Tag Archives: conservation

Are salamanders finally feeling the heat? The overlooked effects of climate change.

By Catherine Waite, University of Nottingham

Our society is inundated with information about climate change: it is in the news, infiltrating film and television, science, and policy.  And yet misconceptions remain regarding the importance and prevalence of such change.  Often, focus is placed entirely on the impacts to flagship species; the polar bear losing its icy home, for instance.  Unfortunately, this example is just the tip of the iceberg.  Climate change is affecting many more species than previously estimated and in myriad ways, including behavioural and physiological changes, as pointed out in a recent article in Geo: Geography and Environment (McCarthy et al., 2017).

File:Plethodon cinereus.jpg

A Redback Salamander (Plethodon cinereus)
Photo Credit: Brian Gratwick, Wikimedia Commons via CC BY 2.0

In this article, the authors investigated the effects of a warming climate on the body size of redback salamanders, finding that body size varies greatly depending on temperature.  The salamanders were 2.3% larger in warmer areas versus cooler ones.  Meanwhile a size increase of 1.8% was observed within areas that had experienced warming of 0.5-1.2oC between the periods 1950-1970 and 1980-2000.  This is by no means the only species to have been affected by the changing climate.  Both behavioural and physiological changes in other species have been noted: marmots now end their hibernation three weeks earlier compared to 40 years ago, martens in the Americas are getting bigger, and the skull shape of alpine chipmunks is altering due to climate pressure.

It is essential to recognise that such responses and adaptions do not mean that these species are successfully adapting to our warming world.  Ecologists have noted that climate is changing too fast for species, as they cannot adapt fast enough to keep up with projected rates of future climate change (Jezkova and Wiens, 2016).  So, even if the salamanders studied by McCarthy et al., (2017) seem to be adapting to, and tolerating, changes in temperature so far, they may not continue to do so in the future.  The same can be said for other species; if they can’t adapt quickly enough, extinction may be the outcome, and we can forget the notion that this is purely a theoretical, future event.  The first mammal global extinction due entirely to climate change has already been confirmed: the Bramble Cay molomys, an Australian rat-like rodent, went extinct due to rising sea levels inundating the coral island on which it lived.

Not many people have heard about the Bramble Cay molomys.  They have heard about the polar bear or the Bengal tiger, though.  These attention-grabbing species have been used as ‘flagships’ for conservation organisations, but are they any more important than their overlooked counterparts?  Is it justifiable to focus on flagship species in an attempt to attract attention and money that can then be used to support conservation at larger scales?  Or, is a disproportionate amount of conservation resources being spent on these flagship species?  It’s a delicate issue, and one that few agree on.  All we can do is remain aware that, even if the intent behind flagship species is to help raise attention and funds for wider conservation efforts, we can’t let them overshadow other, overlook, species that are also in trouble.

It has been suggested that “most species on Earth have been impacted by climate change in some way or another” (The Guardian, 2017).  However, there has been enormous under-reporting of these impacts to date.  The IUCN Red List only classes 7% of mammals and 4% of birds as threatened by climate change and severe weather.  This is undoubtedly an underestimate, as many species wait decades for updates within the list and most of the Earth’s species have never been evaluated.  Indeed, a study published in Science late last year found the current warming of just 1oC has already left marks on 77 of 94 different ecological processes, including species’ distributions and physical traits.  This is supported by another study published in Nature Climate Change earlier this year, which found 47% of land mammals and 23% of birds have already suffered negative impacts from climate change.  This huge difference in percentages from the IUCN Red List demonstrates how wrong we were about the numbers of species being affected by climate change.  And the full extent is likely worse even than this.  This research only considered two well-studied groups (mammals and birds) and the authors commented that we are likely to be significantly underestimating the extent of climate impacts on lesser studied groups even more.  If we can be so wrong for our most studied groups, how much worse are our predictions likely to be for species we don’t know much about, like corals, bats, fungi and frogs?

