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Rules of Engagement

Image of polar bear

Conserving large carnivores in the Northern Hemisphere is a major issue that researchers are having to deal with. The issues are different but the approaches are the same as those being pioneered in Australia. Credit: iStockphoto

By Prof Hugh Possingham

Approaches to conservation may differ around the world but the challenges are similar.

We are standing in the middle of a well-managed nature reserve looking at a ploughed field roughly planted with wheat. A few months ago it was a stand of native vegetation.

Below us is a coastal plain awash with huge fish ponds that teem with herons, egrets, storks and ibis – which are both pests and of conservation significance.

Behind us is a huge complex of enclosures filled with rehabilitated birds of prey – some set for release, others producing progeny that will be released (these individuals are too habituated to be released because they were rescued from unfortunate circumstances as pets).

This is Ramat Hanadiv, a privately owned nature reserve overlooking the Mediterranean Sea just south of Haifa in Israel. Their approach to conservation and the problems they face are clearly very different to ours.

Switch scenes. It is now snowing outside and I am listening to talks about the successful spread of large carnivores through Europe – bears, lynx, wolves and wolverines. I am told that allowing hunting is apparently the best strategy for the conservation of these carnivores as it facilitates acceptance. This view is confirmed by Prof Boitani in Israel.

We are walked through a report that involved 18 countries and many years of meetings – a blueprint for European carnivore conservation. Prof Caswell shows how detailed population modelling is used to confirm the threatened species listing of the polar bear while equally methodical work uses the dynamics of marten numbers (a carnivorous mammal related to minks and weasels) to influence Canadian forest policy.

Why am I attending these meetings? What’s the relevance of wheat planting and polar bear population ecology to conservation in Australia? I’m joining in partly to learn and partly to share our Australian experiences in conservation biology.

It might surprise many Australians to know that Australia punches way above its weight in the arena of conservation research. Indeed, Australian-applied ecologists are more productive than any other country aside from the UK and the USA (and that is not a per capita thing, like the Olympic gold medals per person claim to glory). It’s also clear, despite my occasional whining, that our governments listen to scientists more than other countries.

At both conferences three things emerged. First, the science that drives Australian policy and management is essentially the same as anywhere in the world (as is the modelling approaches, the use of data, the search for evidence-based policy and the commitment to adaptive management). The details differ but the principles are identical.

Second, there is an avalanche of interest in the application of decision theory to delivering prudent management and policy. The principles of cost-effectiveness and return on investment are as global as the laws of physics.

Finally, and most interestingly, the players in the nature conservation milieu are identical. There are the managers who say that the scientists are too arrogant, theoretical and ignorant of the resource constraints and politics. There are the scientists who argue that the managers need more scientific training and skills. There are the non-government organisations who wonder why the policy-makers didn’t turn up and why they are wasting their time talking to scientists and managers. And, even though they were absent at these two meetings, there are the policy-makers complaining about the scientists not doing research that is directly relevant to their needs.

Bridging the gap between scientists, the bureaucracy and the conservation movement is tough in Australia but it’s also tough the world over. There are no easy solutions.

The workshop in Israel, which had a broad mix of participants, agreed that the bridge across the gap has to be built using real incentives. To expect the university sector to reward scientists who have an impact, or government departments to reward research, is a fantasy.

So we agreed to formulate the A–Z of rules and incentives for engagement. My Rule A is simple. Turn up – even if you have to go to Norway (where the rain only stops because it starts snowing).

Prof Hugh Possingham is the Director of the Applied Environmental Decision Analysis centre at the University of Queensland.