Thursday, 11 May 2006

Researching species to extinction

The is an old adage, that success breeds success. And it certainly appears to be true in the case of the World Land Trust. 2005 was one of the Trust's most successful years for fundraising, with more members of the public supporting us than in any previous year. This has continued into 2006, and in addition, the Trust has been in receipt of several larger donations.

Buying land vs. funding research

It is relatively easy to understand the reasons for this, which in my view are entirely justified. The Trust has been around for over a decade, and now has a proven track record and, is becoming far better known. The fact that several well-known naturalists and conservationists are associated with the Trust certainly enhances its credibility as well. But I think another important factor is that members of the public are increasingly disillusioned with the way that overseas aid appears to being poured into bottomless pits. The World Land Trust projects all have tangible and very obvious results: LAND. Land is acquired, protected and is there for everyone to see. I personally believe that far too many conservation charities waste valuable and limited resources on research. Scientific research is costly, and generally speaking not the highest priority when it becomes to conservation.

The last few decades of the 20th century saw millions of dollars being devoted to research into endangered species. It would be interesting to quantify some of these costs, but even without detail it is possible to make some interesting points. One popular 'theory' at the end of the century was that of 'biodiversity hotspots'. Numerous papers were written, by numerous well-funded scientists, and it was claimed that this research and the analyses would make conservation decisions easier and better. The definitions of endangered species were also refined, and detailed methodologies created.

In developing hotspots and other theories, large numbers of people were involved, mostly academics, many of which have little or no practical experience of implementing conservation. I was reminded of the early nineteenth century when pioneer naturalist and conservationist, Charles Waterton (among others) criticised the "closet naturalists". Those who studied wildlife in the libraries and museums, and barely knew what the living animals looked like.

Important decisions often not scentific

In my experience most conservationists can make perfectly good conservation decisions without the reams of academic papers that have been published. In fact many of those people having to make the decisions don't even have access to the publications. Furthermore, many of the important decisions that really affect conservation are not scientific anyway.

An unfortunate aspect of a lot of this type of research is that it is based on the available data, and in many cases the available data is not adequate, or irrelevant. In the recent case of the land purchase carried out by the WLT and its partner Guyra Paraguay, the most important factors involved were availability of funding, and availability of land for purchase. We can do the science later, without using conservation money.

So don't misinterpret what I am writing, I am not anti-science or scientific research. But I am anti using conservation funding for it. There are plenty of sources of money for scientific research, and in most cases, there are higher priorities for using conservation funds. Clearly I have a bias; I think land acquisition is the top priority. This is to state the obvious: without land, and without wildlife, research becomes purely academic. Interesting, but of very little conservation value. Personally i find much of the research into dodos, giant auks, moas, thylacines absolutely fascinating, and will read papers, and attend conferences -- but I certainly would not waste a single conservation cent on it.


  1. Up to a point, Lord Copper?..I agree that 'grab what you can while you can' is a better policy than grand strategies based on ecological theories generated in academia. However, there is a role for conservation science that can run in parallel.

    The Countryside Restoration Trust is a domestic analogue of the WLT and is buying or being gifted land which will be managed sympathetically. Wildlife is returning to our two farms outside Cambridge, originally near sterile 'barley prairies'. There are increasing numbers of grey partridges, skylarks and brown hares, but no sign of lapwings, tree sparrows or water voles. Yet, even if all the common farmland fauna and flora returned to these and similar 'reserves' they would still be uncommon. Science can pinpoint why species are dwindling and so indicate how the situation can be remedied across the wider countryside. The effect of pesticides on sparrowhawk and peregrine eggs comes to mind. Science presented an overwhelming case for banning DDT.

  2. I commend the CRT to all my readers -- as Robert writes, a domestic analogue of the WLT. And I agree science has a role. But scientists can still be a mixed blessing. Read James Lovelocks latest "The Revenge of Gaia", in which he presents an argument in favour of DDT. But then Lovelock has a rather anthropocentric view of Gaia.