Conservation Science – welcome to the 2018 course!

Conservation Science

The Conservation science course introduces the field of conservation science focusing on changes in biodiversity, threats to biodiversity, protected area management, and people-focused conservation. The course combines lectures, small group discussions and hands-on activities. It aims to provide a broad introduction to the field, covering changes in biodiversity, threats to biodiversity, protected area management, and people-focused conservation.

The course aims to further our students’ understanding of the big issues facing biodiversity and the range of approaches conservation organisations use to address them. The course has a strong focus on the development of practical skills with real world application (e.g. oral presentations, science communication via social media, developing evidence-based arguments).

Learning objectives

  1. To understand the concept of biodiversity change and identify threats to global biodiversity.
  2. To understand how and why we conserve ecosystems and populations.
  3. To understand people-focused conservation.

Teaching team

Lecturers:

PhD tutors:

We are looking forward to another year of conservation hot topics, cool discussions, quantitative endeavours and some real-life conservation in action during our fieldtrip to the Cairngorms!

Corruption Through and Through

African Elephants have been disappearing at a frightening rate from Africa’s savannahs and forests, causing drastic consequences to the ecosystems. Where are they going, you might ask?

Poaching for valuable ivory tusks has dramatically increased in recent years, along with the price of ivory. Two of the largest seizures of illegal ivory from Japan and China in 2006 and 2008 showed that the value could reach an astonishing $3570 to $6500 per kg. One elephant produces roughly 7.4 kg of ivory. The horrific levels of poaching are affecting elephant populations’ growth and causing extinctions.

Why does something so detrimental continue? Organised crime supplies demand for ivory. Specifically, civil wars in Mozambique and the Congo use the sale of ivory to procure arms. Civil warfare makes automatic weapons more available throughout Africa. Oftentimes poachers were better equipped than the men put in charge of protecting the wildlife. Poachers also began to use immobilising drugs and helicopters to extract ivory from the elephants. These methods, along with the sales of large quantities of ivory, suggest a move to organised crime. The money ivory brings in allows this organised crime to continue. It is suspected that guards of protected areas, policemen, and politicians have participated in ivory trafficking and that corruption can be found all throughout the system. Bribery is the most common form of corruption because most officials are not paid very much.

So where does that leave us?

Struan of the University of Edinburgh’s Conservation Science class suggests a NO tolerance policy. Most people are not aware that ivory is sourced illegally. Decreasing demand is essential to the recovery of African elephants. Struan argues non-governmental organisations should condemn ivory, markets should be closed and laws should be revised to make all ivory illegal.

Many governments, such as Tanzania and Zambia, have been stockpiling ivory from elephants’ deaths, herd culling, and seizure of illegal stocks in preparation for future trading. This trade should be banned! The governments should be required to destroy any stockpiled ivory.

We all need to work together to stop the expansion of ivory trade. Investment in export hotspots will hopefully allow less ivory to reach the market. Struan suggests that a universal reporting method would be a good place to start. When a nation seizes a load, the ivory should be weighed and its DNA should be analysed and geographically mapped, to identify the source prior to the ivory being destroyed.

Wildlife guards are a good way to thwart ivory trade at its source and prevent the deaths of more elephants. Foreign investment should be focused on providing guards with enough resources to protect the elephants from poachers. Money should also be invested in new technologies such as handheld imaging devices, to give teams advanced notice when poachers are approaching. Aid needs to be turned to the training, equipping, and staffing of wildlife protection agencies.

Struan’s opinion piece stresses that without serious action, African elephants will become extinct in the near future. A global zero-tolerance policy on all forms of ivory trade must be implemented.

By Brynn Littlehale

SeaWorld: Is Shamu a Sham?

The orca (Orcinus orca) is an iconic species that many people, myself included, would be thrilled to see close up. SeaWorld offer thousands of visitors the chance to see these amazing creatures perform every day. However, Claudia Ardreys recent talk “SeaWorld: Does Conservation Justify Captivity” brought to light some issues surrounding SeaWorlds role in conservation and the treatment of their captive orcas.

