The challenge of conversations in conservation: Social Media a breeding ground for trolls and bad behaviour

I guess if I was asked to define myself, I would say I am a wildlife ecologist, for want of a better term.  The reason I became an ecologist is because I have always been intrigued by wild animals, but more importantly how they fit in the bigger system, and how these systems function.  As I have grown older my interest has more and more turned to how we can help ecosystems either stay healthy, or improve their health.  As a species we have changed and adapted landscapes to suit our own purposes, this has led to the extinction of species and caused enormous changes to the stability of what natural ecosystems we have left.  We need to do something to change this, and in the light of climate change, we need to do something now.

So why am I writing this post?  Recently, I have been incredibly saddened to see myself and fellow scientists routinely attacked in social media for voicing views around the need to proactively manage species and ecosystems to improve conservation outcomes.  One of the great things about social media has been the mainstreaming of conversations between experts and the public.  It has been really good from both perspectives, but…..

So, here is a small sample of comments I have recently received (very much edited to remove the venom) and a few of my thoughts.

We are to blame! Until you manage human population growth we should do nothing

As pointed out above, I agree, as a species we have had a ridiculous impact on the planet.  We should indeed be working towards ways of reducing our impact on the environment, limiting the spread of our cities etc.

I am however, a wildlife ecologist, so my capacity to personally shape the management of humans is well beyond me.  What I do know, is that if we leave ecosystems to run their own course until we “manage” human growth and expansion, we will lose species.  Lots of them.  So, I am of the view we need to be doing both things at the same time, yes we need to be better at managing human impacts, but we also need to be managing the threats that compromise ecosystem stability at the same time.

All animals are amazing, including cats and foxes, and you should not “manage” these wonderful creatures

I am constantly amazed by animals. I have always been fascinated by them. And in fact, the reason I am what I am is because of these factors. Unfortunately, I am well aware of the impact species introduced to Australia (and yes I have been told I am one of these, and I should leave), are having on ecosystems. Predation by foxes and cats are both recognised as major threatening processes within Australian ecosystems. When we choose to make a decision to not manage them, we are making a decision to consign other species to extinction.  So this becomes a value judgement, would you prefer cats and foxes or native species?  The argument that cats and foxes need to eat, and are just doing what cats do is exactly the problem. Cats and foxes eat our wildlife, and many of our native species are not capable of responding to this increased predation pressure.

Effectively, many ecosystems are on the edge (due to human impacts), the addition of cats and foxes are pushing species in those systems to a point of extinction. So, yes, I do support the management of foxes and cats to reduce the impact they have on native species.  This does, however, need to be strategic, effective and targeted at reducing impact.

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A feral cat in the Grampians National Park carrying a bird it recently caught. This is in a high conservation priority area of the park.


 

Native species can not be overabundant, they have looked after themselves for thousands of years.

The concept of density regulation has been around for a very long time in ecology. Species respond to changes in resources both positively and negatively. Human activity has definitely favoured some species whilst negatively impacting the majority. Some of our native herbivores can fit into the situation where they have been benefitted positively by the interface between natural areas and agriculture or urbanisation. Technically they are not overabundant, they are just tracking resources.  The problem comes however, when the resource levels decline sharply with droughts.  We do see massive natural mortality. In some countries, populations of native herbivores are managed to limit the upward spike of their population to reduce the impact of the inevitable downward movement.

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Eastern grey kangaroos at the interface between the Grampians National Park and agriculture.


 

We need a discourse about science informed conservation 

There is no doubt in my mind that we need to be proactive in managing the threats to our native species and the ecosystems that support them. I have a personal view that our priority should be in favour of native species over species exotic to Australia. I find the argument of letting cats and foxes be cats and foxes in our native ecosystems extremely distressing. Effectively we are favouring these two species over the entire suite of native species they impact.

We do need a discourse between science and the public, and social media is no doubt a fertile ground for discussion.  But we need to keep it civil.  The constant trolling by individuals is not healthy for debate, or frankly the mental health of the people who are being trolled. The increase in activists trolling and attacking people is only going to lead to people deciding not to communicate ideas through social media. At the end of the day we all lose.

P.S. I am not a vegan or an animal activist. Contrary to a number of recent tweets to me, I do not think this makes me a bad person.

 

Today we announce Antechinus agilis extinct in the Grampians

Diary Entry. May 9 2031.

Here I go again. Another long trip to the Grampians. Hard to think of how many times I have done this trip since 2008 when we started work here. A life time ago, and how much things have changed. I will never get used to sitting in a car with no steering wheel being guided by a computer. My students call me old school on a good day, an old fart on a bad day.

