25 Years of Gove

This morning PM Theresa May, supported by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, released the government’s much-anticipated 25 Year Environment Plan.

The 25YEP is something that Mr Gove was quick to insist upon after his assignment to the role of Environment Secretary. Now, I’ll confess, I was not all too chuffed when that appointment was announced, as up to that point Mr Gove didn’t really have any track record of being an environmentalist, apart from being a publicly acknowledged climate-skeptic.

But I’m not too proud to confess that I have been very pleasantly surprised by Michael Gove’s first few months in the post – from taking unprecedentedly firm action on Neonicotinoids, to committing to the concept of paying farmers for the delivery of public services. And now with the *first* (*there will be many revisions) release of the 25YEP, he seems to be doing good.

I also appreciate the nod in the 25YEP to the fact that 25 years extends well beyond one political term – noting that it’s because we’re tackling issues that are far larger than a 5-year turnaround period. One could presume that Mr Gove intends the 25YEP to be a bit of a legacy piece for him – and personally I’m a bit torn between remembering everyone else who’s had a significant hand in this movement, and remembering how relatively limp his predecessors have been on environmental progress.

So what does 25YEP say?

From a blast through the 151-page document, the 25YEP is promising a pretty new (and needed) approach to environmental management (dare I say ‘stewardship’?) in the coming years.

The theme of ‘public money for public services’ is continued throughout – this argument being that, under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (the way agriculture works throughout the EU, just about), there’s this thing called ‘Basic Farm Payments’. BFP means that a Farmer will receive money just for being a farmer, based solely on the amount of land that they own. It likely leads to cheaper commodities (like milk being cheaper than water in recent years), but is fundamentally flawed in that the tax-paying public end up paying farmers lots of money, regardless of how productive the farm is. At it’s most extreme levels of social injustice, BFP gives tonnes of money to owners of vast areas of the uplands who provide next to nothing in food commodities. The land in question will be legally classified as ‘farmland’, but the legal requirements for that are just that a very small number of sheep have to occasionally be present for grazing. (I’ll direct you to Mark Avery and Guy Shrubsole for more on this debate). But in short, you can probably see why this jars with people who think they should see some kind of public service or return on their tax money.

To some legitimate farmers who do actually farm but, through geography and circumstance, still depend on BFP for the majority of their income, the idea of losing BFP is pretty scary. However, there is the promise that something better will be replacing it – and for people like the hill farmers of England and Wales who already take a strong stewardship role in maintaining their landscape, not just their flocks, they might actually finally find those services financially valued.

Something that the 25YEP is clearly quite proud of is the fact that it’s the ‘world’s first’ to utilise a Natural  Capital approach to environmental policy.

Natural Capital is, basically, putting a financial value on Nature. This has long been experimented with by environmentalists, and also pretty divisively debated between purists and pragmatists. In it’s crudest interpretation, Natural Capital states that everything has a value that is translatable into a financial figure. That ‘Puts a price on Nature’, it commodities beauty and intrinsic value, and opens our great Gaia up to thorough a ravaging by heartless capitalists. Some purist conservationists loathe and fear Natural Capital, as it is such a bastardisation of something that to them is sacred and priceless.

However, in practice it’s not that bad. We environmentalists have to come to terms with the fact that we are trying to change a fundamentally capitally-driven society, and at the same time I’m sure wouldn’t object ourselves for a little more financial recognition for all our efforts to save the world.

So in the case of Natural Capital in the 25YEP, it really just comes down to the fact that we need to value more the actual services that the environment provides us (like natural flood risk management, storing carbon, cleaning water, providing better food for longer, even looking nice) and particularly the nation’s farmers deserve to be remunerated for being the managers and maintainers of those services.

As the example it gives in the 25YEP:
“Our farms provide so much more than just food. They provide recreational activities to an estimated value of £200m for farms and nearly £300m a year for woods. Furthermore, the way farmland and woodland filter the air is valued at £182m and £794m per annum.
Which references UK Natural Capital: ecosystem accounts for freshwater, farmland and woodland

The way in which these figures such as these are calculated is usually with a degree of subjectivity, and it’s not to say “Ok, if we invest in £794m of air filters we could do away with woodlands”, but the point there is that the *value* of these environments is presented in a ways that fits with the rest of the economy (and the minds of economically-driven people).

