Boasting about backyard biodiversity

The easiest way for an aspiring naturalist to explore wildlife is by stepping out into their own backyard. Try it yourself. As I write this, I can look through my window at a Karoo Thrush hopping about my garden. But this post is not about the tiny garden surrounding my current apartment, but rather about my childhood home. I was tremendously fortunate to grow up on a 60 hectare farm, where  first discovered my love for nature.

Between wrapping up my PhD and starting my current lecturing position, I spent a few months of unemployment back in the house I grew up in. During that time, I discovered the thrill of recording unobtrusive nocturnal critters using a camera trap. Every afternoon, I set up the camera trap and eagerly explored the footage the following morning. It was so much fun.

After enough time, even I was amazed by the variety of species that lived on this relatively small farm. Perhaps, I should rephrase that last sentence. You see, calling it a farm is not accurate because it hasn’t been used for agricultural in more than ten years. The last cows were removed back in 2004 and since then the land was left dormant and only managed to minimise the risk of wild fire.

Still, I captured footage of 18 different mammal species, which is remarkably high for such a small area. Moreover, the camera trap is unlikely to capture any footage of bats and small rodents, so the total mammal diversity is probably even higher. I decided to write up these observations and the results have just been published online in the African Journal of Ecology. Continue reading

Transdisciplinary research is not a solution to environmental problems

Over the weekend, Joern Fischer wrote a criticism of transdisciplinary research. I was very eager to read it because it is something I have been wondering about over the last few months too. I began commenting on his blog, but, as my comment grew longer, I thought it is perhaps a better idea to flesh out my thoughts into a full post. Overall, I agree with Joern’s misgivings, but I would go even further to suggest that he was perhaps too forgiving towards transdisciplinary research.

Continue reading

Startup for Nature: showcasing innovation in conservation

I’m excited to announce the launch of my latest pet-project, Startup for Nature, a website aimed at promoting entrepreneurial approaches to conserving nature.

Startup_full logo

Regular readers know that I believe we need more entrepreneurship in conservation. That’s why I set up a website devoted to answering some common questions about conservation entrepreneurship and showcasing some of the most innovative conservation startups.

Furthermore, Startup for Nature also features in the poster I’ll be presenting at the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Montpellier during August.

If Startup for Nature encourages just one aspiring entrepreneur to launch their own conservation venture, then I’ll consider it successful. But to do this, it must first reach the right audience with the most engaging content.

Here’s the part where I ask for your help.

You can help Startup for Nature create a sub-culture of entrepreneurship amongst conservationists. Here’s how:

  • Click through to Startup for Nature. Browse around and let me know if there is anything you’d like to see more (or less) of.
  • If you like what you see, please share it with everyone in your social network (using the sharing buttons on the website). By reaching a broader audience, we increase the chances of finding that one inspired person who might launch the next big conservation venture.
  • If you know of anyone who has launched their own conservation venture, or you have launched one yourself, please let me know so that I can add it to the site. Celebrating the most innovation startups will hopefully increase the uptake of entrepreneurship in conservation.

Conservationists must realise that farmers are central to conserving nature

The patchwork of farmland near my childhood home

The patchwork of farmland near my childhood home

Between finishing my PhD and starting my current job, I spent several months of unemployment on the family farm near Bethlehem in the Free State Province, South Africa. Rather than actively searching for a real job, I procrastinated by watching birds and tracking mammals with a camera trap.

The experience was like re-reading a really good book; I kept seeing things I hadn’t noticed before. Despite spending my childhood in the area, it wasn’t until I actually started paying close attention that I realised the amazing nature around me.

Although it is an agricultural heartland, the region is teeming with life. For example, the sampling quadrat for the South African Bird Atlas Project near my house contains 257 different bird species. To put that in perspective, the entire Island of Madagascar supposedly only hosts 265 species (give or take 10 species depending on the source).

No wonder the area is part of the Rooiberge-Riemland Important Bird and Biodiversity Area.

If I, as a professional ecologist, took so long to realise the amazing biodiversity of the area, then surely others are also oblivious to it? As conservationists, we should be concerned by this.