Perhaps most disconcertingly, we have only experienced a relatively small amount of warming so far (~1oC), in relation to that predicted by the end of the century (4-5oC). When considering the changes that only 1oC of warming has wrought, it does not seem hyperbolic to say that the effects of further warming may be colossal.  So what can we do?  We need to change the way we think about and report climate change.  It has been pointed out that many studies into climate change focus on forecasting, and tend to ignore the fact that our climate has already altered.  When climate change is viewed only as a future threat, the impetus to do something today may be reduced.  But climate change is happening now, and it is already having serious effects on many more species than we previously thought.  Hopefully, with articles such as McCarthy et al.’s acknowledging alterations that have already taken place, we can begin to accept that changes are already affecting nearly all species on Earth; and that the time to act is now.

60-world2 Briggs, H., (2016) Climate changing ‘too fast’ for species BBC , 23 November 2016

60-world2 Hance, J., (2017) Climate change impacting ‘most’ species on Earth, even down to their genomes The Guardian

books_icon Hunt, E., (2017) Act now before entire species are lost to global warming, say scientists The Guardian

books_icon Jeskova, T., and Wiens, J.,  (2016) Rates of change in climatic niches in plan and animal populations are much slower than projected climate Proceedings of the Royal Society B change doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.2104 

books_icon McCarthy, T., Masson, P., Thieme, A., Leimgruber, P., and Gratwicke, B. (2017). The relationship between climate and adult body size in redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus). Geo: Geography and Environment, 4:1.

books_icon Pacifici, M., Visconti, P., Butchart, S., Watson, J., Cassola, F., Rondinino, C., (2017) Species’ traits influenced their response to recent climate change Nature Climate Change 7, 205-208 doi:10.1038/nclimate3223

60-world2 Scheffers, B., de Meeseter, L., Bridge, T., Hoffmann, A., Pandolfi J., (2016) THe broad footprint of climate chante from

60-world2 Slezak, M., (2016) Revealed: first mammal species wiped out by human-induced climate change The Guardian 14 June 2016

Palm oil production: problems and future sustainability

By Joseph J. Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK

Palm oil, which is a type of vegetable oil that comes from the oil palm tree Elaeis guineensis, is big business! I challenge you to look in your home and fail to find a foodstuff, cleaning product, or toiletry product that contains it (see this guide to products containing palm oil). It has attracted much attention from environmental campaigners for several years, with a particularly high-profile set of protests against Unilever back in 2008, and there has been much publicity about its negative environmental impacts for some time (e.g. a report from the Independent in 2009). The story continues to reoccur in the popular press, with The Guardian recently reporting on a Greenpeace report (published March 3rd 2016) that claims 13 big brands (out of 14) cannot guarantee that the palm oil in their products is not contributing towards deforestation. The companies reviewed were: Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Ferrero, General Mills, Ikea, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, Nestle, Orkla, PepsiCo, P & G and Unilever. Ferrero was the exception as it ‘purchases palm oil volumes that are both fully traceable to plantation level and fully RSPO Segregated’.

Palm oil has penetrated global markets (including food, toiletries, cleaning products, and biofuel) because it is efficient (in terms of the amount of land required), versatile, and relatively cheap compared to other vegetable oils. It has been described as a ‘golden crop’, lifting many poor farmers from poverty, but it continues to cause major environmental problems, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are two of the main producers (BBC, 2015). Deforestation creates space for the palm oil plantations and this directly threatens ‘charismatic’ species (e.g. orangutans, rhinos, tigers, elephants), their associated ecosystems, and the many less charismatic species therein (WWF).

There are currently a number of organisations and initiatives that are trying to increase the sustainability of palm oil production, to ensure that this product is profitable now, and in the future, without devastating the natural environment. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which came into operation in 2004, aims to put the global palm oil supply chain on a sustainable path. Currently, 21% of palm oil is RSPO certified globally. The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), meanwhile, aims to support the RSPO by implementing existing standards and building upon these through ‘creative innovations’ and local, corporate (e.g. Danone, Ferrero), and NGO (e.g. WWF, Greenpeace, Orangutan Land Trust) partnerships. POIG recently released an updated set of criteria (published March 2016). Therefore, whilst there is clearly still some distance to go beyond this figure of 21%, progress is very much being made. Consumer awareness is also vital towards these efforts.

District Kunak, Sabah: A oilpalm plantation along the Malaysia Federal Route 13 with different stadiums of oil palm growing.