“What’s your favourite bit of 25YEP Andy?”
I hear you ask.

Something that’s come as a genuine and pleasant surprise to me, given that it’s not been talked about much if at all (by Gove) in the run-up to the release, is the inclusion of Peatlands! Yay Peatlands! We really need to focus a lot of effort on peatland restoration ASAP, which is what I’ll be pushing for with the release of my upcoming film, The Carbon Farmer.

So overall, 25YEP is looking pretty good, in my opinion. It’s by no means complete, as there’s still a lot to work out in terms of how we’ll actually implement the ideas laid out in the plan, and fulfil these bold new ambitions, but the important thing is that ambition itself. The brazen ambition to do something radically new and different – and built of a pretty sound consensus of what environmentalists, the general public and farmers all agree would be a good way to go – is just what I was hoping to see.

Yay for Peatlands!

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Watch This Video And Drink This Beer

Polar Bears are dying. But why should we care?

First of all I’ll qualify what Polar Bears represent; they’re essentially the figure-head of Climate Change. They’re the Charismatic Megafauna, the Umbrella Species, and other conservation jargons that fundamentally mean ‘interesting to people and fundamental to an ecosystem’. They always have been, and always will be. I remember when I was first hearing ‘Global Warming’ being talked about at school; the Polar Bears were the first poster-children of the climate catastrophe. The now over-used image of a lonely Polar Bear on a shrinking iceberg was quickly latched on to and spread far and wide as a way of making people care (by breaking their hearts) about the threat of a warming global climate.

One of my [retrospectively] worst memories as a climate activist was actually hearing people whom I respected shooting the polar-bear image down, shouting “You don’t understand Polar-Bear Ecology,(They were not ecologists themselves…)Polar-Bears are great swimmers, they’re really happy in the water, you’re making a big fuss about nothing!
For the record – that’s a petty way to be a climate skeptic, and a big fat red-herring.  

So to address the ecology first of all, the Arctic ice-caps are melting catastrophically quickly, and that is very bad news for Polar bears. That’s because Polar Bears aren’t just bears that happen live around ice; ice is fundamental to their survival, because they are very specially adapted to hunt within an icy marine environment.
No ice, Polar Bears can’t eat. And just to demonstrate that, here’s that phenomenal clip from The Hunt:

Climate Change has been a tricky issue to communicate effectively for decades, because it’s all been projection into the future – with somewhere between dry hypotheses and all-out-threats of what’s to come from climate scientists. It’s been too intangible, and as such, deniable – or at least, put-off-able. Only in the last couple of years have we had anyone start to point to major climatic events and say “This! This is the impact of climate change, happening now!”

Over the weekend, I’ve seen a video circulating that puts climate change into more brutal reality than much we’ve seen before. One-off weather events can still be dismissed as co-incidence, but after more than a decade the grim reality of the Climate Change Poster Child is really being revealed. The Prophecies are coming true, and it’s heartbreaking. If I didn’t believe it was important, I wouldn’t share this with you.

This is what Climate Change looks like.

Why should people care about Climate Change? Because it means the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth. Because it means severely threatened food security. Because it means the death of coral reefs. Because variety is the spice of life, and biodiversity is the majesty of existence. Because life without life isn’t worth living. Because it bloody hurts.

Sci-Commers: What drives people to action? There’s two core things that influence behaviour – people move away from pain and towards pleasure.
Which is why your work is only half-done if you only beat people up with Climate Change – they need something to DO, to avoid pain, and to grasp pleasure. You have to provide that pleasure, to ensure positive action.

So would you like some Polar Bear-associated pleasure? How about this:

Those hop-loving beer-pirates at Brew Dog have released Make Earth Great Again – a phenomenal protest brew in response to *someone* saying they might withdraw their country from the Paris Agreement.  Make Earth Great Again is an imperial-strength Saison, brewed at a higher temperature than most beers, and with ingredients including actual melted ice caps (glacier water) and endangered Arctic Cloudberries. The result is a crystal-clear, golden brew of activism in a glass, and it’s utterly delicious. Spicy, citrus-y and sweet with a hint of dry acidity, culminating in a beer that’s a perfect accompaniment for a slow afternoon with friends, a conference of parties, or Die Hard marathon. I’m not a brew guru providing bevvy review here – I’m just trying to say that climate activism can be freaking wonderful.