Today may well be the worst day of my career. The media circus is converging on the Grampians for two major announcements. Today the Grampians National Park is formally going to be renamed the Great Grampians Desert National Park. Some bureaucrat in Melbourne thought adding Great to the name would soften the blow and of course the politicians agreed. Idiots! Looking for the easy and popular answer was what got us into this position in the first place.

The other announcement today, the one that makes my heart bleed, is that we will be declaring Antechinus agilis extinct in the Grampians. This comes on top of the previous extinctions of southern brown bandicoot, long nosed potoroo, swamp rat, smoky mouse, heath mouse and dusky antechinus. I can’t believe that we have lost one of the most common small mammals that existed in this landscape!

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Antechinus agilis. Once one of the most abundant and wide spread small mammals in the Grampians, today declared extinct.

It really didn’t take much for the end of the Grampians. The annual rainfall declined to 339mm with the odd ‘better’ year. The really low years were always followed up by a landscape scale wildfire which consumed vast areas of the park. Ultimately the system could not cope with the lack of water, and the repeated wildfires. This unfortunately, is exactly what the scientists predicted would happen to our climate very early this century.

I would never have imagined that the ecosystem collapse associated with human induced climate change would have been so rapid and so complete. Of course I am not allowed to say “human induced climate change” publically, as such references were outlawed in 2017 by the Federal government. Public debate about the climate, and our role in it, was totally quashed. Schools and universities we given new curricula by the government, and those that disagreed and spoke out were sentenced to life on the Manus Island Detention Centre (Funnily enough Manus Island is somewhat smaller now than it was then, but we are not allowed to discuss sea level rises either). It really didn’t take long for the public to ‘get the message’.  Once a few environmentalists (Bob Brown and Tim Flannery being the most obvious) were ‘re-deployed’ to Manus for the term of their natural lives, people stopped talking about climate change.

How did we get to this point where the last of the small mammals has gone from the Grampians? Surely we had chances to do something to avoid the collapse of ecosystems we have seen around the World? Of course we did! We chose not to! Politicians told us the changes were not real, or at best natural swings which would correct themselves. They told us it was too expensive to do anything about it, and it would cripple our economy (Now we hardly have an economy, so I guess they got that wrong). The worst thing about this, those politicians that denied the science and ridiculed scientists so effectively in the public’s eye are all retired and further crippling the economy on their enormous superannuation packages that they locked in to law prior to the collapse of the economy.

One day, maybe when it is too late, science will once again have a positive role in informing change and moulding better futures. Maybe one day political classes will see the benefit of discussing the science and broadening the knowledge of the public. Maybe one day………………………

How do our possum assassins use urban landscapes?

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An urban living possum assassin (AKA powerful owl).

We are incredibly lucky to have a native apex predator haunting our urban landscapes.  The powerful owl (Ninox strenua) is known to live in restricted areas of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. They silently travel around dropping in on unsuspecting possums and gliders, and feasting on them.  It is not uncommon to encounter an owl with the decapitated corpse of a possum in its talons.

Enough with the gore! What do we know about these amazing predators in our urban environments?  We know they are not very common in urban environments, and large areas of our cities are completely unsuitable for them due to loss of vegetation associated with urbanisation (Click here to check out some models of habitat for powerful owls in Melbourne).  We also know there is plenty of food for them in our cities, but their capacity to breed is probably limited by a lack of large tree hollows (Another paper that may interest you on urban ecological traps for powerful owls).

Ok, so what don’t we know?  Well we really don’t know too much about how powerful owls use the urban landscape. How far do they travel? Do they go deep into the suburbs or do they stay in the more wooded parks? How much space does an owl actually need to survive in a city? How can we better manage our urban landscapes to facilitate the expansion of powerful owl populations? Hence our new research project to track urban powerful owls in Melbourne.  This research is part of our Deakin honours student’s (Nick’s) project. A parallel project will be aiming to do the same thing in Sydney, so we can compare and contrast two different cities.

So last night was our first night of trying to catch a powerful owl to put on a GPS logging device and attached radio transmitter. I will say it is not easy to catch owls, and we have done it a fair bit so have a few little tricks we have learned along the way.  As luck would happen we caught one! First attempt! There is no way we will be maintaining that average!

A happy honours student

Deakin honours student Nick with the first powerful owl of his research project. I think he looks kind of happy.


Imagine sitting in the dark, nets up in the canopy, knowing there is an owl close by. It is exciting, and scary at the same time.  The owl never called, it just quietly cruised around where we were. So last night the owl came into the net.  We were lucky, and this launched us into a flurry of activity and fitting of trackers etc.

