How To Discover Conservation: INTERVIEW with James Borrell

A little over a year ago, a very good friend of mine send me a link to the website of conservationist James Borrell with the words “You’ll like this guy.”

IMG_0727small-w960-h600

She was right.

In that time I’ve become rather a fan of James Borrell, a PhD student from London who’s immensely passionate about conservation and has a love for communicating science that rivals even my own. James has undertaken scientific expeditions all over the planet, has received high praise for his TEDx talk titled “Is there hope in conservation?”, and when he was twenty-three founded a programme to help students experience conservation whilst telling the most uplifiting stories from the field; Discover Conservation.

James recently organised and undertook Expedition Angano – a research expedition to Madagascar to discover the mysterious future of the desperately fragmented forest there. It’s been a few years since I was out there, and with the imminent release of The Evolution of Madagascar I was incredibly keen to hear how things are out there now, and quiz James on the world of conservation in general. 


 It’s the cliché conservation question, but, what do you feel that the world of conservation needs now, most of all?

I think a couple of things. Firstly, we need to stop being so cynical about governments. The green movement is sometimes synonymous with being left-wing, and government-hating in general because it’s difficult to get the things we want. I saw a great talk by [an MP], the other day: “she said, if you don’t like it, stand to be an MP.” That’s all they are, is people who’ve got up and are having a go (most of them anyway).

Secondly, we need more ambition and to stop trying to ask for scraps. Conservation needs to make sense in an economically efficient way, that’s the only way it will be successful – at least in a time frame that matters. My pet hate is how much money we spend on crap species that are common as muck but we just happen to like – that goes for things like Elephants and Rhino as well, there are a lot of those, and while we spend money there, lesser known species are slipping to extinction. I’d like to see prioritisation on where you can spend your money and get the biggest bang for your buck I think, and there’s folks like the EDGE programme already making great progress there.

Spain2015-3044

Very fair ideas, and I totally agree that the world would be so much better if people would moan a bit less and try a bit more. I’ve seen you speak a lot about Hope in conservation before, and would always say we could do with more of that, but do you think there’s a good amount of hope in conservation already?

Yeah, I see two bunches of conservationists: There’s those that I see in their own little world, managing little nature reserves in the UK, and then there’s the ones that are trying to work internationally. I appreciate both; you need both. But I don’t think that all conservationists in the UK can visualise the big picture, and that’s where you need to project hope – out of our little bubble in the UK and out to the wider world.

That’s why I’ve never specialised you know, I still call myself an Ecologist, as I’ve been on conservation expeditions a fair few times now and you meet people who are so passionate about snakes, or so passionate about birds, or so passionate about termites. Whereas I get my kicks from seeing the way that it all works together. And I still love snakes and birds and termites. But I feel that it’s… it’s kind of selfish, to prioritise something like that, and not see it as a component of something more.

Yeah, unfortunately though, career-wise at least, it’s pretty good if you specialise. If you focus on being the expert on Boophis of northern Madagascar, then people will recognise you as the Boophis expert of northern Madagascar.

Very fair point. But anyway, tell me more about Madagascar – is there any hope out there?

I think that’s the toughest place of all. There’s still lots of things I don’t get my head around out there. You see the scale at which everything operates, the small scale of forest fragments. I can’t quite imagine how these vast bits of forest are just disappearing. I don’t know, I think there’s hope, just. There’s a couple of really amazing statistics, and that’s that in modern history, no species of lemur have gone extinct. Chytrid hasn’t wiped out Madagascar’s frogs yet. And when you still find these intact patches of forest, that can be quite surprising, when you consider how much is gone. I think there is hope, but I think Madagascar is the hardest place to sell.

It’s such a strange place, I agree. So you’ve been working out there quite a bit recently, tell me what you’ve been doing?

One of the biggest problems in Madagascar is forest loss – you end up with just ten percent of it left and that’s bad situation. But one of the things you don’t think about is the resolution of the fragmentation. On average, Madagascar has some of the smallest fragments of any country in the world. So if you picked a point in the forest somewhere, eight times out of ten, it would be within a kilometre of a forest edge and a transition to grassland.12801372_1095874970478923_5459027516276760676_n

That’s pretty close! So, it’s not just that there’s not much forest left; the bits that are left are in really small pieces. My interests are in habitat fragmentation and how that works, and one of the things you get when you get smaller and smaller pieces, you get a higher ratio of edge to interior. Forest Edge, where it meets that grassland, is a really different environment to the interior. It’s a lot hotter, a lot drier; it has shallower leaf litter and higher tree mortality, more human disturbance and so on.

What we don’t really know though, is what you call “The Edge”. Do you call it first five meters or the first fifty? That makes a big difference; if you’re looking at a satellite image and you can see one square kilometre of forest, how much of that is good, intact, original forest, and how much is subject to these different conditions?

