When to rescue orangutans, and other conservation dilemmas.

  Picture by Jonas Landolt.

The DICE Lecture is an annual public event given each year by a distinguished scientist or practitioner on an important conservation topic. Master’s student Isobel Jones blogs about the recent Dice lecture 2021 given by Professor Erik Meijaard.

Under challenging circumstances, this year’s annual DICE lecture was for the first time held online, rather than at its more familiar home, Woolf College. Yet due to some amazing work behind the scenes, the livestream went ahead without a hitch and was viewed by many from the comfort of their own homes.

We were delighted to welcome Professor Erik Meijaard, founder of the Borneo Futures – Science for Change programme, founder and chair of the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force, and also an Honorary Professor at DICE. Dr Meijaard’s lecture, titled ‘When to rescue orangutans, and other conservation dilemmas’ approached the complex nature of conservation, and the sometimes contradictory approaches that conservation scientists and field biologists must consider to address these issues, drawing on his own experiences from his extensive work in Borneo.

Dr Meijaard started by describing the complexities of conservation science using a clever comparison to the common saying, ‘It’s not rocket science’. In the past, the concept of space travel and rocket science was seen as an immense, unsolvable notion, whereas today, while still complex, the processes of rocket science have very few uncertainties, high success rates and follow a predictable mechanism within a defined system. In contrast, Dr Meijaard described conservation as ‘an entirely different beast’. The problems that need addressing in conservation hold high levels of uncertainty, where minor changes at one point in the system can have significant impacts elsewhere. Moreover, the boundaries of the system are not clearly defined; are we addressing the conservation of a species in isolation? In the context of the surrounding habitat? Including the needs and requirements of the local communities also active in this space? Or even more broadly within the view of global conservation mechanisms and processes? As such, he states that in most situations the success rate for conservation action is low or unknown.

Dr Meijaard went on to compare his approaches to conservation through the lens of a conservation scientist, to that of Roy Dennis, a much more hands-on conservationist with a strong understanding and appreciation for natural history. From the perspective of Roy Dennis, ‘science is evoked to stop conservation action’, meaning that the requirements of scientists to fully understand all aspects of an issue prior to implementation can delay essential conservation intervention. Dr Meijaard accepted that there are some situations when this has been the case, such as the delay of reintroducing beavers due to concerns they may deplete salmon stocks or cause widespread flooding. However, he also went on to provide an example where the ‘armchair scientist’ significantly benefited conservation.

Through his work in Indonesia, Dr Meijaard was involved in the rediscovery of the Tapanuli Orangutan in the upland Batang Toru Ecosystem in Sumatra. This species is the most highly threatened great ape, with fewer than 800 individuals remaining. In recent years, a project was proposed to create a dam through the middle of this region that would effectively split the remaining population into two. Through the analysis of historical records from the late 1800s, it was evident that this species currently resides in just 2.5% of its previous range, and has found a refuge from hunting and habitat fragmentation in this mountainous region. This understanding of the conservation science surrounding this project has dissuaded a number of international funders. Those involved continue to fight an ongoing battle to make the project more compatible with conservation aims.

Dr Meijaard concluded that there are no silver bullets in conservation, and that in most situations the simple answer is often the wrong one, and as such conservation scientists must provide important analysis to inform the complex debates between field conservation organisations and other parties.

Watch here.

Isobel Jones is studying for an MSc in Conservation Biology 

One response to “When to rescue orangutans, and other conservation dilemmas.

  1. Great article. Orangutans represent a poignant casestudy regarding the complexities involved in conservation. Referencing restoration ecologist Roy Dennis, made me think of the work Carl Jones did with Aldabra tortoises in Mauritius, which resurfaced some thoughts I’ve had on Orangutan conservation.

    I have been thinking for some time, that controlled hybridisation between the species, may be appropriate for Orangutans. This could significantly enrich genetic diversity, whilst bolstering the physical populations. Is there an argument to to manage them as one unit, at least until the populations have recovered?Given that Orangutans were once found on mainland South-East Asia as well, reintroducing them as keystone species there, could facilitate many ecosystem services. Hypothetically the “hybrid” Orangutans could then be used to repopulate the mainland in addition to supplementing the populations in Borneo and Sumatra. Bold and perhaps pragmatic steps that are needed in order to tackle mass extinctions in the 21st century. To be too purest, to wait another 20 years, to sit on ones hands and remain in ones armchair could mean the premature extinction of multiple species.

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