The unBalanced ecoLOGist: On Getting Real about Conservation

It’s been just over a week since I published my World View, “It’s time to get real about conservation” in Nature. The response to this op-ed has been, at least to me, nothing short of astonishing and a bit overwhelming. Individuals have actually commented on it on Nature’s web page, it’s ricocheted around the Twitterverse, and I’ve gotten a handful of new followers and dozens of direct messages and emails thanking me for the catharsis (really!) of writing what others have thought about but haven’t been willing to say aloud, looking for advice on moving into conservation careers, and probing for ways to support conservation activism and activists. A few asked for additional background data, examples of biodiversity triage, and more suggestions for what to do next. So I thought I’d use some plane time between Kunming (China) and Tokyo (Japan) to provide a bit of background on the op-ed, give credit where credit is more than due, and to expand on some of the key points.

Three events intersected to inspire me to write “It’s time to get real.”

First, my colleague Ahmed Siddig, a Professor of Forestry at the University of Khartoum, Sudan; who completed his Ph.D. (in 2015) working with me at the University of Massachusetts; and who is now a DAAD post-doctoral fellow working at the University of Freiburg and the University of British Columbia, is at work on a paper about the need to develop a continent-wide, long-term biodiversity monitoring program for Africa. When Ahmed was at UMass and Harvard Forest, he and I talked a lot about how conservation of biodiversity in Africa could only be successful if civil society emerged and was nurtured and sustained throughout Africa (in the context of the then-nascent Arab Springs in North Africa and the Middle East). The first paragraph of Ahmed’s manuscript starts out in the same vein as “It’s time to get real,” but then moves on to discussions of the importance of biodiversity monitoring programs and data. When I was reading and editing Ahmed’s manuscript, I kept getting hung up on the first paragraph. I feel that if there aren’t functioning, civil societies in African countries, then all the data in the world aren’t going to be of any use; war, poverty, and outright theft will continue to overwhelm the best efforts of the most well-intentioned conservation biologists and ecologists. So I gave up on editing and focused my attention on expanding the first paragraph. I emphasize, too, that when I sent “It’s time to get real” to Nature that Ahmed was listed as a co-author. But Nature only publishes single-authored World Views, so, with Ahmed’s permission, I went it alone. I cannot thank Ahmed enough for being the spark that provided the initial inspiration for the essay and for allowing me to publish it without his name joining mine on the by-line.

Second, as followers of this blog know, I spent the last two months in China as a Visiting Professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, sponsored by Professor Chen Yi-Ping at the Institute of Earth Environment in Xi’an. Yi-ping and I have been working together on issues surrounding conservation of pandas, and in addition to the three weeks I spent at IEE, he, his graduate student Chen Dong, and I took a 6-day road trip through Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces through fragmented panda habitat and to the Shaanxi and Chengdu panda breeding centers (see my earlier blog posts In the footsteps of the giant panda I II III). During that time, I spent a lot of time talking with Dong about his dissertation project, as he is trying to decide whether to focus on heavy metal pollution in a Shaanxi river system resulting from decades of mining or on heavy metal pollution affecting pandas in captivity and the wild. The latter is somewhat easier – it’s a nicely bounded project – whereas the former is much more difficult both because the data are sensitive and difficult to get and because the project is personal: Yi-ping’s home town is affected by the mine tailings. In both cases, though, the projects tread the line between science and action, which is a much brighter and harder-to-cross line in China than it is in the United States or Europe. So part of the motivation for writing “It’s time to get real” was to try to help students in China break through that line. Put another way, I was trying to answer the question I got repeatedly from graduate students in China: what are the next big questions in ecology that they (the students) should be working on? My answer, after being asked this half a dozen times in two weeks, ended up as “do you want to study the problem or do you want to solve the problem.” This answer, I think, makes more sense in the Chinese context because my colleagues and their students are either studying problems in conservation and the environment or solving them in a policy-making context, but the path from data to policy is long, tortuous, and heavily influenced by a strongly hierarchical political system. Although I couldn’t add it to World View, “It’s time to get real” is dedicated to Dong and the other wonderful, thoughtful, and incredibly hard-working graduate students and post-docs I had the pleasure to meet and work with during these last two months and who are the future of Chinese ecology, conservation, and environmental management.