Jumping orca

SeaWorld present themselves as an organisation that captivates and educates the public, and gives them the rare chance to view orcas and other sea life close up. SeaWorld also aim to portray the image that the welfare of their 241 orcas is of the upmost importance, and at the heart of the running of their parks. However, some question the health and well-being of these orcas. Although SeaWorld deny any wrong-doing, “SeaWorld: Does Conservation Justify Captivity” begged the question – is the conservation of an entire species through funding, engagement and education worth the confinement of a relative few individuals?

SeaWorld have received extensive criticism for the conditions their orcas are kept in and the effect that this has on their mental and physical health2,3,4. Orcas are well-documented to be highly intelligent and have complex family groups and behaviours5. Their captivity involves the fracturing of families and the enforcement of unnatural behaviours6. Boredom3 ensues due to an inability to carry out normal behaviours, such as hunting and swimming, within the unnatural habitats and space restraints they are provided with6,7,8. Psychological problems such as depression and aggression, both to other orcas and to humans, are widespread2,3,9,10. It was also found that the life expectancy of captive orcas is far below that of wild orcas, although SeaWorld deny this10,11.

curved fin

SeaWorld label themselves as an educational facility, using the animals to inspire and teach visitors about the natural world with the aim of improving conservation. Surveys suggest that SeaWorld actually provides very little educational material2, and that which it does is often misleading. For example, all of SeaWorld’s bull orcas have collapsed fins12, indicative of poor health and stress13. SeaWorld argued that many wild orcas also have collapsed dorsal fins due to genetics; however, less than 1% of wild orcas have collapsed fins14. Additionally, the study used as evidence was performed in New Zealand15, where no SeaWorld orcas originate from.

SeaWorld claim to put a great deal of funding towards conservation. However, between 2004 and 2012, only 6% of funding given to the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund (SWBGCF) was used to protect whales and dolphins, including some spent on researching captive animals17. It was also found that over 8 years, SeaWorld gave less than 1/5 of 2014s profits alone to the SWBGCF17.

wild orcas

Primarily, there is evidence that the captive whales are negatively affected by their unnatural lifestyle and cramped conditions. Furthermore, it would seem the claims made by SeaWorld regarding their role in orca conservation are greatly overstated. Additionally, their educational and research contributions are unconvincing at best. Claudia’s view was that SeaWorld use orcas primarily as a tourist draw and money making scheme, and excuse themselves on the basis that education and conservation rationalise this business venture. For these reasons, I too believe that SeaWorlds captivity of orcas is unjustified and inexcusable. Although seeing these animals so close would be a remarkable experience, it could not possibly compare with witnessing healthy, wild families of orcas in their natural habitat.

By Jenny Davidson

References

  1. Whale and Dolphin Conservation. 2015. The Fate of Captive Orcas. Available: http://us.whales.org/wdc-in-action/fate-of-captive-orcas. Last accessed 06/11/2015.
  2. Dougherty, S.D. 2013. The Marine Mammal Protection Act: Fostering Unjust Captivity Practices since 1972. Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law. 28, p337-367.
  3. Copeland, E. 2015. Cognitive Enrichment Intervention for Captive Orcas. Senior Projects -Spring 2015. 1, p128.
  4. Jett, J. & Ventre, J. 2012. Orca (Orcinus orca) captivity and vulnerability to mosquito-transmitted viruses. Journal of Marine Animals and their Ecology. 5, p9-16.
  5. Simmonds, M.P. 2006. Into the brains of whales. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 100, p103-116.
  6. Rose, N.A., Parsons, E.C.M. & Farinato, R. 2009. Marine Mammals in Captivity. The Humane Society of the United States. 4, p1-82.
  7. Matthews, C.J.D., Luque, S.P., Petersen, S.D., Andrews, R.D. & Ferguson, S.H. 2011. Satellite tracking of a killer whale (Orcinus orca) in the eastern Canadian Arctic documents ice avoidance and rapid, long-distance movement into the North Atlantic. Polar Biology. 34, p1091-1096.
  8. Arkush, K.D. 2001. Water Quality. In: Dierauf, L.A. & Gulland, F.M.D. CRC Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine. 2nd ed. New York: New York CRC Press. p779-787.
  9. Marino, L. & Frohoff, T. 2011. Towards a New Paradigm of Non-Captive Research on Cetacean Cognition. PLOS one. 6, p1-9.
  10. Jett, J. & Ventre, J. 2015. Captive Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) Survival. Marine Mammal Science. 1, p1-16.
  11. Olesiuk, P.F., Ellis, G.M. & Ford, J.K.B. 2005. Life History and Population Dynamics of Northern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in British Columbia. Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 33, p1-56.
  12. Hoyt, E. 1992. The Performing Orca — Why the Show Must Stop. Bath: Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
  13. National Marine Fisheries Service. 2005. Proposed Conservation Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca). National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Region, Seattle, Washington. 183.
  14. Ford, J.K.B., Ellis, G.M. & Balcomb, B.C. 1994. Killer Whales: The Natural History and Genealogy of Orcinus Orca in British Columbia and Washington. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. p4-10.
  15. Visser, I.N. 1998. Prolific Body Scars and Collapsing Dorsal Fins on Killer Whales (Orcinus Orca) in New Zealand Waters. Aquatic Mammals. 24, p71-81.
  16. Hodgins, N. 2014. SeaWorld as a Conservation Donor. Available: http://uk.whales.org/blog/2014/05/seaworld-conservation-donor. Last accessed 06/11/2015.

