Following hot on the heels of Cambridge’s Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, Oxford University Press has just published the edited collection Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma. Whereas the former title was careful about courting controversy, a quick scan of the chapter titles of this book suggest it is seeking out hot-button issues sure to upset some people (“Uncomfortable questions and inconvenient data in conservation science”, “Introduced species are not always the enemy of conservation”, or “Rehabilitating sea otters: feeling good versus being effective”). Together, these two books form an excellent combination of a philosophical and pragmatic examination of biodiversity conservation, and how we could do better.
Perhaps more than any other discipline, conservation science arouses strong feelings of righteousness, of fighting the good cause. Critical questions or results that run counter to the narrative of nature-in-decline are unwelcome, often out of fear that policymakers and the media will misinterpret such findings, leading to drastic reduction in support for conservation efforts. Though understandable, Effective Conservation Science is a collection of 26 cautionary tales of the dangers of such thinking.
It goes without saying that the editors of this book, and all of the contributors, are firm supporters of wildlife conservation. But, emotion-laden as this topic is, we must keep our collective cool and continue to think and act rationally. The dangers of not doing this are many. One of the most obvious ones is credibility. If we cry wolf too many times by predicting extinction or imminent ecosystem collapse, the discipline as a whole will rapidly lose support. More insidious are misdiagnosed problems or ineffective strategies that do little good. Budgets for conservation science are slim, and are constantly being revisited and weighed against competing demands. Conservationists therefore have to ensure that the limited funds available are spent wisely and do the most good (see The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less for more on how to do this).
Without wanting to discuss each chapter, there are some remarkable examples here of authors challenging current orthodoxy, such as the idea that biodiversity is uniformly in decline (globally yes, but at more local scales biodiversity is increasing), that habitat fragmentation is bad for biodiversity (fragmentation can have both positive and negative effects, but there is a large publication bias highlighting negative effects), and that introduced species are bad (disastrous examples are well known, but we rarely look at the benefits of so-called invasive alien species – Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction is an excellent read in this context that has a thing or two to say about invasive species). The problem that many authors highlight is that of confirmation bias; researchers are happy to uncritically accept outcomes that are in line with their established views of nature-in-decline, but are very resistant to accept findings that run counter to this narrative. Many authors in this book mention reviewers rejecting papers out of fear of the implications of such findings becoming public knowledge. And that, of course, is bad science.
“orangutans […] do just fine in palm oil plantations […] hunting is by far the greater threat”
Similarly, conservationists fall prey to simplistic stories too. Probably the most famous is the story of the fantastic effects that wolf reintroduction had in Yellowstone National Park, with a YouTube clip narrated by George Monbiot pretty much having gone viral over the years. Dig into the data, and it quickly becomes apparent that the story isn’t all that simple, and the role of wolves is limited. Similarly, orangutans are typically presented as a vulnerable species in need of undisturbed rainforest. The facts, however, show that they do just fine in palm oil plantations and that hunting is by far the greater threat.
And then there are ineffective conservation strategies. Rehabilitating sea otters (either after an oil spill, or the rescue of pups abandoned by their mothers) is sure to tug heartstrings. But it also turns out to be an incredibly expensive exercise with little to no benefit to otter populations (except for certain scenarios). Establishment of nature reserves is something that has happened quite haphazardly in the past, resulting in a network that fails to protect vulnerable species. The authors of this particular chapter propose we should consider de-listing certain underperforming areas and replace them with other areas that achieve more in conservation terms. And the idea of biodiversity offsetting – whereby corporations invest in conservation efforts to compensate for the damage they do in the process of going about their, well, business – would lead to no net loss of biodiversity. But what does that really mean in practice? The way it is currently being practised can have some really counterproductive outcomes.
Virtually all chapters are short, often 6-10 pages only, which makes the book an easy read. And, as you can judge from the above, it covers a wide variety of topics (I haven’t even mentioned chapters dealing with agriculture, overfishing or evidence for planetary tipping points). The overall message of the book, that we need to follow the data – even when it runs counter to what we thought, even when it is politically inconvenient – is an incredibly important one. The editors, to their credit, point out that just because you are contrarian, does not mean you are automatically right. But so as to build our conservation efforts on a basis of robust data, we need to keep on scrutinising everything in the process. This book should be on the shelf of every researcher involved in conservation and would make great source material for coursework. I would especially recommend it to those who feel offended, who feel this kind of skepticism is dangerous, or who think that bringing up these topics is reason to doubt someone’s allegiance to the cause of biodiversity conservation. Effective Conservation Science is bristling with reasons why clear-headed, rational thinking is of the utmost necessity it we are to face the challenges ahead. Both the publisher and the editors are to be commended for pushing this topic on the agenda.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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