Zoos aren’t Victorian-era throwbacks: they’re important in saving species



File 20170614 21315 17v6lu
A meerkat at the National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra. The Zoo has recently announced an expansion that will double its size.
AAP Image/Stefan Postles

Alienor Chauvenet, The University of Queensland

The National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra recently announced a new expansion that will double its size, with open range space for large animals like white rhinos and cheetahs.

As well as improving visitors’ experience, the expansion is touted as a way to improve the zoo’s breeding program for threatened animals. However, zoos have received plenty of criticism over their capacity to educate, conserve, or even keep animals alive.

But while zoos began as 19th-century menageries, they’ve come a long way since then. They’re responsible for saving 10 iconic species worldwide. Without captive breeding and reintroduction efforts, there might be no Californian Condor or Przewalski’s Horse – the only truly wild horse – left in the wild.

Australian zoos form part of a vital global network that keeps our most vulnerable species alive.

What is the role of zoos for conservation?

Although Canberra Zoo is relatively new compared with others in Australia – Melbourne zoo, for example, was opened in 1862 – it adds to a collection of conservation-orientated establishments.

In Australia, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens, Adelaide Zoo and Perth Zoo are all members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). WAZA is an international organisation that aims to guide and support zoos in their conservation missions, including captive breeding, reintroductions into the wild, habitat restoration, and genetic management.

From the perspective of nature conservation, zoos have two major roles: educating the public about the plight of our fauna, and contributing to species recovery in the wild.

Conservation education is deeply embedded in the values of many zoos, especially in Australia. The evidence for the link between zoo education and conservation outcomes is mixed, however zoos are, above anybody else, aimed at children. Evidence shows that after guided experiences in zoos children know more about nature and are more likely to have a positive attitude towards it. Importantly, this attitude is transferable to their parents.

Zoos contribute unique knowledge and research to support field conservation programs, and thus species recovery. In Australia, zoos are directly involved in monitoring of free-ranging native fauna and investigations into emerging diseases. Without zoos many fundamental questions about a species’ biology could not be answered, and we would lack essential knowledge on animal handling, husbandry and care.

Through captive breeding, zoos can secure healthy animals that can be introduced to old or new habitats, or bolster existing wild populations. For example, a conservation manager at Taronga Zoo told me they’ve released more than 50,000 animals that were either bred on-site or rehabilitated in their wildlife hospitals (another important function of zoos).

Criticisms of captive breeding programs

The critics of captive breeding as a conservation strategy raise several concerns. Captive bred population can lose essential behavioural and cultural adaptations, as well as genetic diversity. Large predators – cats, bears and wolves – are more likely to be affected.

Some species, such as frogs, do well in captivity, breed fast, and are able to be released into nature with limited or no training. For others, there is usually a concerted effort to maintain wild behaviour.

There’s a higher chance of disease wiping out zoo populations due to animal proximity. In 2004 the largest tiger zoo in Thailand experienced an outbreak of H5N1 bird flu after 16 tigers were fed contaminated raw chicken; ultimately 147 tigers died or were put down.

However, despite these risks, research shows that reintroduction campaigns improve the prospects of endangered species, and zoos can play a crucial role in conservation. Zoos are continually improving their management of the genetics, behaviour and epidemiology of captive populations.

They are the last resort for species on the brink of extinction, such as the Orange-bellied Parrot or the Scimitar-horned Oryx, and for those facing a threat that we cannot stop yet, such as amphibians threatened by the deadly Chytrid fungus.

Orange-bellied parrots are ranked among the most endangered species on the planet – their survival depends on zoos.
Chris Tzaros/AAP

Zoos need clear priorities

A cost-benefit approach can help zoos prioritise their actions. Taronga, for example, uses a prioritisation system to decide which projects to take on, with and without captive breeding. Their aim is to a foresee threats to wildlife and ecosystems and implement strategies that ensure sustainability.

Developing prioritisation systems relies on clearly defined objectives. Is there value in keeping a species in captivity indefinitely, perhaps focusing only on education? Is contributing to a wild population the end goal, requiring both education and active conservation?

