Awash National Park
photo by M Murray

Cattle in W transborder park in Burkina Fasophoto by C Paolini

Cattle in W transborder park in Burkina Faso
photo by C Paolini

In Zambia, a major reduction in wildlife densities in most protected areas is reported. A colleague has found degraded parks across the entire network of West Africa. As a result of bushmeat consumption, the ‘empty forests’ of Central Africa are a sad reality. Further information on the status of parks and wildlife in African is featured in my blog: Game Over in Africa? I. Empty Forests, Silent Plains. Globally, only 20–50% of protected areas assessed are found to be effectively managed and some 28.6% of World Heritage Sites are listed as in danger, according to UNESCO.

youg bull eating one of oldest and rarest African plants within a National Park

Young bull enjoying the taste of Welwitschia mirabilis in Iona National Park, Angola — the oldest and rarest plant in Africa in one of the oldest National Parks.
photo by Bill Branch

Protected areas are the single most important tool in the conservation arsenal for conserving global biodiversity – by far. Edward Wilson, the sage of biodiversity, is pinning his hopes on an enlarged network of protected areas for avoiding the sixth great extinction event on Earth. Yet the same protected areas are disappearing in front of our eyes with hardly anyone, it would seem, even noticing.

Degraded parks are not a new phenomenon in Africa but the scale of degradation is increasing rapidly due to rising pressure on land. In his follow-up to The Limits to Growth, Jorgen Randers predicts that by 2035, the only available bio-capacity in Africa, that could be used for additional farms, will be within the parks. The rest will be occupied and the pressure on land will be rising faster than ever. In other words, there will be no room for many, perhaps most African parks in twenty years’ time unless they are valued equivalently to agricultural land by the majority populations.

Farms cover much of the once diverse and beautiful Abijatta-Shalla Lakes National Park, Ethiopia. Photo by Martyn Murray

Farms cover much of the diverse and beautiful Abijatta-Shalla Lakes National Park, Ethiopia.
Photo by Martyn Murray


My concern, shared by many working in the field, is that this value is not being achieved and that the rate of degradation of parks is now rising rapidly. There is sufficient reason to postulate an ongoing exponential rise in park degradation across Africa which is neither being monitored nor adequately reported by the conservation community. It could look something like this:


Exponential rise in degradation of the protected area network in Africa
Projected by M Murray


A Tool for Park Assessments

A tool that alerts the conservation community to failing parks is urgently required. It should permit rapid park assessment and rapid training of assessors. It would need to achieve the following tasks:

  • Track the conservation status of all Category I-IV Protected Areas over time;
  • Identify the most pressing threats bearing on Protected Areas;
  • Alert the conservation community to sites that are most in need of support;
  • Guide the planning of effective interventions to support individual sites networks;
  • Recognize well-managed sites and encourage transfer of good practice between sites.

I have been calling for a parks red list in the conservation community for 25 years without joy. Others have made the same call. The necessary tools now exist. Here are some examples of tools designed for similar purposes:

  • IUCN Green List – IUCN
  • IUCN Threats Calculator (used for species red listing)
  • PAME (Protected Area Management Effectiveness) – IUCN
  • Red List of Ecosystems – IUCN (proposed)
  • WHO (World Heritage Outlook) IUCN World Heritage Programme
  • PADDD (Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing and Degazettement) – WWF
  • RAPPAM (Rapid Assessment and Prioritization of PAs Management) – WWF
  • Form BIOPAMA – EU
  • METT (Management Effectiveness Tracking Tool) – WWF/GEF
  • GD-PAME (Global Database – PA Management Effectiveness) – WCMC/CBD
  • EHI (MacKinnon’s Ecosystem Health Index used on GEF Asian projects)

None of these tools has been deployed at the scale required to establish a Park Red List nor was it their aim to do so. Thus, WHO is restricted to World Heritage sites, whilst PADDD concerns ‘legal downgrades’ only. Form BIOPAMA, PAME, METT, and RAPPAM  all aim for an assessment of PA management effectiveness which could be used to establish a Park Red List


Example of Output from form BIOPAMA (Carlo Paolini, pers. comm.)

