Uncommon Ground

Environment

Climate change and biodiversity loss in the Cape Floristic Region


Jasper Slingsby is the lead author on a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describing some of the work he, John Silander, and others did as part of our recently concluded Dimensions of Biodiversity project. Here’s the abstract. Follow the links below to find the full paper and a story about it in UConn Today.

Prolonged periods of extreme heat or drought in the first year after fire affect the resilience and diversity of fire-dependent ecosystems by inhibiting seed germination or increasing mortality of seedlings and resprouting individuals. This interaction between weather and fire is of growing concern as climate changes, particularly in systems subject to stand-replacing crown fires, such as most Mediterranean-type ecosystems. We examined the longest running set of permanent vegetation plots in the Fynbos of South Africa (44 y), finding a significant decline in the diversity of plots driven by increasingly severe postfire summer weather events (number of consecutive days with high temperatures and no rain) and legacy effects of historical woody alien plant densities 30 y after clearing. Species that resprout after fire and/or have graminoid or herb growth forms were particularly affected by postfire weather, whereas all species were sensitive to invasive plants. Observed differences in the response of functional types to extreme postfire weather could drive major shifts in ecosystem structure and function such as altered fire behavior, hydrology, and carbon storage. An estimated 0.5 °C increase in maximum temperature tolerance of the species sets unique to each survey further suggests selection for species adapted to hotter conditions. Taken together, our results show climate change impacts on biodiversity in the hyperdiverse Cape Floristic Region and demonstrate an important interaction between extreme weather and disturbance by fire that may make flammable ecosystems particularly sensitive to climate change.

Slingsby, J.A., C. Merow, M. Aiello-Lammens, N. Allsopp, S. Hall, H.K. Mollman, R. Turner, A.M. Wilson, and J.A. Silander, Jr.  2017. Intensifying postfire weather and biological invasion drive species loss in a Mediterranean-type biodiversity hotspot. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (early edition) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1619014114

The new game of Russian roulette for fire-prone ecosystems, UConn Today, 17 April 2017

It appears that I’m a New Conservationist

I recently discovered the Future of Conservation Project. It’s a project designed “to explore the views of conservationists on a range of issues, as a way of informing debates on the future of conservation.” As the About page says,

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.

The blue dots in the figure above are results from the 99 people who responded to the survey before me. Here’s how to interpret my results:

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.

If you’re interested in taking the survey, here’s the link: http://www.futureconservation.org/.

The beauty of fynbos

The beauty of our fynbos from CapeNature on Vimeo.

In case you’ve ever wondered why I have spent so much time working in, thinking about, and writing about Protea this video from CapeNature will give you a bit of a clue. The fynbos is a very interesting place. It has an enormous diversity of plants, many of which are found nowhere else in the world, and much of that diversity is concentrated in a relatively small number of big evolutionary radiations, one of which is Protea.1 One of my students,

Kristen Nolting (@KristenNolting on Twitter) pointed me to this video. Thanks, Kristen.

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Conservation, economic inequality, and privilege

Increased equity and pro-poor actions are not only moral issues to be kept in mind by conservationists. They are, rather, central to the larger goal of protecting the planet. – Bill Murdoch

In the past 15-20 years, conservation biologists have become increasingly aware that successful conservation efforts require the support and involvement of local communities, but only more recently have we become fully aware that getting that support and involvement requires that we pay attention to what communities need, not only to what we want. Reducing economic inequality, and in particular improving the lives of those in poverty, is not only the right thing to do on its own terms. It’s the only way we can protect the natural systems we can care about in the long term.

In Fall 2015, I discussed some of these issues in my graduate course in conservation biology. The problem is that it’s easy to say the “right” words and to congratulate ourselves for our wisdom and generosity. It’s harder to see how the attitudes those of us who live in relatively prosperous communities are influenced by the economic privileges we have. Those privileges are part of the reason it’s hard for us to understand farmers, ranchers, and oilmen who seem to have little regard for the land. I grew up among farmers and ranchers in southern Idaho, and the people I knew care as deeply about the land as I do. The difference? They draw their livelihood directly from the land, and their livelihood is less secure. Not unreasonably, they focus on immediate needs,1 not far-off benefits.

Fortunately, I had a very talented teaching assistant for the course, Holly Brown. She had the idea of using a “privilege walk” to illustrate the ways in which we – graduate students and faculty at UConn – are privileged when compared to many of those living in areas where conservation action is needed. Holly, Ambika Kamath, and Margaret Rubega describe the exercise in a recent article in Conservation Biology. This anonymous comment from one of our students was particularly striking:

The main thing I took away was that, when it comes to issues that are controversial (including climate change or biodiversity preservation), approaching those who might oppose ecologists with an understanding of my own privilege and how it differs from the background of others can help me to open myself up to innovative solutions, instead of imposing my beliefs on others.

If you teach a course in conservation biology, I encourage you to read Holly’s article and use some of the ideas in it the next time you teach your course.

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Good news – China will ban ivory trade

Last July, the United States banned nearly all commercial trade in ivory. Last Friday, China announced that it will “end the processing and selling of ivory and ivory products by the end of March as it phases out the legal trade” (The New York Times).