Photographs

  1. https://pixabay.com/static/uploads/photo/2014/11/09/00/51/orca-523067_640.jpg. Last accessed 06/11/2015.
  2. 2015. Gallery/Photos. Available: https://savethewhalez.wordpress.com/galleryvideos/. Last accessed 06/11/2015.
  3. Jim Maya. 2010. http://pugetsoundblogs.com/waterways/2010/08/19/killer-whales-live-wild-and-free-in-the-san-juans/. Last accessed 06/11/2015.

Thwarting the white gold rush

There are many issues with modern day society, including our compulsive need for stuff – anything from the latest clothes, cars, gadgets, holidays, you name it people want it. So why does our desire to own things rule out our moral reasoning? Why do innocent creatures have to suffer?

The drastic impacts of our desire to own things has been seen through the remarkable decline of African elephants. Caused by excessive hunting of elephants for their ivory tusks1 for many things, including delicate ornaments and piano keys. The population of African elephants more than halved between 1979 and 1989, leading to the interventions of a CITES ban in 19895&6. Designed to interrupt the ivory trade, it was successful in closing ivory markets in Europe and America2. However, in many African countries poaching levels remained constant and in some cases even increased5.

elephants

Fig 1. World Wildlife Foundation 2015

Today there are only 470,000 African elephants in the wild and they are classed as vulnerable on the WWF register7. In an attempt to reduce poaching rates and stabilise elephant populations, a change in public perception is necessary to decrease ivory demands. The highest demand is from Asia, with thousands of ivory products seized by border control every year2&7. Minimising human-elephant conflict is suggested to increase protection of elephant populations by introducing locally managed sanctuaries, benefitting both the elephants and local populations through increased tourism revenue and decreasing crop damage7. Introduction of enforcement against poaching and selling ivory is critical, as many national parks in Africa don’t have efficient or effective barrier controls4.

ivory burn

Fig 2. Symbolic burning of stockpiled ivory (3)

Although there is the CITES ban, this has been wavered for the sale of stock piled ivory from African countries (mainly Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa) to the Japanese market2. Governments need to re-enforce strict policies against trading ivory. There is some movement with reports of a new ivory ban agreed between China and the USA to combat the large ivory markets, hopefully putting an end to global ivory trade. Banning of stock-piling ivory may influence demand, as ivory dealers are aware stock-piled ivory exists they wait until restrictions are wavered and these are tradable. This has happened on recurring occasions in history2 and can be seen to keep the interest within the ivory trade. The first country to destroy stock piled ivory was Kenya in 1989, this trend has increased globally. To date around 130 tonnes of stock-piled ivory has been destroyed since the CITES ban on ivory trade in 1989, with around 29 tonnes destroyed this year alone8.

It is clear that there is still a demand for ivory and excessive poaching rates are destroying the few elephant populations remaining. These shocking statistics show that we need to do all we can to preserve this majestic species, so that future generations get the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate them.