The management assessments are comprehensive but require a substantial input of park-staff time and training (M. Goncalves de Lima and Carlo Paolini pers. comm.) which has inhibited their application across large regions. On the other hand, much less work is required to assess just the biodiversity status of parks – all that is required to establish a Parks Red List.  Remote sensing provides information on land changes, such as integrity of habitats, infrastructure (roads, dams, clearings and buildings), deforestation, spread of farmland, lake turbidity and fire frequency. Rapid field assessments can log additional information on presence of livestock, poaching, overharvesting,and reduced oxygen levels in lakes. The crude abundance of key indicator species can also be estimated quickly. Using this light approach, a Park Red List could be implemented across Africa in less than a year.


Resistance from the Conservation Community

Technically it would not be hard to establish a Parks Red List but resistance to the idea is coming from a surprising quarter — from within the international conservation community itself. IUCN has instead opted for the idea of a Green List. Applying the “Green List Protected Area Standard” is an even more complicated process than the assessment of Protected Area Mangement Effectiveness. It has merit. It makes its own contribution to conservation, especially where a failing park can be put onto an “improvement path”, but at the end of the day it is a bit like substituting a Species Green List for the current Red List. We could not rely on Green-Listed species to safeguard those that are critically endangered. It just wouldn’t do the job. Similarly, the Green List of Protected Areas will not do the job of alerting the international community to the state of park degradation.

On closer enquiry it turns out that the real problem stopping the adoption of a Parks Red List is the fear of the resentment of countries who do not like to see their parks given a red assignment. There is some justification for this fear. A few parties (countries) to the World Heritage Convention have contested fiercely management measures required by the World Heritage Committee to maintain the listing of their World Heritage Sites.  So, yes, it will be a difficult and demanding job to assign negative outcomes of park assessments and then negotiate suitable recovery programmes with national authorities. It will need to be handled sensitively and with financial support for poorer countries. However, it is a vital task. If we wish the conservation community to monitor the status of parks and reserves around the world, and safeguard global biodiversity, then we have to do it.

We have an ongoing protected areas crisis in Africa, and surely elsewhere in the world, that has been slipping past unnoticed. It will get worse rapidly if we don’t instigate a Parks Red List.

I will say it one more time: parks (call them protected areas if you wish) are the single most important means of conserving global biodiversity. We have to look after them or fail as conservationists. That means we have to monitor their health. We would be horrified if the global community retreated from its task of monitoring the spread of Ebola virus, Zika virus or avian flu because of the sensitivities of a few senior politicians in a small number of countries. We must not let our own sensitivies to being criticsed over the monitoring of park degradation blunt our resolve to protect global biodiversity.

We need a Parks Red List.

Crocodile killed by poachers in East African Park

Crocodile killed by poachers in East African Park
Photo by Martyn Murray

Elephant shot by ivory poachers in African Park

Elephant shot by ivory poachers in African Park
Photo by Fraser Smith

Please pass on to others concerned about our parks.

Posted in Conservation, Nature, Protected Areas | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Radical solution could avoid depletion of natural resources

A radical new approach to managing ecosystems reveals how society’s use of forests, fisheries and other natural resources could be inspired by nature, which creates sustainable ecosystems amid intense species competition for limited resources. It had its origins in my work on Serengeti herbivores and the realisation that the ‘harvesting niche’ of humans exploiting natural resources was equivalent to the ‘ecological niche’ found in natural communities, and that the whole ecological model of niche, community, species diversity and competition could be ported across to human systems of resource-use.


Niche grazing in East Africa
diagram from Vesey-Fitzgerald’s East African Grasslands

Resource competition lies behind many of today’s environmental problems: shrinking forests, disappearing lakes and rivers, collapsed fisheries, overgrazed pastures, eroded soils and declining productivity, together with their aftermath of poverty, conflict and hostilities. The problem is set to intensify this century because the abundance of Earth’s natural resources is declining whilst demand from a developing and expanding human population is growing. Yet curiously the driving influence of competition has been largely absent from theories on natural resource use, including the ecological theory of wildlife harvesting and the approaches of green economics and bioeconomics.