Third, while the most recent CITES meeting was ongoing and the International Long Term Ecological Research (ILTER) meeting was about to open at Kruger Park in South Africa, I was crisscrossing China talking about my ecological research on forests, insects, pitcher plants, and food webs, and longing to actually see some example of “biodiversity” in China. In nine weeks spent in cities, towns, villages, and forests, mountains, and deserts, I was relentlessly struck by the monotony of the agricultural fields (rice, wheat, corn, and smaller patches of vegetables) and the forests (mostly planted, occasionally naturally-regenerating n-growth), and the stunning lack of animals. Fungi were ubiquitous in restaurants but are all cultivated – maybe I saw one mushroom in the field in two weeks of field trips. Urban tramp ants were abundant on city sidewalks but local (native) species were uncommon, even in remote field sites. Standard urban nuisance insects – cockroaches, mosquitoes, silverfish – were nary to be seen either in the wide range of hotels and restaurants I stayed in or ate at, or in the open-air markets in the cities and towns. It wasn’t until the middle of my 2nd week in Xi’an that I actually saw a bird that wasn’t cooked and served up over rice or noodles or singing in a cage in a park. And it wasn’t until my penultimate day in China, when I saw a single squirrel in the park bordering the Dianchi Lake in Kunming and took a dozen photographs of it that I realized that it was only the second non-human, non-domesticated mammal that I had seen in China outside of a zoo or captive breeding center (the other was the Himalayan marmot I had seen on the Tibetan Plateau; I discount the single deer I heard crashing through the forest the same day, which, I was told, was an incredible rarity to hear, much less to see). And yet, there are research groups studying China’s biodiversity, writing papers about it, and hoping that the planned  national park (no, Science, it’s not yet a done deal) in the northeast of China will actually protect the few remaining tigers and leopards in the country.* If “It’s time to get real” inspires more discussion about what we really mean by biodiversity conservation in countries like China and India with well over 1 billion people, or on a planet with well over 7 billion, then it will have served its purpose well.


I wrote “It’s time to get real” in a couple of hours while we were driving across the Tibetan Plateau. The original version was somewhat harsher in tone and a lot more emotionally raw than the much more polished version that appeared in print. Nature’s World View editor, David Adam, gets all the credit for that, along with pushing me to clarify, in the space allotted, the examples used in the essay. I’ve been asked on Twitter to point to instances where politics overcame data. I start here with two examples, and will add more as I have time.

FopingPandaWorldQizi-20160829-AME-7549First, pandas. IUCN has down-listed the panda from “endangered” to “vulnerable”. With fewer than 2000 individuals left in the wild, this decision flies in the face of reality. Yes, captive breeding is successful. But they’re not being reintroduced into intact habitat, and what habitat there is left is increasingly polluted and fragmented. When we internalize shifting baselines, so that an increase in population size from, perhaps, < 1% of a historic population size to just over 1% marks a shift from endangered to vulnerable, we are ignoring data in making conservation decisions.

Second, Africa. Nairobi’s national park is being bisected by a railway line. This park, among many other things, is a breeding site for endangered rhinoceroses. Yet, in continued pursuit of economic growth, the Mombasa to Nairobi rail line is being built through the park, not around it (which, of course, would cost more). Read more about this here and here.

If you have additional examples you would like to add, post a comment, put it on Twitter, or send me an email.

So, at the end of the day, will still more data improve conservation of biodiversity? You decide.

And how would you answer this question: Do you want to study the problem, or do you want to solve it?

*I note en passant that the tigers and leopards range across the border separating China and Russia. The location of this border, and protection it has and has not afforded these big cats, has shifted several times over the last 150 years. I wrote another World View about borders and biodiversity protection 2-1/2 years ago when Russia annexed Crimea, and after discussions with Professor Mou Pu at Beijing Normal University, now have some additional data to add to that discussion.

3 thoughts on “The unBalanced ecoLOGist: On Getting Real about Conservation

  1. Honestly, it just sometimes is a privilege to provide support to your career at HF. This was incredibly moving on so many levels.


    Edie Cherkas Ellin
    Director of Administration | Harvard Forest | Faculty of Arts and Sciences | Harvard University
    324 North Main Street, Petersham MA 01366 |
    Direct 978-756-6124 | Main 978-724-3302 |


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