So the edge of a forest could easily be one, two, three, four, five degrees higher temperature than the interior. So in the field what we’re trying to do is study reptiles and amphibians in an attempt to detect this transition from edge to interior. If you walk on grassland in Madagascar, you’ll see some skinks, some snakes, you’ll see species that can tolerate disturbed habitats and so on. As you go into a rainfoest, they should disappear and be replaced by ones that can’t survive outside of that original habitat, things like tree frogs, little leaf-litter frogs and that kind of thing. So basically we’ve been trying to find that transition, and see at what distance from the edge you get that change.

And you were working up in the North weren’t you?

We worked in the North because most of the research that’s been done in Madagascar has either been done in the East around Moromanga, or Ranomafana in the South, which is great, they’re both lovely areas. In fact they’re nicer areas where the forest is in better condition, but the largest chunks of remaining forest are far far up in the North. They’re very very hard to get to, and comparatively much less studied. I happened to be able to put together a team that’s capable of getting to somewhere really remote – you know, and that’s part of the fun of it.

10350551_1101177256615361_5091967941524767657_n

One of the thigns that was really interesting about your expedition – what was the name of the expedition again?

Angano. An “Angano” is a story or a fable or a legend in Malagasy. I didn’t know what to name it, I mean the name wasn’t particularly important. We didn’t know the name of any of the regions we were trying to get to, because they didn’t have names – at least as far as we knew or as far as google earth tells you. So we picked Angano because it means a ‘story’ or a ‘legend’ I was like “well, a story, that’s nice. Let’s name our expedition a story and then use stories to teach people about conservation.”All my guides then pee-d them selves because apparently an Angano, a legend in Malagasy means a story that isn’t true. I tried to argue that it’s a legend that can come true, and they were all just “Nah”.

Oh well that’s alright, you can still sell it to people in this country as Angano, it’ll be fine. So yeah, one of the interesting things about Expeditoin Angano was that you crowd-funded it.

Yeah we tried that. We got quite a lot of money from grants, quite a lot from members of the team, and then we managed to crowd-fund a little bit extra to support some Malagasy students that we took with us.

That’s awesome! I’m glad it’s all been such a success! And it’s a really great way of connecting people generally with conservation efforts.
I really love the way you’ve set up your website because it’s absolutely full of articles and advice on how to get involved with conservation, but for anyone who hasn’t yet read it all, what advice would you give to people who haven’t yet experienced conservation, and don’t yet realise how much we need it.

I think the way to realise how important it all is, is to realise how much everything depends on the environment. The value of the services that we derive from the environment, and don’t have to pay anything for as a society is massive. But that’s quite boring. I mean, it comes across as really really boring. I just can’t see a way of catching someone’s eye with an elevator pitch for something that, as much as I would love to. That’s why so many NGOs use big fluffy animals, to attract people’s attention.

11872232_998552900211131_4345088899615785737_o

My take, I guess, is I try and mix something a bit adventurous, a good story that appeals to everyone, with a bit of purpose. That’s expedition Angano. For someone who’s not a conservationist, we could say “we had a team of fifteen people living in the rainforest for a month.” They might think “ooh that’s cool”, and then they could see what you were doing. So my take is try to mix a little bit of adventure with conservation but that’s definitely not the only angle. I really liked Monbiot’s take on the iconic idea of rewilding, that’ a great one for getting people interested.

Incidentally the reason why I love rewilding and think it’s what we should do, is in conservation we don’t have a lot of money, and rewilding should be the cheapest possible strategy. Conservation charities in the UK don’t have very much money, and they spend ridiculous amounts managing tiny reserves, stopping tree encroachment and that kind of thing. If you could replace everything that wasn’t there and makes reserves large enough they should, eventually, manage themselves. You could then spend the money on educating people instead – but that’s all a bit out there at the moment I think!

All in all you’ve just got to capture people’s imaginations with these kinds of things, but I definitely don’t have the answer for how to do it. 


My most sincere thanks to James for taking the time to talk to me, hopefully the next time we meet it’ll be in a pub with good beer and we can really give the world a thorough chewing-over. In the mean time, we may not have the answer to the world’s troubles, but I’m confident that the world of conservation –and it’s communication – is in good hands with him.

Visit www.jamesborrell.com to hear even more from this brilliant fellow.

Advertisements

INTERVIEW with Prof. Stuart Pimm of SavingSpecies

I recently published a post stating that, to adequately offset the carbon emissions, a flight to Mallorca ought to cost £4,000,000. Now it turns out – and I’m happy to say that – I was wrong… by about one million times! I won’t hide my original error – see it here – but this is very much a retraction. Being wrong every now & then is a wonderful and fundamental part of science.

