The Future of Conservation

An electronic survey came in the email, and as I went through the questions, I found them very thought-provoking.

The infamous New vs. Traditional Conservation debate has been raging on for some time now, and as the survey designers write:

Recent debates about the future of conservation have been dominated by a few high-profile individuals, whose views seem to fit fairly neatly into polarised positions. In this survey, we are exploring the range of views that exist within the conservation movement globally, and how this varies by key demographic characteristics such as age, gender, geography and educational background.

Which really hooked me into answering it.

It’s indeed different to be reading the views of the authors of those back-and-forth pieces while trying to be as objective as possible, and actually having to answer questions that force you to think about where you stand.

The end of the survey even profiles a profile and neat data visualisations to show you where you stand (something that I’ve always wanted to know!).



How to interpret your results
Your position is weakly negative along the people & nature axis and weakly positive along the conservation & capitalism axis.

Your position on the two axes above reflects your survey answers. A move from left to right along the horizontal axis (people/nature) implies a shift from seeing conservation as a means of improving human welfare to conservation for nature’s own sake.

The vertical axis (conservation & capitalism) indicates a spectrum of willingness to embrace markets and capitalism as conservation tools: the higher up the graph your score is, the more pro-markets it is. This places you in the top left quadrant of the graph – a position suggesting your views on these particular dimensions of the debate are most closely related to those of ‘new conservationists’ as set out in the literature.

Your thinking most closely aligns with: New Conservation
Central to the ‘new conservation’ position is a shift towards framing conservation as being about protecting nature in order to improve human wellbeing (especially that of the poor), rather than for biodiversity’s own sake. ‘New conservationists’ believe that win-win situations in which people benefit from conservation can often be achieved by promoting economic growth and partnering with corporations.

Although new conservation advocates have been criticised for doing away with nature’s intrinsic value, key authors within the movement have responded by clarifying that their motive is not so much an ethical as a strategic or pragmatic one. In other words, they claim that conservation needs to emphasise nature’s instrumental value to people because this better promotes support for conservation compared to arguments based solely on species’ rights to exist.

A new journal-ranking metric

A new journal-metrics kid is on the block: CiteScore.

It looks easy to use, is free for anyone to access, and has some tweaks that make it different from the Impact Factor (IF) metric: (1) it uses three years to calculate, not two; (2) it includes all types of articles published in the denominator, which means that magazine portions of journals like Science and Nature get counted as potentially citable articles. It seems fair if the citations get accrued to the numerator, the article should be counted in the denominator too. Of course, these articles are not really meant to be cited in the first place, which therefore disadvantages journals with this type of content.

But the main thing is that it is easy to use to compare between journals, and covers more titles. The score seems more or less on the same scale as the IF, so it doesn’t cause any cognitive dissonance for most journals.

For example, I could search a few journal titles, let’s say the journals that I often consider for publishing the type of plant community ecology research I usually do. You can add them quickly to form a table.


Each journal is also classified under a subject category. So you could search for that subject category–sub-categories are also available, it seems–and you can browse through all the titles in that category.

The categorisation seems finer and more intuitive than Thomson-Reuter’s IF, which is clunky.

Also surprising is how high some journals now rank, e.g., Forest Ecology & Management above, and Landscape & Urban Planning below compared against other  conservation journals. Both titles are published by Elsevier which owns CiteScore. But then so is Biological Conservation, which is ranked lower (but still higher than Conservation Biology published by Wiley).


It would be nice, though, if there is some way to display information on all the categories a journal is listed in, because some journals are cross-listed across categories.

“Plants have feelings too, you know…”

When Nature and Science both choose to review the same book, furthermore in the same week, there’s got to be something interesting about it.

According to the Science review, the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben “became a surprise best seller in Germany and is now being released in English.” Book reviewer Gabriel Popkin tries to be gentle:

“…his anthropomorphizing may irritate those seeking to understand trees on their own terms.”

And irritated was exactly what Richard Fortey at Nature felt:

“…I have problems with Wohlleben’s narrative approach. He describes trees as if they possessed consciousness. During times of drought they make “cries of thirst” or “might be screaming out a dire warning to their colleagues”. They experience “rising panic”. A seedling’s growth is portrayed as fratricide as it sees off its siblings… After a while, the urge to attribute motivation to the behaviour of trees becomes irksome.”

Popkin’s review also mentions an older (and very long) article in The New Yorker about a predecessor book from the 70’s, The Secret Life of Plants, which was chockful of quack experiments that

…has been discredited. But the book had made its mark on the culture. Americans began talking to their plants and playing Mozart for them, and no doubt many still do. This might seem harmless enough… But in the view of many plant scientists “The Secret Life of Plants” has done lasting damage to their field.

But there may be a positive side to anthropomorphizing plants yet. In an essay (published in Conservation Biology and covered by, Balding and Williams suggests that it may help to counter the tendency of people to ignore plants and build more awareness and support for plant conservation.


