Thursday, 18 December 2003

Copycats saving an acre of rainforest

I am regularly asked what I think of the various other groups that are buying rainforest in the same way that the World Land Trust has been doing since 1989. One answer is that plagiarism is a form of flattery. But more seriously, if the other organisations are doing an effective job, then the more the merrier; and it would be invidious for me to comment on how effective some of the other organisations are. The World Land Trust has cooperated very closely with The Nature Conservacy (TNC) over the Programme of Belize, and the World Parks Endowment works alongside in fundraising for Ecuador and elsewhere. Without the financial clout of these US organisations, we would never have achieved nearly as much.

The World Land Trust and Massachusetts Audubon Society were among the very first organisations to embark on an international campaign to save rainforest through direct purchase, and involving the public. This led to the purchase of the first 110,000 acres of forest in Belize. We have gone on to raise funds for thousands more acres, and have developed partnerships in many other countries. We have attracted a wide range of support from many well-known conservationists, writers, wildlife broadcasters and scientists, and we believe that our network is unparalleled.

The World Land Trust is still comparatively small, with most of our partners employing many more staff than we do -- and that's how it should be. We also have a very strong philosophy of empowering our partners, and not sending out managers from the UK to run projects. This latter is common in many of the larger organisations, and is a form of green colonialism -- sending out an eco-Governor General to show developing countries how to run a project. For projects to be sustainable, the local organisations must have responsibility, and be empowered. There are plenty of good local conservationists, who can do a first rate job -- and they have the local knowledge, not just of wildlife, but also socio-economics and politics.

Buying reserves, and offering the public an opportunity to participate was new and innovative when the World Land Trust Launched its first appeal 15 years ago. It is still a good idea, which is probably why it has been copied. But we're still brand leaders, striking out in new directions, forming new partnerships, and seeking innovative solutions to the ongoing problems of wildlife. We were particularly pleased that the Independent newspaper recognised the World Land Trust, by including us in its list of 50 Best Christmas Presents for 2003.

It's easy to feel powerless, but we believe that saving the wildlife, acre by acre is one way of doing something positive.

Monday, 15 December 2003

Why is the World Land Trust needed?

I recently gave a seminar at the University of East Anglia to a group of Master’s students drawn from all over the world, on the subject of international conservation organisations. One of the questions that came up in the wide ranging discussion (they were a very well-informed and stimulating bunch of students) was what makes the WLT different from other organisations? Although it was something we have often discussed within the WLT, suddenly I had to summarise in a few words.

I immediately recalled some of Jerry Bertrand’s (Hon. Chairman of the Trust) words when speaking recently at the Mall Gallery in London. He pointed out that the WLT has had an exceptionally high success rate with its projects. This was a result of very careful planning and implementation procedures. Between staff and Trustees we have, literally, decades of experience behind us. He also pointed out that the WLT was frequently innovative, leading the way where others followed.

Another feature which is probably unique, and was certainly innovative, is our relationship with our partners. All our projects are managed and led by local NGOs. Our role is to help provide funds for the purchase of land and for its management. Unlike many other international organisations, our overseas operations are not headed-up by ex-patriate management. We are fully committed to empowering the local NGOs, as it is our belief that this is the only sustainable long-term future for wildlife conservation. Only local managers can fully understand the political and economic parameters they have to work in, and we believe it is arrogant and has undertones of ‘green colonialism’ to assume that we know better and need to send in ‘experts’.

I have visited many parts of the world, and seen numerous projects first hand, and all too often they are led by ‘experts’ and ‘consultants’ from the developed world, at salaries often an order of magnitude higher than the local equivalent.

Some international organisation run huge administrative staff to manage their overseas projects, and we pride ourselves on being small and lean. In fact we are smaller than several of our overseas partners.

This is not to say we do not provide technical expertise or other forms of support. We certainly do, but only when it is requested. And generally only if that expertise is simply not available locally.

In the 1990s, it became widely recognised that all too often foreign aid had been a form of imperialism, making the recipients dependent on the donors. At the WLT we are making every effort to avoid that approach. The disadvantage is that our profile is much lower than other international organisations, but we believe that is a price worth paying.

Friday, 12 December 2003

Christmas Gift Acres a great success

The World Land Trust is buckling under its own success, but we're coping.

Following the inclusion of the World Land Trust's 'gift acres' in ther Independent's 50 Best Christmas Presents, the WLT has been inundated, with email donations via the secure server, and the phone ringing non-stop. Clearly after 15 years, the concept is still as popular as ever, and early in the new year, the funds raised will be used to acquire more forest in Ecuador. And the publicity has also helped the WLT's other projects -- the coastal steppe in Patagonia, and the elephant corridor in the Garo Hills of India.

On a completely different topic, Fauna & Flora International celebrated its 100th Anniversary this week. From 1975 to 1987 I was the chief executive of FFI (then known as the Fauna & Flora Preservation Society, and under its auspices I helped launch a number of projects which still survive -- TRAFFIC is perhaps the best known, but we also launched a Bat Conservation project, which has become the Bat Conservation Trust. It was also while working with the Fauna Preservation Society, that I began to realise the importance of land acquisition as a tool for conservation. And at that time there was no organisation in Britain dedicated to it overseas. So in 1988, the idea of the World Land Trust was born. ... and the rest is history.

Saturday, 6 December 2003

Independent 'sells' rainforest

Today's Independent, (one of Britains broadsheet newspapers) carried a special supplement on the 50 Best Christmas Gifts, and among them the World Land Trust's 'gift acres' were listed.

Just after midday I called at the office, and found the phone ringing and the answerphone full of messages -- obviously a lot of people extpected us to be at work on a Saturday, and so to work came Vivien, and spent the rest of the afternoon answering last minute Christmas gift requests.

It looks like next week will be hectic, but we're not complaining -- with any luck it will be enough to buy another chunk of forest in Ecuador. Our only concern is making sure people get their certificates before Christmas -- so if you're thinking of giving an acre as a present, please contact us as soon as possible -- if you can't get through on the phone, then our secure server on our website is definitely the easiest way. I regret that no one will be in the office tomorrow, but we're back on Monday, sharp at 9 a.m.

If you are contacting us by phone, the office is open 9 a.m. to 1p.m., and to 5p.m. At other times there is an answerphone.

Monday, 1 December 2003

Crimes Against Nature

This week I can do not greater service to the world's environment than encouraging readers to go to and read what Robert Kennnedy has to say about the disaster that is befalling the USA, and by extension, the rest of the world. Please read it.

Tuesday, 25 November 2003

Big Cats in England?

