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.


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.
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 


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


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.

Email address 
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.



As Chinese Luxury Market Grows,
An Upsurge in Tiger Killings in India

Poachers killed more tigers in the forests of India in 2016 than any year in the last 15. The spike is linked to demand for tiger parts in China, where the endangered animal’s bones and skins are regarded as exotic luxury items.

How Forensics Are Boosting
Battle Against Wildlife Trade

From rapid genetic analysis to spectrography, high-tech tools are being used to track down and prosecute perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade. The new advances in forensics offer promise in stopping the trafficking in endangered species.

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.

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.

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.


MORE IN Analysis

With Trump, China Emerges
As Global Leader on Climate

by isabel hilton
With Donald Trump threatening to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, China is ready to assume leadership of the world’s climate efforts. For China, it is a matter of self-interest – reducing the choking pollution in its cities and seizing the economic opportunities of a low-carbon future.

What a Trump Win Means
For the Global Climate Fight

by david victor
Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency signals an end to American leadership on international climate policy. With the withdrawal of U.S. support, efforts to implement the Paris agreement and avoid the most devastating consequences of global warming have suffered a huge blow.

The Methane Riddle: What Is
Causing the Rise in Emissions?

by fred pearce
The cause of the rapid increase in methane emissions since 2007 has puzzled scientists. But new research finds some surprising culprits in the methane surge and shows that fossil-fuel sources have played a much larger role over time than previously estimated.

As Arctic Ocean Ice Disappears,
Global Climate Impacts Intensify

by peter wadhams
The top of the world is turning from white to blue in summer as the ice that has long covered the north polar seas melts away. This monumental change is triggering a cascade of effects that will amplify global warming and could destabilize the global climate system.

How Climate Change Could Jam
The World's Ocean Circulation

by nicola jones
Scientists are closely monitoring a key current in the North Atlantic to see if rising sea temperatures and increased freshwater from melting ice are altering the “ocean conveyor belt” — a vast oceanic stream that plays a major role in the global climate system.

Wildlife Farming: Does It Help
Or Hurt Threatened Species?

by richard conniff
Wildlife farming is being touted as a way to protect endangered species while providing food and boosting incomes in rural areas. But some conservation scientists argue that such practices fail to benefit beleaguered wildlife.

What Would a Global Warming
Increase of 1.5 Degrees Be Like?

by fred pearce
The Paris climate conference set the ambitious goal of finding ways to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than the previous threshold of 2 degrees. But what would be the difference between a 1.5 and 2 degree world? And how realistic is such a target?

After Paris, A Move to Rein In
Emissions by Ships and Planes

by fred pearce
As the world moves to slash CO2 emissions, the shipping and aviation sectors have managed to remain on the sidelines. But the pressure is now on these two major polluting industries to start controlling their emissions at last.

Abrupt Sea Level Rise Looms
As Increasingly Realistic Threat

by nicola jones
Ninety-nine percent of the planet's freshwater ice is locked up in the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps. Now, a growing number of studies are raising the possibility that as those ice sheets melt, sea levels could rise by six feet this century, and far higher in the next, flooding many of the world's populated coastal areas.

How Nations Are Chipping
Away at Their Protected Lands

by richard conniff
Winning protected status for key natural areas and habitat has long been seen as the gold standard of conservation. But these gains are increasingly being compromised as governments redraw park boundaries to accommodate mining, logging, and other development.

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


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

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.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


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


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

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

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

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