Journal article titles on Pokemon ecology and evolution

Pokemon Go is out in Singapore and is all the craze now. There can be two common reactions by biodiversity science workers to this. One is to ask: What’s that? After all, we’re too busy doing real work… The other is to roll our eyes, and wonder why so few people appreciate the real plants and animals around us.

Some call this passive-aggression. To be honest, I did go on a rant to the wife about how I would absolutely give a student zero if I caught him/her playing Pokemon Go on a field trip.

But the world of Pokemon should be really intriguing to us who search for patterns in the (real) natural world. It led me to think: what research hypotheses would I test using Pokemon Go? Which in turn leads me to fantasize: what would the titles of the papers look like?


1. Excessive use of lures homogenizes Pokemon beta diversity

2. Fourth-corner analysis reveals habitat preferences of Pokemon functional groups

3. A test of temporal niche-partitioning in nocturnal- vs. diurnal-spawning Pokemon

4. Invasive species, or urban commensals? Population control of Rattatas and Pidgeys does not increase Pokemon diversity nor abundance

(On evolution:)

5. A phylogenomic approach to estimating speciation rates in the Eevee clade

(Typical review bullshit:)

6. The role of Pokestops in sustainable harvesting: prospects and challenges

7. Ontogenetic shifts in life history strategies for Pokemon displaying multi-stage metamorphosis

(‘Cos you gotta have one for the taxonomists:)

8. Lectotypification of Nidoran

9. Dynamic occupancy modelling of the amphidromous Magicarp

There are only nine because I could only think of nine. After all, I don’t play the game, so I don’t know enough about their natural history. For those who do, why not grab your nearest/favourite journal article, and think about how you might change it to one on Pokemon! It might help others understand the kind of work we actually do.

Singapore’s MFA on the environment

I was browsing the Ministry for Foreign Affairs website because my flight home from Edinburgh is on Turkish Airlines and transits through Istanbul. Given the coup attempt just less than 48 hours ago, I was wondering if I should (spend an obscene amount of money to) change my flight.

I chanced across a page “Sustainable Development and Climate Change” and professional curiosity caused a momentary digression.

The opening line for the page was:

As a land-scarce and highly-urbanised city-state, Singapore is aware that economic development should not come at the expense of harming the environment or reducing the quality of one’s living conditions.

Gotta hold ’em to it.

Bridging the engagement gap

A relatively old paper, but makes for good and easy reading: Gibbons et al. (2008; Ecological Management & Restoration 9: 182). A figure lists the different motivations of researchers and policy-makers when it comes to collaborating on projects, lightly adapted below.

Researchers are motivated when the projects:

  1. generate information that they can publish
  2. generate resources for longer-term research, e.g., postgrad scholarships or newer funding
  3. have spin-offs for their teaching or training of graduate students
  4. raise their profile in the media
  5. have demonstrable impacts on public policy, e.g., they are formally acknowledged in a policy document
  6. seek objective knowledge rather than support for an existing position

On the other side, policy-makers are motivate by projects that:

  1. are relevant for a contemporary issue
  2. are acceptable to the current government
  3. identify practical solutions
  4. can be used to identify policy options
  5. is demonstrated to work
  6. does not attract controversy
  7. are effectively and succinctly communicable

It ties in with my own experience working on several government-funded projects.

If government agencies want to motivate researchers, they must allow (or even encourage) them to publish and present the work. This also means that the vetting process for publishing and publicising the work, while understandably necessary, cannot be overly onerous. Also, I have found it disappointing when agencies appear to have used our outputs or recommendations without giving credit or acknowledgement. Finally, yes, we are rather wary when it seems like the agency already has a desired outcome in mind, which usually portends conflict as results may just as easily turn out opposite from what is expected.

At the same time, it is clear that the research must address a particular applied problem of interest to policy-makers and/or management. We also often heard the desire for outcomes to be “immediately operational”. Complex solutions, or those that are not popular or politically palatable, usually end up being ignored. And from reading the article, I realize one reason why agencies often reacted negatively to our recommendations: they like to be presented with options going forward, and not be just told what to do, or worse, that they were wrong in something.

I guess we have to work harder, from both ends. Some more excerpts:

Hamel and Prahalad (1989) noted that many scientists appear to operate under a ‘strategy of hope’, that is, simply hoping that their work will engage management professionals but doing nothing to further that goal… Roux et al. (2006) noted that researchers can be guilty of providing a ‘solution’ with the expectation that it will be embraced and then ‘move on to another project bemoaning the fact that their work was not put into practice.’

How true.

Australia: 5 months

The wife came over to spend the past five weeks with me in Brisbane.

We visited the Glass House Mountains up north:

20160317_102302 labelled

Members of the Glass House Mountains as seen from a look-out. Names and heights taken from the information panels at the look-out.

And we visited Lamington National Park down south, as urged by Alvin Lok.


Epiphyte-laden tree limb, seen from climbing up a ladder to a deck, along a tree-top walk near the Lamington National Park visitors’ centre and resort.

The in-laws came over for the fifth week, and we went to Tasmania. We started with Launceston (which I think is pronounced “lawn-sass-tehn”), the second-largest city in the state.