My error came in a simple assumption I made about the organisation Saving Species, with whom I encourage you to offset your carbon. I made an ass out of u-&-me be by thinking that the 30-year leases with which they operate were a necessary duration of the sequestration process, when in reality, they’re not. Their system is actually as brilliant and efficient as it seems.

Now the best thing that has come about from this misguided error is that it put me in touch with Stuart Pimm, the founder of SavingSpecies – he happily corrected my math and I found myself with the opportunity to interview one of the most go-getting and innovative conservationists working today.

Beyond Stuart’s credentials as founder of SavingSpecies – through which he has helped save a number of charismatic species from extinction, discovered a number more, and aided the mitigation of global emissions and facilitated reforestation – Stuart has worked as a consultant on An Inconvenient Truth and appeared in 11th hour – two of the most impactful films on climate change ever made. He is also a teaching Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, who introduce him as “a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them.”

This is someone I was excited to talk to.

There’s a brilliant article that Stuart wrote for the British Ecological Society about the birth of Saving Species, in which he applied island-theory to forest fragmentation in Brazil and managed to convert cattle-pasture into rejuvenated forest thereby saving the Golden Lion Tamarin from extinction. It’s a beautiful story. However, when I sat down to interview him over skype, we were both keen to crack-on chatting about the way that things are now, and how unbelievably easy and affordable it is to do your part to offset carbon and save the world:


 

“…Not everybody finds it easy to do this, but the remarkable thing is how little it costs to offset carbon. There’s a new movie coming out, it’ll be shown worldwide on the Discovery Channel on the 2nd December, by a chap called Louie Psihoyos, called Racing Extinction. Louis said he’d like to offset his carbon, and he tried to do loads of complicated calculations. I said “Just tell me how many millions of miles you flew, how many thousands of miles you drove, how many days were you in the studio with electricity.” And we came up with a number. He said “Is that all?!” and I said “Yeah, that’s all.” So he ended up giving us more money than that, as he just felt embarrassed that it was such a small sum of money.

It basically costs, probably about £40 or £50 a year to offset an average American emissions – even if you, like me, travel a huge amount.

It’s probably an obvious question but, why don’t we do this more if it’s so easy?

 Well, I really think that’s a good question, and I wish I had a better answer.

You really can do things in places that make a difference, and more really importantly, you can do it by funding people who make a difference. I basically founded SavingSpecies because I was very unhappy with the way that big conservation groups were doing things. Because they weren’t supporting the wonderful people who I meet in places like Columbia and Ecuador and Peru and Brazil and Madagascar – really passionate local people who are just good at taking care of their local problems. I just felt that we needed to have a mechanism for funding them.

The model is inspirational. One of the things I really admire about it is the way that it’s a fantastic bridge between that abstract, relatively dull enemy that is climate change & carbon, and brilliantly tangible conservation victories – like Golden Lion Tamarins, which are adorable. So, along those lines, what other tangible conservation victories are you really proud of?

Well obviously that was the first one and we’re very proud of that. We did that in a couple of ways – we didn’t pick that area because it was the Golden Lion Tamarins, we picked that area because we thought it was probably the most important place for birds. If you’re picking areas that are really rich in endangered birds then they’re going to have endangered mammals, endangered plants, endangered amphibians, so that all made good sense.

One of the things that happens when you have these isolated patches is you lose the top predators. And when you lose the top predators, all sorts of bad things happen underneath. So, Britain has lost it’s wolves, and with lots of wolves we now have plagues of red deer all across the highlands keeping the forest down. So you get all these knock-down, cascading effects.

One of the things that happened much earlier than we thought it might, is that mountain lions – Pumas – started moving across the corridor. Mountain lions came back into the isolated fragment, from which they’d been gone for a while. There’s a smaller predator called a Tayra – it’s sort of a big weasel – and it does an enormous amount of harm to birds, and to the Tamarins. And when the Pumas came back they beat the hell out of the Tayras, and so they keep the Tayra numbers down and so the Tamarins and the birds come back. So there were some really good knock-on ecological changes.

The next project we did was one in Columbia – it’s in the western Andes of Columbia, another area with exceptional numbers of species. It was an area of about 1000 square kilometres – a hundred thousand hectares – and it was about to become isolated by deforestation coming up valleys and pinching it off from the forest elsewhere in the western Andes. So we’ve been reforesting that, and it’s a place of incredible biological diversity. A couple of years ago a couple of friends of mine, including one here in North Carolina, discovered a new mammal – a new species of mammal, called the Olinguito. And the photograph of this baby Olinguito being held by somebody that went viral – well that somebody was one of our grantees. So as soon as we heard of it we thought, “well, we’re in the right kind of habitat” so we went out and we found the Olinguito.

THE baby Olinguito; the new species of mammal first described in 2013.

THE baby Olinguito; the new species of mammal first described in 2013.