My recent visit to Patagonia further confirmed my incredulity at the idea of big cats living wild in England. I spent several days on the Estancia La Esperanza, the ranch owned and managed by the WLT’s partner, the Fundación Patagonia Natural. Each day I went out with the reserve’s manager, Gustavo Zamora. He knows the ranch well. Very well indeed, and each day we found footprints of puma, and we also located a recent puma kill of a guanaco (wild llama). He finds a kill of guanaco or sheep almost every week, and can find fresh footprints and scats any day. But still, after three years living and working on the ranch has yet to see a living puma. There are also several scientists studying the guanaco, who spend hours and hours most days watching the guanacos and other wildlife, but they have never seen the pumas.

So it is bizarre how in England sightings of these beasts are more common than the other evidence they leave behind. And the habitat in Patagonia is extremely open -- low bushy steppe and desert, with few places to hide, unlike most of the places in England where these alleged pumas are reported. But the Beasts o Exmoor, Bodmin and Surrey live on, just like their ancestors, the Hound of the Baskervilles and the Black Dog of Bungay -- rural myths to compete with the Alligators of the New York Sewers.

Tuesday, 18 November 2003

Where is the rainforest going -- yet more concerns

I am writing this from the office of the WLT's partner in Argentina -- the Fundación Patagonia Natural. Flying across the Amazon and then on to Argentina, several things struck me looking down. First, it was dark as we flew across the western Amazon, and from on high fires could be seen at regualr intervals. This has been noted many times before, but what doesn't seem to be mentioned is the amount of light pollution there is even in remote parts of the world. It seemed that villages and even scattered farms now have generators, and bright lights are becoming the norm. What effect this has on migrant birds and other wildlife is impossible to guess.

And then soon after crossing the border into Argentina (it was light by now) it was possible to see the forest being stripped. square plots were visible from the air, some already farmed others still forest. Those cleared took virtually no notice of water courses, and increasing sedimentation was often visible. And for what? Yet more food for the northern hemisphere, which is already overfed. However, it is not all depressing -- there are some splendid initiatives happening in Patagonia -- but that will wait for another day.

Thursday, 13 November 2003

Concern about the rainforest

The headlines o Britain’s Independent newspaper yesterday (12 November) splashed the fact that Britain’s foreign aid to tropical rainforests was being slashed. The worst fears of conservationists seem to being fulfilled –the Blair government not content with following George Bush into Iraq, was now following his lead on environmental matters. The cost of the war in Iraq continues to escalate, and it appears that Britain is prepared to sacrifice the rainforest in order to maintain its military presence. And this was not all. The same newspaper carried reports on the changes in nature conservation – which involve the abolition of English Nature. Many conservationists will see this as an attempt by central government to silence criticism of its poor environmental record. English Nature has guarded its independence from government jealously, and on many occasions spoken out against government policies. Replacing it with a government department is generally seen as a very retrograde step.

Wednesday, 29 October 2003

Visits from Belize and Bulgaria - and a visit to Patagonia

The next few weeks are going to be very busy at the World Land Trust. Our partners in Ecuador are negotiating yet more land purchases, and back here in the UK we are hosting Edilberto Romero, the Director of the Programme for Belize (PfB). PfB was the first project of the WLT, and paved the way for all our future activities. PfB is now a fully fledged NGO, with a staff of nearly 40, managing over 280,000 acres. Edilberto is over to meet with the staff and Trustees of the WLT, and also to visit other key organisations.

Overlapping with Edliberto Romero, the WLT is next week hoisting a delegation of senior park managers from Bulgaria. Funded by the USAID, the Bulgarians are visiting to study fundraising and the management of endowment funds for protected area, and they will gain valuable insights from their discussions with Edilberto Romero – PfB have been managing such funds and programmes for over 10 years now.

And as soon as that is over, I am going to Patagonia, for the first time in two years, for a Board meeting concerning the management of the Estancia La Esperanza. This project is desperately short of funds. – It costs less than $2000 a month to keep it going, but we also need about $100,000 to invest in the renovation of the buildings. Once renovated, the income derived from visitors staying there will help pay for the day top day running costs. Sponsors are urgently needed – it’s an ideal opportunity for businesses of almost any size. And even an individual could sponsor the running of the reserve for a month. And they can go and see for themselves how it is progressing. If you know of an individual or business that might consider helping please let me know.

Tuesday, 7 October 2003

Dependent on the Internet

Since September 15th the WLT has had major problems with its internet connections -- the main result has been that we have been unable to send emails. After three weeks of struggles (and our ISP is still failing us) we have become aware of how totally dependent on the internet we now are. So if anyone reading this has been trying to contact us by email -- or has had emails returned, please phone and let us know -- (44) 01986 874422.

As far was we know our incoming mail is getting through, and there are absolutely no breaches of the secure parts of the system. The big problem is that none of our outgoing emails seem to have been delivered. We have set up alternative systems, but do let us know if there are still any problems.

Thursday, 2 October 2003

Dumbing down nature conservation

Today I received my copy of English Nature's Magazine, and the front cover illustrated 'the magic of nature'. But what an inappropriate illustration. A beautiful bluebell wood with a group of gawmless looking kids dressed up as fairies. Pure Disney, and an insult to our imagination. If nature is truly magical, we do not need kids dressed up as fairies to tell us so.

English Nature is supposed to be the UK's premier scientific advisory body for wildlife -- but it appears that like so many other institutions, the marketting and PR departments have taken over, and are determined to dumb down to the lowest common denominator. Look through the magazine, and you will find 20 pictures of people, and only 9 pictures of wildlife and habitats unsullied by humans. I really do not need a picture of an unidentified person in a wheelchair in a meaningless location to illustrate whellchair access. Unfortunately this approach is becoming all too common. While it is useful to have human presence, it should not become all pervading. And certainly not fairies....

Tuesday, 23 September 2003

Boadband Internet connections and wildlife extinctions

What is the connection between Broadband and wildlife extinctions? you may well ask. The answer is that the World Land trust is striving to save endangered wildlife, yet is unable to get broadband. And broadband Internet connections are becoming essential tools for much of the fundraising activities of the 21 Century.

Our current Internet connections are slow, and relatively costly. Broadband would give us highspeed connections, much cheaper. If we were a commercial competitive business, this would be a serious competitive disadvantage. And yet the Broadband suppliers are under no obligation to provide the service. Expensive advertising extolling the virtues of broadband pervade TV and other media – but even though it often only costs a few thousand pounds to upgrade exchanges, it is not being made available. The reason seems to be, that in rural areas, where demand is low, it is much more profitable for the telephone companies to sell the old slow connection, or to sell the even more expensive satellite connections. I wonder if in fact this sort of unfair discrimination against small rural communities is actually allowed under EU legislation. Surely there should be some protection for what is clearly a case of exploitation of small businesses?

Help save wildlife --- lobby for broadband for rural areas.

