Category: People and Conservation

Kareiva: Are We Thinking Globally When We Do Conservation?

Conservancy chief scientist Peter Kareiva argues that a key lesson in conservation — and one backed up by recent research — is to realize that when we impose strong conservation policy in one country, there is almost always leakage of our impacts, such that protected areas set up in one country may simply mean damage is done elsewhere.

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New Study: Coastal Nature Reduces Risk from Storm Impacts for 1.3 Million U.S. Residents

Nature reduces risk from coastal storms for millions of U.S. residents and billions of dollars in property values, says a new study from scientists at the Natural Capital Project and The Nature Conservancy.

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Book Week: ‘Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty’

Nature Conservancy senior social scientist Craig Leisher reviews “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty” by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.

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Conservation Future: Announcing the 2013 NatureNet Fellows

Nine young scientists — with specialties ranging from energy infrastructure to urban ecology, Kenyan pastoral techniques to nanotechnology — inaugurate a program designed to help kick-start conservation toward addressing the challenges facing people and nature in the 21st century.

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A Green Contagion: What Could Make Investing in Nature Catch On?

New information and data is never enough to make ideas contagious, says new research. We need to add behavioral economics, social psychology and a healthy dash of emotion, too.

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Silence of the Rattlesnake Researchers: Snakes, Culture and Conservation

Snakes should fear us more than we fear them. In Vermont, timber rattlesnake research unexpectedly exposes humanity’s tangled relationship with snakes. Can education shape a new future?

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Matchmaking for Elms: Restoring America’s Iconic Tree Through Genetics

Christian Marks runs a dating service. For elm trees.

As Marks sees it, American elms may be stunningly beautiful, but they could use far more help finding suitable mates than those unlucky-in-love singles scanning Match.com.

Marks, a floodplain ecologist for The Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut River program, is leading a research effort to restore populations of elms, once one of the most iconic and beloved trees in the eastern and midwestern United States.

Restoring trees might seem simple: plant them and they will grow. But in this case, it will require more than Arbor Day volunteers to return elms. Marks’ project involves quests for hidden survivors, sophisticated plant breeding, clones and extensive monitoring – all aimed at speeding up the process of natural selection.

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Marine Restoration Week: Tales from the Cab — Risk & Restoration in SE Louisiana

Conservancy Lead Marine Scientist Mike Beck comes off a week of conversations in New Orleans about coastal hazards to have the best talk of all about them with a cab driver — who blows him away with his knowledge of flood insurance and federal policy, the protective role of wetlands in Louisiana, and why we need to restore them now.

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Osprey Cam: Reality TV Featuring Our Wild Neighbors

There are some new neighbors in town, and I can’t stop spying on them!

Allie and Bama recently moved to Orange Beach, Alabama. They live on prime real estate in this pristine beach town along the northern Gulf Coast. The climate is sub-tropical, grocery shopping is close-by, and the commute to work is more than manageable. They utilize locally sourced food for nourishment and have recycled building material for their humble abode. Their family is healthy and quickly growing with the arrival of two new offspring.

Allie, Bama and their newborns are not your typical beach-town family. They are birds of prey, called osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and in late spring this spring, The Nature Conservancy and our partners installed a camera to monitor their activities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

We have been invited into the home of Allie and Bama, and it has been the best unscripted reality show I’ve ever seen!

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Mekong (Blogging) Odyssey: Jeff Opperman’s New York Times Series

In January, Nature Conservancy Senior Freshwater Scientist Jeff Opperman took a 1,500-mile trip down the Mekong River in January with his wife, son and daughter — to explore one of the most amazing freshwater ecosystems on the planet, one that could be radically changed in the next two decades by hydropower development. But the trip turned out to be straightforward compared with blogging about it afterwards for The New York Times.

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Kareiva: Consumption, Competitiveness and Conformity

Dasgupta, P.S., P.R. Ehrlich. 2013. Pervasive externalities at the population, consumption, and environment nexus. Science 2013 Apr 19; 340(6130):324-8 doi: 10.1126/science.1224664

I give a lot of public talks about the future of conservation and always do my best to paint an optimistic vision.