So here’s a newly discovered mammal – it’d basically been overlooked. It’s not desperately rare but, on the other hand, if it were common we would have known about it a long time ago. So that’s sort of the poster-child of that particular project. But again we picked that project because it’s got spectacular numbers of orchids, there’s a new species of Dracula Orchid – I just love Dracula Orchids. I mean you love the name but they get the name because they’re bizarre-looking and they’re black and purple. We found a few years ago a new species of Poison Dart Frog, a glorious red and black one, so this is a place where you can go and still discover new species.

So where have you got your sights set on next?

We’re just about to fund two projects, one of them is in Ecuador, the lowland coastal forest in Ecuador again is an area of exceptional biological diversity, and it’s been very badly beaten and deforested. We’re funding a great local Ecuadorian organisation. There are two existing reserves – one in forest at about 2000m, one in forest that’s near sea-level – and we’re helping them buy and restore the intervening forest. So again we can create a large area of forest. The main interests there are that there are a bunch of frogs that are found nowhere else, and I rather suspect it’s a place with a lot of interesting bird species as well. I went over this year for about a week and added a lot of bird species to their list that they had not seen, and this was not an area where I am an expert. It’s got some interesting mammals, it’s got ocelots and things like that.

And then the other project that we’re going to fund any day, is a project in Brazil. It’s in the San Paulo state, a bit further to the south of the first project we did on the Golden Lion Tamarinds, and it involves the Black Lion Tamarin – a different species. But again it’s a fantastic group of local people who are working with the local communities to involve them in the restoration and in caring for their local environment.

That’s absolutely brilliant. So in your experience as a conservationist, what’ve you found to be the biggest challenges to conservation? And what are the best ways – in your opinion – to overcome them?

Conservation is like politics – it’s all local. You’ve got to engage local people. You know, people destroy forests, they destroy big predators like Lions because they threaten them; the first thing you have to do is understand why people do that. And the second thing is you have to work with them to find them an alternative future that’s not so damaging. And you can’t do that sitting in an air-conditioned office, inside the Washington DC beltway. You’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to engage with local people. So the reason we founded SavingSpecies is we wanted to empower local conservation. We wanted to empower people who you’ve never heard of in Madagascar and Columbia and Ecuador and other parts of the world where local people were doing a really great job, they’re part of the local community, they send their kids to the local schools, they’re hiring people from the local villages.

There’s a book by an economist called Jeffrey Sax, it’s called ‘The End Of Poverty.’ He asks why has developmental aid failed in Africa? He says if you look at the amount of money that’s been given to Africa for development by the US, the EU, it all only ever amounts to a few dollars per African. And the second thing is that 90% of it is spent on consultants who never go anywhere near the problem. I’ve always thought that to be a very perceptive remark. One of the tragedies that I see, working in Africa, is I often go to villages where I see small children who are probably not going to live more than a few days because they’ve got malaria. Now, what does it cost to stop malaria? It costs a couple of dollars for a bed-net. A million children a year should not die of malaria. But it’s not the amount of money, it’s the difficulty of getting that aid – those bed-nets – to the places that matter. Some of that is that you’ve actually got to go there, you’ve got to turn up and get into those villages. Some organisations do that well and some organisations never get their feet wet. It’s exactly the same with conservation.

That makes an awful lot of sense. So, talking politics and conservation, and how they may or may-not get on; in a few weeks there’s COP 21. A lot of noise is being made about that. What would you really like to see come out of it? What do you think people need?

Obviously the meeting in Copenhagen a few years back was an unmitigated disaster. I do think there’s a chance for some very serious commitments being made in Paris, and that is the sort of thing where it’s important that the politicians make those commitments. How we implement those commitments is clearly going to involve some very large-scale changes. I mean, the United States spends a staggering amount of our tax money on the military. The reason we Americans went to war in Iraq — with your nice Mr Blair— was not because their principle export was broccoli. We went because we wanted the oil. Well, the moment we start getting serious about developing alternative sources, the moment we start saying ‘No we really don’t want to invest in these oil companies’. The moment we get serious about this and the sooner we start moving towards a more sustainable economy the better. I think there could be things that come out of the COP that might move things in those directions.

What I see in China is certainly very aggressively developing wind energy and solar energy. There are some technical solutions. The adoption of solar energy in the US is incredibly poor, and that’s entirely a political solution. The energy companies are fighting alternatives as viciously as they can. Recent disclosures that companies like Exxon have known about global warming for a long time are similarly helping to generate a sense of disgust for these companies for the way they manipulated the political system. And that is something where good political leadership could make a difference.

That’s what we’re all hoping for. And then, what about on the smaller scale- the rest of us ‘normal’ people. What do you think is the best thing that we can do to save the world? Apart from flying less, or giving to SavingSpecies more-

[laughs] Just give to SavingSpecies more!