Once this is defined, zoos can assess the benefit and costs of different actions, by asking sometimes difficult questions. Is a particular species declining in the wild? Can we secure a genetically diverse sample before it is too late? Will capturing animals impact the viability of the wild population? How likely is successful reintroduction? Can we provide enough space and stimulation for the animals, and how expensive are they to keep?

Decision science can help zoos navigate these many factors to identify the best species to target for active captive conservation. In Australia, some of the rapidly declining northern mammals, which currently do not have viable zoo populations, could be a good place to start.

Partnerships with governmental agencies, universities and other groups are essential to all of these activities. Zoos in Australia are experts at engaging with these groups to help answer and address wildlife issues.


The ConversationAlienor Chauvenet would like to acknowledge the contribution of Hugh Possingham to this article, and thank Nick Boyle and Justine O’Brien from Taronga Conservation Society Australia for the information they provided.

Alienor Chauvenet, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rhinos should be conserved in Africa, not moved to Australia


Matt Hayward, Bangor University

Rhinos are one of the most iconic symbols of the African savanna: grey behemoths with armour plating and fearsome horns. And yet it is the horns that are leading to their demise. Poaching is so prolific that zoos cannot even protect them. The Conversation

Some people believe rhino horns can cure several ailments; others see horns as status symbols. Given horns are made of keratin, this is really about as effective as chewing your finger nails. Nonetheless, a massive increase in poaching over the past decade has led to rapid declines in some rhino species, and solutions are urgently needed.

One proposal is to take 80 rhinos from private game farms in South Africa and transport them to captive facilities in Australia, at a cost of over US$4m. Though it cannot be denied that this is a “novel” idea, I, and colleagues from around the world, have serious concerns about the project, and we have now published a paper looking into the problematic plan.

Conservation cost

The first issue is whether the cost of moving the rhinos is unjustified. The $4m cost is almost double the anti-poaching budget for South African National Parks ($2.2m), the managers of the estate where most white rhinos currently reside in the country.

The money would be better spent on anti-poaching activities in South Africa to increase local capacity. Or, from an Australian perspective, given the country’s abysmal record of mammal extinctions, it could go towards protecting indigenous species there.

In addition, there is the time cost of using the expertise of business leaders, marketeers and scientists. All could be working on conservation issues of much greater importance.

Bringing animals from the wild into captivity introduces strong selective pressure for domestication. Essentially, those animals that are too wild don’t breed and so don’t pass on their genes, while the sedate (unwild) animals do. This is exacerbated for species like rhinos where predation has shaped their evolution: they have grown big, dangerous horns to protect themselves. So captivity will likely be detrimental to the survival of any captive bred offspring should they be returned to the wild.

It is not known yet which rhino species will be the focus of the Australian project, but it will probably be the southern white rhino subspecies – which is the rhino species least likely to go extinct. The global population estimate for southern white rhinos (over 20,000) is stable, despite high poaching levels.

This number stands in stark contrast to the number of northern white (three), black (4,880 and increasing), great Indian (2,575), Sumatran (275) and Javan (up to 66) rhinos. These latter three species are clearly of much greater conservation concern than southern white rhinos.

There are also well over 800 southern white rhinos currently held in zoos around the world.

With appropriate management, the population size of the southern white is unlikely to lose genetic diversity, so adding 80 more individuals to zoos is utterly unnecessary. By contrast, across the world there are 39 other large mammalian herbivore species that are threatened with extinction that are far more in need of conservation funding than the five rhino species.

Exploitation

Rhinos inhabit places occupied by other less high profile threatened species – like African wild dogs and pangolins – which do not benefit from the same level of conservation funding. Conserving wildlife in their natural habitat has many benefits for the creatures and plants they coexist with. Rhinos are keystone species, creating grazing lawns that provide habitats for other species and ultimately affect fire regimes (fire frequency and burn patterns). They are also habitats themselves for a range of species-specific parasites. Abandoning efforts to conserve rhinos in their environment means these ecosystem services will no longer be provided.