In the words of the Duke of Cambridge:

“Only we, as consumer, can put the wildlife traffickers out of business, by ending our demand for their products … by working together we can stand up to the great challenges our planet faces”.

By Ashleigh Nithsdale

References

  1. Beachey R.W., 1967. The Ear African Trade in the Nineteenth Century. Journal of African History. Vol 2 Pages 269 – 290.
  2. Born Free Foundation, 2015. The Ivory Trade. Available at: http://www.bornfree.org.uk/animals/african-elephants/projects/ivory-trade/ [Accessed on 10/11/2015].
  3. Rhodes A., 2015. Congo and the UAE have destroyed their ivory stockpiles. Heres why that’s so important. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/congo-and-the-uae-have-destroyed-their-ivory-stockpiles-heres-why-thats-so-important-10213544.html. [Accessed on 11/10/2015].
  4. Leader-Williams N. and Milner-Gulland E.J., 2002. Policies for the Enforcement of Wildlife Laws: The Balance between Detection and Penalties in Luangwa Valley, Zambia. Conservation Biology. Vol 7 Pages 611 – 617.
  5. Lemieux A.M. and Clarke R.V., 2009. The International Ban on Ivory Sales and its Effects on Elephant Poaching in Africa. British Journal on Criminology
  6. Stiles D. The Ivory Trade and Elephant Conservation. Environmental Conservation. Vol 31 Pages 309 – 321.
  7. World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 2015. African Elephant Overview. Available at: http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/african-elephant [Accessed on 10/11/2015].
  8. Welch M., 2015. Crash and Burn: Destroying Illegal Ivory. World Wildlife Fund. Available at: http://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/crush-and-burn-destroying-illegal-ivory [Accessed on: 11/11/2015].

The Return of the Wolf

Emma presented her opinion piece on whether wolf reintroductions are feasible conservation tools in the USA. Although controversial, reintroducing top predators like the wolf can facilitate widespread ecosystem change through trophic cascades and their position as a keystone species. She talked us through case studies where Mexican wolves (Canis lupus baileyi), Red wolves (Canis rufus) and Grey wolves (Canis lupus) have been reintroduced, and compared their long-term effects on the ecosystem and interactions with humans.

Wolves

Grey wolves have been successfully reintroduced in the Northern Rocky Mountains (National Wildlife Federation https://www.nwf.org/Wildlife/Wildlife-Library/Mammals/Gray-Wolf.aspx)

The Red wolf had gone extinct in the wild, and only 11 reintroduced Mexican wolves remained, so their future depended on captive breeding and reintroductions. For a reintroduction to be successful the wolves must be able to establish self-sustaining populations; while the extinction of Mexican and Red wolves have been prevented, their populations may not be stable enough to persist. The Mexican wolves had reasonably well-preserved genetic diversity, but extensive livestock activity in the area has prevented them from expanding their range. A larger core protected area may be needed if the Mexican wolf population is to avoid extinction in the long run. The Red wolf population is under serious threat from hybridisation with coyotes, and their future also remains uncertain.1

Wolves 2

The extinction of the Mexican wolf, left (Phil Degginger http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mexican-wolf–arizona-phil-degginger.html) and the Red wolf, right (Shattil & Rozinski http://www.arkive.org/red-wolf/canis-rufus/image-G112447.html) has been prevented through captive breeding and reintroductions.

On the other hand, the Grey wolf in the Northern Rocky Mountains has surpassed its target population size and should be able to persist without human intervention. Previously endangered across the States, the Grey wolf population is now stable with around 1600 individuals in the area. The elk populations have been reduced and their behaviour modified2, so that tree species like aspen and willow have been allowed to recover. This has again facilitated the recovery of species like bears and bison, and scavengers such as ravens which feed off the wolf kills. The recovery of willow and other tree species has created a niche for beavers, whose dams have changed the nature and biodiversity of the rivers.

With regards to the potential conflict with humans and livestock, compromise has been shown to be invaluable. The methods for dealing with conflicts, however, still need to be improved if future reintroductions are to be efficient and successful. In conclusion, the reintroduction of apex predators such as these wolf species is possible, but there is still plenty room for improvement in how this is achieved.

