Its Rhino Time!

For international conservationists, the turning of the year is marked not by changing seasons but by international travel opportunities – and this year September is a bumper month. It opens with the IUCN World Conservation Congress in the hyper-remote Hawai’i, and ends with the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Johannesburg.

Looking at the website for the CITES COP, I was greatly struck by its logo. Hats off to the graphic designers, who have created the unmistakable outline of a white rhinoceros from the silhouettes of other species, pangolin, eagle, hammerhead shark, elephant and lion to name just a few. Moreover, it is all in savanna orange, with the African continent as its green heart, deep in the rhino’s chest. The choice of the rhino outline works at several levels – because the recovery of white rhinoceros is one of the great South African success stories of the twentieth century, and because the debate about trade in rhino horn is currently a key issue for CITES.

CoP17_Rhino_hp

So, even by the high standards of conservation graphic design, the CITES logo is wonderfully striking, encapsulating what CITES is for, and speaking clearly to the conservation vision of its South African hosts. At CITES COPs, it is always rhino time.

But looking at the COP17 rhino more carefully, I began to see it a bit differently.   Rather than clocking the species, I began to notice the absences. Deconstructing the image stimulated two uncomfortable reflections on the way conservation sees itself.

First, where are the plants? The recognizable outlines within the rhino are animals – mostly in fact mammals – the usual beauty parade of charismatic species. There are plants, but they are few and stylized: three kinds of agave or palm-like ground plants, stuck in to fill spaces at various sizes and positions. At least as reflected in this image, CITES seems chiefly to be about animals. This is not the fault of the designer, who has in fact very precisely reflected conservation’s abiding obsession with vertebrates, and the selling power of images of persecuted furry animals.   There are, in fact, 301 species of plant on CITES Appendix 1, and no less than 29,592 species on Appendix 2 (for comparison, the figures for mammals are 300 and 501). Of course, plants are not so easily recognizable, certainly not as a silhouette, and the designer has carefully and cleverly chosen recognisable species.   At the same time the COP17 rhino is very revealing: conservationists love animals, especially big, instantly recognisable charismatic ones.

The second absence is more serious. Where are the people in the COP 17 rhino? Again, there are, in fact, some there, but only three of them.: a marginal presence, and highly romanticised. The people are drawn like cave paintings of hunter-gatherers – stylized, in traditional dress, and thin. The COP 17 rhino shows people in a way that accurately reflects African conservation’s paternalist colonial gaze: a savanna continent stuffed with game, with a few local people eking out traditional lives around the edges (a vision also dear to the BBC). Conservation is not like this, and nor is wildlife trade.

The COP 17 rhino should be full of people. Where are they all? Where are the farmers, pastoralists, fishers, slum dwellers, and industrial workers and their poverty, hunger and dreams? Where are the poaching gangs, the European ‘security advisers’ with their helicopters and night vision glasses, and the game guards with their guns? Where are the middlemen, the fat cat traders, the overworked customs officers, the corrupt officials, the distracted judges? Where are the consumers, in their nice houses with their lust for fertility enhancement or jewelry or fantasy cuisine, or garden furniture, or hardwood musical instruments? Where are we, with our cars and air conditioning and aeroplanes, our boarding cards, conference badges and subsistence expenses?

We are nowhere to be seen, because we are behind the scenes. Conservation likes to imagine (and to present) its work as an engagement with wildlife, not people. So the COP 17 rhino is not a faulty image at all. It is an all-too-accurate portrayal of the conservation world, where people fly round the globe to discuss lists of rare species and their plight. And where the heavy money is spent on just a few, the biggest, the most charismatic, the most loved.

CITES listing alone does not ‘save’ species. The Convention was an extraordinary advance when it was signed in 1975, and is still important. But regulating legal trade in wild species is just one element in a much larger conservation challenge. That challenge does not lie in fine-tuning lists of species that can and cannot be legally traded. It lies in addressing human demand for land, for commodities, for fripperies and pleasures and the markets (legal and illegal) that translate it into the loss of habitat and the depletion of wild populations.