Thursday, 18 September 2003

50 things to do before you die

Last night BBC TV showed a programme entitled 50 Things to do before you die. Several were things I certainly intend avoiding, for a variety of reasons. Climbing Everest for instance, mostly because I am not fit enough, and never likely to be, but also because the mountain has been spoiled by the debris of so many visitors.

It was interesting that many of these things to do were concerned with wildlife. Nothing really cultural - like reading a book, seeing the Mona Lisa, or seeing a film. And several of the the things listed I have been fortunate enough to do: see tigers in the wild, trek through a rainforest, visit a paradise island, see gorillas in the wild, fly over an active volcano, all of which were in the list. I can also think of a few more things considerably more exhilarating than some of those listed: SCUBA diving on a coral reef for one, I would prefer any day to Disney World.

But the interesting point of the list is that so many of the experiences relate to wildlife. That is another reason why supporting the work of the World Land Trust is so important. In Patagonia you can go whale watching, and have Right Whales a few feet away. In Ecuador you can trek through elfin forest and rainforest. In Belize you can trek through the forest in search of the elusive Jaguar, and then relax on the Barrier Reef. And Danjugan really is a paradise island. You can keep bungee jumping, paragliding, riding a Harley Davidson, and playing golf -- it's wildlife every time for me.

Here are my 25 things to do before you die, that come with a personal recommendation for 15, and 10 that I'’ve yet to do, but would like to (not in any particular order). I could easily come up with a few dozen more. Do any readers have other suggestions? Please email me at jab*AT* (replace *at* with the symbol @ in your email address field.)

Things to do before you die – personal recommendation:

  1. See a tiger in the wild
  2. See an active volcano
  3. Visit a large seabird colony in the breeding season
  4. Visit a bat cave with thousands of bats
  5. See Mountain Gorillas in the wild
  6. See Whales close to
  7. Spend a night in a desert
  8. Climb on a glacier
  9. SCUBA dive on the Belize Barrier Reef
  10. Hear gibbons calling in the wild
  11. See the game parks of East Africa
  12. Go spotlighting for owls in South Africa
  13. Look for Salamanders in the Appalachians
  14. Visit a flamingo colony
  15. See giant redwoods

Still to do:

  1. See a Jaguar in the wild
  2. Visit the Australian Barrier Reef
  3. See a giant ant eater in the wild
  4. Visit the Kimberlies in Australia
  5. Visit the Galapagos islands
  6. See a Maned wolf in the Wild
  7. Visit the Cape when the flowers are blooming
  8. See a wild yak
  9. See Rafflesia growing in the wild
  10. See lemurs in the wild in Madagascar

Wednesday, 17 September 2003

Charity awards - a waste of time and money?

I am always slightly disturbed when each year I see details of charity awards. Charities are asked to nominate the 'Best Fund Raiser' 'Best Volunteer', 'Chief Executive' or 'Best Campaign', and then they are expected to dress up and to pay £100 or more per person to go to an awards ceremony and see the winners get their awards. Just like the Oscars. But is this really what donors expect charities to be spending their time and money on? Just filling in the entry forms takes time, and then there are trips to London's West End, hiring Dinner suits etc etc. The organisers no doubt argue that it is important to reward excellence, but I would argue that surely the best reward for excellence in a charity, is achieving the objectives of the charity. Not being patted on the back and spending several hundred pound being told you are good.

But most important, it's not what donors expect charities to be doing. Or am I wrong? Feedback from donors to the World Land Trust would be most interesting and welcome.

Monday, 1 September 2003

Donating to charities over the internet

John A Burton, the CEO of the World Land Trust examines some of the issues and suggests a checklist of questions that need to be answered before donating. Although this article was conceived in relation to charities concerned with environment, and in particular rainforest, the questions could apply to almost any charity.

Over the past two decades there has been a proliferation of charities raising funds for conservation, and the Internet has made it easier than ever to donate, but the controls are scant. How can the public separate the good from the incompetent, or even the downright dishonest web sites?


I first became seriously involved in wildlife conservation in the late 1960s, when there were very few relevant organisations indeed. I had been carrying out investigations into the abusive aspects of wildlife trade and publishing the results in Animals Magazine (the predecessor of BBC Wildlife). The World Wildlife Fund was new, and I became the first Wildlife Consultant to Friends of the Earth in the UK, soon after it was founded, in 1969. In 1975 I left FoE (which, as a campaigning group is not a charity) to become Secretary of a charity, the Fauna Preservation Society (now Fauna & Flora International). While at the Fauna Preservation Society I founded the TRAFFIC International network, and was one of the founders of both Bat Conservation Iinternational and the Bat Conservation Trust, and in 1989 helped found the World Wide Land Conservation Trust (now the World Land Trust).


The World Land Trust was founded to fill a niche – there was no organisation in the UK dedicated to raising funds to acquire land for conservation all over the world. The ‘Buy an Acre’ concept, launched (in BBC Wildlife Magazine, and on BBC Radio’s World Service) to buy land in Belize was a novel idea, and caught on, and soon other organisations were springing up and copying it. This is potentially a very good thing, since the more funds raised the more land saved. And the widespread use of the internet means that it has never been easier to communicate with the fund-giving public. There were also lots of other sponsorship schemes springing up, and one of the most popular has been planting trees. By the turn of the millennium, the internet was fast becoming the most popular form of making donations for both sponsoring acres and trees. But not all these activities are as charitable as they seem.

The Issues

However, the downside is that not only do some people distrust the security of donating on line (something we as an organisation have never had any problems with), but many people are now concerned about the integrity of organisations, and asking how to decide which organisations to support, and how to make decisions. Obviously I have a vested interest in promoting the World Land Trust, but I think the questions that we have tried to address on our web site are valid when assessing any charity. And if readers of this article can think of others, I would be very pleased to hear of them, and see if we can address those as well.

Transparency: It is essential that any charity expecting to receive funds from the public is as open and transparent in its operations as possible. Unfortunately this is not always the case. So check out the following:

Legal status: First and foremost make sure of the legal status of the organisation. In the UK Not-for-Profit is not the equivalent of the US Non-Profit. Any Company can be not for profit, but it does not make it a charity, governed by the strict laws of disclosure that apply to a Registered Charity. If a limited company, that is not a charity solicits donations, there may be good reasons – campaigning and political groups for instance, as well as travel companies, may decide against charitable status as it limits their activities – but sometimes it is not so straightforward. If you think you are supporting a Charity make sure you see its Registration number. And check it out at Some charities operate for profit companies in parallel with the charity. But this should be obvious from the annual returns on the Charity Commission website. To complicate things further, an organisation does not have to be registered as a Charity to claim to be a charity -- so make absolutely sure they are registered. If they are not registered ask why not.