The reason I’ve been pushing this Saving Species model is to empower people. Far too much of the news is unbelievably depressing. You know, you look at Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, he says ‘species are going extinct 1000 times faster than they should’, you may wonder where did he get that from. He got it from me. There’s a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio called the 11th Hour, I was in that – again, unrelentingly depressing. But there are a lot of things that we can do. And I think it’s that sense that there are things we can do as individuals. We can live more lightly on the landscape, we can eat sustainably harvested fish, we can eat less meat – I’m not vegetarian, but I’m thoughtful about what I eat. I’m careful how many miles I drive each year, I offset my carbon. There are a lot of things we can do as individuals. And when it comes to conservation, there are many good things going on, and we can support that. We can support them with our efforts. We can support them with what is, in fact, a very modest amount of money. I’m sitting outside the university centre here at Duke, looking at students who I am certain probably spend more in Starbucks in a month than they would need to offset their carbon for an entire year.

It seems so breathtakingly small – the amount of effort that we do really need to put in. I think there’s definitely hope there. Once we can get the word out and people change their behaviours just an amazingly little bit.
So, just as a final thing, talk me through quite how Saving Species works. Cos I made some assumptions before that were kind of wrong, so talk me through quite how carbon sequestration works.

So, if you imagine a hectare of land that’s been deforested in a warm, moist country – in Columbia or Brazil or Sierra Leone or the Western Ghats of India, some place where there’s no frosts and it rains on and off for most of the year. You can work out how fast forest grows in a place like that. And you can work out even easier how much forest will be there, because you can go to a nearby patch of forest and look at the trees. You can do this with high-school students. I remember with Bemrose School in Derby, being taught that the volume of a cylinder is πr­2l, so for a tree you measure it’s length and you work out how much wood is in it. From that you can work out it’s weight and how much carbon it contains. Well, those kind of calculations, straightforward as they are, tell you that a hectare of growing forest – forest that’s coming back over an area that used to be a cattle pasture — will soak up somewhere between 5 and 10 tons of carbon each year for about 30 or 40 years. Let’s say an average of 7 tons of carbon per year.

So it’s quite a constant rate then?

In the early days, it keeps on sequestering after that but once it gets to be mature it slows down a bit.

So it’s actually better to have juvenile, growing forest than to have a mature forest?

Well, yeah but you still want to keep the mature forest.

Of course!

But in terms of soaking up the carbon, the first 30, 40 years is going to do most of the work for you. Even in cold, damp places like Britain, the forest comes back. There are places that I knew when I was a kid, hiking around north Derbyshire, around the reservoirs up there that were planted in forest. Those trees 50 years later are now really quite magnificent. They haven’t grown quite as fast as 7 tons of carbon per year but they’ve still sequestered a fair bit of carbon.

So let’s take that 7 tons per hectare per year average. If you wanted to sequester your carbon, for 30 years, you would need to buy 1 hectare of land in the tropics. That will keep you going for the next 30 years. 7 tons this year, the next, the year after that.

You can ask what is the average American’s carbon emissions – we are much more profligate than the average Brit – the average American, as it happens, puts out about 7 tons of carbon a year.

That’s mathematically, wonderfully convenient!

All the US emissions, including houses and industry and cars, planes – total US emissions, works out at about 7 tons per person per year. So what this means is, if I buy a hectare of land, and trees come back onto it, that will keep me going for another 30 years. And of course I probably won’t be around in 30 years time so I’m helping offset some of my kid’s emissions as well. And that’s about what it amounts to.

And so the question is how much does it cost for us to buy a piece of land in Columbia or Ecuador. It’s often less than $1000 a hectare. Sometimes it’s more, and sometimes it costs extra money to do the reforestation, sometimes not. But a very rough estimate, is that you buy up a hectare — two acres — of tropical land and reforest it, and you’ll offset your carbon for 30 years.

Wow. So the land that you buy with Saving Species has a lease of about 30 years?

Well we hope – in fact we require that people keep the forest as a permanently protected area. And a lot of that comes from how we work with the local groups. The project in Brazil, for example, we raised the money, transferred the money to a local conservation organisation, they bought the land, and within 2 or 3 days the land was transferred to the Brazilian Park Service who manage it all. In Columbia, there is a very well-established network of private nature reserves, so that particular area is managed by a registered charity which is also a registered non-profit within the United States called Fundación COLIBRI – it manages that land. The land in Ecuador is being managed by a non-profit organisation there. So we fund these organisations. We pick organisations that have been around for a decade or more, they’re well established, they have a model for remaining on the land and continuing to engage people. So we do our due diligence, and that’s how we make our projects work.

That’s fantastic. It really is very simple as well – it’s a very elegant solution. You must be immensely proud of it.

I am., I’ve had a very successful career as a scientist, but you know what, Science for me has always been a matter of making a difference. And this is making a difference. And it’s making a difference using science to direct what we do so it’s most effective.”