Finally, taking biodiversity assets (rhinos) from Africa and transporting them to foreign countries extends the history of exploitation of Africa’s resources. Although well-meaning, the safe-keeping of rhinos by Western countries is as disempowering and patronising as the historical appropriation of cultural artefacts by colonial powers.

Conservation projects are ultimately more successful when led locally. With its strong social foundation, community-based conservation has had a significant impact on rhino protection and population recovery in Africa. In fact, local capacity and institutions are at the centre of one of the world’s most successful conservation success stories – the southern white rhino was brought back from the brink, growing from a few hundred in South Africa at the turn of the last century to over 20,000 throughout southern Africa today.

In our opinion, this project is neo-colonial conservation that diverts money and public attention away from the fundamental issues necessary to conserve rhinos. There is no evidence of what will happen to the rhinos transported to Australia once the poaching crisis is averted, but there seems nothing as robust as China’s “panda diplomacy” where pandas provided to foreign zoos remain the property of China, alongside a substantial annual payment, as do any offspring produced, for the duration of the arrangement.

With increased support, community-based rhino conservation initiatives can continue to lead the way. It is money that is missing, not the will to conserve them nor the expertise necessary to do so. Using the funding proposed for the Australian Rhino Project to support locally-led conservation or to educate people to reduce consumer demand for rhino horn in Asia seem far more acceptable options.

Matt Hayward, Senior Lecturer in Conservation, Bangor University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Conservation efforts must include small animals. After all, they run the world


Image 20170302 14695 1sqmgff
Ladybugs stop pests from eating our food and destroying crops.
Flickr/Inhabitat

Michael Samways, Stellenbosch University

Humans like to think that they rule the planet and are hard wired to do so. But our stewardship has been anything but successful. The last major extinction event, 66 million years ago, was caused by a meteorite. But the next mass extinction event, which is under way right now, is our fault. The Conversation

Geologists have even given this era in the history of the Earth a new name to reflect our role: the Anthropocene, the age of humans.

It’s the first time in the history of the Earth in which one species dominates all the others. These “others” numbers are probably around 10 million. The vast majority are the invertebrates, the animals without backbones. Not all are so small – some squids and jellyfish are several metres long or across.

Most, though, are small and unassuming. And they are hidden in plain view. They are busy maintaining the fabric of the world around us. They are the warp and weft of all natural systems. They make the soil, pollinate the flowers, spread seeds, and recycle valuable nutrients back into the soil. They are also food for many birds that are so loved, and keep other small animals in check by eating or parasitising them.

Yet most of us are oblivious of the many roles of these mostly small, even tiny, animals. If all their services were gone tomorrow, many plants would soon go extinct. Crops would be lost overnight. Many birds would die from lack of food, and soil formation would largely halt. The knock-on effects would also be huge as food webs collapse, and the world would quite literally fall apart.

So how can all the small animals be saved?

Saving small animals

Future generations depend on these small animals, so the focus must be on increasing awareness among the young. Research has shown that children are intrinsically interested in what a bee, cricket, butterfly or snail is. Their small world is at the same level as this small world of insects and all their allies without backbones. Yet strangely, while we care about our children, we care so little for all the small creatures on which our children depend on now and into the future.

Children must be shown that the bee is keeping the flowering plant species alive and well, the grasshopper is recycling scarce food requirements for plants, the millipede is making the soil, and the ladybug is stopping pests from eating all our food. Showing children that this miniature world is there, and that it’s crucial, is probably one of the best things to do to help them survive the future in this world of turmoil.

Children need to be shown that the bee is keeping the flowering plant species alive and well to help them understand the importance.
Flickr/RDPixelShop

Being aware of what the various species actually do for maintaining ecosystems is crucial to understanding how complex the world around us is. Pointing out that a bee is intimately connected with flowers and so seeds are produced, and an ant is the cleaner of the forest floor, taking away all the debris from other small animals, and the caterpillar is feeding the soil by pooing on it. Then we can conceptually jump to the whole landscape, where there are millions of little claws, mandibles and tongues holding, munching and sucking nectar all the time, even though we rarely see it happening.