Twin beam trawling damages marine habitats

One negative consequence of resource competition is the emergence of technological ‘arms races’ that lead to environmental degradation. Examples are the drying up of shallow hand-dug wells in arid countries when deeper drilled wells cause water tables to fall, and displacement of otter trawlers by modern twin-beam trawlers in the North Sea which increased the harvest of flatfish but damaged seabed communities.

Another kind of problem arises in the case of competition over weakly-governed resources which predominate over much of the globe. The self-interest of commercial users typically drives a ‘tragedy of the commons’ in which sustainable offtake is sacrificed for short-term gain. However real commons are rarely of the kind described by Garrett Hardin – a uniform pasture shared by a collective herd of cattle (one individual puts on an extra cow and all users pay the cost of its grazing). In the mediaeval commons, there were cowherds, shepherds, goatherds, swineherds, gooseherds, horsemen and so on, each with livestock exploiting a different niche – sheep on hills, cows in valley meadows, horses on floodplains, and pigs in woodlands. It provides the first clue as to how the sustainability of wild animal and plant communities, which is based on the separation of ecological niches, might be mirrored in a managed human system based on the separation of harvesting niches.


Tragedy of the Commons: Left – Hardin-type pasture at risk
Right – niche-partitioned pasture that is protected. Elaborated in Murray 2016

The history of humanity is littered with examples where natural resources and entire ecosystems have failed, from the collapse of ancient forest-dependent civilizations to over-exploited wildlife populations today. In the past, we have have often failed to find sustainable solutions to resource use.

In marked contrast to the human-led catastrophes, ecologists have observed that many wild species thrive in natural communities despite intense competition for limiting resources. The rival species share ecosystems by developing narrow ecological niches, as for example when songbirds share forests by feeding and nesting at distinctive heights in the trees. New research suggests that man’s impact on the environment could be tempered by partitioning natural resources into selected parts and licensing users according to different “harvesting niches”, mimicking the ecological niches of wild species. For example, independent fishing vessels could be licensed with exclusive long-term rights to harvest single demersal fish species by using a combination of traditional practices and improved gear selectivity.

An array of advantages over unselective harvesting leaps out. Foremost of these is a reduction in the ‘arms race’ for harvesting technology that, if left to itself, causes increasingly serious damage as it extracts greater quantities of resource. Just as critical, the partitioned resource offers a robust solution to the ‘tragedy of the commons’. This is because the entire cost of overharvesting is born by the individual user within its partition. The individual therefore faces the full consequences of his or her selfish actions. It is a powerful disincentive to overharvesting.


Discarded catch from unselective North Atlantic trawl
Image: Mike R. Jackson

A third significant advantage of selective harvesting in a partitioned resource is rarely mentioned – it allows for a higher sustainable yield from the ecosystem. Take the current unselective trawling of demersal fish: a quota that is adjusted for the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) of a fast-growing fish species risks overharvesting slow-growth ones, whereas a quota that protects a slow-growing species will harvest most fish at below the MSY. By contrast the partitioned fishery can match the effort of each user to the MSY of each species. This achieves a higher overall sustainable yield from the marine ecosystem.

Yet another favourable outcome of the partitioned ecosystem is that the small users are protected from the competitive dominance of larger ones. They are more likely to persist in the long-term providing local communities with jobs and a rewarding lifestyle opportunity.


Wheat fields of South Moravia
Image: Martin King

Modern agricultural development is eroding the number of harvesting niches in the countryside with potentially far-reaching consequences for society. Medieval guilds and niches of rural life, which still exist in parts of Europe and elsewhere, are lost in the process of modernisation leaving little more in the farmed environment other than machinery operators and intensive rearing sheds.

400 tons of jack mackerel caught by Chilean purse seiner

400 tons of jack mackerel caught by purse seiner
Image: C. Ortiz Rojas>


The same process of simplification is taking place in fisheries. It feels so much like normal progress that it passes by without much comment, but I think it exposes a bifurcation point which needs to be thought about by society.



Following along one branch we soon reach industrialised agriculture and fisheries in niche-poor land and seascapes where people are separated from land and sea, and suffer from  simplified ecosystems and lost biodiversity.

Vertical organic sea-farmingImage by Bren Smith

Vertical organic sea-farming
Image by Bren Smith

Agroecosystem approach to farming (Coeur de Chaman)

Agroecosystem approach to farming
(Coeur de Chaman)







The other branch leads to partitioned, niche-rich land and seascapes with more diverse, smaller-scale, user groups and greater connectivity of people with land and sea.