Further to just making a delicious and potent point in this brew, Brew Dog are also giving all proceeds from Make Earth Great Again to 10:10 – a community-focussed climate-action charity doing some really awesome work. So do your part and buy some now.

So it’s incredibly important that we know what’s at stake here, but it’s also desperately important that we make people feel good about taking positive, straightforward action, so that our very worst predictions may not have to come true.

Blue Planet II DESTROYS A Plastic Ocean In Under 5 Minutes

“Pilot Whales have big brains, and can certainly feel emotions” – Blue Planet II. Image courtesy of BBC.

In one of the most powerfully emotive TV sequences to ever have been broadcast, Sir David Attenborough made the case to end plastic pollution in Sunday night’s Big Blue episode of Blue Planet II.

The series so far has been absolutely mesmerising, as we’ve discovered a fish that uses tools, been transported to depths of the ocean never-before explored, been captivated by resourceful Anemone Fish, hypnotised by Cuttlefish, and overall carried away by shot after shot of natural beauty and wonder.

But this last episode was a true exception to everything we thought we knew about Natural History Storytelling and Science Communication.

After criticism of previous series being ‘preachy’ (turns out people still don’t like to hear about how we’re fucking everything up through climate change), there was the lingering fear that, with everything threatening ocean health at the minute, we could get caught up in a bit of climate change woe in Blue Planet II. However, thus far in the series there was only the slightest of nods towards climate change – in the Coral Reef episode, in the mention of oceanic warming and acidification leading to coral bleaching (I don’t think ‘Climate Change’ was even explicitly mentioned) in a way that left viewers not feeling too beaten-up at all.

Come the climax of the Big Blue episode however, and we were to suffer an emotional gut-punch unlike anything I’ve ever experienced – and I’m so so glad that punch was thrown.

Plastic can be found even in the most remote parts of the oceans, and has the ability to concentrate toxic chemical pollutants on it’s surface. Image courtesy of BBC.

It’s become increasingly common knowledge in recent times that plastic pollution is a colossal threat to the environment. We’ve all seen the images of dead albatross chicks bursting with plastic shrapnel. We’ve seen the agonising clip of a Sea Turtle having a plastic straw painfully removed from it’s nostril. And A Plastic Ocean is available on Netflix for all to enjoy – and that’s even recieved global renown from some very influential sources (and worth a watch if you need more anti-plastic ammo).

A Plastic Ocean is certainly a substantial coverage of a severe issue, including elements that even the most savvy environmentalist may still be surprised to learn, and it certainly inspired my partner and I to upgrade our eco-lifestyles further and switch to fully bio-degradeable toothbrushes (we already avoid plastic packaging and single-use items as much as possible). BUT, and this is a big BUT, A Plastic Ocean‘s impact is still limited *mostly* to people who already really care already about the environment and are passionate about taking action to make the world a better place. It preaches, mostly, to the converted.

What’s the tell? It’s a documentary about activists, doing activism. There’s a little bit of a story about whales, which just starts you off on an emotional journey, but then it moves head-long into consumerism, pollution, and mostly-human suffering. And you know the take-home message – that plastic sucks – as soon as you’ve read the title. While there is a journey of discovery, it’s a package journey of discovery, where you’ve familiarised yourself with the itinerary online and you know what you’re signing up for.

Now watch Blue Planet II. For 40 solid minutes you are purely immersed in the greatest photography and fantastical wildlife that the world’s leading experts in Natural History Programming currently have to offer. Without anthropomorphism, you are transported into the lives of some of the most incredible animals on Earth in a way that is almost overwhelming. If you’re a committed environmentalist, you do know what’s probably coming, that the sucker-punch is inevitable – you’d even be disappointed if Sir David didn’t deliver it – you’re bracing yourself but are so encompassed by his storytelling you can hardly blink or breathe. And then, when you’re becoming completely lost to The Big Blue… it’s upon you. Plastic.