District Kunak, Sabah: A oilpalm plantation along the Malaysia Federal Route 13 with different stadiums of oil palm growing. © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0. Available at: (accessed 14th Mar 2016).

Palm oil production often occurs at a local scale. A recent article in The Geographical Journal reported on the diversity of small-scale oil palm cultivation in the Malaysian part of Borneo (Soda et al., 2015). The article provides a case study of SJ Village in the Bintulu District in Sarawak and considers land-use changes from 2004 to 2013 using land-use maps derived from high-resolution satellite data. The oil palm trees grown here are irregularly dispersed and not in large plantations, which is quite a contrast to the sources of much palm oil. The authors identify that this method of harvesting palm oil may seem inefficient and irrational compared to plantations, but show why it is in fact very sensible. This is because only 26.9% (14% cultivated by the local villagers and the rest by outsiders) of the land in this area in 2013 was found to be used for oil palm, which means that the area’s economy is relatively resilient to declines in palm oil prices. The rest of the land area consisted of: young secondary forest (38.3%), old secondary and primary forest (29.1%), and rubber (0.14%), while the remainder (5.63%) was not visible because of cloud cover. The villagers regard old secondary forest and lands with poor access as ‘backup space’ for planting rubber trees and rice if the price of palm oil were to fall.

However, the authors also discuss potential future land conflicts within this complex system of multiple actors, whereby villagers ‘may have no option but to plant oil palms to secure their land’ if plantations continue to expand in the area. This could impact the mosaicked spatial pattern that currently dominates this village landscape and potentially threaten forests (primary and secondary) and future livelihoods. Outsiders also have an increasing influence in the area, including farmers from other villages (they marry into the community) and urban Chinese who lease rural lands. This can take some control away from the local people and threaten the economic security and rural subsistence that they have developed over many years. Maintaining the diverse landscape of mosaicked oil palm trees and forest requires ‘balanced relationships’ among the diverse set of stakeholders.

The importance of local socio-economic resilience and sustainability cannot be overstressed: maintaining a spatially diverse landscape is regarded as superior to palm oil plantations by being ecologically, economically, and socially more sustainable. Hopefully such sustainability can be developed alongside conservation objectives by some of the organisations mentioned above, even where large companies and outsiders encroach on local villages. Additionally, landscape diversity should be encouraged in existing plantations, to the advantage of the local communities and wildlife.

References

60-world2 Batty, D. 2008 Unilever targeted in oran-utan protest The Guardian

60-world2 Greenpeace 2016 Cutting deforestation out of palm oil: company scorecard 

60-world2 Hickman, M. 2009 The guilty secrets of pail oil: are you unwittingly contributing to the devastation of the rain forests? Independent

60-world2 Lamb, K. 2016 Leading brands unsure if pal oil in products comes from rainforest land The Guardian 

books_icon Soda, R., Kato, Y. and Hon, J. 2015 The diversity of small-scale oil palm cultivation in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12152.

60-world2 WWF  Which everyday products contain palm oil? 

Poaching of South Africa’s rhinos and the displacement of people from Limpopo National Park, Mozambique

By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.

Across the globe, nature faces an enormous array of pressures from human activities (e.g. land clearance, pollution, invasive species). These effects are often a by-product of development where societies are negatively affecting a species or ecosystem because of anthropocentric goals, within which consideration of the natural world is frequently deficient. However, some species face direct threats and are being specifically targeted for a product. Ivory is one of the prime examples of such a threat. Here, I outline the illegal ivory trade1 and go on to specifically discuss rhinos following record poaching levels in 2014 in South Africa. I then briefly consider this alongside a recent article in Area on the eviction of people from Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park, which borders Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Poaching of elephants and rhinos for ivory has been described as a “loss to humanity” by Prince William (details), who has done much to raise the profile of this catastrophe. It is an issue that threatens not only the animals themselves, but also many people, with profits frequently linked to terrorism, for example. Rhino and elephant populations are at the centre of an illegal trade driven by international criminal gangs to supply willing buyers who fuel the demand for ivory (e.g. to be ‘cool’, for decorative items, medicine etc). Much ivory has been seized in recent years (e.g. China, Kenya [going to Indonesia], Togo [going to Vietnam]) and famous faces (e.g. Yao Ming, a famous retired basketball player from China) continue to campaign, but the problems persist.