Natural communities

A good way to understand this complexity is to view a small community of 1000 species. This can lead to potentially half a million interactions between the various species. Yet the natural communities around us are usually much larger than that. This makes understanding this world too mind boggling, and conserving its complexity too unwieldy. What this means is that for conservation, while we use conceptual icons, like the bee and the butterfly, the actual aim is to conserve landscapes so that all the natural processes can continue as they would without humans.

Conservationists have developed approaches and strategies that maintain all the natural processes intact in defined areas. The processes that are conserved include behavioural activities, ecological interactions and evolutionary trends. This umbrella approach is highly effective for conserving the great complexity of the natural world. This doesn’t mean that particular species are overlooked.

Small-creature conservationists in reality work on and develop strategies that work at three levels. The first is at the larger scale of the landscape. The second is the medium scale of the features of the landscape, which includes features like logs, ponds, rock crevices, patches of special plants, among many others. The third is the still smaller scale of the actual species.

The third is really about a conceptual scale because some particular species actually need large spatial areas to survive. At this fine scale of species, conservationists focus attention on identified and threatened species that need special attention in their own right. The beautiful Amatola Malachite damselfly, which is endangered, and lives in the Eastern Cape mountains of South Africa, is a case in point.

The common thought is that it’s only tigers, whales and parrots that need conserving. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of small creatures that all need special conservation focus like bees for example. And this focus becomes increasingly and critically important every year, if not every day, that passes. It’s crucial to think and conserve all these small animals that make up the platform for our future survival on the planet.

Time is short as the Anthropocene marches on. Putting in place strategies that conserve as many animals as possible, along with the rest of biodiversity, is not a luxury for the future. New strategies are possible, especially in agricultural and forestry areas where the aim is to optimise production yet maximise on biodiversity conservation and the maintenance of natural ecosystem function.

Michael Samways, Professor, Conservation Ecology & Entomology, Stellenbosch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

India’s militant rhino protectors are challenging traditional views of how conservation works



Image 20170210 23324 39bjx5

Benedikt Saxler / shutterstock

Bhaskar Vira, University of Cambridge

In Kaziranga, a national park in north-eastern India, rangers shoot people to protect rhinos. The park’s aggressive policing is, of course, controversial, but the results are clear: despite rising demand for illegal rhino horn, and plummeting numbers throughout Africa and South-East Asia, rhinos in Kaziranga are flourishing. The Conversation

Yet Kaziranga, which features in a new BBC investigation, highlights some of the conflicts that characterise contemporary conservation, as the need to protect endangered species comes into contact with the lives and rights of people who live in and around the increasingly threatened national parks. India must balance modernisation and development with protections for the rights of local people – all while ensuring its development is ecologically sustainable.

To understand what’s at stake in Kaziranga, consider these three crucial issues:

1. The militarisation of conservation

The BBC feature shows park rangers who have been given the license to “shoot-on-sight”, a power they have used with deadly effect. In 2015 more than 20 poachers were killed – more than the numbers of rhino poached that year.

The programme accuses the rangers of extra-judicial killings of suspected rhino poachers. This resonates with a wider trend in the use of violence in defence of the world’s protected areas and the growing use of military surveillance technologies to support the efforts of conservation agencies.

In India, the Forest Department, which is responsible for the protection of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, has always been a “uniformed” service. Rangers wear military-style khakis, are allowed to carry arms, and have powers to prosecute offenders. Recently, the government allowed them to use drones as an anti-poaching measure in Kaziranga.

To justify such escalation and its talk of a “war” against poaching, the government cites the growing power and sophistication of the crime syndicates involved in the illegal wildlife trade. However, as with all wars, a serious conflict over rhinos risks collateral damage. The worry is that increased militarisation is not conducted within strict legal limits or subject to judicial scrutiny. The BBC alleges that such checks and balances were not in place in Kaziranga.

2. The rights of local and indigenous populations

The BBC story also points to the growing conflict in and around Kaziranga between the interests and rights of local and indigenous people and the need to protect threatened species. Groups including Survival International – which features in the BBC story – claim that well-meaning conservation projects have denied and undermined the rights of indigenous groups around the world. The group calls for these rights to be placed at the heart of modern approaches to conservation – and most enlightened environmentalists now agree. It’s increasingly hard to look at conservation without also considering human rights and social issues.