 


I am immensely grateful to Stuart for getting in touch to correct my assumptions first of all, and then for taking the time to talk to me. I’m now even more amazed by the incredible work that he & SavingSpecies are doing, and I can’t implore you enough to offset your carbon with them & support more of this kind of work. You could even follow the lead of Louie Psihoyos, and give them a figure closer to what your gut tells you this should cost, rather than the 2 caramel-macciato’s-worth that it’ll actually set you back.

INTERVIEW with Dr Tim Coles of Operation Wallacea

My biggest personal developments in conservation have come from my time working with Operation Wallacea, which began in Mexico in the summer of 2012. I first met Dr Tim Coles, the founder of Opwall when I joined the video team at HQ at the end of the research season, and happily I must have managed to impress him with a short film I called a ‘trailer’ for their new site in Mexico. Tim is unquestionably experienced in the real-world application of big conservation dreams – in fact one of my favourite things about him is his relentless pursuit of world-changing ambitions that – he claims – don’t even approach the guise of ‘work’ because he enjoys them so much. His sophisticated Oxfordian approach to this not-work has made him & all of his endeavours remarkably successful, bolstered by an environmental philanthropy at heart. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of the OBE that Tim received a mere day or two after we first met.

My most recent adventures with Opwall took me to the heart of Madagascar.

My most recent adventures with Opwall took me to the heart of Madagascar.

Most recently I joined Tim for one of his talks as he travels the country being an ambassador for his brand of conservation science, and we got a few minutes before the students arrived to catch-up in this semi-formal interview:


 

OK so the first thing I’d really like to know – and somehow I don’t think I’ve asked you before – is, how did you start Opwall – where did it come from?

Well it started with a grant from HSBC in Singapore, and they wanted a project that related to wildlife, and I took them a concept of using volunteers to survey remote areas. They funded a feasibility study and we looked at the Wallacea region; that was an obvious place to look as it has so many endemic species and very very few scientists have been there, so effectively if things were going to get lost, that was probably the place they were going to get lost in. So, we came back, wrote the report up – it was fantastically optimistic – and they actually said “Go and do it!” So we then had to learn how to actually bring students, and how to get these projects to work in the field.

So did they approach you, or was it your idea looking for somewhere to go?

It was my idea looking for somewhere to go.

Ah, so where did the idea come from?

Well it’s basically just a look around in Britain – we’ve got more information about our wildlife than anywhere else in the world. And the reason for that is not because we have more scientists, it’s because we have this army of volunteers that go out weekend after weekend, doing everything from click beetles to wintering birds, and producing detailed atlases. And it was really trying to use some of that effort and apply it to the tropics, where they didn’t have that sort of man-power available, to see if we could make a difference.

That makes an awful lot of sense. Did you have a lot of experience working with volunteers before you went into that?

Absolutely not, and that was the problem. Because I could see how we could get the science working well, and how we could get academics out to build projects, and get students to learn from them and so forth, but what we didn’t know was how to attract students. So that took some learning. I thought you’d just put an advert in the paper and lots of people would turn up, but they don’t. It has to be much more active than that.

Yeah it can be a tricky thing to do to appeal to students. So how far has it come? I mean, it’s come an awfully long way, but what are the greatest things that you feel that you’ve achieved with Operation Wallacea in the 18 years that it’s been running now?

Well, firstly making it fairly stable. We had 3000 students out last year, we’re now operating this year in 14 different countries, we’re funding 200 academics, we’ve co-funded 63 PhD students already, it’s clearly working. And the science outputs – 232 papers just from the last few years have come out of this program, including a couple in Nature, and some others in high-profile academic journals. They even used Opwall data at the COP20 meeting in Lima last year – when the Peruvians were asked to produce a dataset that demonstrated the effect of climate change, they used Opwall data. So the science bit’s working very well, and the conservation outputs are beginning to come as well. Remember the whole purpose of this is not just to produce papers for scientists, or a good time for the students in the field, the purpose behind it is to gather data in a form that can then be used in conservation interventions. So we’ve had some significant funding now from the world bank, and the Darwin Initiative and GEF and others that get projects going, and we have some really big projects just in the pipeline now that are just about to come to fruition.

Wonderful. Does that include the Carrageenan farming in Inodnesia? That’s one of the most impressive stories about Opwall that I’ve ever heard you tell, it’s a great, great achievement.
[NOTE: Carrageenan is a very basic component of almost every mass-produced product in the world. Go look at anything in your cupboard – it’s very likely got Carrageenan in it.]