I wasn’t timing it, but in what can’t have been more than 5 minutes of screen time Sir David Attenborough delivered more information on the severity of plastic pollution, and a more powerful call to action to rid the world of plastic in all it’s malevolent forms than A Plastic Ocean managed in it’s full 1 hour 40 minutes of more ‘pure’ SciComm.

Blue Planet II’s coverage of plastic pollution was not dragged-out, exaggerated or preachy. Sir David simply and respectfully did what he does best; he told the story of life on Earth in 2017. I don’t feel that he intended on beating his audience into submission – maybe he’s out-grown that, as some activists do. I personally felt that his approach was much wiser – to open our hearts to the issue, and let us hear his contemplative call to action quite peacefully on our own.

As I’ve said, I would’ve been disappointed if plastic pollution had been omitted from the series entirely, but I was never expecting it to be such a powerfully moving inclusion.

Thank you, Sir David, for continuing to guide and define our appreciation of nature, and thank you also to Executive Producer James Honeyborne and the rest of the Blue Planet team for utilising the power you have to profoundly inform and move people so responsibly.

RIP Tilikum

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Of all of the losses or great, loved and impactful figures of the last year, one most recently has left me struggling to know how I feel. Tilikum, the Killer Whale, has died.

Thousands of people worldwide are familiar with Tilikum from his star status at SeaWorld, where he has entertained and enthralled audiences for years. However, the spotlight was really shone on Tilikum a few years ago in the feature documentary Black Fish – which, if you haven’t seen it, I wholeheartedly encourage you to watch it now. You see, Tilikum – more than any other Orca in history – lived up to his “Killer Whale” title.

(Critical note: it is *almost* completely unheard of for Orcas, aka.“Killer Whales”, to attack humans in the wild.)

Tilikum suffered a frankly horrible life. Abducted from the wild and from his mother’s side at an inhumanely young age – something which those involved confess in Black Fish as being one of the most heart-breaking experiences of their lives – and forced into captivity and public entertainment. This is not something which is ever good for marine mammals like whales, dolphins, etc. and it often manifests in obvious ‘unhealthy’ behaviours and physical symptoms. But in Tilikum, this trauma manifested more powerfully than in most. When he was 10 years old, he took his first human life, that of Keltie Byrne, in the middle of a public show in Canada.

Despite this event, Tilikum was kept in captivity, and would later be responsible for the deaths of two more people – one civilian, Daniel Dukes, and one trainer, Dawn Brancheau, during his time at SeaWorld.

This story so far is bleak, it’s morbid. And that’s the way that it was set to continue until Gabriela Cowperthwaite made the documentary Black Fish and revealed Tilikum’s tale to the world. Tilikum’s heart-wrenching story made him the poster child for captive animal abuse the world over. The use of captive marine mammals for public entertainment instantly received massive and unforgiving public attention – and none more so than SeaWorld.

It has been a long fight, but in the last year SeaWorld finally agreed that they would cease breeding further animals in captivity. Essentially saying that, when their currently captive animals die, that will be the end of their live shows.

Globally, wonderful progress has been made – almost entirely as a result of inspiration from Black Fish – in the regulations on transporting and keeping animals for entertainment. The power of Tilikum’s tale has been transformative to the modern world. And that is why I don’t know how I feel about his death.

Tilikum was a Killer Whale. He killed three people.

He also lived a utterly horrible life, suffering conditions that no sentient creature should be subjected to.

But because of his life the world is a powerfully better place for his kind, for humanity, and for every other creature that we interact with. Tilikum has done more for cetacean conservation than any other non-human in history. To me, his death simply brings to light the impact that he has had.

I am glad that SeaWorld have one less Orca to exhibit. I’m happy for Tilikum that his suffering is finally over. And I mourn him, out of sadness for his life, and for what he has inspired people to do all over the world.

As we go into 2017, renegotiating new-years resolutions and hoping for a year generally brighter than the last, please join me in raising a glass in Tilikum, the Killer Whale. Remember that from atrocity we have the power to act with overwhelming love, respect and kindness, remember that we can learn from our mistakes, and remember that you can change the world.