Inevitably, someone in the audience raises their hand and says, isn’t the real problem consumption and aren’t we doomed to an environmental collapse because of our patterns of ever-expanding consumption? I always admit consumption is a big issue, emphasizing it is not that we consume, but what we consume, and I warn about that preaching about consumption can be a turn-off. But I have not been able to frame a really strong answer.

In a recent article, Partha Dasgupta and Paul Ehrlich give me the seeds of a stronger argument.

They emphasize that two of the strongest universal human traits are competitiveness and conformity. We conform because we strive to find ways to relate to one another — after all we are a tribal species. And competitive consumption has been noted in almost all societies — rich and poor.

It is just that as wealth accumulates, the global impact of competitive consumption also grows. All true. But those same traits can also provide the momentum for change and improvement. Just think of the students at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, who chided Chinese couples to not serve shark fin soup at their weddings (a traditional symbol of prosperity) with the poster campaign that labeled shark fin soup as “so 80’s.”

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Quick Study: Do Elephants Get Stressed Out When Living Alongside People?

The Study: Ahlering, M.A., J.E. Maldonado, L.S. Eggert, R.C. Fleischer, D. Western and J. Brown. 2013. Conservation outside protected areas and the effect of human-dominated landscapes on stress hormones in savannah elephants. Conservation Biology, 27: 569–575. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12061

The Big Question: In East Africa, savannah elephants are increasingly expanding outside of protected parks and into surrounding areas where people and agriculture dominate. Do elephants experience stress when living alongside human populations — even in situations where they are not being actively poached? The answer, according to this new paper from lead author Marissa Ahlering of The Nature Conservancy and colleagues, can be found… in their poop.

Study Nuts and Bolts: The ability to measure stress hormones in wild animals has improved dramatically in the past decade with the development of fecal metabolite analysis techniques. In this study, scientists compared the levels of glucocorticoid (GC) hormone (which increases in response to stress) of elephants in a community conservation area (CCA) established by Maasai pastoralists with elephants at two nearby protected areas, Kenya’s Amboseli and Maasai Mara National Parks. The elephants in the CCA are exposed to “dense human settlements, agricultural areas, and intense livestock grazing on a daily basis,” while the elephants in the national parks are only exposed to humans through limited ecotourism and research.

To measure the stress hormone, scientists collected fresh dung samples and extracted DNA and hormone samples. The hormone samples were frozen immediately in liquid nitrogen, transferred to Nairobi for storage and then shipped overnight on dry ice to the United States where they were run through a series of metabolic analyses.

The Findings: The researchers found no evidence of chronic stress in the elephants living within the CCA. The stress levels of the CCA elephants were the same as elephants in the nearby protected area of Maasai Mara, although elephants at Amboseli exhibited lower stress than the other two groups.

What it All Means: The results surprised the researchers — they expected the elephants in the CCA to exhibit higher levels of stress due to a higher degree of contact with humans. These findings indicate that elephants can successfully live in human-dominated areas — and suggest that CCAs should be part of the solution in efforts to restore elephants to areas where illegal ivory poaching has decimated their populations.

Editor’s Note: Check back later this week for a more in-depth report on this research. 

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‘Let’s Get Back to Ecology’: A New Interview with Peter Kareiva

Nature Conservancy Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva recently gave an interview to Biodiverse Perspectives, a blog written by more than 100 graduate students in biodiversity science around the world. It’s an excellent Q&A, with one of the best distillations yet of Kareiva’s thinking on conservation’s focus on biodiversity versus the benefits of a broader focus on ecology.