Specifically, South African rhinos have been featured in the popular press recently following the worst year on record for rhino poaching, “despite what the government describes as intense efforts to stop poaching” (Voice of America). Kruger National Park’s (KNP) rhino population accounted for more than two-thirds of these deaths (BBC).

Rhinoceros_RSA

Attribution: By Wegmann (own work) [ CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) ], via Wikimedia Commons. Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rhinoceros_rsa.JPG?uselang=en-gb

A recent article in Area (Lunstrum, 2015) discusses the Mozambique government’s ongoing (since 2003) voluntary2 relocation of ~7,000 people from within the Limpopo National Park (LNP), described by Lunstrum as “one of the region’s most protracted contemporary conservation-related evictions”. As Lunstrum outlines, this process of ‘land and green grabs’ is an extraordinarily complicated issue, affected by processes within and beyond LNP’s borders, not least the establishment of transfrontier conservation areas (e.g. GLTP). Other socio-economic factors and competition for space are also discussed in detail (e.g. a ‘grab’ for an ethanol/sugarcane plantation adjacent to LNP, which was originally set aside for the displaced people).

Poaching accounts for a very small, but not insignificant, part of this article3. Along with threats to cattle and human well-being from wild animals, and disease spread (e.g. bovine tuberculosis and foot and mouth disease), a justification for displacing the residents of LNP is that many of Kruger’s rhino poachers emanate from Mozambique and, specifically, villages within LNP; removing people from LNP increases the distance required to travel to get to Kruger NP’s rhinos.

The displacement of people for conservation goals, in a move away from anthropocentric policy, is obviously a contentious issue and a delicate balancing act between culture and nature is required. However, Africa’s rhino population is suffering immensely and any steps towards preventing their demise should surely be taken.

NOTES

1 The illegal wildlife trade in elephant and rhino ivory and many other wildlife products is a deep and complicated issue that I cannot possible summarise in this post; an overview can be read here.

2While the park administration and its funders have promised all relocations are voluntary, many slated for relocation feel they are being forced to move especially given threats increasingly posed by wildlife. …” In Lunstrum (2015, p. 3).

3 I have related a very specific part of this long and complex article to the recent news story regarding rhino poaching and reading it in full is recommended if one wishes to understand the displacement process, and its consequences and opportunities, in full.

– – – – –

books_icon Lunstrum, E. (2015). Green grabs, land grabs and the spatiality of displacement: eviction from Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park. Area, early view, doi: 10.1111/area.12121.

The Changing View of UK Conservation

By Jessica Hope, University of Manchester

Photo credit: Karen Roe via CC BY 2.0

Photo credit: Karen Roe via CC BY 2.0

Last month the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) exhibition opened at the National History Museum, celebrating 50 years of the WPY competition.  The competition champions the diversity of life on Earth, encouraging photographers to think differently about the way that they tell the stories of nature and depict the natural world. The photographs in the competition present the diversity, beauty and wonder of the natural world. It seems an obvious next step to question how we look after and protect wildlife in the UK.

In the current issue of the journal ‘Transactions of the British Institute of Geographers’ William M Adams, Ian D Hodge and Lindsey Sandbrook consider recent developments in conservation in the UK, namely conservation’s expanding territorial claims. They argue that the models of  large-scale conservation being developed in the UK are a form of re-territorialisation, linked to wider neoliberal values and logic. For example, they consider the 2011 UK government White Paper on the natural environment. This White Paper restated a public policy vision for conservation in England, adopting “the positive language of success and expansion, rather than the more familiar conservation tropes of threat and retreat” (2014:574). However, the importance and value of conservation was justified with the logic of neoliberalism – presenting conservation as a means of meeting wider social and economic purposes, for example growth, prosperity and security.  This article charts these changes in UK conservation policy and raises questions about the challenges that this conservation model will face. Moreover, it draws attention to the need for more analysis of the power dynamics at play in the balance of public and private interests that come together in these larger conservation endeavours. The article reminds us that, like photography, how we see and value nature impacts how we protect it

Nature and economics: a necessary marriage?