Don’t Worry, The Lynx Aren’t Going To Eat The Sheep

An organisation called The Lynx UK Trust are currently putting together a very coherent consultation to propose the reintroduction of Lynx to specific sites around England and Scotland. This is awesome. It’s awesome partly because the rewilding debate is such a hot topic with so much potential, and it’s also awesome purely for the quality of this consultation – it’s a sound and thorough read.

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Unfortunately, the awesomeness of this project rarely makes headlines; when this topic is reported it’s normally the lynx’s title of ‘carnivore’ or ‘top predator’ that’s focussed on. For example, last month I was somewhat disgruntled to see the only recent update in the rewilding story to be

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Wild lynx plan ‘threatens sheep farmers’“. Why is it never a positive rewilding headline? At least this one didn’t feature a close-up mug-shot of a particularly savage-looking lynx. And to the Beeb’s defence, the article does then explore the issue quite well. But if you as a reader don’t care that much and only get your information from headlines, there’s no way by this point you’ll be thinking that bringing in the lynx is a good idea.

(More recently I came across this stellar piece of journalism from The Telegraph, stating in it’s headline that “Releasing Lynx into the wild puts ramblers in danger of attack…
It’s even grosser extrapolation than the sheep – but worse because the views peddled in this article are riddled with inaccuracies and assumptions that are, simply,  wrong!
Lynx are no danger to humans. Fact. Nowhere on Earth are lynx considered to be a threat to humans. Lynx are only, very rarely, a mild threat to our stuff, and that is still an idea that is irrelevant in this debate, as I will go on to demonstrate.
Now, that’s all of this post that I’ll devote to that nonsense.)

Photo Credit: Erwin van Maanen

Photo Credit: Erwin van Maanen

So there’s fear that lynx might pose a threat to our sheep – which in the BBC article is expressed by the National Sheep Association in a lengthy document of anxiety and skepticism. I can see why people might think lynx are a threat; the lynx is a Big(-ish) Cat by most people’s standards (it’s not technically a ‘Big’ Cat, at best it’s a Medium Cat) – it’s the largest feline predator in Europe, and our British sheep are hardly bred for their ability to stand up for themselves in a fight. But there is one fundamental fact that means we really don’t need to worry about this: Lynx aren’t going to eat our sheep.

It’s not that a lynx is liable to turn it’s nose up at mutton; if anything it’s simpler than that. Lynx live in woodland – they need woodland to survive, as they’re opportunistic ambush predators of small things. For that reason, we can only think about (re)introducing Lynx to pretty densely forested areas. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed on scenic drives through the Lake District or one of our other great grazing pastures / National Parks, but we don’t tend to do much sheep farming in the woods. In nerdy biological terms, these Lynx and our sheep will be functionally and physically isolated from each other.

On the continent they have Lynx, and by-and-large it’s fine. The exception is Norway, where they do have an issue of Lynx predating sheep. BUT, in Norway, they farm sheep in the forests – now do we need to wonder why Lynx eat more sheep in Norway?
Using Norway as a model environment in this debate, is tantamount to a red herring.

Now, to be fair, if we were to saturate our island with Lynx, we might have a little more to think about, and that’s really where the NSA’s objections are focussed. Their concerns relate more to farming alongside a full, genetically viable population of a few hundred. But for the time being, the reintroduction trail is to release between four and six individual lynx at very specially selected sites to suit Lynx ecology, boost ecotourism and limit any negative (sheep-related) effects. So let’s just work on getting that right for now, and if it goes well, we can use the same decent methodology to work out how a larger population might fit in.

lynx1I recognise that people don’t like that motive – the ‘let’s just try it for the sake of trying it‘ motive, without it serving a larger purpose. So why should we give the go-ahead to this trail?
One key argument is for Lynx to exert some control over our rampant deer population – which we desperately do need in our oldest forests. And while Lynx may not have quite as powerful an impact on deer as, say, a few packs of wolves, they unquestionably will make significant impacts. But I think there is an even greater reason why this trail needs to happen.