Communications: Not only should a web site disclose an email address, it should also give details of the physical location of its office, and give telephone numbers so that you can speak to someone during normal office hours. If it does not, the organisation it may be tiny – it is easy to create a flamboyant web site from an attic. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is increasingly difficult (if not impossible) for micro organisations to comply with all the legislation surrounding a charity, and remain cost effective. This is particularly so if they are using data bases and the internet.

People: A good web site should give some information about the people behind an organisation. The names of Key Staff, all Trustees and Honorary Officers (such as Treasurer) should be disclosed. Does the organisation employ competent experienced staff? Does it make effective use of volunteers? Does it have Auditors and Legal Advisors?

It is always a good thing if an organisation has high profile personnel associated with them as Trustees or Patrons – particularly people respected within the conservation field, or with a high public profile. If you have serious concerns about activities write to them – if they take their job seriously they should reply.

Finances: A web site should disclose some information about the finances of the organisation. Registered Charities have to submit accounts, and if you cannot find out anything about the finances on a web site, then simply visit the Charity Commission website, and check there -- it's easy to do so Charities are also obliged to supply copies of their Annual Report and Accounts to enquirers (for which they are allowed make a charge – usually between £5.00 and £10.00 to cover admin costs). If you are considering a large donation it is not unreasonable to ask for a copy.

Size: While small can be beautiful in the environment, being too small often means being inefficient, with overhead costs high in relation to charitable activities. If a charity does not have facilities for online credit card donations, or telephone donations, it is likely to be operating on a shoestring. This may not be a bad thing, but if it is operating internationally, it really does need certain facilities.

Other issues: I personally find it strange that some charities offer valuable inducements to support them – free gifts – some of which are not actually free, but come out of the donations or other costs of the charity. There’s nothing illegal in this but it always seems a bit odd. It's fine if the gifts really are free (Green & Black recently donated sample bars of Maya Gold Chocolate for us to send out to new supporters for instance).

Another aspect is value for money. Is it realistic to achieve what is claimed? Can land really be bought for £25 an acre? In some countries it is cheaper, others more expensive.

How much does it really cost to plant a tree? How are the running costs of a reserve calculated? Where are trees being planted? If in the UK, is there any mention of the substantial government grants being made for tree planting?

If you are sponsoring an animal is it really benefiting the species?

Finally there are businesses operating in a way that makes them appear like charities, so before making an online donation to what appears to be a good cause think carefully. You may not want your donation ending up in a director’s or shareholder’s pocket. Make sure you are donating to a registered charity.

In my experience all good charities are more than happy to respond to close questioning – it’s in their interests to ensure there are no bad apples in the barrel. If you cannot speak to someone, or they are evasive, ask another similar charity about them. And if you are thinking of making a large donation or legacy, get your solicitor to check the charity.

Wildlife friendly gardens

--Nature Reserves on a small scale

In the January 2003 edition of BBC Wildlife Magazine, Prof. Stephen Harris of Bristol University and Chairman if the Mammal Society wrote that the current British record for the number of mammals found in a garden stood at 18. But I have recorded at least 20 species of mammals in my garden in the past three years, and a similar number at a previous address.

In my garden just outside Bungay in N E Suffolk I have recorded over 20 species as follows:

Hedgehog, Mole, Common Shrew, Water Shrew, Pygmy Shrew, Bank Vole, Short-tailed vole, Wood Mouse, Yellow-necked Mouse, House Mouse, Brown Rat, Harvest Mouse, Grey Squirrel, Rabbit, Brown Hare, Fox, Stoat, Weasel, Long-eared Bat and Pipistrelle Bat. There is at least one other species of bat present, and within half a mile of the garden muntjac and red deer have also been spotted.

In fact, many people could expect to achieve this sort of variety provided they managed their gardens for wildlife – but they would need to live in a fairly rural area as well, since some species – such as mole, rabbit and brown hare -- are not popular in suburban gardens.

I think it raises interesting questions about what is a garden and what is a nature reserve. I was particularly aware of this as I am recently completed a book on attracting wildlife to the garden, to be published early next year, and clearly if the objective of ‘gardening’ is to attract wildlife, one is really creating a nature reserve. And conversely, managing the habitats on a nature reserve is only gardening, on a larger scale.

For example, the creation of small lakes and pools to attract wildlife on the World Land Trust'’s reserve in Patagonia (owned by the Fundación Patagonia Natural), is little different to putting a bird-bath my backyard – just that one is around 1000 square metres, and the other is 7000 hectares (70 million square metres. And putting out peanuts for blue tits is analogous to letting the guanaco numbers increase so that pumas have prey.

Nearly all nature reserves need some degree of management, it is simply a question of defining the management objective, and if a gardener defines one of her or his management objectives as increasing wildlife, then they are creating a nature reserve. But there is no doubt, that in general, where nature reserves are concerned, big is beautiful. That is why as well as creating back yard nature reserves, we should all be trying to help acquire land for conservation in other parts of the world, where large areas can be purchased cheaply.

For further information on how the World Land Trust is helping conserve threatened wildlife in all parts of the world, please visit

Tuesday, 26 August 2003

Endangered insects?

The Bank Holiday weekend in England was generally warm and sunny, and so most people are now convinced that global warming is occurring. In fact, despite my earlier pessimistic comments about the lack of insects, I seem to have noticed quite a few more in recent weeks. The Buddleia bush which has just finished flowering attracted clouds of butterflies -- peacocks, small tortoiseshells, red admirals and commas. And the nettles I left for butterflies were shrouded in the nests of the black woolly bear caterpillars. And there are certainly a lot of dragonflies buzzing around the country lanes.

However, there are still not the number of flies and other insects that there should be. Sitting in the garden eating dinner on Friday evening (which was particularly warm) there was the odd fly -- but fifty years ago, there would have been dozens. The reasons are obvious enough -- just drive through the countryside, and this time of the year, when harvest has more or less finished, it is a brown sterile desert. Acre after acre (or hectare after hectare) of bare earth, with hardly any forms of life, freshly ploughed, ready for the next bout of spraying. Visit a local rubbish tip -- once home to myriad insects, and it it is near sterile. It's a miracle that any wildlife survives. The house crickets which once infested most rubbish dumps are now, to all intents and purposes an endangered species.

This year was the first time I have not seen a cuckoo. It suddenly dawned on me yesterday. I had heard the odd one in spring, and not really thought about it, but suddenly it is nearly September, and i've not actually seen one, for the first time since I started birdwatching nearly 50 years ago. In those days I heard and saw them in the Suburbs of London every year. Even 20 years ago they were the sort of bird one might expect to see practically every time one went for a walk in rural Suffolk -- but no longer.