Kaziranga is also home to tigers, elephants, buffalo and these swamp deer.
kongsak sumano

The context for these struggles in India is the colonial legacy of forest settlement, which reserved forests for the imperial state, but failed to take account of the rights of people who already lived there. This injustice was recognised in 2006, in landmark legislation known colloquially as the Forest Rights Act, which restored both individual and community rights based on evidence of historic access and use.

Yet there remains significant tension between India’s wildlife conservation lobby, which perceives the Forest Rights Act as the death-knell for nature, and groups such as Survival International which argue that it is only by recognising the rights of local people that the country’s wildlife will be protected.

3. Can we keep expanding protected areas?

To protect threatened species across the world, conservationists have called for more and more land to be placed under protection. Renowned biologist EO Wilson, for instance, wants us to set aside “half the planet”.

In an unconstrained world, dedicating half the earth to the protection of the most threatened species and the world’s important habitats might seem like a sensible way to avoid the risks of what people fear might trigger the next great extinction. In reality, there are few places left where such a proposal might practically be implemented.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in rapidly developing India. The country already has a population of 1.3 billion – and it aspires to both develop as a global economic powerhouse and lift its poorest people out of poverty. This development requires land and resources, with little space left for nature.

Plans to double the size of Kaziranga means villagers are being displaced with little due process and there are documented cases of violence and even death. This is a violent “green grab”, where land is usurped for ostensibly progressive environmental objectives, but which results in the dispossession of some of the most vulnerable people on this planet.

Kaziranga illustrates the dilemmas of contemporary conservation. If it is to be successful, environmentalism in India must be seen as part of the changing social and economic context, and not set itself up in opposition to these wider trends.

Conservation needs to recognise the need to build bridges, sometimes with its fiercest critics. While Kaziranga is in many ways a remarkable conservation success, its costs are considerable. The forces driving the world to overuse its resources haven’t gone away, and finding sustainable futures for both people and the planet requires coalitions that work together – let’s begin with Kaziranga.

Bhaskar Vira, Reader in Political Economy at the Department of Geography and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College; Director, University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Contested spaces: conflict behind the sand dunes takes a new turn


Nick Osbaldiston, James Cook University

This is the eleventh article in our Contested Spaces series. These pieces look at the conflicting uses, expectations and norms that people bring to public spaces, the clashes that result and how we can resolve these. The Conversation


When we think of coasts, we are likely to think about the great sandy beaches that have been the destination for many day trips and long weekends. At times these spaces have been sources of contestation, especially in areas of public access and codes of conduct. However, behind the sand dunes are other landscapes with deep histories of social conflict.

Moments from coastal pasts have had a major impact on how we see different coasts today. They feed into distinct ideals and ethics on place, especially in terms of how it is developed.

Noosa Heads versus Surfers Paradise

Noosa Heads is a prime example of this. Noosa’s history during colonisation includes a number of difficult stories to tell. Examples include the contentious tale of the rescue of Eliza Fraser, or the fate of the traditional owners, the Gubbi Gubbi people, at the hands of the colonial settlers and the native police.

Yet it was in the 1960s when modern conflict over land use really took shape in Noosa. A proposal by the developer T.M. Burke to build a resort at Alexandria Bay created a stir among locals. The local shire was set to build an access road around the headland, destroying well-trodden walking tracks.

A group led by local Arthur Harrold fought this proposal and formed the still-operating Noosa Parks Association. Thus began a long-standing fight against over-development, mining and other impediments to what residents saw as the natural beauty of the coast. This included the Cooloola Conflict and the now-famed resistance to high-rise development.

While there are elements of conservationism here to consider, these conflicts arose in a bid to keep Noosa low-key, with a slower mentality and authentic natural surrounds. Today, these ethics of authenticity are firmly embedded in planning regulation, illustrating the strength of local resistance past.

Noosa residents’ key fear in the 1960s and ’70s was losing their sense of place to the different ideals embodied in another coastal mecca, Surfers Paradise. Like Noosa, Surfers has a long history of conflict. Yet this place developed much differently due to several key factors.