By Joseph Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

Adams et al. (2013; p. 585): “Neoliberalism may offer a new set of mechanisms in pursuing conservation ends, but also creates new risks and challenges.”

Sustainability and social and economic human prosperity resulting from ecosystem services provided by nature form the heart of the principle of human–nature connectivity (see UK NEA, 2011). Such services are categorised as supporting (e.g. soil formation), provisioning (e.g. food), regulating (e.g. flood regulation) and cultural (e.g. education, recreation) by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA, 2005). These services can then be assigned an economic value and, theoretically, be more wholly incorporated into a neoliberal economy where conservation is seen as protecting an area’s economic value, rather than diminishing it.

Adams et al. (2013) note regular mention of such ecosystem services in UK ‘Large Conservation Area’ (LCA) project descriptions; a shift towards neoliberalism in conservation, and the apparent need to assign an economic value to designated conservation areas, is present in the UK. Such themes also extend to conservation the world over, as we can see by two recent major biodiversity reports.

Near Ullswater, Lake District National Park, UK. Should this ancient landscape be valued?

Near Ullswater, Lake District National Park, UK. Should this ancient landscape be valued?

Two separate recent international reports on biodiversity – Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the WWF’s Living Planet Report – have been widely referred to by the press. Both reports discuss ecosystem services and the benefits of nature conservation to our well-being and economy. The Telegraph, on the WWF’s report, discusses how humans “depend on ecosystem services”. Meanwhile, The Guardian and Blue & Green Tomorrow discuss the Global Biodiversity Outlook report and the overall failure to meet current global conservation targets. Perhaps then, better incorporation of nature into neoliberal economies via ecosystem services is necessary to convey the value of nature to policy and decision makers, in the UK and beyond.

Of course, ideas of ecosystem services are seldom isolated from opposition to the valuation of nature and for its inherent value, which is arguably priceless. Key arguments against such valuation include: (i) not all of nature’s outputs are useful services, indeed some are disservices, or are neutral, in relation to ‘serving’ people, but the areas providing these may house amazing species and ecosystems (are they at risk if they cannot provide a useful service?); (ii) ecosystem service arguments imply that the conservation of nature should only happen when it is profitable to do so; (iii) technological advancement may surpass nature’s services in the future (then what of a nature reserve that was being protected just because of a service and associated value?); (iv) nature has an intrinsic value and would be better argued for on moral, rather than economic, grounds (list summarised from McCauley, 2006 in Nature). Also see The Ecologist on biodiversity offsetting who ask: “How many pandas is a five star hotel worth?”.

Nature conservation, and associated themes (e.g. biodiversity offsetting, ecosystem services), in the UK and the wider world will only increase in importance and relevance as environments continue to change and, perhaps inevitably, the so called neoliberalisation of nature continues. As territories reserved for nature (and the value of these) are debated, understanding the spatial patterns of biodiversity, and indeed how these will change through time, will be vital so that we can move towards informed, resilient and sustainable decisions. Perhaps true sustainability can only ensue if nature’s intrinsic value takes a dominant role in discussions? Perhaps not, though; perhaps economic valuations will dominate by necessity? Personally, I hope that such intrinsic value is never overshadowed and that economic arguments, where necessary, simply supplement moral ones.

 Adams, W. M., Hodge, I. D. and Sandbrook, L. (2014). ‘New spaces for nature: the re-territorialisation of biodiversity conservation under neoliberalism in the UK‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39, 574–588.

60-world2 Bertini, I. (2014). Governments have failed to protect wildlife, UN biodiversity report findsBlue & Green Tomorrow.

60-world2 Global Biodiversity Outlook 4: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2014)

60-world2 Lean, G. (2014). Life on earth is dying, thanks to one species. The Telegraph.

60-world2 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.

 McCauley, D. J. (2006). Selling out on natureNature 443, 27 – 28.

60-world2 Scrivener, A. (2014). Nature as an ‘asset class’ – the free market’s final frontier? The Ecologist.

60-world2 UK NEA (2011). The UK national ecosystem assessment: technical report UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge.

60-world2 Vaughan, A. (2014). UN biodiversity report highlights failure to meet conservation targetsThe Guardian.