Wednesday, 20 August 2003

Biodiversity and the Jenga Principle

and other musings by John Burton

Biodiversity is a term first used in 1985 and Sir Martin Holdgate the former Director of IUCN regarded it as the 'Total sum of life's variety on Earth, expressed at the genetic, species and ecosystem level' . In fact the term has entered into common parlance as a synonym for species diversity, and is in consequence, often misleading. Areas that are important for biodiversity are indeed often species rich, but an over-emphasis on species-rich, so-called ‘biodiversity hotspots’ can not only be misleading, but detrimental to conservation.

One of the objects of ‘hotspots’ was to prioritise conservation action, but such prioritisation is a gross simplication, and fraught with problems. First and foremost there is the issue of the reliability of the data it is based on. It is not uncommon for birds to be used as indicator’ species. This is because it is claimed that birds are among the best-studied taxa, with relatively few new taxa to be described. This claim is not entirely justified, since recent years have actually seen an upsurge in new taxa being recognised. There is also the question as to whether or not one group of taxa can be used to reflect species richness in others. BirdLife published such comparisons but the results were very disappointing, and showed very little convergence between the distribution of mammalian, reptilian and amphibian narrow endemics with birds or with each other.

A glance at any of the maps of the so-called biodiversity hotspots shows that there is a huge concentration in the tropical regions, but hardly any of these regions have been studied anything like as well as Europe or North America, where new species continue to be described every year. Other concentrations occur where there is large altitudinal variation in a relative small area, such as the Eastern Mediterranean. Areas such as Patagonia, the Putsa, Gobi Desert are ignored despite having many interesting and unique species, including endemics.

And this is where Jenga comes in. Most readers will know that Jenga is a simple game of manual dexterity. A tower of wood blocks is created, and then the contestants take it in turns to remove blocks without causing the tower to collapse, but leaving the top layer intact. If a large tower is created, clearly under normal circumstances, more pieces can be removed before it collapses, than from a small tower. If the blocks are used to represent species within an ecosystem, the analogy works pretty well. A simple ecosystem, (pampas) is formed from large blocks (species) but relatively few of them, to create the entire tower (biomass). As a tower it is relatively stable, but as soon as one or two blocks are removed near the base, the slightest jolt will lead it to collapse (other species become extinct). A complex ecosystem (rainforest) is not even a single tower, but a complex series of towers, more like a pyramid, comprising hundreds of blocks. Lots of blocks can be removed before serious damage occurs to the structure, even from near the base.

These are the extremes, and I am sure the analogy can be developed further -- it would also make an interesting and marketable game. But it is in the less clearly defined habitats – those of the temperate regions, the concept is most likely to be useful.

What we should be looking at are habitats that are likely to cease to operate as ecosystems (Jenga towers) and concentrate on conserving those. Using this approach, I believe it is possible to prioritise conservation action. Madagascar, which is clearly comprised of a tower of unique blocks, has already lost most of its base layers, and so compared with the Amazon or Congo, is much nearer to collapse.

And applying the concept to Europe it is apparent that the whole region is in serious danger. In the past 50 years so much of what was at least partially able to support an ecosystem (farmland) has undergone ‘desertification’, that it is unlikely that the rest of the ecosystems can survive. The disappearance of birds such as the house sparrow, may even be a symptom of this collapse.

Previous experience has led me to always question the basis of setting priorities. In 1988 I was involved with the creation of the Programme for Belize, a conservation initiative to acquire land in Central America. Several international conservation bodies were approached for support, but the World Wildlife Fund in the UK declined to put its name to the project at the time, because it was not a ‘priority’ area. 15 years on, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now state that that area is part of the largest remaining continuous tract of forest in the whole of northern Central America. It is one of the few forests capable of sustaining viable populations of species such as Jaguar and Puma, as well as providing habitat for a wide range of other species. The problem with most of the prioritisation systems that have been used recently, is that they have usually been developed by biologists and scientists, and priorities do not only involve science -- even though scientists might argue they take other factors into account. Counting numbers of species, and degrees of rarity is only part of the equation, and in some cases a relatively unimportant part. Other factors that need to be taken into account include the following:
  • Economic considerations: What is the cost of buying or protecting the land? Can it generate income? Can it be self sustaining? What subsidies are needed?
  • Political considerations: Is there a local will to conserve it? What happens if outsiders become involved?. NIMBYism and the reverse. And there are many, many other considerations that need to be taken into account.
  • Spatial considerations: How big is the area? Can it be protected? How near is it to other protected areas? How does it relate to the economic geography of the surrounding country?

The conclusion many conservationists would reach after considering all the above, as well as the huge range of factors normally considered when evaluating endangered species, is that each case needs to be treated on its own merits, and that the world is in such a state of crisis that ALL remaining natural habitats are under threat of some sort and need protection and conservation.My personal conclusion is that the only way of implementing a realistic prioritisation is opportunistically. Too many of the world’s conservation bodies are sitting on piles of cash and/or carrying out yet more research. Truly a case of fiddling when Rome is nearly burned to the ground. It would be interesting to have some PhD students carry out research into the economics of conservation research, to look at what has been spent on endangered species research over the past 40 years, and compare that with other uses of the money, such as land acquisition. How many millions of dollars have been spent on researching elephants, rhinos tigers and gorillas? How many reserves could have been bought and protected with that money?

New Elephant species in new journal?

An exciting publishing development is to be found on the internet at The Public Library of Science is an online, fully refereed journal, but unlike the numerous other journals now being published online, there is no hefty charge being made to view or download the papers published on it. Congratulations to all those who helped bring the project to fruition.

One of the first papers published is the result of a DNA study of the elephants of Borneo. The generally accepted wisdom has been that the elephant population of Borneo was the result of human introductions, probably around 300-500 years ago. But a large team of researchers, headed by Prithivarj Fernando, from Columbia University, New York, have been able to demonstrate that the elephant population probably diverged from the mainland populations around 300,000 years ago, when Borneo was separated from the mainland. Although the authors do not go as far as suggesting the population should be regarded as a separate species, they do believe that “this study, has profound implications for the fate of Borneo’s largest mammals. Wild Asian Elephant populations are disappearing as expanding human development disrupts their migration routes, depletes their food sources, and destroys their habitat. Recognising these elephants as native to Borneo makes their conservation a high priority and gives biologists important clues about how to manage them.”

Back in 1950 , a taxonomist who seemed to delight in creating new species and subspecies on the sligtest pretext, managed to describe at least 10 subspecies of Asian Elephant, some based on data as scant as a single Medieval stone carving or an early description in Persian. Among these poorly described subspecies was Elephas maximas borneensis, and despite the inadequacy of Deraniyagala's research, if the Bornean population is to have a name, because of the taxonomic laws odf priority, it will be Deraniyagala's authorship that will be associated with the name.