Most of the half-a-million hectares of the Rooiberge-Riemland Important Bird and Biodiversity Area is on commercial farmland. How can we expect to conserve this area without the buy-in from the local farmers? They are, after all, the owners of the land and are solely responsible for what happens on the ground.

As a consequence, I am trying to realign my own career trajectory. The idea now is to make it as easy as possible for farmers to conserve nature. To this end, I wrote an essay for pilot African version of the The Conversation.

If you’re interested please click through: Farmers hold the key to nature conservation: let’s treat them that way.

We’re used to hearing great tales of conservation in faraway tropical forests and coral reefs, but I am incredibly excited about the opportunity to conserve nature in my own backyard. Hopefully, this is just the first in a long-line of things I have planned. Watch this space.

Long-term monitoring generally underestimates negative trends in biodiversity

Modern conservation and environmental management rely on data. Unless you can actually show cold, hard evidence of natural deterioration, you open yourself up to criticism from denialists and other eco-skeptics. It is too easy for industry lobbyists to dismiss conservation recommendations as tree-hugger scare-mongering.

So conservationists, being the idealists that we are, decide to gather evidence for downward trends of various aspects of biodiversity. Unfortunately, efforts to quantify biodiversity trends are a major challenge. Not because measuring trends in diversity is particularly difficult, but rather because long-term monitoring is susceptible to sampling artefacts.

Continue reading

Camera trap critters: Part 2

I’ve just returned to South Africa, where I’ll spend the next few months adding the final touches to my PhD thesis. Of course, being back home means that I spend my free time playing with my camera trap. I thought I’d share two of my favourite videos from the last few nights.

The first is a very short clip of the small-spotted genet (Genetta genetta). I’m very pleased about spotting this beautiful carnivore because I regularly found the remains of laughing doves and helmeted guineafowl and always assumed that they were killed by feral cats. It’s always nice to spot natural predators.

The second clip is of a male Impala (Aepyceros melampus) scent-marking his territory.

 

Conservation and poverty alleviation: the case of Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa

Biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation often walk hand-in-hand. At the global scale, most species and the majority of poor people are concentrated in a narrow band near the tropics. This is also true at smaller scales, where formal protected areas for conservation are regularly situated away from urban centres and, therefore, often coincide with poor communities deprived of basic infrastructure. As a consequence, any conservation strategy that hopes to be sustainable in the long-term should pay careful attention to local socio-economic conditions.

Regular readers of this blog might know that I have a soft spot for Golden Gate Highlands National Park (GGHNP) in South Africa (e.g. the history of the park and the guide to the hiking trails). This national park happens to be in one of South Africa’s poorest regions: the Maluti a Phufong local municipality.

Consider these scary statistics for the region:

  • Only 1 in every 4 people (26.8%) has successfully complete secondary school education.
  • Approximately 75 % (155 429 out of 208 296) of people aged between 15 and 64 are unemployed.
  • 80% of households earn less than ZAR 40 000 per annum (that’s roughly US$10 per day shared among 3.35 people per household).

There is no doubt that the region surrounding GGHNP is in dire need of rejuvenation. I suppose it’s unsurprising then that the South African Journal of Science published a commentary in December last year criticising the recently approved 10 year management plan for GGHNP. In short, the authors argued that the management plan failed to highlight the need for conservation strategies that address the harsh socio-economic realities of the region and they suggested that tourism in the region be fast-tracked to generate revenue.

Here are some snippets from their essay:

The GGHNP management plan can only succeed in promoting biodiversity and heritage conservation if it provides livelihood opportunities that safeguard continued socio-economic benefits.”

Park resources, if managed properly, can provide long-term sustainable benefit to individuals, communities and institutions.”

There must be speedy documentation of cultural heritage sites to promote route tourism development.

The GGHNP has rich cultural and heritage resources, yet is unable to effectively preserve them and to turn these assets into tourist attractions that earn revenue and provide opportunities for local economic development.”

At first inspection, this all sounds good. They use all the right buzzwords and seem to tick all the boxes. But I couldn’t help being annoyed when reading this commentary. Along with disagreeing with its general argument, I also had other misgivings, mostly due to the misrepresentation of the current situation at GGHNP.  I pointed out these errors to the editor at South African Journal of Science and these views were published last week (open access). Continue reading