There are some professionals who believe that legal trade in ivory promotes conservation. (See this article from The Guardian for some of the give and take.) The arguments are two-fold (from The Guardian):

  1. The ivory ban has made prices high and poaching lucrative. Enrico Di Minin and Douglas MacMillan
  2. Lifting Africans from poverty is the only way to save elephants. Rowan Martin

I haven’t studied the issue carefully, but I am not persuaded by their arguments. For one thing, Nitin Sekar and Solomon Hsiang point out in The Guardian that the limited legal trade in ivory established in 2008 seems to have increased the amount of poaching.

Rates of ivory poaching from 2004-2012

To be fair, with only 5 points from before the 2008 announcement of legal ivory sales and 6 points after, you’d be hard-pressed to demonstrate that a statistical model favoring a switch in poaching rates in 2008 is better than one where rates are simply increasing over time, but either way, the limited trade in ivory introduced in 2008 did not decrease the rate of poaching.

Point 2 is undeniably true. Lifting Africans from poverty is the only way to make lasting progress on any conservation problem in Africa. But that observation argues for promoting policies that directly reduce poverty, like increasing sanitation, enhancing access to health care, and strengthening education. Elephant poaching has increased since 2008, and prices of ivory are high. Is there any evidence that incomes of Africans have improved as a result? If there is, Martin Rowan doesn’t provide it.

That’s why I regard it as good news that China is shutting down its domestic ivory trade. A ban on the legal trade of ivory won’t shut down the black market, any more than a ban on cocaine in the US shut down the cocaine market here. But a ban on the legal trade of ivory will make it more difficult for black marketeers to hide. With strong enforcement, a ban will reduce the incentives to trade in ivory and the incentives for poachers.

Terry Tempest Williams – Excerpt from a letter to Major John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell and ten other men loaded food and provisions into four boats in Green River, Wyoming on 24 May 1869. They followed the Green River to the Colorado and traveled through the Grand Canyon. One man left after the first month. Three more left in the third month. Those who remained finished the expedition on on 30 August. They were the first Europeans known to pass through the Grand Canyon. Powell was appointed the second director of the US Geological Survey. His scientific study of the southwestern United States convinced him that agriculture and deserts should not mix.(Wikipedia).

Terry Tempest Williams writes him a letter in The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. This is an excerpt.

I have learned from your history Major Powell, that it is only through the power of our own encounters and explorations of the wild that we can cultivate hope because we have experienced both the awe and humility in nature. We can passionately enter in to the politics of place, even the realm of public policy and change it, if we dare to speak from the authority of our own residencies.

Plants can be endangered too!

Yes. I know that if you’re reading this, you already know that there are thousands of endangered plant species in the world. You may even know that I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about how to protect them and how to prevent those that have small populations from declining even further. So why the title? Two reasons:

First, Mung Balding and Kathryn Williams have a very nice article in Conservation Biology explaining why plant blindness is such a problem. Here’s the abstract:

Plant conservation initiatives lag behind and receive considerably less funding than animal conservation projects. We explored a potential reason for this bias: a tendency among humans to neither notice nor value plants in the environment. Experimental research and surveys have demonstrated higher preference for, superior recall of, and better visual detection of animals compared with plants. This bias has been attributed to perceptual factors such as lack of motion by plants and the tendency of plants to visually blend together but also to cultural factors such as a greater focus on animals in formal biological education. In contrast, ethnographic research reveals that many social groups have strong bonds with plants, including nonhierarchical kinship relationships. We argue that plant blindness is common, but not inevitable. If immersed in a plant-affiliated culture, the individual will experience language and practices that enhance capacity to detect, recall, and value plants, something less likely to occur in zoocentric societies. Therefore, conservation programs can contribute to reducing this bias. We considered strategies that might reduce this bias and encourage plant conservation behavior. Psychological research demonstrates that people are more likely to support conservation of species that have human-like characteristics and that support for conservation can be increased by encouraging people to practice empathy and anthropomorphism of nonhuman species. We argue that support for plant conservation may be garnered through strategies that promote identification and empathy with plants.

Second, Robbie Blackhall-Miles (@fossilplants) has a passionate post in Gardens (the gardening blog at The Guardian) describing just how repugnant the trade in endangered plant species is.

Buying just one orchid illegally on the internet from Indonesia or a few snowdrops dug from the wild in Bulgaria fans the flames of a trade that has dire consequences for the world’s plant life. Buying one of these plants is exactly the same as buying a carved piece of ivory, a tiger skin or a gram of ground rhino horn. Wouldn’t you think twice about doing that?

OK. I can’t help myself. There’s a third reason. When you hear the phrase “endangered species” do you think of an orchid or a cycad, or do you think of a panda, a rhino, or a tiger? If a picture of an animal popped into your head first (and not just an animal, but a mammal), it shows how much work we have to do.


Balding, M., and K.J.H. Williams. 2016. Plant blindness and the implications for plant conservation. Conservation Biology doi: 10.1111/cobi.12738

Terry Tempest Williams on wilderness

From The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks:

The legacy of the Wilderness Act is a legacy of care. It is the act of loving beyond ourselves, beyond our own species, beyond our own time. To honor wildlands and wild lives that we may never see, much less understand, is to acknowledge the world does not revolve around us. The Wilderness Act is an act of respect that protects the land and ourselves from our own annihilation.

The Wilderness Act

Thought for the day

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.

Henry David Thoreau, Life without principle