25 Mar 2013: Analysis

The Scientist as Guardian:
A Tool for Protecting the Wild

An expanding body of evidence shows that the presence of field biologists and their assistants is playing an important part in deterring poaching, illegal logging, and other destructive activities in the world’s parks and wildlife reserves.

by william laurance

In recent years, plant ecologist Zacharie N’Zooh has hiked thousands of kilometers conducting biodiversity surveys for the conservation group, WWF, in the northwestern Congo basin of his native Cameroon. His work has given him a unique understanding of the region’s rich bioversity and its people. It also has made him a key player in safeguarding the area from illegal poaching and gold mining.

In 2011, when poachers killed one of the eco-guards working with N’Zooh, the ecologist played an important role in persuading the Cameroon army to deploy elite troops into the Sangha Tri-National Conservation Complex. The troops confiscated weapons while Cameroon law-enforcement officials jailed some of the major figures involved in the country’s illegal bushmeat trade.

View gallery
Zacharie N'Zooh

Photo by M. Dandjouma
Plant ecologist Zacharie N’Zooh has helped stop poaching in the Congo Basin of Cameroon.
N’ Zooh is a prime example of an increasingly important phenomenon: the scientist not only as researcher, but also as a valuable player in safeguarding increasingly threatened protected areas that harbor rich fauna and flora. As human populations soar and demand for natural resources rises, many protected areas are being assailed by illegal poachers, miners, loggers, and farmers. But these reserves are also key locations for scientific research.

While evidence is mostly anecdotal, many field researchers are increasingly becoming determined defenders of protected areas. “It is high time that this came to be a standard obligation for scientists,” says prominent conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University. It is noteworthy that many funding agencies see conservation engagement by researchers as a part of a scientist’s role. For example, the U.S. National Science Foundation is now emphasizing broader criteria such as public outreach and societal benefits when evaluating research proposals, and philanthropic foundations often place great weight on conservation activities when awarding grants and prizes to scientists.

Of course, some scientists have long attempted to protect the habitats and creatures that are the focus of their work. No one who has read Gorillas in the Mist could forget Dian Fossey’s fierce determination to defend the mountain gorillas she studied — an effort that ultimately cost Fossey her life.

In recent years, clear evidence of “safeguarding” by scientists has been been on display at places like Tai National Park, in Cote d’Ivoire, Africa,
Studies have shown research sites have much higher wildlife abundances than other areas.
where studies have shown that active research sites have much higher wildlife abundances and far less evidence of poaching than do areas with little research activity. Suppression of poaching and illegal logging also have been an unexpected benefit in other active research sites in the tropics, including areas frequented by scientists and birdwatchers in the Nouable-Ndoki Reserve in Congo, Kibale National Park in Uganda, Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo, and Soberania National Park in Panama.

Some scientists are audacious. In Indonesian Borneo, researchers backed by the central government encouraged park staff to spike trees and confront renegade timber-cutters to deter rampant illegal logging. In Brazilian Amazonia, field researchers have helped the indigenous Kayapo resist miners and loggers, even paying for air patrols to spot invaders on indigenous lands. Once, Enrico Bernard — a Brazilian Ph.D. student working in a central-Amazonian reserve where I have long done research — was on a remote dirt road when he encountered a truck packed with rifle-toting poachers. When the poachers advanced, Bernard planted himself squarely in front of their truck and bellowed, “You will not pass!” The poachers turned tail and headed for home.

View gallery
Illegal gold mining in Suriname

Photo by William Laurance
An illegal gold miner working in a protected area of Suriname.
Some benefits of science safeguarding are less direct. In Papua New Guinea, researchers are helping indigenous groups in remote areas to evaluate offers from logging and mining companies that hope to exploit their traditional lands. Some scientists build local support for protected areas with education programs in nearby communities and by hiring locals as field assistants and taxonomists. In Gabon, the field assistants my colleagues and I have employed are all avid former hunters, and several have become keenly interested in wildlife conservation. In Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar, researchers and ecotourists are the biggest source of income for impoverished nearby villages, providing $2 million in annual income and boosting local support for driving out poachers and illegal loggers.

More broadly, scientists have played a key role in establishing national parks and reserves in the tropics worldwide. In Madagascar, ecologist Patricia Wright of the State University of New York at Stony Brook has established and is running one of the country’s best national parks. Daniel Janzen has helped create and run an important protected area in Costa Rica. In Peru, journalists who visited Manu National Park at the behest of scientists have made the park famous for ecotourists. Today, lands around the park are overrun with illegal loggers and gold miners, but such encroachers “wouldn’t dare show their face” at Manu, according to tropical ecologist John Terborgh at Duke University, who has worked in the park.