Monday, 11 August 2003

The human population problem

The heat wave continues in the UK and the rest of Europe. Forest fires are causing untold damage to wildlife, and it will take decades for some of the habitats to recover. A few habitats, that are adapted to fire, will bounce back more quickly and some may even benefit -- but only a minority. And of course, the press is full of speculations about global warming. But a few hot summers are not indicators of global warming, and it really is rather futile speculating on whether or not global warming is occurring, and if it is, is it a result of carbon emmissions.

Whatever the scientists say, it will be decades, if not centuries, before we can answer many of the questions. There have been frequent periods of warm summers in the past, just as there have been decades of cool weather. Vineyards flourished as far noth as Lincolnshire in the English Middle Ages, then it got colder for a few centuries.

What is certainly true, however, is that for the past three centuries mankind has been chucking huge quantities of pollutants of various forms into the environment in quantities that are bound to be damaging to the sustainability of the planet. Rivers have been poisoned, forests destroyed, deserts created, and finally CFCs and other pollutants released into the atmosphere. Whatever the link with global warming, this cannot be doing any good to the planet.

But before rushing into alternatives, and so-called renewables, we should look at all of the alternatives very carefully. What are the hidden costs to the environment? Nuclear power once seemed a universal panacea to all our energy problems. It still might be, but what about all the security risks?

The fundamental cause of all these problems is the burgeoning human population of the planet, most of which seem to aspire to live at the standard of living found in the USA. This cannot be sustainable, but the movement to limit population growth that was flourishing in the 1970s seems to have almost disappeared. The effects of higher and higher living standard aspirations in Britian, include more and more land disappearing under housing developments. And each person demands a bigger and bigger living space, more resources to heat, and air condition that living space. So even a 1% growth in population means a huge increase in resource depletion. And while governments claim to be encouraging energy conservation, business is simultaneously trying to sell everyone more and more material goods, all of which require energy and resources to manufacture them, and more and more of those goods require energy to run them.

The only way such growth can be sustainable is if populations start declining. But it will take decades to reverse current trends -- unless war and disease intervene, which seems increasingly likely. Something to think about while sunbathing in the heatwave.

Tuesday, 29 July 2003

Where have all the elephants gone?

The second half of the 20th century saw the destruction of the huge herds of elephants that once roamed much of Africa. Despite the depredations of the ivory traders, until the 1950s, elephants still survived in reasonable numbers. But then, with the spread of independence among African states in the 1960s, there was also a dramatic rise in the armaments available. And one of the results of this ‘arms race’ was the destruction of elephants and rhinos. But parallel with the much publicised destruction of the African Elephant, the Asian Elephant was declining even faster. The population explosion of the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia has fragmented the elephant’s habitat to tiny remnants of the forests that once spread over much of the area. There are now probably less than one tenth of the number of Asian Elephants compared to African.

The Asian Elephant is slightly smaller, hairier, with smaller ears than the African, but another feature is that the females rarely have tusks and the males’ are generally smaller than those of the African Elephant. But this may not always have been the case. It has been suggested that this is the result of centuries of hunting for ivory, which has selectively removed larger tuskers from the population, altering the genetic structure.

The future for Asian Elephants is very gloomy. They need large areas in which to roam, and inevitably come into conflict with humans, and their agriculture. Even parks and reserves do not entirely solve the problem, as few of them can be large enough to preserve populations of significant genetic diversity. One solution is the creation of corridors between national parks and other protected areas.

The World Land trust is raising funds to help its partner, the Wildlife Trust of India, with an exciting new project to create elephant corridors in North-west India. Working with local communities, the project will set aside areas where the elephants can move safely, and alternative sources of income will be developed with the communities to off-set the losses caused by the elephants. It is also anticipated that this approach will benefit a wide range of other wildlife – such as primates and big cats, as they will undoubtedly use the corridors as well.

The cost of creating the corridors has been estimated at around £25 an acre and the World Land Trust is ‘marketing’ acres as an ideal gift – for the person who wants to do something really positive for elephants, and also be able to feel they have done something tangible. The campaign will not be launched until September, (with a target of £30,000, it’s modest and should be achievable). But meanwhile, if any readers of this column know of a company or individual who would like to sponsor this work, I would be very pleased to hear from them. This is only the first of several corridors, but we anticipate it will prove successful a long-term strategy.

Wednesday, 16 July 2003

How green are wind farms?

The 'green' movement, led by Greenpeace, greeted the UK government's announcement this week that it was to build huge wind farms with almost universal approval. But how 'green' are wind farms?

Wind energy is, of course, renewable, but the turbines themselves are created from non-renewable resources, and being such huge structures, they require huge concrete bases to anchor them. Concrete is a pretty energy intensive material, and the placing of the bases may well affect natural drainage patterns. But to me, as a naturalist, the most worrying feature about wind farms is the death and destruction they can and do mete out to wildlife. Now, not all wind farms or individual wind turbines kill wildlife. But many do, and some on a very significant scale. I have been reading about a Spanish wind arm in Navarre that has killed hundreds of the threatened Griffon Vultures. It has also killed over 600 bats in a year, as well as thousands of small birds and other endangered species such as White Stork and Bonnelli's Eagle. In California, there are serious concerns about the impact of wind farms on the local Golden Eagle population. And flying around the Internet there are accusations that data about wind farm mortalities is being suppressed.

Gathering data on the mortalities at wind farms is difficult, but the fact that they kill birds is incontrovertible. Nearly all large man-made structures from pylons, power-lines, oil rigs, skyscrapers are hazards, killing large numbers. But add to those structures blades whirring around with a wing-tip speed of nearly 150mph (240kph), and there is a serious hazard for all but the most agile of birds and bats. And for less manoeuvrable species - such as eagles and hawks, collisions often become inevitable.

Birds and bats killed or even injured by wind turbines fall to the ground, and in turn may attract predators, so gathering data becomes difficult. And the predators attracted, may in turn become victims. But research has been carried out to calculate these losses, and this indicates that some of the estimates may well be too low. And of course collecting data at sea is even more difficult.

Far too little is known about the likely impact on wildlife populations of the proposed wind farms in Europe, and the enthusiasm for them by some environmentalists may well be entirely misplaced if they endanger birds and bats. But once they are built, just like the nuclear power stations, it will be very difficult to get them shut down, however many birds the kill. And the problem seems to be compounded by the fact that the wind power promoters are now funding many conservation organisations, including the RSPB. This has led to critics of the wind farms accusing such organisations as not being objective. The time has surely come for a really objective look at the environmental impact of wind farms. David Bellamy and I have been looking at this issue and trying to find out what the real effects will be - clearly renewable energy is something we all support, but what if the costs, in terms of other impacts on the environment are too high?

My concern is that the energy companies (whose main raison d'être is to sell more and more energy) are promoting wind farms because they have convinced the environmentalists that it is totally safe and renewable. The environmentalists are more concerned with being anti-fossil fuels than really considering the environmental impacts of wind farms. And it is the wildlife that will miss out- yet another straw on the donkey's back.