Salmon ladder at Rocky Reach Dam, Washington, USA

Salmon ladder at Rocky Reach Dam, Washington, USA

Wildlife Crossing, Banff National Park, Canada

Wildlife Crossing, Banff National Park, Canada









Partitioned ecosystems can protect against biodiversity loss and many other environmental problems whilst assisting in UN Sustainable Development Goals to promote peaceful, prosperous and inclusive societies. In addition to these worthy aims, I would suggest they have value in advancing one important goal not mentioned in the 2030 Agenda: attaining greater niche diversity in work, in the environment and in society.

Murray, M.G. (2016). Partitioning ecosystems for sustainability. Ecological Applications, 26: 624–636. [ doi:10.1890/14-1156.1 ].

Posted in Conservation, Nature, Threats | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

My Friend Bini

DSCF2931cBini cooked the greatest bush breakfast. We would be camping in some remote Ethiopian park and I would wake to the smell of coffee being brewed. It soon got me out of my sleeping bag to greet the morning. As I looked around the camp, Bini would be busy around the campfire. Seemingly out of nothing, a breakfast fit for royalty appeared – fresh papaya, omelette with sliced chillies and tomatoes, toast and wild honey.

Bini_on_palm_smSoon we were back on the road. We loved our game of finding creative names for nature tours 500 Bird Circuit, ‘River Runs Through It’ Forest Boat Trip, Mountain of Dragons (you could see their menacing outline from the right vantage point) but we never forgot the more serious business of our road trip – putting together a practical plan for recovering Ethiopia’s beautiful national parks, based on their potential to support ecotourism and the help and participation of local people and resources. Bini was interested to the point of obsession about nature (which made two of us) and he was always positive. Hell, I miss him.

Bini_and_termite_mound_smBini had a great mind. He saw complex issues to do with people, their work and environment with perfect clarity. He recalled technical information with immediacy, and read extensively. This meant he could explain complex issues well to anyone – simply, precisely and with conviction. So he was gifted with a wonderful mind and when he talked, people were held. They sensed immediately that here was someone saying something important and authentic. They listened intently. So he had this ability to communicate but what made Bini even more special was that he also had a great heart. Bini was the most selfless and most caring guy I knew. Always wanting to check that everything was ok – food, seat, sleeping mat, or the things we were doing. How is that backpack? Is this log comfortable for sitting on? He was tireless in seeing to other peoples’ needs. People just liked him. They enjoyed his company and sought him out. Bini moved seamlessly amongst the many strata of Ethiopia. It was extraordinary to see.


Bini_MagoNPAnd then he got down to hard work. Bini was on a mission in life. He had so many beautiful dreams for his family, his Bale mountain home, his wonderful rich country with its talented quixotic peoples, and for his future. He wanted to run his own nature tourism business. It would have been the best in Africa. He wanted to make Ethiopian parks and reserves the best in the world. He could have done it. He wanted to write all kinds of guidebooks – he had already begun them. He wanted to have links across the world for all these things. I miss those dreams.

I only knew Bini for a short time. We worked together in the city, on the road and in Ethiopia’s beautiful national parks. For all the differences – our countries, age (Bini in his early 30s and I in my 60s), experiences and backgrounds – we were just two guys with parallel dreams who enjoyed hanging out. Bini had lots of friends. And in that short time together, he became my friend. I cherish that friendship and honour his memory. I hope I can keep just a little bit of Bini’s selfless sparkle alive inside of me.


* * * * * *

Biniyam Admassu journeyed on alone on 10 March 2015. He was fighting a wild fire in his beloved Bale Mountains but was hit by flames due to a sudden wind change. My heartfelt condolences to his family, the park staff and conservation team in Bale, and to all who knew him.

Posted in Conservation, Nature | Tagged | 4 Comments

Game Over in Africa? II. Last Best Chance for Wildlife

Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Ngorongoro Conservation Area with cattle and zebra. The management of mixed-use landscapes requires patience, skill, enterprise, investment  and above all development of a shared vision that incorporates the aspirations of all parties.
[If the owner of this photo would be kind enough to get in touch, I would be pleased to credit them.]