By Gyda Fenn-Moltu

1 Assessing the prevalence of hybridization between sympatric Canis species surrounding the red wolf (Canis rufus) recovery area in North Carolina. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-294X.2011.05084.x/pdf

2 Foraging in the ‘landscape of fear’ and its implications for habitat use and diet quality of elk Cervus elaphus and bison Bison bison ttp://dx.doi.org/10.2981/0909-6396(2005)11[215:FITLOF]2.0.CO;2

Could Genetic Manipulation Mitigate Man’s Mistakes?

Many species are currently threatened as a result of human-induced changes to the environment, such as habitat fragmentation1,2, invasive species spread3 and climate change4. It has been suggested that genetic manipulation of endangered species could mitigate some of the detrimental effects of these environmental changes5.

deforestation

Image showing habitat fragmentation due to logging in parts of Ontario’s southern boreal forest (2)

Selective breeding in captive populations and assisted migration in small, isolated natural populations can prevent inbreeding depression and keep genetic diversity high. Although this approach has proved to be successful in the past, for example when used on the Florida Panther5, several potential problems could occur, such as outbreeding depression, introduction of diseases and disruption of local adaptations5.

polar bear

Image showing impact of global warming on polar bears. As global warming increases the earth’s temperature, their natural habitat is disappearing, leading to a decrease in their population (6)

Genetic engineering can also be used to allow the transfer of single genes between members of the same or different species5. For example, disease resistance genes can be transferred to members of a vulnerable tree population, protecting them from introduced diseases, such as Dutch elm disease8. There are many concerns about the unknown consequences of the transfer of these genes to other organisms in the environment. Furthermore, genetic engineering requires detailed knowledge of the organism’s genome and expensive technology.

florida pantha

Image of a Florida panther. Assisted migration of members of a related subspecies, into a population of only 8 individuals successfully relieved inbreeding depression and loss of genetic diversity (7)

I do not think that genetically manipulating organisms to suit their environment is the most ethical way to approach these issues. Shouldn’t we be preventing the anthropogenic environmental changes that are causing the problems? Broad use of genetic manipulation may make people think that it is OK to continuously damage the environment, as each organism could be genetically manipulated to suit their current habitat. But this is not the case, as genetic manipulation is very expensive, time-consuming and potentially detrimental to the species of interest and other organisms in its habitat. I think that genetic manipulation should only be used in the form of selective breeding and assisted migration in severe situations, when a species is critically endangered. At the moment it does not seem that the consequences of genetic engineering are well understood and therefore I don’t think this method should be used in conservation. The money needed for genetic manipulation would, in most cases, be better spent on preventing the root cause of the environmental changes.

By Ellie Corsie

References

  1. Haddad, N. M., Brudvig, L. A., Clobert, J., Davies, K. F., Gonzalez, A., Holt, R. D., Lovejoy, T. E., Sexton, J. O., Austin, M. P., Collins, C. D., Cook, W. M., Damschen, E. I., Ewers, R. M., Foster, B. L., Jenkins, C. N., King, A. J., Laurance, W. F., Levey, D. J., Margules, C. R., Malbourne, B. A., Nicholls, A. O., Orrock, J. L., Song, D. & Townshend, J. R. (2015). Habitat fragmentation and its lasting impact on Earth’s ecosystems.Science Advances1(2), e1500052.
  2. Bryce, E. (2015). Global Study Reveals the Extent of Habitat Fragmentation. Conservation. Retrieved from https://www.audubon.org/news/global-study-reveals-extent-habitat-fragmentation.
  3. Didham, R. K., Tylianakis, J. M., Hutchison, M. A., Ewers, R. M., & Gemmell, N. J. (2005). Are invasive species the drivers of ecological change?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 20(9), 470-474.
  4. Thomas, C. D., Cameron, A., Green, R. E., Bakkenes, M., Beaumont, L. J., Collingham, Y. C., Erasmus B. F. N., Grainger, A., Hannah, L., Hughes, L., Huntley, B., Jaarsveld, A. S., Midgley, G. F., Miles, L., Ortega-Huerta, M. A., Peterson, A. T., Phillips, O. L.& Williams, S. E. (2004). Extinction risk from climate change. Nature, 427(6970), 145-148.
  5. Thomas, M.A., Roemer, G.W., Donlan, C.J., Dickson, B.G., Matocq, M. & Malaney, J. 2013. Gene tweaking for conservation. Nature. 501, 485-486.
  1. Polarbearsinternational.org,. (2015). Status and Threats | Polar Bears International. Retrieved 3 November 2015, from http://www.polarbearsinternational.org/about-polar-bears/status-and-threats
  2. Johnson, W.E., Onorato, D.P., Roelke, M.E., Land, E.D., Cunningham, M., Belden, R.C., McBride, R., Jansen, D., Lotz, M., Shindle, D., Howard, J., Wildt, D.E., Penfold, L.M., Hostetler, J.A., Oli, M.K. & O’Brien, S.J. 2010. Genetic Restoration of the Florida Panther. Science. 329, 5999, 1641-1645.
  1. Merkle, S. A., Andrade, G. M., Nairn, C. J., Powell, W. A., & Maynard, C. A. (2007). Restoration of threatened species: a noble cause for transgenic trees. Tree Genetics & Genomes,3(2), 111-118.

