Our latest Future Focus series of discussions, in partnership with Oxfordshire Greentech, kicked off with a fascinating spotlight on eco-innovation.
This is part two of our first Future Focus event in partnership with Oxfordshire Greentech. For part one of this session, featuring Chris Goodall’s presentation “Four uncomfortable truths about the climate and us”, click here.
In this section we move on to the topic of biodiversity with our second guest speaker, Professor Bob Montgomery, a Senior Research Fellow at University of Oxford and Managing Director of OXGAV Conservation at Venture Studios.
Read his presentation below.
The other side of the climate crisis
I’m fascinated by our tremendous guilt about our own actions and about saving the world from ourselves.
This week has been notable for the publishing of two papers: One from Cambridge and another released a couple of days later. They speak to the dichotomy we have about our contribution to the functioning of the natural world.
The first paper said less than 3% of the globe represents intact ecosystems. Of course, the devil is in those details; what do you actually mean by intact? Essentially, it is an area that is people-free.
The other paper said people have been integral components of trophic systems throughout the world for at least 12,000 years. If you include the contribution of our hominid ancestors, we go back thousands and millions of years.
These papers neatly illustrate our confusion about the ways in which we can shape ecological systems. The first paper? Doom and gloom, with a presentation of the world with defaunation – the number of species that have been extirpated. But the second paper states that the places where humans started to evolve are more bio diversely rich regions. This might be linked to the contributions of early humans to those ecological systems.
A world in tension
Within this context, we are saints and sinners. Throughout our evolution we have been fascinated by animals. If we look back at some of the earliest drawings in the Chauvet Cave in France, we see incredibly artistic and accurate representations of the animals that were in these ecological systems at that time.
But we as humans choose to insert ourselves in trophic systems and then remove ourselves at our convenience, often to justify our consumption. To justify hunting, we will include ourselves again, suggesting we are apex predators. But if other apex predators decide to fight back and kill a human, we are very concerned. That becomes a crime against humanity! So we remove ourselves from ecological systems. However, the tension of inserting and removing ourselves has consequences.
If you look at global patterns, you’ll see where we have had tremendous biodiversity loss, and where we have had dramatic increases in human density. It’s almost a one-to-one correlation. The remaining biodiversity in the world is clustered in what we what we refer to as the world’s global South, where again we see the increase in human population in conflict with the remaining biodiversity. Within that conflict, we often use crisis narratives to drive human action.
The emergence of the biodiversity crisis
Conservation Biology is a discipline that’s been uniquely in crisis since its founding. It started at a conference in 1978. Before that people referred to themselves as naturalists or biologists or ecologists, but 1978 was the first time that we had an independent discipline around conservation biology.
If we go back to the founding documents put together by Michael Soulé and others, we see that crisis has always been a part of it. The key quote was “conservation biology differs from most of the biological disciplines in one important way: it’s often a crisis discipline. Its relation to biology, particularly ecology, is analogous to that of surgery to physiology or war to political science.”
We see this presentation of conservation biology as an independent discipline that is one of surgical precision or indeed war, and those crisis notes have stayed with his discipline ever since. All of this is very intentionally structured to continue to drive the crisis narrative. And there are consequences of this.
The ‘standard’ crisis narrative
Conservation biologists at international conferences will show you images of butchered animals to drive human actions. In my opinion, the most accurate representation of a poacher I have ever come across is not a slaughtered elephant, but a seemingly innocuous painting called Fidelity by Briton Riviere, of a troubled young man sat on a bench with his dog.
The young man had made the mistake of bringing his dog to take a rabbit on a landowner’s estate, and thus was deemed a poacher. The Waltham Black Act levied stringent penalties (including lifetime imprisonment, being shipped to another continent or even death) against relatively common crimes, poaching among them. It took 100 years for the Waltham Black Act to be repealed, but its impact was immense.
In the UK and many other countries, traditional depictions of country poachers have been lost. Instead, we think of people with black skin, we think about Africa, we think about elephants and rhinos, and we conceptualise military or paramilitary individuals that are engaged in the war against poachers.
And this is sanctioned. Right now you can go on Amazon, Teepublic, eBay or Redbubble and purchase products with slogans such as ‘Save elephants, shoot poachers’. As a society, we’re apparently advocating killing people for the sake of conservation, without even thinking about the consequences.
Why the truth about poaching matters
My research has shown poaching is a single issue. Poaching occurs in every ecological system around the world but there are three different types.