It t is what people do that matters in conservation: all of us, each in our own way sucking in the world’s resources, playing our part in hollowing out nature. And for that reason it is people that should fill the rhino.

Rhinos are important, and trade in rhino horn one of many important and thorny issues for CITES. But it is time to move on: to go beyond rhino time. We need to recognise that in conservation it is always people time.

Spiders, Zika And The Love of Nature

Most conservationists I know take it for granted that the love of nature is ingrained in the human psyche. John Muir speaks for them, when he writes ‘there is a love of wild nature in everybody, an ancient mother-love showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties’. They might perhaps accept Edward Wilson’s notion of ‘biophilia’, the idea of an instinctive bond between humans and other forms of life. Whatever humans do, we conservationists feel sure that they love nature really, underneath.

Two news items that caught my eye recently made me think about this comfortable certainty. The first was a video clip of a weatherman on West Virginia’s WOWK 13 News, scared by a spider on his monitor screen. The presenter, Bryan Hughes, flinched, swore, and then began to crack some rather tense jokes. Bryan obviously really did not like spiders. In this he is not at all unusual.

The spider-on-camera-lens visual joke has become a staple of the internet. It works because lots of people are phobic about spiders, as they are with snakes. It is not hard to imagine a good evolutionary basis for this fear, since many species of both are venomous. Horror movie directors know the fear of spiders very well: watching the first James Bond film, Dr. No last week, where a fine specimen of a (apparently not very venomous) pink-toed tarantula apparently crawls up Sean Connery’s body, reminded me how effectively scary spiders can be.

But it was not the spider, or the weatherman’s immediate response, that unnerved me, but what Hughes said once the incident was over. In his slightly nervous patter, as he tried to move back to the job in hand, he said: ‘oh man, saints alive, we gotta get out there and kill those things’. Like James Bond, with his instant and fiercely wielded slipper, Bryan Hughes clearly has no truck with arachnids. I wondered how many people would share his feelings? Quite a lot, I concluded, especially in countries where spider bites can be highly painful or deadly. For many people, scared or simply cautious, spiders are better off dead: so much for the love of nature! Continue reading

The myth of win-win in arguments for conservation

The last few years have seen an intensification in the long running debate about the underlying rationale(s) for biodiversity conservation. In Georgina Mace’s terminology, is conservation about nature for itself, nature despite people, nature for people, or people and nature?

Some argue that there is no need to make choices here – conservationists should simply select the appropriate tool from the menu of rationales available to them to fit their particular needs. For example, a recent paper by Richard Pearson argues that different rationales should be applied to justify conservation depending on the spatial extent and biological level of the thing to be conserved. So, arguments about the benefits to people from pollination services apply well for populations of honeybees at the local scale, whereas arguments about existence value apply well to charismatic species that are globally threatened. Continue reading

Conservation impact evaluation: the right answers, but only some of the right questions?

It seems that impact is everywhere at the moment. Is our research having impact? Is our teaching having impact? Are conservation actions having the intended impact? These are very important questions, but they are also very difficult to answer, particularly when the things we hope to affect are complex processes that are terribly difficult to untangle (the policy making process, the career development of alumni, or the trajectories of socioecological systems).

Last week Professor Paul Ferraro from Johns Hopkins visited Cambridge as the Humanitas Visiting Professor in Sustainability Studies. Paul is a world leader in analysing the impact of conservation interventions, and a strong advocate of quantitative analysis that properly accounts for things like selection bias in treatments (e.g. the location of protected areas is non-random and this should be considered in impact evaluation). He is in the vanguard of a growing industry of people doing similar work, which increasingly fills the pages of the conservation science journals. To me, this research is fascinating and provides important insights that often challenge widely-held assumptions about things like the relationship between protected areas and poverty. Continue reading

Rewilding the Wild Wood

It was a blustery afternoon in early spring, a few months after the Mole’s adventure in the Wild Wood. The short cold days of winter were gone. With them had passed the recollection of his fear on that expedition, when the Rat had brought him through the snow to the sanctuary of Badger’s house.