Sir David Attenborough has been infamously quoted as saying that “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” This is a very common view in conservation – experiencing nature first-hand opens your eyes to it’s importance in ways that simply hearing the facts of it never could (the same is true of many things, like my Dad’s love of his new Apple watch. “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it”, he says).
All over the world, we need to start understanding and appreciating wildlife more; simply before it is too late to do so. As a pretty substantial player in global economy, the UK is in a good position to influence that, but compared to most others our little island is desperately depauperate of wildlife. We need Lynx to make a global and local point that the effort is worth making to save the life of the Earth. Lynx could potentially do wonderful things for inspiring awe in nature and biodiversity in the UK, and from the immediate delight on the faces of children to the wider global perspective, that is a great thing.

You experience ecology, your eyes open. You understand ecology, your mind opens. You appreciate ecology, your heart opens. You protect ecology, because it moves you.

Original Photo Credit: Erwin van Maanen

 

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Your Place In The World

We humans have made the biggest impression on the modern face of the Earth, but what is our place in it? Are we mere stewards, here to reside upon and use this planet as we see fit? Or are we one with this world?
Whatever your opinion, ask yourself how far removed – if at all – we are from the rest of life. Compare ourselves to our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the great apes; Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas and Orangutans. Yes, we may have risen as dominant species, but are they that far behind us?

Original Image: Shutterstock, apple2499

It’s hard to argue that we don’t share something with our fellow apes that does set us cognitively and emotionally apart from the rest of life on this planet, when you see videos of captive chimps being released under a blue sky for the first time…

…or to see individuals like Kanzi the Bonobo quite actively blur the line around how we define ourselves intellectually…

It changes how we look at ourselves, and how we look at the natural world. And maybe we should reconsider how we act towards life like this. When our fellow apes can be so cognitively present, when they can understand and use language, when they can demonstrate emotion and even empathy, how should we consider them? Should they be granted some inclusion within our system of rights? The Nonhuman Rights Project, and a number of similar endeavours certainly think so.

It’s only fair, when we see ourselves reflected so clearly in great apes. These animals are fundamentally our history. Humans didn’t literally evolve from the species we see today, but we share a recent common ancestor – they’re the closest family we have. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. And just as importantly, as our closest relatives, they do document where we humans came from. We diverged from Orangutans (“Orang-utan”; a name which nicely means “Forest Person” in Indonesian) 15-20 Million years ago. We diverged from Gorillas around 8 Million years ago. We diverged from the Chimp/Bonobo line around 6 Million years ago (which went on to divide Chimpanzees from Bonobos a mere 2 Million years ago, as Bonobos liked to make love while the Chimps liked to make war). That evolutionary line has proven to shape the face of the planet more, and more rapidly, than any other in history.

Don’t you think it’s time we paused to respect how remarkable, and valuable these apes are? Intrinsically incredible in their own right, and also a profound testament to our own existence? There’s a project – The Great Ape Project – that’s seeking to do just that.

For the last 20 years, The Great Ape Project has been campaigning for the establishment of basic rights for our four closest relatives – Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas and Orangutans – a thought that I imagine has become a lot more mainstream in that time. Such simple rights would afford our cousins the protection to live in liberty; in better conditions for captive animals, and the protection of habitat without persecution for wild communities. Further to this, a proposal was launched at the end of last year to have the great apes designated as Living World Heritage by UNESCO, in recognition of the impact our genus has had on the life on this planet. From such a perspective, great apes are a cultural heritage that we cannot afford to lose.

But think of the ramifications this could have. With this simple – albeit legal – change of perspective, immense areas of land would automatically be protected from deforestation, as rainforests are the homes of these great ape species. Just see current examples from Ecuador for how indigenous people’s rights can prevent the destruction of vast areas of rainforest. That’s an incredible thing!

From a different perspective, this would have colossal impacts on, say, the Palm oil industry, and grossly f*ck-off companies like Pepsico who are currently being recognised for killing Orangutans with Doritos. That’d have significant implications for the global economy, which many (Pepsico, for example) would probably not welcome as a good thing.  But then alternatives to Palm oil are being developed readily, so that void shouldn’t be left too empty.

Personally, I think these motives to award nonhuman person rights to our evolutionary cousins, and pay homage to them as Living World heritage are wonderful ideas – as does everyone else who’s signed this petition from Rainforest Rescue.  It may seem like a pipe dream, but I’m writing this in the same week that Sea World have finally announced an end to captive Orca breeding, because they’re slowly adjusting to the fact that what they do is abominable. So there’s hope for our hominid cousins yet.