We’re very nearly there now. The problem is, at the moment they’re growing seaweed on ropes around the edge of the island where we’re working. At the moment they get a terrible price for it from the middleman and essentially all they’re doing is growing it, drying it and then shipping it out to the Phillippenes to have the carrageenan extracted. We met a guy who is fantastic at developing plants and processes, he came down and developed a technique for extracting the carrageenan on-site using acids and alkalis. The advantage of that technique is that, firstly, he did it on-site, so then everybody got factory-gate instead of farm-gate prices, but also because the end result of it is an effluent which is NPK fertiliser, and that’s what they’re short of on the island. So he had a process that not only added the value of the process on-site but provided the fertiliser they needed for the island. We proved this at the lab-scale, the hold-up has been getting it proved at the pilot-plant stage, and that’s now happening. It’s currently being built in Sumartra, at a university there. They have funding for 11 full-scale plants, assuming that works, and that’s all going through a group in Indonesia that’s ensuring that anyone who’s granted a licence has to link it to protection of the reefs. Because remember this whole business started because we needed a method of being able to fund the buy-out of fishing licences on a reef to try and reduce fishing effort. So what we don’t want to do is just create a process that’s going to massively help seaweed farmers – that’s fantastic, but the whole purpose is to protect the reefs. And this provides the financial clout than enables you to buy-out the fishing effort.

That’s the phenomenally cool part of it – that everything wins from it. Do you have any other such examples of really tangible conservation victories?

Yes, I think using all the information that we have at these sites and putting it together for some of these carbon-trading schemes. So, for example, in Honduras we’ve just packaged all the information together on the biodiversity, on the carbon-value of the forests, and on the societal impacts. Once that’s verified – that’s the process we’re currently going through – that can then be sold on the open market and it’s worth $3.5 Million per year, for 20 years, so that’s $70Million. That money’s going in to protect the forest, but also primarily to create income for local communities, linked to them protecting their forest.

And that couldn’t happen without students doing the work – impossible.

It’s a brilliant way of doing it; at the core of all this is that we can’t really protect Nature and biodiversity without protecting the people that live alongside it. That’s one of the most fascinating elements of conservation in my opinion, it’s the way to get the most people involved and on it’s side.
That brings me on to something I really want to ask you, and that’s what do you think is the greatest obstacle, the greatest challenge for conservation globally, in general?

Wow, that’s a tricky one isn’t it. Well, I think it’s people not realising this connection between local people needing a financial connection, needing a financial benefit from protecting their forests or their reefs or their species – they’re often very proud of them, but if you can’t feed your family then you’re going to go hunting or you’re going to go fishing, or you’re going to cut down the forest or whatever. And so, I think one of our big successes was in Indonesia, where we tried village contracts. Essentially the whole village agreed there would be no logging, no hunting, no change to the forest boundaries, and in exchange they got investment in businesses. So if they continue protecting the forest, they continue getting the investment; if they stopped doing that, the investment stopped. So there was a very clear connection. Now, we started that in Indonesia as a World Bank project, and it’s now been finished for 7 years, and that forest is still 0% cleared. 7 years on, there’s no reason why they can’t go in there, but there’s a financial incentive for them to not do it.

That’s wonderful. Are you looking at implementing a similar kind of thing elsewhere in the world?

Well that’s essentially what we’re trying to do in the rest of the forests in south-east Sulawesi. We’ve got an application in for that, and of course the Honduras project works exactly the same. People need a financial benefit. If they don’t have that financial benefit you can’t expect them to protect the forest. We didn’t did we – look at what happened in Britain and America – we didn’t do it.

Do you think there’s still a great driving for people in Britain to conserve the natural world or have we gone too far into being disconnected from it?

No I think there’s a massive drive here for people to protect their environment and to want to help on stuff like this. It’s just getting the message out and knowing that it is possible to go out there and do this sort of thing, and make a difference.

Brilliant. Something that we’re coming up to in a couple of weeks is COP21. What would you most like to see come out of that? What does the world need most of all to come out of people getting together and deciding how we’re going to save the planet?

Well, pretty well what’ve I’ve said before really. I’d like them to see this relationship between communities in poor, rural areas having a financial benefit from protecting their biodiversity.

How about in first-world applications, in terms of divesting from fossil-fuels and making people see that that is actually a very tangible, a very financially-beneficial way to go. How easy is it to get people to change their ways if you give them a financial alternative? Is there a lot of habit?

Well quite often they would actually like to protect their own forests, they’re proud of them, it’s just that they don’t have the financial incentives or even means to do that. So often you’re pushing at an open door. When we did this thing with the Indonesian villages, the biggest problem wasn’t getting them to accept it, the biggest problem was when I’d go to a village and they’d say “Fantastic, we’ll do that. We’ll stop all of our people logging – and we can stop the guys from the next village cos they’re causing havoc!” And we’d say “No no, please don’t do that” otherwise they’d start a war between villages. We were pushing at an open door, they wanted it, things were very clear for it. And I think you’re going to find that in a lot of places.