Arguably, the significant turning point was in 1925 when Jim Cavill bought the then Elston Hotel and renamed it the “Surfers Paradise” hotel. Cavill and his wife proceeded to turn the coastal setting into something more than a place to bathe or surf.

Alongside the hotel, they built a zoo full of exotic animals that gave the place a peculiar flavor. Having been influenced by the American example of how to develop coasts, Cavill exhibited a desire to construct Surfers Paradise as an exotic international resort. However, due to the war in the Pacific, Surfers Paradise was restricted by building codes, frustrating locals who were eager to begin making the space bigger.

Shortly after the war, the codes eased and developers flocked to the “Golden Coast”. In the course of development, local leaders such as the progress association often came into conflict with governance.

In the example of parking meters, this led to the controversial meter maid scheme, which further established Surfers Paradise’s theme as an overtly transgressive and sexualised place.

Conflicts of a climate-changed future

In both spaces, conflicts have continued into contemporary times.

Recently, for instance, the fight against the proposed Southport Spit development has again drawn locals into conflict with authorities. Such fights against development continue up and down our coastlines. These are mostly driven by the desire to maintain a specific lifestyle and aesthetic appeal.

However, early critics of coastal development saw other concerns about coastal development. For instance, in 1879 a journalist for The Gympie Times, while contemplating the construction of Noosa and Tewantin, wondered about the location of the village and whether one day seawater might be running between you and your neighbour.

While we have different motivations for maintaining or developing our coastal places, we seem to neglect discussions about the risks of living so close to the ocean.

As we approach a climate-changed future, issues of sea-level rise and coastal flooding are going to challenge our thinking about coasts.

History has shown that several of our coastal meccas are already susceptible to significant damage from storms and cyclones. We scramble to rebuild following these events, but few debates are had about retreating away from the sea.

As we continue into that risky climate-changed landscape, however, we might see new players like insurance companies become increasingly important.

Already in the tropics, insurance premiums have caused a stir politically and in the media. In the future, though, we may need to consider to whether we have to redefine our relationship with coasts as they become more risky places to live.


You can find other pieces published in the series here.

Nick Osbaldiston, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Should genetically modified organisms be part of our conservation efforts?


Fern Wickson, GenØk – Centre for Biosafety

Biotechnology is rapidly evolving through developments in genome editing and synthetic biology, giving birth to new forms of life.

This technology has already given us genetically modified (GM) plants that produce bacterial pesticides, GM mosquitos that are sterile and GM mice that develop human cancers.

Now, new biotechnological techniques are promising to deliver a whole host of new lifeforms designed to serve our purposes – pigs with human organs, chickens that lay eggs containing cholesterol controlling drugs, and monkeys that develop autism. The possibilities seem endless.

But do these genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have conservation value?

The biodiversity of life on earth is globally recognised as valuable and in need of protection. This includes not just wild biodiversity but also the biodiversity of agricultural crop plants that humans have developed over thousands of years.

But what about the synthetic forms of biodiversity we are now developing through biotechnologies? Does anyone care about this synbiodiversity?

It’s a question I was compelled to ask while conducting research into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV).

A frozen ‘Noah’s Ark’ for seeds

The SGSV is the global apex of agricultural biodiversity conservation, an approach to conservation where collections of diverse seed samples are kept in frozen storage in genebanks for future use by plant breeders.

The SGSV is a frozen cavern in a mountain on the arctic island of Svalbard, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It has been called a Noah’s Ark for crop plants (also the “doomsday vault”) because it is the place where genebanks from all around the world send backup copies of their seed collections for safe-keeping.

Here the seeds are sealed inside bags sealed inside boxes locked in a freezer locked in a mountain. They are sent there to be kept safe from the threats genebanks can face, such as energy shortages, natural disasters and war.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Flickr/Landbruks og matdepartementet, CC BY-NC-ND

Seeds in the SGSV can only be accessed by the genebank that deposited them and only one withdrawal has been made so far, by researchers from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA ) seeking to restore their collections after the destruction of Aleppo in war-torn Syria.