60-world2 WWF et al. (2014). Living Planet Report 2014.

Flying the flag: flagship species as a conservation tool

By Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Reports on the threat of extinction to animals proliferate academic and popular media. Whilst this is by no means a new phenomenon, Gupta et al.’s (2014) recent article in Area provides some food for thought. Their paper draws on the use of ‘flagship species’ to promote environmental protection and conservation. This term, for me, resides at an unusual intersection between scientific biogeography and culturally-influenced animal geography.

Flagship species are chosen for their ‘charisma’, a certain charm or appeal that makes them attractive to humans. Having the capacity to evoke empathy, such species are used as symbols for environmental protection and awareness, and are sometimes used by conservation organisations for brand identification. Examples include elephants, pandas, and tigers; large mammals, attractive and popular, threatened at continental scales. The ‘Flagship Species Fund’ – a joint initiative between Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) – explicitly focuses on ‘primates, sea turtles, and trees’ and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which uses a panda in its logo, admits that flagship species tend to be large animals favoured in western cultures.

How refreshing it is, then, to read about an unusual and divergent case; a species of fish that could help promote local habitat protection. Fish, it appears, are overlooked by flagship species initiatives and, indeed, by studies in animal geography. Gupta et al. (2014) draw our attention to the example of the golden mahseer, a river fish endemic to northern India. Local villagers are extremely passionate about this culturally-significant fish, which is beautifully colourful and elegant, described as the ‘pride of the area’. Anglers treat it with great respect, praising its intelligence and ability to evade capture. Not since we ‘found’ Nemo has a fish had such a powerful effect on human emotion. However, the golden mahseer is threatened by illegal sand and boulder mining, which is causing habitat destruction. Conservationists, therefore, argue that the golden mahseer has huge potential as a flagship species for Himalayan rivers.

This got me thinking about another taxonomic group that has been overlooked; birds. My own work looks at pigeons – more elegantly known as the rock dove (Columba livia) – and whilst they themselves are far from becoming extinct, two of their close ancestors have not been so lucky; the dodo, now symbolic of extinction, and the passenger pigeon. You may have read about the tragic fate of the passenger pigeon in the news of late. This year marks the centenary of the extinction of what was once the most abundant bird in North America. Due to a lack of laws restricting shooting, over the course of the nineteenth century, between 3 and 5 million passenger pigeons were shot and sold for food. Their population dwindled exponentially and Martha – the last passenger pigeon – died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. One good thing to come of this was a heightened public interest in conservation, although, like the dodo, it was all too late for the passenger pigeon.

Passenger Pigeon (image credit: Trisha M Shears)

Passenger Pigeon (image credit: Trisha M Shears)

Birds, like fish, appear to induce different emotional responses in humans to the cute and cuddly mammals used as flagship species. This is possibly due to the very different environments that they inhabit; we can’t possibly relate to what it is like to soar amongst the clouds in the sky or to reside in vast underwater worlds. Could this explain the notable absence of avian and aquatic flagship species in conservation schemes? Alanna Mitchell’s article for National Geographic at the end of August stated that 1,300 species of bird are currently at risk of extinction. Surprisingly, amidst this long list of ill-fated birds are parrots, puffins, and penguins; birds that capture public imagination with their charming dispositions. Thus, as a catalyst for action, such ‘charismatic’ birds should surely be considered as potential avian flagship species that could pave the way not only to species protection and extinction prevention, but also to the taxonomic widening of this valuable conservation strategy.

 Gupta, N., Sivakumar, K., Mathur, V.B., Chadwick, M.A. (2014). “The ‘tiger of Indian rivers’: stakeholders’ perspectives on the golden mahseer as a flagship fish species”. Area doi: 10.1111/area.12124.

60-world2 Enget M (2014) The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, Financial Times.

60-world2 Mitchell A (2014) The 1,300 Bird Species Facing Extinction Signal Threats to Human Health, National Geographic Magazine.

Drones for wildlife: the securitization of conservation?

