The startup culture of conservation entrepreneurship

I’ve written about the need for self-started conservation initiatives on this blog before. And now I am pleased to boast that some of these ideas have just been published online in Conservation Biology. (If you don’t have subscription access through the publisher’s website, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll forward the article to you as a PDF).

It’s a short opinion piece that is mainly intended to introduce the concept of social entrepreneurship to an audience of conservation scientists. The article should definitely not be considered as a how-to guide to conservation entrepreneurship, nor is it a comprehensive review of all the ways entrepreneurship can help to protect biodiversity. Instead, I hoped to convey three key points:

(1) there are conservation problems that are especially amenable to small, fast bootstrapped solutions;

(2) there are new ways of funding conservation initiatives that weren’t available 10 years ago; and

(3) most early-career conservation biologists in the current employment landscape will, at some point, be unemployed, so self-started conservation initiatives could become a necessity.

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MacArthur and Wilson’s Radical Theory wasn’t actually radical (even great ideas in ecology go unnoticed)

Most ecologists know about the Theory of Island Biogeography; the theory that diversity patterns on islands are the consequence of dispersal from a mainland source. Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson presented this theory first as a research paper in 1963 and then as a monograph in 1967. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Theory of Island Biogeography is remarkable because it suggests that patterns of species co-existence are the consequence of chance, history and random dispersal. Before its publication, community ecologists generally assumed that species co-existence was due to deterministic niche-assembly, where the number and relative abundance of species were a result of ecological niches and the functional roles of each species.

The theory placed randomness at the forefront to community ecology. It also paved the way for Stephen Hubbell’s Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography; one of the most influential ecological theories in 21st century. In fact, the introductory chapter of Hubbell’s monograph (like this blog post) was titled “MacArthur and Wilson’s Radical Theory” in reverence to their path-breaking work.

Like the theory itself, MacArthur and Wilson have also reached cult-like status. Perhaps a most telling way of illustrating this fact is not by listing the prizes awarded to these two men (and there were many), but rather by listing the academic prizes named after them! The Ecological Society of America, for instance, awards the ‘Robert H. MacArthur Award‘ to eminent mid-career ecologists and the American Society of Naturalists grants the ‘Edward O. Wilson Naturalist Award‘ to mid-career researchers who make significant contributions to a particular ecosystem of group of organisms. Similarly, the International Biogeography Society has the ‘MacArthur & Wilson Award‘ for notable contributions to the field of biogeography.  Needless to say, MacArthur and Wilson are very influential and well-respected by contemporary ecologists (well, in most cases…).

The funny thing is that their paradigm shifting idea was actually proposed two decades earlier, by the less well-known lepidopterist Eugene Munroe. Continue reading

Handling cumulative impacts during the environmental decision-making process

Although ecology doesn’t have many general laws, one most likely to qualify is the species-area relationship. If you walk through a field in a straight line and count all the different species you come across, you’ll notice that the total number of species increases as you progress along your straight path. After a while, however, you’ll start seeing the same species over and over again until you eventually find that you’re no longer spotting any new ones. This is the asymptotic species-area curve. While the exact mathematical form of the relationship is still hotly debated, it is safe to assume that it is an increasing function that reaches a plateau once all the species have been encountered.

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A trail guide to Golden Gate Highlands National Park (South Africa)

I’ve written about Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the past.

It’s a region that is very close to to my heart; I’ve spent hundreds of hours (and thousands of footsteps) on the sandstone slopes. Unfortunately, there are no complete guides to the hiking routes in the park – so I set out to make one of my own.

You can find route descriptions, hiking profiles, maps and photos of the main routes in the park by visiting this new page on my site. You can also download the route information as .kml shapefiles that can be imported into Google Earth or any other GIS platform.

View of Wodehouse

Civil conflict and conservation

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A few of my friends and I started a debate on the impact of war on biodiversity conservation over lunch one afternoon. On the one hand, we argued, civil conflict can improve the state of biodiversity. One such example is the demilitarisation zone between North and South Korea, which is considered one of the most well-preserved involuntary conservation areas in the world. On the other hand, however, conflict can cripple conservation attempts: Saddam Hussein’s draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq for strategic purposes during the Gulf War is a typical case in point. Since we are all aspiring scientists, we wondered whether we could aggregate all the known cases where biodiversity was influenced by any form of civil conflict to (a) recognize some general trends and (b) identify the complex socio-ecological dynamics of various forms of civil strife. Continue reading

Creative capital for conservation

Picture 241v4(Please excuse the lame use of Photoshop)

We live in exciting times. Never before has any individual had as much potential to influence the rest of civilisation as we do now. Around the globe, from New Zealand to Peru, millions of people are connected to one another. We innovate, create and share our lives with the world. Technology has flattened the earth and possibly ensured that the only thing separating us from the next global revolution is a girl in rural Bangladesh with a big idea and a fast internet connection.

At the same time, however, we are facing natural crises unlike anything we have seen before. Every day more and more natural habitat is being transformed and species, some yet to be discovered, are going extinct faster than we can imagine. How is this possible? How can a period of terrible destruction overlap with one of endless potential? What is causing this paradox and how can we fix it? Continue reading