The SGSV is managed through a collaborative agreement between the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen).

It opened in 2008 and currently houses 870,971 different samples of 5,340 species from 233 countries, deposited by 69 institutes.

Inside the frozen Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Flickr/Landbruks og matdepartementet, CC BY-NC-ND

Are there any GMOs frozen in the vault?

During my research into the SGSV I asked if it held any GM seeds.

Despite initially receiving conflicting responses, the formal answer was ultimately “no”. But different reasons were given for this and all are open to change.

The vault is not a certified facility for GMO storage

Facilities working with GMOs require certification to do so.

While the SGSV is not currently certified, it could be since requirements typically relate to ensuring strict containment and the SGSV is already oriented towards this goal.

Also, since no analysis of seeds is performed at the SGSV or required for deposits, the collections may actually be unintentionally (and unwittingly) contaminated. This is because a mixing with GM crops could have happened via seed or pollen flow before the material was sent to the vault.

There is no political will to include GM crops

Currently, no one in the SGSV management wants to become (any further) entangled in the controversy surrounding GM crops.

They already face what they see as false conjectures about the role of the biotechnology industry (fuelled no doubt by the fact that organisations involved in the biotechnology industry have donated funds to the Crop Trust).

Several of the depositing genebanks also actively support biotechnology research. Therefore, if they wanted to store GMOs in the future, the will to seek certification may certainly change.

Norway has a strict GMO policy that requires not just evidence of safety but also of social utility and contribution to sustainable development. This means no GM crop has yet been approved for either cultivation or import.

But this is currently being challenged by a government committed to speeding up assessments and advocating for weakened interpretations of the law. This further indicates the potential for political will to change.

GM crops do not meet the requirements for multilateral access

The International Plant Treaty is a crucial foundation for the SGSV. As such, depositing genebanks are required to agree to multilateral access to their collections if they wish to deposit backup copies in the SGSV.

But GM crops are not freely accessible to all as part of the common heritage of humanity. They are patented inventions owned by those claiming to have created them. The SGSV requirement that deposits be available for multilateral access can be waived though.

But if GM crops are not in the SGSV, should they be?

Do GMOs have conservation value?

Very little work has examined the moral status and conservation value of GM crops.

As the fields of genome editing and synthetic biology are now undergoing rapid development though, we have an important opportunity to consider how we relate to biotechnological forms of biodiversity. We can also think about whether it might be possible to navigate through syn- to symbiodiversity.

That is, instead of focusing on these life forms as synthetic human inventions, we could begin to think about them as co-creations of human-nature interactions. In doing so, we may then shift the focus away from how to make synthetic organisms to satisfy our needs and place more emphasis on how to interact with other life forms to establish symbiotic relations of mutual benefit.

The French sociologist of science and anthropologist Bruno Latour has urged us to love our monsters, to take responsibility for our technologies and care for them as our children.

Certainly it seems fair to argue that if we don’t care for our biotechnological co-creations with a sense of (parental) responsibility, perhaps we shouldn’t be bringing them to life.

How do we care for GM crops?

The model of freezing seeds in genebanks and backing up those collections at the SGSV is one way to conserve biodiversity. Another, however, is the approach of continuing to cultivate them in our agricultural landscapes.

While this model of conservation has generated and maintained the biodiversity of traditional crop varieties for thousands of years, there is now a significant shift taking place. More than 90% of traditional crop varieties have now disappeared from our fields and been replaced by genetically uniform modern varieties cultivated in large-scale monocultures. Meaning, there may be no GM crops frozen in the SGSV, but there are plenty in the ground.

So this leaves me questioning what it is we really cherish? Are we using our precious agricultural resources to expand the diversity of humanity’s common heritage?

Or are we rather placing our common heritage on ice while we expand the ecological space occupied by privately owned inventions? And who cares about synbiodiversity anyway?

The Conversation

Fern Wickson, Senior Scientist & Program Coordinator, GenØk – Centre for Biosafety

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

People are ‘blind’ to plants, and that’s bad news for conservation


Kathryn Williams, University of Melbourne

Turn away from your computer screen for a moment and try to remember what you saw in the image below.