By Helen Pallett

Drone_Flying_Eye

Image credit: Flying Eye (CC SA-BY)

We have come to know drones as one of the newest technologies of warfare and surveillance, a weapon central to how the war on terror is now being fought: remotely and increasingly through the use of computerised devices or robots. But another perhaps surprising use for drones has been developing in parallel, perhaps explaining why the World Wildlife Fund has been a major supporter of drone research since 2012.

On the same day last week the Guardian newspaper published two separate reports on drone usage. The first described how drones are going to be used in Kenya’s national parks in an effort to prevent poaching, whilst the second reported that in Germany drones will be used to protect young deer from being injured by combine harvesters.

These developments raise challenging questions about the development of new technologies. Do the intended purposes of a new technology matter when it is used for something different? Should we be interested in who the funders of technological research and innovation are? Can we assess and understand the uses of drones in wildlife conservation and, increasingly, research without understanding the use of drones as a technology of violence and surveillance? Is this the latest step in what some have referred to as ‘the securitzation of the environment’?

A recent themed section of The Geographical Journal, edited by Michael Mason and Mark Zeitoun, focuses on the issue of environmental security, both as a driver and consequence of increasing anxiety and apocalyptic accounts of the environment. In their introduction the editors argue that such fears about dangerous climate change or species extinctions work rhetorically to justify certain actions as urgent or emergency measures, from solar radiation management to crack downs on human behaviour and liberties.

Whilst few would doubt the seriousness of the threat from poaching to elephant and rhino populations in Kenya, by treating recent population depletion as an emergency scenario or a matter of security the Kenyan Wildlife Service and other conservationists may be serving to legitimate the use of a highly questionable conservation method. The use of drones for surveillance in Kenyan national parks represents a new method for policing ways of acting and being in a national park. The appropriate usage of national parks has long been a matter of controversy, not least because during the creation of many national parks, human populations had to be forcibly removed or regulated. Drones will potentially collect data not only concerning suspected poaching, but also other activities within the national park; all national park users can now be watched and surveilled. This may result in the management not only of poaching in the national parks, but also much more ambiguous activities such as attempts at settlement or the use of other resources.

Whilst it may be convenient to tell a simplistic story about ‘evil’ poachers and ‘good’ conservationists, such narratives can mask the more complex realities and the many negative implications the creation of national parks had for affected communities. Individual poachers may often be acting out of desperation, for example the lack of an alternative source of livelihood. Furthermore, poachers rarely act alone but rather are part of often transnational networks of capital, connecting them to infrastructures and markets for the sale of goods such as elephant and rhino horn.  So surveillance may be unlikely to act as a deterrent on its own.

The Kenyan drones project has been jointly funded by the US, Netherlands, France, Canada and Kenya, and also includes supplies of other military equipment such as firearms, bulletproof vests and night vision equipment. In the Kenyan national parks, drones are to be used in areas considered too risky for surveillance by manned aircraft, already a common practice. In the context of such efforts to radically reduce the risks faced by wildlife rangers in the field and the increasing panic about the loss of elephants and rhinos, how long will it be before it is acceptable to shoot suspected poachers on sight? Furthermore, once the infrastructures for drone use are in place it would be relatively straight-forward to substitute surveillance drones for armed drones, and this could be justified as a further means of protecting national park employees.

As we have seen with the military uses of drones, robots can make mistakes and claim innocent lives. Photos too can frequently be ambiguous and misleading, without other supporting evidence. Furthermore, these potential developments would further circumvent the justice procedures upheld by all the countries financially supporting the drones programme. In the context of albeit justified hysteria about the fast depletion of certain endangered populations, do we risk sanctioning an equally unpalatable solution? Claims of 96% reductions in poaching in some of the Kenyan drone pilots, alongside the circulation of horrifying images and statistics about the effects of poaching, also mean that other potential methods for conservation and poaching management may increasingly be ruled out and foreclosed.

books_icon Michael Mason & Mark Zeitoun 2013 Questioning environmental security, The Geography Journal, 179 (4): 294-297 (Open Access)

60-world2 Google cash buys drones to watch endangered species, BBC News, 6 December 2012

60-world2 Kenya to deploy drones in all national parks in a bid to tackle poaching, The Guardian, 25 April 2014

60-world2 Germany deploys drones to protect young deer from combine harvesters, The Guardian, 25 April 2014