With pressure building for African land, coupled with parks that lack legitimacy in the eyes of local people, declining government investment in their management, booming prices for wildlife products, poaching and the never-ending tales of bribery and corruption (sister blog), what hope for the future of African wildlife? Much will depend on the success of a new approach – the conservation of large landscapes incorporating multiple parks and reserves and sizeable populations of rural people. Before taking a closer look at some of the ‘conservation landscapes’, it is worth pausing to recall the origins of this approach in Africa – surprisingly, it was born out of the search for peace.

Opening the gate of Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park in 2001

‘I know of no political movement, no philosophy, and no ideology which does not agree with the peace parks concept as we see it going into fruition today. It is a concept that can be embraced by all.’   Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela opening the gate of Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park in 2001. Photo from Peace Parks

The Peace Parks dream kicked off in Africa in 1997 through the commitment of three visionaries: President Nelson Mandela, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Dr Anton Rupert, a South African philanthropist. They envisaged the establishment of a network of protected areas that linked ecosystems across international borders. They sought to move beyond the idea of strictly protected national parks to a view of landscapes that supported both wildlife and multiple resource-use by local communities.

They foresaw the day when people, long divided by historical frontiers, could freely join to set about managing and utilising natural resources throughout their traditional territories. At the same time, they anticipated wildlife populations that were free to roam over ancient migratory pathways that crossed vast terrains. It was the birth of ‘transfrontier conservation’ and the new transfrontier parks would support whole ecosystems and pursue sustainable economic development within the context of regional peace and security.


Black-maned lion in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Photo by Roy Ritson

The first peace park was Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park which united South Africa and Botswana. It is an area of Kalahari bush with sweeping parallel dunes, separated by dune-valleys and open pans. The park contains large herds of ungulates such as gemsbok, springbok, blue wildebeest, eland and red hartebeest and their predators – leopard, brown and spotted hyaena, lion and cheetah. In May 2002 the ‡Khomani Bushmen and Mier agricultural communities reached an historic land settlement with the government of South Africa which restored a large tract of land to communities that had once roamed in or farmed the area. They opened a fully catered luxury lodge in 2007. It was a good beginning.

Peace_Parks_Patrons_2Bucking the depressing trend for many other parks, the transfrontier conservation areas soon picked up the support of Presidents and Kings and the powerful South African Development Cooperation. The movement has grown from strength to strength and now encompasses some 18 areas across southern Africa with new proposals now reaching into Central and East Africa.

Although the bright beginning has given cause for celebration, a serious obstacle remains to be overcome. The long-term future of these conservation landscapes depends entirely on the extent to which rural communities within them can benefit from wildlife-based land-uses. With a few striking exceptions, the record so far is poor. This leads to a serious challenge for conservationishsts, politicians, development agencies and local people alike. It will be necessary to reform national legislation in most countries so that communities within and around the conservation landscapes have legal access to natural resources (Vol 2 of the Strategy). Only when such rights are granted will there be the necessary long-term security for the development of sustainable resource use.  If the new paradigm is to succeed and the new transfrontier parks are to prove sustainable, then this is the way forward.

Looking across the Zambezi River to Zambia

Looking across the Zambezi River to Zambia from Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe
Photo by Martyn Murray

The largest of the 18 landscapes is the giant KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area, which at 520,000 km2 is larger than Zimbabwe or Spain or California. It encompasses five countries (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe), thirty-eight protected areas, two million people and two hundred and fifty thousand elephants which live in the largest undivided population on the continent.

Okavango Delata

Part of the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area, the ethereal Okavango Delta is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Game trails can be seen snaking between the islands.
Photo by artist, Roger Brown

The team that developed the EU strategic approach for African wildlife in 2014/15 reasoned that the same landscape-based approach can be applied anywhere, even when the area is far from an international frontier. They called such areas Key Landscapes for Conservation, or KLCs for short, and started the job of mapping some of the more important ones.


Four levels of management within a Key Landscape for Conservation. 1) Park managment, 2) Landscape management for livelihoods, 3) Landscape management for conservation, and 4) Overall KLC governance. In some conservation heartlands there will be no frontier; if a frontier is present then the KLC is also a transfrontier conservation area.
Diagram by Martyn Murray and Carlo Paolini

At this stage there are 70 proposed KLCs spanning the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.