Read the full interview here. But here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

“I have what some think is a heretical view of biodiversity.  Look – I do want to prevent extinctions.  But I think what should be a reasonable concern for biodiversity has turned into a numerological and narrow counting of species, and has led to an over-emphasis on research aimed at rationalizing why biodiversity should matter to the general public.  Ecology matters to the general public because ecology is about water, pests and pestilence, recreation, food, resilience and so forth. Perturbations to ecosystems in the form of massive pollution, land conversion, harvest, species loss can all distort ecology.  But focusing so narrowly on producing graphs that on the horizontal axis display number of species and on the vertical axis report some dependent ecological function (that is distantly related to human well-being) strikes me as not worth so much research.  Let’s get back to ecology – understanding how systems work, what controls dynamics, the role of particular species as opposed to the number of species, to what extent do ecosystems compensate for species losses, what factors contribute to resilience, whether there really are thresholds – all those are terrific research questions.  Counting species, and trying to produce what is, as far as I can tell, usually very weak evidence for the relationship between biodiversity per se and ecological function is off-track.

“Early on in my job at TNC I presented to business leaders some of the empirical data plots from classic biodiversity and ecological function studies. These are studies we all interpret as strong evidence for the importance of biodiversity. I can tell you unequivocally when they saw the actual data they were totally unimpressed and unconvinced. It caused me to look more objectively at the data.”

As always, let us know what you think in the comments.

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Adapting the Science of Adaptation – The Importance of Seeing Through Others’ Eyes

Helping people and nature adapt to climate change is a hot topic in conservation.

But the science behind planning such adaptation — particularly for human communities — isn’t as clean as the rhetoric, and you can’t do it simply in a lab or on paper. Whether we’re talking about major developed world cities or small coastal villages, we have to run our theories by what we call the “test of people” — so they lead to strategies that work. That test often involves understanding how the world looks through the eyes of the people we are trying to help. Nothing like a good reality check.

Case in point: My recent trip to the Grenadines, where I was attending an “action planning meeting” with community members, my colleagues from The Nature Conservancy’s ‘At The Water’s Edge’ project team, and our local partners. Our aim: to identify specific actions that can be taken to help reduce the communities’ vulnerability to coastal hazards (i.e., flooding from sea level rise and storm surge). As conservationists, we hope nature might be a part of the equation — what we call “nature-based adaptation.”

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Long Island’s Elephant in the Room: Nitrogen Pollution

“How about we initiate a ‘poop at work’ campaign?”

My colleague Carl was kidding about how to improve water quality on Long Island, but his joke went right to the heart of the problem. Many Long Island residents commute to New York City for work every day. Carl’s idea would solve the problem that we are grappling with on Long Island, as are many estuaries around the world: There is too much nitrogen in coastal waters and much of it is coming from inadequately treated human waste.

Social science research the Conservancy has carried out tells us that the average person living on Long Island cares deeply about clean water, whether it is to swim or fish in, or live near, or it is clean, freshwater we drink. Our social science research also tells us that the average Long Islander does not know:

  • where their drinking water comes from (answer: groundwater);
  • where their waste goes when they flush the toilet (answer: mostly septic systems, which are not designed to remove nitrogen, or sewage treatment plants in the more urbanized areas); and
  • that nitrogen from human waste, fertilizer and burning fossil fuels are polluting Long Island bays and harbors.

And if we do not tackle nitrogen and nutrient pollution on Long Island, our work could fail.

The Conservancy on Long Island has a long-standing marine program focused on estuarine restoration and coastal climate change resilience and adaptation. And by many counts we have been successful. We re-directed land acquisition to better protect estuaries. We acquired 13,500 acres of underwater land and transplanted over 7 million clams in over 100 sanctuaries. We supported science and policy to protect and restore seagrass, and we developed a network of monitoring sites to determine whether salt marshes are keeping pace with sea level rise.

Yet the ultimate success of all these projects hinges on nitrogen: Excessive nitrogen loading will impede our efforts over the long-term.

Why? Because regardless of the millions of hard clams returned to Great South Bay, it suffers from harmful algal blooms hampering the growth and adequate recruitment of bivalves. Regardless of the availability of land to which salt marsh can migrate, excessive nitrogen loading is a key driver of marsh loss. Regardless of successful passage of legislation we crafted to protect seagrass, science has found that impacts from excessive nitrogen and warming sea temperatures together inhibit seagrass growth and expansion even when physical impacts are limited.

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What is Cool Green Science?

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