How do you attach a tracking device to an owl? We used a tail mounting approach, where the device is fixed to the two central tail feathers. It is a useful approach as the tail feathers will eventually naturally moult and the device will fall off the animal.  Also, the device sits very nicely to not impede its flight. Finally, the feathers of the back and wings cover the device up so you cant see it.

Tail mounted transmitter

The GPS/radio tracking device fitted to the tail feathers of our powerful owl.  Note: all the other tail and back feathers are being held out of the way to show it to you.

So after fitting our tracker to the owl, we gave it a final check to make sure both the owl and the device were fine.  Nick held the owl up in the air, and whoosh, it was gone.  It flew really well up to a nearby tree. I might of imagined it, but I am sure it gave us a dirty look before heading off through the trees.

Nick releasing powerful owl

And Whoosh off it goes! Nick releasing the first powerful owl carrying a GPS tracker.

Powerful owl after release

The owl just after release perching briefly on a branch.  Note you can just see the tip of the aerial at the end of the tail, and the tracker is held nicely under the feathers.

We checked the owl a couple of times last night and again this morning.  It is doing really well.  This morning it was roosting with another adult powerful owl some 500 metres away from where we caught it.  The GPS recording where it goes when we are not watching it.  Technology has come a long way, and with every technological advance comes opportunities for us to understand our wildlife better. This owl may be able to help us design urban landscapes better to suit the needs of our wildlife.

Me with a powerful owl

Me with the owl. It really doesn’t look all that big, but this owl was just over 1.5 kg!

It’s time for an urban revolution! It’s time to take back our streetscapes.

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A tawny frogmouth pair sitting in an urban streetscape tree in Melbourne.

Other than houses and roads, one of the things that are most visible to people in our urban environments are the streetscapes. The foot print of streetscapes throughout our urban areas is enormous yet their potential for great biodiversity outcomes largely goes unrealized. In fact we generally manage them in a fashion that creates an ecological desert (maybe a little poetic license) with extremely limited value for biodiversity.

Many years ago we investigated the role of different streetscape vegetation and the response of birds to it (You can read more here). Surprise, surprise, native bird diversity was highest in streetscapes dominated by native trees. Probably more concerning was the fact that 75% of the bird abundance in streetscapes dominated by exotic trees was made up by a few species introduced to Australia! Upshot, streetscapes dominated by lawns and exotic trees are not good for birds, and presumably native biodiversity as well.

Interestingly, in Australia, we refer to streetscapes as nature strips. Whilst this may make us feel better about our impact on the environment, it is a grossly incorrect term. In reality, as far as nature is concerned, streetscapes sit on a continuum from ecological desert to nature strip. So just calling it a nature strip does not make it a nature strip.

So here comes the revolution bit. What can we do about it? This is actually a tough one. I used to give lots of talks to local government about turning streetscapes into nature strips. Obviously step one is pushing for native tree species to be used throughout our urban areas rather than the exotic European species favoured by many urban designers. I was often surprised to find a backlash to this on various different levels e.g. “Native trees do not have the great form that exotic trees have”, “Native trees drop limbs and leak sap”, through to “This will impact upon the value of the houses”. This last point a reference to houses in areas with established exotic trees having higher value. Probably correlative rather than causative.

I usually took my recommendations a step further and encouraged councils to consider ripping up the lawns and replacing them with native vegetation. Ultimately, suggesting the idea of introducing structural diversity to the planting. This usually got many and various different responses, it must be noted not always negative. The main negative, other than the negative aesthetic influence, was the issue of public safety. In essence with structure on the streetscapes the public have no line of sight and as such perception of risk and safety is influenced. I actually think this is a valid point that we need to think about.

Personally, I think we need to take control of our streetscapes, and I think we need to have a revolution that forces local governments to act in favour of nature rather than against it. We need to fight for a diversity of native canopy trees to be the dominant vegetation on all of our streets. Following this, we need to rip up the lawns. Replacing the mown and managed grass with diverse low growing (less than a metre) native vegetation will have enormous benefits for native biodiversity. If everyone in a street did this, would councils force them to change it back? Who knows, but it would make for an interesting situation.

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A native heliotrope moth. Elevated richness of native invertebrates will result from turning streetscapes into nature strips.

Finally, coming back to the point about structural plantings and safety. I do agree with the issue around perception of safety, so how do we deal with it. Actually this is somewhat more straight forward than one would think. We can get structure into our urban environments by thinking of our streetscapes and our front gardens as part of the same system. Spatially they are only a few metres from each other. So use the streetscape to enhance the canopy and low growing vegetation, and utilise your front garden to add a bit of mid-storey structure to the system.