Key Landscapes for Conservation as suggested by the EU Strategy Team. KLCs arise from the concept of Transfrontier Conservation Areas but are not restricted to the frontier region. They form part of the new ‘landscape conservation’ paradigm.
Source: EU DEVCO map of KLCs

As a prime example of a proposed KLC, the Greater Virunga Transfrontier Conservation Area in Central Africa would comprise eleven protected areas in an area spanning parts of DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. It has a towering altitudinal range of 600 to 5,100 m and correspondingly high diversity of habitats – alpine to bamboo to swamp and lowland rainforest. It protects the world’s remaining eight hundred mountain gorillas, contains many of the Albertine Rift endemics and is considered one of the most species-rich regions on Earth.


Lowland gorilla enjoying the succulent stem of a sedge (Cyperaceae) in a forest clearing (Bai Houkou) in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, Central African Republic. In many countries of Central Africa, effective conservation currently depends on strong Public Private Partnerships for park management. Photo by Thomas Aveling


Another example from Central Africa is the proposed Greater TRIDOM-TNS Transfrontier Conervation Area which covers a very large area of essentially contiguous moist forest spanning the borders of three countries (Cameroon, Gabon and Congo). It contains a majority of Central Africa’s forest elephants, lowland gorillas and chimpanzees as well as a substantial proportion of the Congo basin flora.

Roan by Daniel Cornelis

Young roan antelope in W Regional Park, West Africa  Photo by Daniel Cornelis

An outstanding example from West Africa is the WAPOK Savanna KLC which lies near to the frontiers of Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger and Togo. It protects viable populations of lion, cheetah, elephant, giraffe, leopard, manatee, roan antelope, buffalo, and Defassa waterbuck in the last functional savanna ecological complex in West Africa. Another example is the vast Niger-Chad-Algeria Desert KLC which will seek to protect the highly threatened desert species such as scimitar oryx, Saharan cheetah, dama gazelle and addax.


Addax herd traversing dunes in Termit & Tin Toumma National Nature Reserve, Niger
Photo by Thomas Rabeil

A third is the Senegal-Mauritania Atlantic Coastal KLC which contains the most import wetlands in West Africa consisting of lagoons, saline flats, alluvial plains, an interconnecting network of rivers lakes and ponds, mangroves and dunes. They are vital for the annual bird migrations to and from Europe and Asia and are used by over two million wintering Western Palaearctic waders.


Like their cousins (the migratory tiang of Southern Sudan), topi move nomadically in large herds in parts of Serengeti
Photo by Richard Estes

In Eastern Africa, the proposed KLCs include the iconic Mara-Serengeti-Ngorongoro Transfrontier Conservation Area encompassing seven protected areas including three World Heritage sites and famous for its migrations of wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s gazelle, its high numbers of predators and the 50-year record of painstaking scientific studies. The Greater Kilimanjaro transfrontier conservation area between the same countries has eight protected areas, including one World Heritage site, and is equally iconic for its combinations of wildlife-filled plains and snow-capped mountain (photo of Mt Kilimanjaro in sister blog). Less well known but as impressive in scale is the Sudd-Badingilu-Boma-Gambella ecosystem, where migratory herds circulate between South Sudan and Ethiopia. The most recent estimates obtained in 2009 for the migratory species are 1.67 million white-eared kob, 340,000 gazelle and 125,000 tiang, the Sudanese long-legged form of topi.

It is early days yet but we can say with confidence that the Peace Parks conception has been thriving since its propitious African birth some fifteen years ago, and is now giving lusty teenage voice to a landscape-based approach to conservation. It is the last best hope for the future of wild African ecosystems.

I have been fortunate to live in some of Africa’s conservation landscapes for years at a time. They are a treasure beyond price. They are a heritage beyond value for all Africans, and for all humankind who feel that unique bond with the continent of their forefathers and mothers. May they bring prosperity to their nations and in so-doing live long and adventurous lives.

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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 imgur.com.

 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 has 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 flickr.com/photos/wildlife_boy1/with/9471687781

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 a 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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