- Trophy poaching: poaching for specific animal products such as elephant tusks that are used for trinkets
- Medicative poaching: poaching for animal products with perceived medical benefit, even though they don’t bestow those benefits
- Consumptive poaching: where local people who lack the opportunity for alternative wellbeing use it as a means of subsistence.
Consumptive poaching occurs most often, however, trophy and medicative get most of the attention due to their black market value in markets such as South East Asia. The main problem is that when we try to address the biodiversity crisis and war on poachers, it instigates wholesale human rights violations around the world. A BuzzFeed investigative reporting series in 2019 identified these human rights violations, which were supported and funded via WWF.
These are incredibly important issues we must contend with to fully understand the context and impact of the biodiversity crisis. It is a social justice issue; we must change the way they we’re conceptualising the human role in the environment.
Actions for genuine and fair biodiversity
We must position human heritage at the centre of conservation practice. The reason why we have poaching problems is due to a lack of opportunity for employment and human wellbeing. We must embrace the cultural heritage of local people and use conservation practice to uplift them.
With this goal in mind, we developed the ‘Snares to Wares’ initiative. One of the predominant tools used to poach wildlife in Africa and beyond are wire snares; wires that are torn from radial vehicle tyres which are freely available in the global south. You can take these into the field and loosely hang them at a suitable height to catch your target animal.
We are removing those wires from Uganda and repurposing them by training local people to become artisans creating snare art from snare wire. These items are now in private collections, museums and zoos all around the world and for sale. The sale of the products not only provides direct employment, but uplifts local people in conservation.
Sustainability businesses and social enterprises are a huge part of what we need to do in diversity conservation. As Nicola McConville, Partner at Taylor Vinters, kindly mentioned, I’m also the Managing Director of the Conservation Venture Studio in collaboration with Oxford University Innovation. We have six pillars we built out to scale and rapidly mobilise research and development activities that can bring not only social enterprises, but technologies to market that can make timely impacts positively affecting conservation.
Conservation that supports local populations
We also implement research-informed conservation activities in real world systems, to test the efficacy of our designs, and recruit students to achieve their training and become the conservation leaders of the future. We engineer commercially viable conservation technologies and provide advice on global climate compliance. We also communicate our conservation science in novel and original ways.
We believe these types of interventions are required to provide a context for what’s going on in biodiversity conservation, and to act as a vehicle for human empowerment so our decision-making can create a more prosperous and sustainable future.
Imagine a typical photo of an elephant in the wild. It is vitally important is that this elephant does not exist in an ecosystem that’s wild. If you were to turn the camera around, you would see local people living in local communities directly adjacent to these protected areas. I think it’s fundamentally important we spend our time thinking about how we can help those people to benefit from conservation.
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Questions from the floor
Hannah Scott, Senior Project Officer at Bioregional, picked up on Bob’s point about the elephant photo, “I know Climate Outreach, an organisation based in Oxford focusing on climate communication, is really hot on depicting images of the climate crisis that centre on the humans in it. So that people don’t simply say “Oh it’s a polar bear on an iceberg; sad but I don’t relate.” Do you think the same thing could be applied to conservation biology, in the way that we could protect biodiversity better if we centred humans in the photographic narrative?”
Bob responded with an interesting observation about false narratives, involving the word ‘safari’. Safari is a very common word in just one African language, Swahili. It simply means trip – travelling from one place to another.
But in our minds it means something very specific. It means we’re going on holiday, spending a lot of money, in a 4×4 vehicle and we’ve got a telephoto lens. Where does that come from? It actually originates from Teddy Roosevelt’s East African trip in which he himself hunted over 300 animals. During that trip he was writing magazine articles that were going back to America, regularly using the word safari. He simply picked a common word and applied it to a specific purpose, and from that point we’ve had exponential growth in the terminology of safari.
The mentality has been “I want to go to a place that’s devoid of people. I want to see wildlife and wild places and untouched nature.” What we fail to understand is that humans have been appropriate contributors to these ecological systems.
Bob argued that our expectation should change. We should want to see local people interacting with their system, in which there is wildlife, livestock and children and schools. Interestingly, the people who go back to these places several times don’t necessarily go back for the wildlife. They go back for the authentic interaction with people.
There’s tremendous scope for alternative mechanisms to incorporate local people into experiences that ecotourists would like to have, for the benefit of everyone: the ecotourist themselves, the local people and for finding pathways to uplift local community members in conservation.