All images from http://www.shutterstock.com

The image has an equal number of plants and animals, but chances are that you remembered more animals than plants. This bias in memory is part of a phenomenon known as “plant blindness”. Research shows that people are also generally more interested in animals than plants, and find it harder to detect images of plants compared with images of animals.

Plant blindness is more than an interesting quirk of human perception. It impacts on our efforts to care for and understand plant species. Figures from the United States show that while most federal endangered species (57%) are plants, less than 4% of money spent on threatened species is used to protect plants. Botanical education has been declared under threat in the UK.

In a recent essay, Mung Balding and I argue that overcoming plant blindness requires more than plant education. Instead we need to help people connect with plants emotionally.

Why does it happen?

We aren’t sure why plant blindness occurs. One theory suggests that because plants generally grow close together, do not move and often blend together visually, they often go unnoticed when animals are present.

Another possibility is that we learn plant blindness. For example, biology textbooks give much less space to plants compared with animals, potentially leaving schoolchildren with the impression that plants don’t matter.

But we also know many societies have strong bonds with plants. Among some Aboriginal Australian, Native North American and Maori communities, plants are understood to be different from humans but also to share a common ancestry that brings kinship relationships of mutual responsibility.

Overall, research suggests that while plant blindness is common, it is not inevitable. Here are three strategies that we believe could make a difference.

Identify with plants

Plants can seem very different from humans. Research has shown that animal conservation support is biased towards species that are most like humans.

Unlike humans and many other animals, plants don’t have faces, don’t usually move locations and don’t seem to have feelings. One way to start valuing plants is to notice ways that we actually are alike.

Science can help us see how plants have similarities with humans. Plants are alive, have sex, communicate and take up food. Some young plants share the root system of their parent plant – a “protective” behaviour that many human parents will recognise.

Rituals are another way of identifying with plants. For example, for people living on the island of Nusa Penida near Bali, the coconut palm is an important plant. Early in a child’s life, the father will plant a tree for the child. The tree’s development and life span then parallels the child’s and in ceremonies it is clothed and presented with food.

Coconut palms are an important part of ritual on some Indonesian islands.
Coconut palm image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Empathy with plants

Actively imagining the experiences of plants and animals is another way people can connect with plants. In a psychological experiment, participants were shown images of either a dead bird on a beach, covered in oil, or a group of trees that had been cut down.

Half the participants were told to view the image objectively, while the rest were asked to imagine how the bird or tree felt. The researchers found that people who actively empathised with the bird or tree not only expressed greater concern but also donated more money to protecting the species.

Art, imagination and ritual can all help people to imaginatively empathise with plants. So too can tending plants, as one experiences the joys and sorrows of plant life and death.

Make plants human

A third – and more controversial – way to connect with plants is through anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism means attributing human characteristics to plants, like describing a drooping plant as sad, or a sunflower as turning its face toward the sun.

Facing the sun: these sunflowers look very happy.
Sunflower image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Anthropomorphism of animals is common in entertainment and conservation campaigns but rarely used for plants. Some writers consider anthropomorphism to be unhelpful: it can misdirect thinking about plants, or sentimentalise plants in ways that belittle them. But experiments show that making or reading anthropomorphic pictures and stories can also help people to empathise with nature and want to act to protect nature.

Want to test this out for yourself? Try a thought experiment by watching this 1932 animation from Walt Disney. The dancing, courting and fighting trees are rather bewildering, but do you feel a twinge of anxiety when the trees are threatened by fire, or relief as the woodland recovers?

Feeling anxious?

Plant conservationists view plants as having value in their own right, so it might seem odd to suggest that we promote plant conservation by thinking about the ways plants are like humans. The strategies we suggest draw on theory that proposes that people are more likely to act in the interests of nature if we think about nature as being part of us. Appreciating our connections with plants may be the best way to begin respecting their amazing differences.


This article was written with Mung Balding, a graduate of the University of Melbourne’s Master of Environment program.

The Conversation

Kathryn Williams, Associate Professor in environmental psychology and Director, Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.