The Mole sat, now, in a comfortable chair in front of a cheery blaze.

‘Ratty’, he said tentatively, ’do you remember when you rescued me, when I was lost in the snow in Wild Wood?’

The Rat poked the coals ‘of course’, he said.

‘There were a lot of creatures in the wild wood’ said the Mole, ‘I saw them – or sort of saw them’, said the Mole cautiously.

‘Yes’, said the Rat.

‘I wondered what they were’ said the Mole in a small voice.

‘All sorts’, said the Rat, briskly. ‘Hedgehogs, shrews, squirrels, rabbits. Bats probably; voles’. He numbered them off on his fingers. ‘Lots of different kinds. Mostly pretty decent sorts.’ He hesitated. ‘And others, of course’. Continue reading

The natural life: reframing the separation from nature debate

An important theme in recent thinking about conservation has related to the question of whether people are becoming more separated from nature in various ways, and if so, what might be the implications. Several versions of this argument exist, including Richard Louv’s idea that a loss of contact with nature creates a kind of ‘nature deficit disorder’ among children, George Monbiot’s call for the re-wilding of human experience, and Michael Pollan’s critique of how factory farming severs links between people and nature that are mediated through food. Indeed, Peter Kareiva has said that an experiential separation from nature, as demonstrated through a decline in nature recreation “may well be the world’s greatest environmental threat”.

I have argued in a recent blog that there is a strange paradox in contemporary conservation practice which seems determined to create spatial separations between people and non-human nature, whilst lamenting the resulting emotional / experiential disconnection between the two. In this article, however, I want to focus on a deeper and more philosophical criticism of the ‘separation thesis’ – namely that a separation of people from nature is impossible because people are part of nature, and therefore cannot be separated from it. This line of criticism draws from longstanding arguments in philosophy about the relationship between humanity and the rest of life on earth, rejecting the dualistic view that humans and nature are two separate categories, and preferring instead to see society and nature as inextricably connected ‘socionatures’. This view emerges from academia, but is also a common feature of the non-western worldviews of many human groups around the world. Continue reading

Synthetic Biology and the Metabolic Rift

Synthetic biology is an astonishing field. Its scientific ambition is breathtaking. According to the Global Network of Science Academies, it involves no less than ‘the deliberate design and construction of customized biological and biochemical systems to perform new or improved functions’. Synthetic biologists hope to create a new industry by treating DNA as if it was computer software.   Writing in Nature, Daniel Gibson observed ‘A biological cell is much like a computer – the genome can be thought of as the software that encodes the cell’s instructions, and the cellular machinery as the hardware that interprets and runs the software’. Scientists can act as biological ‘software engineers’, programming new biological ‘operating systems’ into cells. That is quite an ambition.

Synthetic biology  has significant implications for conservation, from the speculative world of de-extinction (whether the cloning of mammoth or the summer blockbuster of Jurassic World) to the idea of fighting wildlife disease (such as white-nose disease in wild bats or chytridiomycosis in amphibians), or addressing human impacts on land and ocean. It has the potential to transform the production of food, fibre and oils, the flows of materials through the urban-industrial system, and human ecological interactions. It is likely to be a seriously disruptive innovation in many fields, from medicine or agriculture to energy supply.

In a world of Promethean environmentalism, synthetic biology offers perhaps the perfect combination of possibility and risk. On the one hand it offers solutions to global sustainability challenges in food, water and energy. On the other hand, it channels environmentalist fears about the scope of corporate control of genetic knowledge and the development, patenting and release of novel organisms.

But synthetic biology is not just another technology. It has profound implications for relations between humanity and non-human nature. As Neil Smith observes, it extends human artifice – and corporate interests – right down to the level of the genome.   So a key question is, how should we think about it?

Continue reading