Assisted Colonisation – A High Risk Strategy to Save Species from Climate Change

Species extinctions are occurring at rates of up to 1,000 times that of natural levels, owing to habitat fragmentation, pollution, climate change, introduction of alien species  and numerous other drivers.

In her recent talk, Fiona Plenderleith discussed one threat in particular; globally warming climates causing species range shifts. This is the idea that as the Earth warms, due to the effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions, the normal habitat range of a species becomes unsuitable. Species caught in this predicament face three choices: move, adapt, or die. Evidence of adaptability is sparse with only a few species, such as the European larger banded snail (Cepaea nemoralis), clearly displaying such capabilities. Therefore, in order to avoid extinction, species must move to different latitudes to cope with the changing climate. Fiona addresses the proposal that assisted colonisation could be used as a method of conservation for those species unable to keep up with the rate of change.

toad

Firstly, the talk discussed how assisted colonisation is a very high risk strategy due to its range of possible negative implications. One such issue is the competitive displacement of native species by introduced species. This occurs when the introduced species occupies the same niche as the native, but is better adapted to exploit its resources, therefore excluding the native species and causing its population to decline. Further risks include the transfer of diseases, as classically exemplified by the grey squirrel’s introduction of the parapoxvirus, and hybridisation of rare endemics.

Fiona then reminded us all of the classic “conservation gone wrong” case in which the *** cane toad (Rhinella marina) was introduced to Australia as a pest control strategy. This demonstrated how we are only able to truly assess the adverse effects of species introductions after the action has been performed. Therefore, we must be extremely cautious with assisted colonisation of species in order to avoid any unforeseen consequences to the adopted environment.

Hoegh-Guldberg et al. suggest that intracontinental translocation can resolve the aforementioned issues. This appears somewhat logical as the ecosystem similarities within a continent may help prevent disruptions. However, the introduction of a mysid shrimp to Flathead Lake, Montana demonstrated that this too can have disastrous consequences. This effort to supplement the diet of kokanee salmon actually led to their stock collapse, due to the shrimp’s heavy predation of zooplankton. Thus we again see that even with the best intentions species introductions frequently lead to catastrophic effects on the new environment.

Advocates of assisted colonisation propose that translocated species may have the ability to restore ecosystem functions in damaged environments. In the case of the extinct Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii), it has been suggested that introducing a different species of giant tortoise will help to fill the vacant niche and therefore restore the seed dispersal mechanism that was lost. However, there is still a poor understanding globally of ecosystem functions and such introductions are surrounded with uncertainty.

In summary, previous conservation efforts involving the introduction of a new species have often proven disastrous, with irreversible consequences. Thus, to avoid a repetition of such cases, assisted colonisation is not the solution to warming habitats. Fiona suggests that rather than wasting finite conservation funds on such a risky and uncertain endeavour, we should instead focus our efforts on restoration of lost habitats or tackling the issue of climate change itself.

By Peter Foster

Neonicotinoids-Are they worth it?