 


So there you go – there is hope. I’m very grateful to Tim for this interview, and for giving me such a great start in the world of conservation; something that I hope we will be able to continue for years to come. If you’d like to know more about what Opwall do, or how you can become one of those students that help them make such a difference, visit www.opwall.com.

The Superlative Allure

Here’s a little film about Madagascar. Madagascar is the world’s oldest island. There are more endemics – species that live in here and only here – in Madagascar than anywhere else on Earth, and the diversity not just of the life here, but of the environments on this 1000-mile island is unrivalled; Lush Rainforests, Spiny Southern Forests, and Dry Deciduous Northern Forests. Though with as little as 2% of original forest remaining, nowhere is as remarkable yet so near to complete, irreplaceable destruction.

Madagascar is classified by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) as a Biodiversity Hotspot – meaning that it’s within the top 35 (it’s quite near the top) of the most biodiverse-yet-threatened places on Earth. In short – the one’s we really want to hang on to.

So, Should We Save It?

That’s a question that the IUCN, WWF, Opwall, Saving Species and many other Conservation NGO’s have to ask every single day; and it’s not that easy to answer. Resources are limited, so if we’ve only got so much protection to go around, but a planet’s-worth of things that need protection, we end up having to be quite strict. The IUCN designed their Red List & the Biodiversity Hotspots idea to help us get the maximum return for our investments – the places where we can save the most stuff, that’s most in need of saving & most likely to disappear if we don’t. Their exact criteria is “Must contain more than 1500 species of Vascular Plants” (cos they’re easy to count & quantify) and “Must have lost more than 70% of it’s original habitat”.


Sidenote:

I’ve stated that “Resources are limited”. In 2012 , Donal McCarthy et al calculated that we’ll need to spend $76 BILLION, every year for the next 10 years to save all the species & habitat that needs saving. Does that sound like quite a lot?

Turns out that’s actually <20% of what we annually spend on soft drinks…

In 2013, the US Military fiscal budget was $610 BILLION –  that’s 8 of the 10 years of saving the world covered in one…

and last year the US’s GDP was $17.4 TRILLION, while the UK’s was just $2.5 TRILLION.

So… the money is out there…


The Superlative Allure

So, being the story-loving species that we are, we’re actually selecting stuff that is the most worthy of remark. This is beyond the simple charisma of the cuddly-&-endangered Giant Panda, we’re attracted to extremes. In the same way that limited edition chocolates sell-out, lost-sessions albums are fought over by fans, we drool over fine wines & rare spirits and even go to the extent of believing that this is an exclusive sale at DFS; we select for the last of something, the most threatened, the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the fattest, the most genetically isolated, the rarest. It’s fair enough; we like to feel special.

This is a brilliant book.

Randy Olson says in his book ‘Connection‘ that, in relation to story-telling “[Superlatives are] the difference between “one of” the best things in storytelling and “the” best thing in storytelling.” It’s why The Last Polar Bears are more encapsulating than Some Polar Bears.

Really Superlatives are just adjectives, but they’re the best adjectives. It’s whatever makes a Ming Vase more than just a vase; what makes M&S food more than just food.

The Price of Life?

So this leads me to a wondering; if we prize rarity over commonality… if only the most threatened species get funding… could we be making endangerment an attractive position in which to place species? We can argue for ‘Umbrella‘ and ‘Indicator‘ Species (Take Tigers or Tapirs – rare, kinda easy to monitor but massively representative of everything else living in their ecosystem), but at worst this could mean that we drive species to extinction just to make them more interesting & fund-able; or similarly we could waste money protecting the rare or cuddly purely for rareness’ or cuddliness’ sake (*cough* Pandas *cough*).

Economy Ecology

There’s 2 things we can do to make our pursuit of Conservation & World-Saving more viable, efficient & effective.

1. Look for the hidden benefits of things – also known as ‘Ecosystem Services‘. Best example – BEES! It’s quite true that we cannot live without them (at least not without invoking huge struggling and faff), and they underpin & support basically everything from the plants that they pollinate to the thing-that-eats-the-thing-that-eats-the-thing-that-eats-the plants that they pollinate. That’s the wonderful thing about Ecology – it all functions as a whole, and we need most of what the world naturally does to survive.

In a more casual sense, I’m saying ‘Stop & Smell The Roses‘.

2. Give Alluring Superlatives

Do you know how many words we have in the English language? 750,000. Of those, 3,000 are to describe emotion – of which your average westerner will habitually use 12. Tony Robbins is a vibrant advocate of the power of words, stating that if you simply transform your vocabulary you can transform your life – & he’s right. The way that we use words has a direct effect on how we experience the world around us. So try it; describe the world as if it’s a place of wonder, as if you could be excited by a single bee, of millions.

But when it comes to describing a world most-full of wonder, there really is only one expert;