Feedback will be welcome.

Friday, 11 July 2003

Anonymous damselfly

Peter Taylor, the World Land Trust's Website manager, is also a keen naturalist, and wrote the following news item this week, as a result of his interest in odonata. I thought some of our readers might be amused.

"Damselfly returns to Hardy country" News story on BBCi

The BBC is currently featuring a rather lovely story about the return of a rare damselfly to Dorset. Although the story runs to more than 500 words, and includes quotes from two experts it fails to mention at any point the name of the species of damselfly concerned. Perhaps the damselfly is so rare that it doesn't have a name, or maybe the BBC decided not to bother us with trivial details. Luckily help is at hand - a quick look in the new Reviews section of the WLT website should reveal the name of the insect they're talking about.

UPDATE Monday 14th July: It now seems the damselfly has a name - the news item now includes a nice photo of a marked damselfly - (CD Marker pens work well)

Monday, 7 July 2003

Modern farming and the future of British wildlife

I drive some 6 miles to the office of the WLT most days and it always makes me pause and think about modern farming. There are hedges and copses, but there are also expanses of wheat, barley sugar beet and peas stretching a hundred acres or more, and rarely less than 40 acres. These are sterile expanses, that 50 years ago would have been criss-crossed with hedges. There would have been large areas of old permanent pasture, rich with wild flowers, and with a diverse selection of insects and other invertebrates. The fields of arable crops would have a healthy selection of weeds.

Even in the 1970s I remember corn marigolds and other weeds mixed in the wheat. But now no longer. It is a miracle that so many species of birds and other wildlife survive at all, though I am very concious of a slow inexcorable decline in a huge number of species. From Lapwings to Tree Sparrows, from Swallows to Yellow Wagtails, many species now seem to be doomed to extinction in Britain. Or if they survive, it will be in isolated populations on nature reserves. And then there the 'island effect' -- when small populations are isolated they become increasingly vulnerable to local extinctions, and recolonisation is more difficult.

Despite all the valiant efforts of UK conservation organisations, I find it increasingly difficult to be optimistic about the future of British wildlife. The changes in the European Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) perhaps give some glimmer of hope. But meanwhile, saving what's left of the unspoiled parts of the planet is to me a really high priority. There is probably no part of the British Isles where the hand of man is not easily observed. No 'natural' ecosystem. But in Ecuador and other parts of the world near pristine forests do exist, but for how long? We have a duty to try and save as much as possible, by what ever means we have at our disposal.

Wednesday, 25 June 2003

Gardening for wildlife

Until last weekend I was bewailing the lack of insects. But then my garden was full of them. Well not exactly the numbers of 50 years ago, but nonetheless some good numbers. It just goes to show how easy it is to garden for wildlife.

The insects in good numbers were bumblebees, and they were on the sage bushes and white clover. The sage had been planted in the herb garden, and the white clover was in an area of lawn that had been allowed to revert to ‘meadow’. Simply by not cutting this area, over a period of only two years, its species diversity has increased dramatically.

Unfortunately, one group of insects I have not seen in any great numbers is the short-horned grasshoppers. As a child I always remember grasshoppers abounding on the commons around London, and bush crickets were a real rarity. But now, living in the countryside, I see quite a lot of bush crickets, but very few grasshoppers. And despite seeing very few house martins and swallows earlier in the summer, this week the first broods have left the nest and are flying around – hopefully they will raise two or three broods this year if the fine weather continues.

It is always notable how the swifts and swallows gather over our garden – five acres of unsprayed garden and woodland in the midst of East Anglia provide a ready supply of insects. Very soon the dragonflies will be on the wing, and with any luck they should attract the odd hobby.
But if any one asks what they can do to encourage wildlife, the answer is very simple – go organic. Suburban gardens are among the last refuges for many species of wildlife, but they are also often sprayed more intensively than farmland.

Thursday, 12 June 2003

Rose-Coloured Starling

On Wednesday 11 June, the World Land Trust Board of Trustees met for the Annual General Meeting of the Trust. But before the meeting started two of the Trustees, Prof. Renton Righelato and Dr Nigel Simpson went to Minsmere for a couple of hours birdwatching. On their way back to the meeting they saw on a telephone wire en route to Westleton, one of the most spectacular birds to visit Britain -- a Rose Coloured Starling. A quick check with the RSPB's Warden of Minsmere revealed that no one else had seen the bird so far.

Rose Coloured Starling breed in India and other parts of Asia, as well as Eastern Europe. Their plumage is a beautiful rosy pink, contrasting with glossy black. Nigel Simpson managed to snap a photograph by using his digital camera down his binoculars -- not the perfect way of photgraphing, but a good picture nonetheless. No doubt scores of twitchers will now descend.

How green is green diesel?

How green is green diesel? Trying to keep abreast of these developments I asked one of the World Land Trust's Trustees, Prof. Renton Righelato to review the issues, and below is a summary he produced - feedback would be very welcome - it's a controversial issue.

Biofuels - a Review by R C Righelato

"Green gasoline", "biofuels" - warm words, an attractive concept perhaps, but just what does it really mean and does it make sense?

Long before Kyoto, governments in many countries had been encouraging the use of biofuels to reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels or as a way of subsidising their farmers. More recently, the threat of global warming has given impetus to the development of "renewables", which are encouraged under the Kyoto Protocol and are planned to replace significant amounts of petroleum over the next decade.

There are many types of biofuels, some created from wastes (particularly methane) others from crops grown for the purpose:
  • vegetable oils from oilseed rape and oil palm added to diesel
  • sugars from maize starch, beet and cane converted by fermentation to ethanol which can be added to petrol
  • plantation forestry or coppicing to produce wood for burning
  • methane from sewage, farm wastes, landfill.
It can only be helpful to make use of wastes, particularly where the potent greenhouse gas, methane, is converted to carbon dioxide, which, carbon for carbon, has a much lower greenhouse effect. But the production of more crops to fill our fuel tanks will only compound the ecological problems we have already created with agriculture, with potentially little or no greenhouse benefit.

This discussion will focus on oilseed rape and biodiesel in the UK, but the same logic applies to bioethanol and to tropical, as well as temperate areas.

UK consumption of diesel in 2002 was 17.6 million tonnes(1). To provide the vegetable oil for this (with present technology, up to 10% vegetable oil, after processing, can be added to diesel), over 1 million hectares of arable land would be required - a massive 25% increase in the total land under crops in the UK and nearly a quadrupling of present oilseed rape production.

The equivalent of 0.56 tonnes of fossil diesel are required to produce 1 tonne of biodiesel (2). So, the use of rapeseed oil for biodiesel gives us an overall saving of fossil fuel of around 4%. Applied to all of the UK's diesel consumption, this represents a saving of 774,000 tonnes of fossil fuel and is equivalent to a saving of carbon released into the atmosphere of around 0.5 tonnes carbon per hectare.