Imagine your own street. Imagine being immersed in an urban woodland. Imagine walking through it to the sound of native Australian birds, and watching the bees and butterfly’s etc. Would that elevate your perception of wellbeing? Research suggests it would. Would it feel cooler in the summer? Again, research suggests it would. Ultimately, imagine your entire city dominated by streets like this. What are you waiting for? It is time for an urban revolution.

 

Orangutan, Forestry, Oil palm and expanding economies

Few species have had as much international conservation focus as Orangutans. They certainly are stunning animals and there is no doubt when you see them in the wild it is an uplifting and amazing experience. I have seen both Bornean and Sumatran Orangutan in the wild, and I will admit that my heart races every time I see them. We need to remember, however, that the plight of the orangutan is representative of the broader plight of much of the (less charismatic) tropical biodiversity of south east Asia. With the decline of Orangutan we actually see an even more pronounced decline of species far less sensitive to changes in primary jungle. In effect Orangutan are just the poster children for the wide spread decline of numerous less sexy creatures.

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The extensive and rapid transformation of the landscape of Borneo and Sumatra from primary jungle to secondary jungle (broad scale selective logging) or, even more extreme, removal of the jungle all together to be replaced by other land-uses (primarily oil palm plantations) has received extensive international focus. This focus has primarily been associated with the decline of orang-utan due to deforestation for oil palm plantations.

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Needless to say, the exploitation of these jungles has also allowed the nations involved to expand and modify their economies.  And yes, some individuals have become extremely wealthy along the way. The issues associated with biodiversity conservation and rapidly expanding economies in southeast Asia (largely based on natural resources and agriculture) are complex.  It is hard to ask nations not to clear their forests for agriculture when much of world has already done the same. In fact the state of forest cover in Victoria, Australia (my home) is not a great deal better, and we have certainly converted enormous areas of land to agricultural pursuits. I am not going to provide any solutions here to the problems; all I will say is that it is complex and as such solutions will need to be multifaceted. If we, and I mean we as a global society, want Borneo to remain a global biodiversity hotspot, “we” need to provide a mechanism that allows the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia to make more money out of jungles than timber or oil palm. And then their is the Amazon and…….

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It is the complex nature of conservation, land-use change and economics in Borneo that draws me to this region. For the last 3 years I have taken a team of Deakin Environmental Science staff and students to Malaysian Borneo to investigate the issues for ourselves. Our undergraduate study tour unit (SLE353) takes students to Borneo, meeting the indigenous communities, into jungles, experiencing wildlife and of course the people involved in conservation as well as oil palm. It is challenging but at the same time life changing. It is critical to look at issues from a wide range of perspectives before even trying to think about solutions.

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They paved paradise and put up a parking lot!

The title comes from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” first sung by Joni Mitchell in 1970, and variously recorded by many others since. The song has a strong environmental message and amongst other things effectively was a comment on urbanization (albeit originally written about Hawaii). Ok, this song was written 45 years ago, what does it mean now? The reality is, as human populations continue to grow, urbanized areas are expanding at a rapid rate and becoming a dominant land-use in many areas.

Does it matter? Certainly, biodiversity is impacted by intensification of urbanization as native vegetation is removed and replaced with houses, roads and paths (generally referred to as impervious surfaces). Much of the remaining area is converted to managed grass (lawns) and gardens often dominated by plant species exotic to the area. Many native species demonstrate strong negative responses to impervious surfaces and lawns.  Effectively these new ‘habitats’ do not provide the resources many native species need, and as such we see significant contractions in the number of species found in cities.

How bad is the situation? I provide the image above of Melbourne (Melbourne is towards the centre of the left hand side). The image is generated from satellites and then classified based on spectral reflectance. Ultimately, we can simplify the city down to impervious surfaces, grass (both lawns and agriculture), tree cover and a couple of categories of water.  Using this approach it becomes clear that the city centre and much of the suburban area of Melbourne are now dominated by impervious surfaces and lawns with most of the tree cover removed. More worryingly, Melbourne is expanding and more areas are being converted to urban areas. Cities all around the World exhibit similar characteristics, and are having significant detrimental impacts on biodiversity. Interestingly, there is also strong evidence that the reduced interaction of people with nature that occurs in modern cities is impacting negatively on peoples mental and physical health.

Melbourne from Space

One of the biggest challenges of the future is going to be around how we make our urban areas less hostile to nature. This is going to require governments, planners and other groups of great vision to re-imagine how cities are designed and how they cater for more people. Continually expanding our cities can not be a sustainable strategy, yet on face value it may be the easiest political solution.  It will be interesting to observe if things change. Maybe in 45 years we will have a song that refers to “ripping up the car park and putting in an urban woodland”. Then again, maybe I am just dreaming 🙂