Friday, 25 April 2008

A bit more on awards

This is the time of the year when the nominations for charity awards are trawled. I have already had a gripe about the charity awards (see UK Charity Awards 2007 and Ripping off Charities with awards?) and that moan got quite a lot of positive feedback, from a wide range of sources, not just on the WLT website, but was picked up on other sites.

Coincidentally with this years Charity Awards, I also got notification of the Annual Whitley Awards for Conservation. Now I am considerably more ambivalent about these awards -- not surprisingly because anything that helps conserve wildlife must, per se, be a good thing. However, even here I do have serious reservations. The awards are given to individuals, on the grounds that charismatic leaders are what really move conservation forward. But is this true? In the short term, it probably is true, but in the long term, I think it is certainly rarely so, except in the case of world shattering leaders. Clearly people like Sir David Attenborough, Sir Peter Scott, Aldo Leopold, Julian Huxley, Max Nicolson, Jacques Cousteau -- to name but a few -- had massive and long-lasting impacts. But they certainly didn't need awards to tell them or the rest of the world so. But when I look at the list of the winners of the Whitley Awards, past and present, it is a pretty random selection.

Unfortunately awards will also always tend to operate under Darwinian rules of 'natural selection', in that those with access to publicity media will come to the forefront, those with big egos will float to the top, and those who cultivate a wide network of contacts will gravitate to the centre.

Now I have supported applicants to the Whitley Awards in the past, and will no doubt do so in the future -- there's cash in it for conservation. But giving the prize to individuals simply feeds the all pervasive cult of the celeb'. We have already seen wildlife films debased by gung-ho figures such as Steve Irwin. And the argument is that it brings it to a wider audience - am not particularly anti even those presentations. And last summer a string of 'celebs' were flown around the world for the BBC's Saving Planet Earth series, again, justified on the grounds that it brought the issues to a wider audience. But is this all worth the sell-out? I am not taking a particular stance, but I do have concerns. Inside knowledge is potentially a dangerous thing -- I know many of the persons involved at all levels -- from selections committees to winners. And I know that a few of the winners represent totally unsustainable projects, that are dependent on one or two individuals. But does this negate the benefits of such awards?

Who thinks what?

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Water, water everywhere, and lights everywhere as well

850,000 litres of water were bought by the House of Commons, at a cost of £324,000, according to a recent article in London's Evening Standard newspaper. And this is a government allegedly committed to saving resources, reducing carbon etc etc. The company that delivers the bottled water clocked up some 70,000 miles delivering it, and each litre was packaged in a non-returnable glass bottle. According to the Evening standard Minister Phil Woolas claimed it 'Bordered on being morally unacceptable.' Perhaps an understatement.

Government twittering about energy, and everyone being exhorted to stop flying drive less, doesn't make a lot of sense, when you see huge amounts of waste. Bottled water must be one of the craziest of all -- shipping around the country a substance that it to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from what comes out of a tap, is a huge drain on energy and other resources.

And then there is my old gripe: street lighting. Light pollution is rife, with millions and millions of kilowatts blazing away into the night sky. Causing birds to get lost on migration, probably causing the extinction of many species of insects, and an aesthetically nauseating orange glow over much of the northern hemisphere. Before worrying about whether or not we have left the TV on standby, let's worry about the street lighting left on all night, the church towers floodlit, and all the other major forms of waste.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Indicator species

I noticed that there is a workshop at the next BirdLife Conference on birds as indicator species for biodiversity. This is a concept that I find rather annoying -- birders love to suggest that their favourite organism is somehow a more important type of animal than others. There is an implication that the areas that are important for bird biodiversity are likely to be equally important for other forms of biodiversity. To start with, I really don't like using the term biodiversity, because you never really know what is meant. The majority of times it is being used as a synonym for species diversity, which is not really the same. It's a dangerous route -- rather like the hotspot concept. And like the latter does as much harm as good. Hotspots tend to be equated with species richness, but as any naturalist knows, deserts tend not to have as great a species richness as tropical rainforests. The only problem is that if you want to conserve desert species, conserving hotspots in the rainforest wont help a lot. And the same is true for bird biodiversity. The Galapagos islands are important for bird species diverssity, but to all intents and purposes irrelevant for terrestrial mammalian diversity -- just like New Zealand, with only two native mammals, both bats.

Trying to sell birds as biodiversity indicators is, to me, missing the point. Birds, and all wildlife deserve to be saved for a varity of very good reasons, but trying to kid someone that some taxa are more equal than others, smaks a little of two legs good, four legs bad.

I have nothing against materialist arguments for wildlife conservation, but I think if science is going to be used, we should be very careful that th arguments really stand up -- and when it comes to biodiversity, hotspots, species diversity, biomass etc etc., there is often not nearly enough known to justify some of the claims being made. All to often the species diversity has direct correlations with observer activity. It is very well known, that rare species of orchid, for example are likely to be discovered close to other rare species of orchids -- this is because botanists are more likely to go to those localaities. Just as bird reserves often have far longer bird lists than very similar habitat a half mile away, simply because that's where the birders go.