The land needed to supply this quantity of oilseed could come only partly from set-aside and would require further land being brought into cultivation, with a concomitant release of carbon stocks from the soil and ground cover.

If instead, the land were allowed to regenerate as forest over a period of 50 years or so, the rate of removal of carbon from the atmosphere would be around twice as much as the saving arising from the use of biodiesel (3). Sustainably-extracted, such forests could provide timber that, used as a structural material, would increase the carbon "sink" effect in the mature forest.

The ecological cost of intensive, mono-crop agriculture, in terms of lost biodiversity and lost resilience to environmental change is huge. Added to this is the loss of the countryside as an amenity to enjoy and, for many people, the nose, skin and eye irritation that the pollen causes.

A strategy for carbon emissions should firstly be based on using less carbon derived energy – driving more gently and less frequently, more efficient engines etc. Secondly we must develop alternative energy sources out-with the carbon cycle. And thirdly create and maintain stable carbon sinks. This means:
  • protecting established forests and grasslands;
  • re-establishment of stable forests and steppes.

1 DTI Energy Statistics, Government News Network 27 March 2003;

2 Richards IR, 2000 "Energy balances in the growth of oilseed rape for biodiesel and of wheat for bioethanol." British Association for Bio fuels and Oils.

3 Read D et al 2000 "The role of land carbon sinks in the mitigation of global climate change". The Royal Society, London (
Other useful bibliography
DEFRA - Economics and Statistics
Shapouri H, Duffield JA, and Wang M (1998). "The energy balance of corn ethanol". U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of the Chief Economist, Office of Energy Policy and New Uses. Agricultural Economic Report No. 814.
Shapouri H, Duffield JA, and Graboski MS. (1995) "Estimating the net energy balance of corn ethanol". U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Office of Energy. Agricultural Economic Report No. 721.

Sheehan J, Camobrecco V, Duffield J, Graboski M, and Shapouri H (1998) "Life cycle inventory of biodiesel and petroleum diesel for use in an urban bus". National Technical Information Service, Springfield VA.

Biofuels - background notes
  • Net Energy Analysis USA : Office of Energy Policy, New Uses (OEPNU)
    US corn to ethanol 1.34
    Soy biodiesel 3.20
  • Net Energy Analysis UK (ref 2)
    UK rapeseed oil 1.78
From DTI statistics:
  • UK transport fuels demand 49Mt/a (2002) of which 17.6Mt DERV
From DEFRA Statistics:
  • Total arable crops in UK 4.5 Mha
  • Rape UK 432 kha; 1.4Mt; £294M
  • Sugar beet 169 kha; 1.4Mt; £272M

Monday, 9 June 2003

Wildlife Conservation

Wildlife Conservation, terrorists, guerrillas, and drugs

The World Land Trust is frequently approached by individuals who want our help in conserving areas of land that are threatened with development. We have also had a few time wasters - individuals owning land in the tropics who think they can make a quick buck, by selling it at a vast profit to a conservation charity.

But a more interesting development recently, was a proposal that we should buy land in Colombia. There is no question that the land is of biological and conservation importance. It is in one of the areas of the world’s greatest species diversity - a so-called biodiversity hotspot. And the land is cheap - relatively undamaged natural habitats at $35 a hectare - which means for around $5000 we could buy a reserve of round about 250 acres - a significant area. But one of the reasons the land is so cheap is that it is not entirely safe in the area, there are guerrillas. [ A 600-acre wildlife reserve in England recently cost over $1.5 million, - well over 100 times more expensive - which gives some perspective on the relative cost. And if the relative cost per species is calculated, it is even better value]

Should a charity like the WLT risk buying land in such circumstances? There are obvious security issues for its staff, but if it operates, as we always do, through a local NGO, and that local NGO is happy to acquire and manage land in those circumstances should we risk funding it?

My own view is that the general funds raised by the Trust for land purchase should not be used - after all the majority of the general public and companies supporting us would not expect any risks to be taken. And I am sure that most other charities and non-profits would have similar policies. However, what such a policy does mean, is that real opportunities to do something really positive, at very low cost are probably being missed. But if a wealthy private individual wanted to donate to the WLT with specific request that the funds be used for such a venture it would be an entirely different matter.

That such conservation opportunities are available I have seen first hand. Soon after the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon, I visited the area - there were some very real opportunities for imaginative conservation. And fortunately there were people interested in enough to take the initiative. But in Colombia, they wouldn’t need to be fabulously wealthy - $5000 - $10,000 could make a really meaningful contribution.

My brief experience in Lebanon led me to believe that wildlife conservation could play an important role in conflict torn areas. Despite more than two decades of war in Lebanon, the conservation movement had grown up and flourished, with very little outside contact. It reminded me that in 1975 I had been present at a ceremony in what was then Zaire, presenting medals to wardens who had guarded the national parks throughout their recent civil war. And in Rwanda, the guards stayed loyal, and the gorillas survived, despite the terrible genocide. More recently, last year I visited Uganda, where there are many very enthusiastic and dedicated conservationist, despite the years of war.

So is there serious philanthropy somewhere in cyberspace? If anyone fancies being really innovative and putting up some funds I’d be delighted to hear from them.

Tuesday, 3 June 2003

Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show, Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don and Peat,

BBC TV's presentation of the world-famous Chelsea Flower Show last week was thorough, and for most gardeners one of the highlights of the viewing year. I was particularly impressed with Messers Titmarsh and Don tackling the thorny issue of the use of peat. But as usual the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) are doing too little too late. In fact they are doing virtually nothing, which, as the leading horticultural organisation, is appalling. Peat extraction for the gardening trade is destroying thousands of acres of unique habitat. David Bellamy, and most high profile TV gardeners have spoken out against the trade, but it continues unabated.

Many years ago, when I was Executive Secretary of the Fauna Preservation Society, we managed to extend the Society's remit to include plants, and it became the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society (now Fauna & Flora International); and one of our first campaigns related to the import of hundreds of tonnes of wild collected bulbs. But I could not get the RHS to take a strong stance against the trade - banning the exhibition of wild collected orchids and bulbs for instance. Twenty years on the RHS is still being weak-kneed over conservation issues. There is absolutely no reason why they should not ban the use of peat in any form at the Chelsea Flower Show. But will they? No. A spokesman for the RHS when tackled on the issue by Alan and Monty gave very unsatisfactory answers. I was a member of the RHS for many years, but I resigned over their failure to take action over the bulb trade. It is time RHS members took a firm stance over the use of peat. Geoff Hamilton, one of the most popular gardeners of the last century, was a strong advocate of peat-free gardening - and he died in 1996. How is it the RHS has not taken action nearly eight years after his death?