On Tuesday 27th October 2015 our class of Conservation Science held a conference in which we presented short introductions to our hot topics in conservation. Freya Tetley’s piece focused on whether a ban of neonicotinoids would be worth the economic loss to protect our ecosystems. With the increasing wealth of information proving that pollinator numbers are decreasing, I think it is more important than ever to look into factors that could be the cause of such population collapses.

corn yeilds graph

Fig 1: Increase in corn yields in the U.S since pesticide application (source: http://www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2012/highlights30)

Benefit of neonicotinoids

Widespread application of neonicotinoids suggests the insecticide must have significant benefits. The application of neonicotinoids reduces insect damage to crops, increasing yields. In the United States crop yields, namely corn, have quadrupled since neonicotinoids were first applied in 1866 (fig 1). In consequence, global food prices have dropped. The chain of positive feedback proves neonicotinoids do have their economic worth, but what about their effect on ecosystems? 

Cost of neonicotinoids

Although neonicotinoid application has its benefits, it comes with a high conservation cost, which I find more important to investigate. The recent European Academics Scientific Advisory Council (EASAC) report has shown that widespread prophylactic use of neonicotinoids has severe negative effects on non-target species. There has been a 50% decline in bee populations[i] attributed to neonicotinoids, and the pesticide also has detrimental effects on other pollinators such as birds[ii]. Bees and birds are vital for plant reproduction and ultimately putting fresh fruit and vegetable our plates. Arthropods are likewise affected negatively by neonicotinoids, which may disrupt nutrient cycling and reduce soil fertility[iii] (fig 2)!

EsS

Fig 2: Ecosystem services provided by various organisms (source: http://www.easac.eu/home/reports-and-statements/detail-view/article/ecosystem-se.html)

Ban on neonicotinoids?

Seeing the significant negative impacts of neonicotinoids, I wonder why the chemical has not been banned entirely? A temporary restriction of neonicotinoids was already in place in January 2013[iv], but the limited scope and length of the ban resulted in no significant improvements for ecosystems. In France various pesticides have been banned since 2004 and crop yields have not suffered. Additionally, half the European Union countries were in support of the 2013 restriction, so why not commit to a complete ban? I think the government needs to acknowledge that the loss of ecosystem services associated with pollinator and arthropod declines from pesticide application, will be more financially significant than a ban of the pesticide itself. There are alternative methods to neonicotinoid use[v] such as integrated pest management, biological control and creating hybridized species more resistant to disease. We should be focusing on applying alternatives rather than the pesticide itself.

By Lisa Kopsieker

References

[i] Biesmejer, JC., Roberts, S., Reemer, M., Chlemuller, R., Edwards, M., Peeters, T., Schaffers, A., Potts, S., Kleukers, R., Thomas, C., Settele, J and Kunin, W. 2006. Parallel declines in pollinators and insect-pollinated plants in Britain and the Netherlands. Science 313:351-354.

[ii] Boatman, N., Brickle, N., Hart, J., Milsom, T., Morris, A., Murray, AW., Murray, K and Robertson, PA. 2004. Evidence for the indirect effects of pesticides on farmland birds. International Journal of Avian Science 146:131-143.

[iii] Desneux, N., Decourtye, A and Delpuech, JM. 2007. The sublethal effects of pesticides on beneficial arthropods. Annual Review of Entomology 52:81-106.

[iv] Gibson, C. 2013. “Victory for bees’ as European Union bans neonicotinoid pesticides blamed for destroying bee population.” The Independent. Retrieved 17th October.

[v] Furlan, L and Kreutzweiser, D. 2015. Alternatives to neonicotinoid insecticides for pest control: case studies in agriculture and forestry. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 22(1):135-147.

Bringing the wilderness back to Scotland

Is the reintroduction of large mammals realistic? This is the question Gyda faced in her presentation at the 2015 Conservation Science Conference. To answer this question, we need to fully understand what rewilding aims to achieve, and the consequences that go along with it. As a general term, rewilding is the restoration of ecosystems to their natural state without human influence. This involves the restoration of the landscape’s natural greenery and reintroduction of keystone species, such as top predators or ecosystem engineers.

Gyda discussed these goals in relation to the Scottish Highlands, which has been transformed by human activity from a forested landscapes supporting wolves, beaversx, and red squirrels, to a region dominated by agriculture. However, this land is actually fairly poor for agriculture, instead being an ideal location for rewilding due to the large area of land it includes, and its relative remoteness from human habitations.