Despite notable successes, not all attempts at science-safeguarding are successful. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, illegal gold miners threatened to
Scientists and park guards have been unable to stop the slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa.
burn down a research station when scientists tried to stop them from mining and clearing the forest. Many park guards have been killed or threatened trying to combat illegal poaching, logging, and mining. Scientists and park guards have been largely unable to stop the epic slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa — the result of an almost insatiable demand for ivory and rhino horn in Asia.

On occasion, researchers affect wildlife and protected areas negatively. For instance, mark and recapture and radiotelemetry studies can be stressful to animals, with a few dying as a result. Biological collecting is another concern, particularly for rare or locally endemic species and those that have small, isolated populations in parks. On occasion, researchers who handle wildlife can accidentally transmit infectious diseases to them, with primates, bats, and frogs known to have been affected in the past.

Perhaps the biggest potential downside of research is that sensitive fauna — including elephants, rhinos, deer, and some carnivores — tend to avoid areas frequented by humans. Because of such potential problems, I hypothesize that researchers and ecotourists in protected areas must achieve a balance — enough of a presence to deter illegal activity, but not so much as to inordinately disturb wildlife.

MORE FROM YALE e360

Grisly Trend: Green Activists
Are Facing Deadly Dangers

Fred Pearce Grisly Trend: Green Activists Are Facing Deadly Dangers
With activists killed in Brazil, Cambodia, the Philippines, and elsewhere, journalist Fred Pearce writes, 2012 may have been the worst year yet for violence against those working to protect the environment. So far, little has been done to halt this chilling development.
READ MORE
While it’s clear many scientists are promoting and defending protected areas, hard data on this are sparse. Does science-safeguarding of parks occur commonly, or is it only patchy and occasional? Could research be optimized in space and time to maximize its benefits for protection and conservation? Should researchers be encouraged to work in parks that are highly imperiled, even if this might entail more personal risk?

What is not in doubt is that many parks need more protection. Thomas Struhsaker, a primate ecologist at Duke University, found that poaching was a serious problem in each of the 16 protected areas he surveyed across Africa, based on information from long-term researchers in the parks.

Despite various uncertainties, there seems little doubt that field researchers are playing a role in deterring destructive activities in many protected areas. This conclusion needs to be conveyed to conservation funders and decision-makers. Maintaining a long-term research presence could be a key strategy for safeguarding parks and their imperiled biodiversity. With research budgets tightening in many countries, we must carefully weigh the impacts of reducing research in our embattled protected areas.

POSTED ON 25 Mar 2013 IN Biodiversity Biodiversity Climate Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Africa Asia 

COMMENTS


This is an important trend that the author observes, but it raises more questions than it answers, such as, of the thousands of researchers in the field, is he choosing only the few notable stars among constellations of non-deterring research? Which qualities of researchers most correlate con deterrence and do other types of conservationists or stakeholders share these qualities? For example, researchers are relatively long-term participants who develop a sense of place and have international and political connections which provides them a level of protection and access to resources that others might not enjoy. Many conservationists and even well-off neighbors of protected areas do share these same characteristics and also participate in deterrence, thus I wonder if there are any highly correlative qualities unique to researchers? I think in some way that I am not clear the research relationship to a protected area does afford some special privilege, but the article unfortunately didn't make clear what that privilege is.

Posted by Jon Kohl on 29 Mar 2013


Rangers are supposed to be guardians, as are enforcement officers. I disagree with Tom’s saying it’s “high time” biologists stepped into the role. It only shows that enforcement and enforcers are unable to counter mounting problems.

Biologists’ presence has long been an asset to deterrence. But the escalating violence against biologists, conservationists, and guards is another symptom of breakdown in the face of political turmoil as well as the insatiable markets for wild-sourced products.