The Cataract Gorge at Launceston.

Then we went to Cradle Mountain National Park (which apparently in Chinese would be called 摇篮山). In fact, we went up to it twice, because it was drizzling rather badly the first time. A cold place, with delightful wombats lumbering around in the scrub.


Dove Lake up the Cradle Mountain, seen from the Glacier Rock, on the second visit when the weather was better.

Next we headed to Bicheno, a small seaside town.


Rocky shore at Bicheno at sunset. The red algae on the rocks is probably the same one that covers the rocks at the Bay-of-Fires up north, which we skipped.

We didn’t see any penguins making landing that night. But it was really more of a rest stop for visiting Freycinet National Park next. So Freycinet is pronounced “fray-sin-nay”. So I guess the genus Freycinetia should be pronounced “fray-sin-nay-sure”.


Wineglass Bay. Tip: this look-out is not a good spot for morning selfies without a flash. The sun is behind the peak, casting a shadow over this side of the slope. My guess is that in the afternoons, the sun will be glaring right into the camera lens.

Finally, Hobart, the state capital. Can’t get away without paying a visit to a nature spot too.


Evening view of Hobart from the peak of the towering Mount Wellington. Very very high up, but you can drive all the way; felt like I was driving into the sky, and the legs were turning to jelly on the accelerator. Very strong winds and very cold.

The wife has just gone back and I’m all alone again. 😦

An invasion ecology paper in Chinese

I had some fun trying to read a scientific paper (Lee and Shieh, 2005; 特有生物研究 7:1) in Chinese today. It’s really refreshing to see some of the standard ecology phrases and concepts in such a different form!

The defintion of invasive species:


“When non-native bird species endanger native biodiversity, they are termed as invasive species. Types of impacts of invasive species include predation, competition, exclusion, genetic pollution, and the transmission of diseases and parasites.”

The invasion “stages”:


“There are four stages involved in exotic bird species invasions: transport, introduction, the establishment of [wild] populations, and spread.”

On propagule pressure:


“The probability of successful establishment of wild populations by non-native species is correlated with the number and frequency of release events as well as the the number of individuals released in each event.”

On resource-use overlap and competitive exclusion:


“The use of the same resources by organisms will result in competitive exclusion, usually leading the species that is the weaker competitor to be in danger of extinction.”

And just for fun, something about statistics:


“Two-tailed chi-squared tests of non-independence and non-parametric tests of comparisons were conducted, with the level of significance at 0.05.”

Military area cum nature reserve

Zentelis & Lindenmayer has a correspondence in this week’s Nature (516: 170; “Conservation: Manage military land for the environment”) that would resonate with some of us.

They write that they have an upcoming article in Conservation Letters that estimates military training areas globally to be >50 million ha, most likely closer to 300 million ha, encompassing “all major global ecosystems, including those poorly represented within formal reserve systems”.

Likewise in Singapore, military training areas are restricted in access and protected from development. Although mostly abandoned plantations or wastelands that are still considerably disturbed and usually dominated by exotics and common pioneers, they are at least better than concrete and mowed grass for supporting native wildlife.

But several forested training areas have recently been degazetted, or about to be degazetted, and returned to state land, with an eventual fate of being developed.

Also, there is no regular or extensive ecological research program in existing military areas. While it’s possible to get permits, it’s still not as accessible as other sites and hence less enthusiastically surveyed.

Thirdly, our experience is that they can be possible festering grounds for invasive, non-native species. They would therefore have made excellent study sites, but are difficult to gain access to. At the same time, the military may not allow large scale eradication of problem species until the case is proven for their impacts, especially in terms that the military find problematic, such as posing risks to soldiers, security, etc. The need to show case for access and the need for access to collect data and build a case is a chicken-and-egg problem.

The question is: how do we re-align the differences between ecological goals and the military’s priorities to make the best biodiversity value of military training areas?

Should we put a value on Nature?

Is valuation an important institution to engender change in the way our society responds to nature?

First, valuation can serve as a tool for self-reflection… helping us rethink our relationship with the natural world, and alerting us to the consequences of our choices and behaviours on distant places and people…

Second, we cannot but recognize the all-pervasiveness of economic valuation… Abstaining from explicit valuation… often amounts to no more than an acceptance of someone else’s implicit valuation—trade-offs are then made on the basis of that implicit economic valuation.

Last, so deep-seated and widespread is modern society’s inherent market-centric mindset (and our almost unequivocal association of ‘price’ with ‘value’) that the mere device of demonstrating economic value for the public wealth that nature delivers can itself become an important strategy for the change we seek. The construction of ‘shadow prices’ for public goods and services can take on a life beyond the quiet workspaces of academic research and enter the turbulent halls of public policy debate…

…the alternative is in fact ethically worse: to permit the continued absence of prices to seep even further into human consciousness and behaviour as a ‘zero’ price, and thus no value.

– Pavan Sukhdev (2010)
In: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity:
Ecological and Economic Foundations
Pp. xxii — xxiii

« Older entries