Recently in the Scottish Highlands, beavers have been reintroduced and these ecosystem engineers have successfully returned their territories to a natural state, supporting a new diversity of species. A further project, the Trees for Life restoration of the Caledonian Forest, has started to bring back the native forest habitat that was removed by human deforestation, giving endemic Scottish species a place to thrive.

Gyda identified wild boar, bison, lynx, wolves and brown bears as candidates for reintroduction. All of these species have suffered human persecution which drove them to extinction in Scotland, but prior to this had great importance to the ecosystem they were part of.

But reintroduction doesn’t come without its problems. Many species, especially top predators, face opposition from the public and landowners. Wolves and bears, famed for their ferocity, are the least popular as they are viewed a threat to public safety and to the economic livelihood of grouse moorland owners and livestock farmers. Gyda came to the conclusion that the most suitable carnivore for reintroduction to the Highlands is the lynx, as it inhabits high mountain tops, avoiding human contact.

The wolf (left) and lynx (right) could be reintroduced to the Scottish Highlands in a bid to return the area to natural wilderness.

However, safeguards must still be put in place to ease the acceptance of these wild animals in our landscape. Examples of this can be seen in Norway and Sweden where famers are compensated for the loss of animals to wolf packs. A similar tactic could easily be applied in the Scottish Highlands, but to add some difficulty, it would need governmental support to fund the compensation. The situation becomes more complex in the case of grouse, as the profitability of the land doesn’t depend on individual grouse, but instead on the attractiveness of the area as a hunting resort. In this case, compensation schemes would be hard to promote among the stakeholders.

All in all, the reintroduction of large wild animals to Scotland is a topic that will never be fully agreed on. In spite of this, the cause has garnered some unexpected support from the public and landowners alike, making further reintroductions a possibility in the near future.

By Margaret Bolton

Should we Bee more concerned about our pollinators?

Pressure on wildlife and their habitat has intensified as the global human population has increased. Conservationists believe that humans are obliged to safeguard the diverse range of species on the planet due to the negative effects we have had on them; however, this is not a simple task. Where do we start and how much effort should we place on each species? Following a talk by Natalie Cristo, an Undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, the importance of, and services provided by, honey bees became overwhelmingly apparent.

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It is important to conserve species that are endemic, endangered and provide ecosystem services (discussed by Groot, et al., 2002). It is often the services or usefulness of a species that gains it the most attention. The usefulness of bees to humans should really be thought of as dependence, and not be so readily overlooked as their numbers are decreasing and without bees we would lose 1/3 of the food produced in the UK.

It is hard to imagine a world without bees or pollinators, because they are vital for the fertilisation of many food crops. Despite this importance they have been declining for decades due to habitat loss and fragmentation, flower decline, pesticide use and disease. More than 1 in 10 honeybees is at risk of extinction according to the IUCN Red List for Bees. These factors lower the vitality and genetic diversity of bees meaning that they are even less resistant to environmental stressors.

A positive feedback loop denoting the challenges and threats to honeybees and a visual display of the importance of honeybees in a variety of different commercial operations.

In China, people now have to pollinate crops and fruits using hand pollination because bee numbers are so low. In a world with such a vastly growing population, we are so heavily reliant on insect pollinated crops that we are forced to go to such extents as these. Visiting the Population Institute website gives you an idea of how many people our earth is trying to feed and this should highlight the importance of pollinators.

 

Chinese hand pollination, carried out because of the lack of insect pollinators.

 

One of the main problems bees face is the overuse of pesticides, such as neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are the world’s most widely used insecticides and are thought to be the main driver of the huge losses in the number of queen bees although they have now been banned by the EU. More countries banning these chemicals and switching to alternative methods of pest removal would mean that we see a less rapid decline in bee populations. It seems counter intuitive and counterproductive to spray the crops to increase yield if that stops our crops being pollinated altogether.

We need to take responsibility for the damage we are doing to local biodiversity, crops and to the humble honey bee and take action in order to conserve them, especially considering human population growth. What would the world be without the bees?

 

By Hannah Stevens