Posted by carl Safina on 30 Mar 2013


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


william lauranceABOUT THE AUTHOR
William Laurance is Distinguished Research Professor and an Australian Laureate at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. He is also the Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation at Utrecht University, Netherlands. In earlier articles for Yale Environment 360, he wrote that rising temperatures are already taking a toll on tropical species and explored China’s increasingly rapacious appetite for timber.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Rallying Hip Hop Culture For
A More Inclusive Climate Fight

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, the Rev. Lennox Yearwood — a social and environmental activist and the head of the Hip Hop Caucus — explains why it’s vital that the climate and environmental movements become far more diverse.
READ MORE

A New Face at the Helm of
The Oldest U.S. Green Group

The Sierra Club has chosen Aaron Mair as its president, the first African-American to lead the largest U.S. environmental organization. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about the lack of diversity in the environmental movement and what can be done to change that.
READ MORE

On the Internet, Illegal Trade
In Endangered Wildlife Thrives

On eBay and elsewhere on the Internet, illegal wildlife and wildlife parts — from elephant ivory to tiger skins to monkey and crocodile skulls — are being sold. Bringing an end to this illicit activity is proving to be a daunting challenge.
READ MORE

With Fins Off Many Menus,
A Glimmer of Hope for Sharks

For decades, the slaughter of sharks – sought after for their fins and meat – has been staggering. But bans on finning and new attitudes in Asia toward eating shark fin soup are leading to optimism about the future for these iconic ocean predators.
READ MORE

Albania’s Coastal Wetlands:
Killing Field for Migrating Birds

Millions of birds migrating between Africa and Europe are being illegally hunted on the Balkan Peninsula, with the most egregious poaching occurring in Albania. Conservationists and the European Commission are calling for an end to the carnage.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Analysis


How ‘Natural Geoengineering’
Can Help Slow Global Warming

by oswald j. schmitz
An overlooked tool in fighting climate change is enhancing biodiversity to maximize the ability of ecosystems to store carbon. Key to that strategy is preserving top predators to control populations of herbivores, whose grazing reduces the amount of CO2 that ecosystems absorb.
READ MORE

Why Paris Worked: A Different
Approach to Climate Diplomacy

by david victor
A more flexible strategy, a willingness to accept nonbinding commitments, and smart leadership by the French all helped secure a climate deal in Paris. The real work lies ahead, but Paris created a strong, if long overdue, foundation on which to begin building a carbon-free future.
READ MORE

Turning Point: Landmark Deal
On Climate Is Reached in Paris

by fred pearce
In what could be a turning point, the world’s nations reached an agreement in Paris that would commit them to cutting emissions and keeping global warming below 2 degrees. Although the pledges are not binding, the deal includes a review process to determine if countries are meeting their commitments.
READ MORE

Will Paris Conference Finally
Achieve Real Action on Climate?

by fred pearce
The emission pledges from the world’s nations still fall short of the goal for limiting global warming. But as negotiators convene in Paris this week, there is cautious optimism that a significant international agreement on climate can be reached.
READ MORE

Will Indonesian Fires Spark
Reform of Rogue Forest Sector?

by lisa palmer
Massive fires in Indonesia caused by the burning of forests and peatlands for agriculture have shrouded large areas of Southeast Asia in smoke this fall. But analysts say international anger over the fires could finally lead to a reduction in Indonesia’s runaway deforestation.
READ MORE

How China and U.S. Became
Unlikely Partners on Climate

by orville schell
Amid tensions between the U.S. and China, one issue has emerged on which the two nations are finding common ground: climate change. Their recent commitments on controlling emissions have created momentum that could help international climate talks in Paris in December.
READ MORE

Will the Paris Climate Talks
Be Too Little and Too Late?

by fred pearce
At the upcoming U.N. climate conference, most of the world’s major nations will pledge to make significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But serious doubts remain as to whether these promised cuts will be nearly enough to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change.
READ MORE

Global Extinction Rates: Why
Do Estimates Vary So Wildly?

by fred pearce
Is it 150 species a day or 24 a day or far less than that? Prominent scientists cite dramatically different numbers when estimating the rate at which species are going extinct. Why is that?
READ MORE

Why the Fossil Fuel Divestment
Movement May Ultimately Win

by marc gunther
The fossil fuel divestment campaign has so far persuaded only a handful of universities and investment funds to change their policies. But if the movement can help shift public opinion about climate change, its organizers say, it will have achieved its primary goal.
READ MORE

Alien Islands: Why Killing Rats
Is Essential to Save Key Wildlife

by ted williams
Alien rats introduced by ships are decimating populations of birds and other wildlife on islands from the sub-Antarctic to California. Effective programs to eradicate the rats are underway but are encountering opposition from animal activists and some green groups.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

“Battle
The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

“Alaska
A 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner captures stunning images of wild salmon runs in Alaska.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale