Conservation Basics: Saving the World With Enya

Rainforest Trust’s work to protect habitats for threatened species is grounded in cutting-edge conservation science. But in this series, we explore the basics of conservation science and how they inform Rainforest Trust’s scientists.

As I write this, the soothing tones of Enya’s “May It Be,” written for the Lord of the Rings film series, is playing through my headphones on repeat.

(Judge me for my work playlist. I dare you.)

At this point in the films, right after the events of the Fellowship of the Ring, our party of heroes has fractured. Orcs have taken Merry and Pippin. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are off to save them. Gandalf is (for now) dead. Boromir is (for good) dead. Sam and Frodo are schlepping to Mordor.

This post has something to do with conservation, I promise.

On that end-of-the-beginning cliffhanger, the screen fades to black and Enya chimes in:

May it be an evening star
Shines down upon you
May it be when darkness falls
Your heart will be true

It’s an interesting choice in tone. The plot has arrived at a rather dark moment. The promise of camaraderie is gone, the mission has dispersed and each character must decide for themselves how to continue. The potential world-shattering consequences of their journey are in the hands of each individual’s decision. And without any of them continuing to fight evil, all of them are more likely to fail.

But nobody goes home. No one dares let the darkness of the moment cloud their vision of a better future. They each have the choice of the easy route or the valiant — yet difficult and fraught-with-peril — route. And they all choose the latter. That could be why Enya, instead of bemoaning the loss of unity, availed our heroes of the universe’s fortune and courage.

The fight for our planet’s future is at a similar crossroads.

But I’m not convinced we’ve all decided to carry on.

I dubbed this column “Conservation Basics.” And I started it intending to convey the details of conservation science. I wanted those not versed in the annals of the field to be able to advocate for conservation-in-practice. But, as I wrote it, I didn’t explain the basics of conservation. I explained the basis of conservation.

Over three articles, I defined habitat with explorer chickens, tortilla chips and coffee snobs. And then, over three articles, I defined species with spaghetti, pastrami sandwiches and freak bears. And that’s basically ecology: habitat and species and their interaction. And pastrami sandwiches.

Conservation can essentially just come down to pastrami sandwiches.

Ecology has a lot of moving parts. But it all comes down to what lives where. Species live in habitats and habitats are home to species. In the words of the Talmudic-era Rabbi Hillel: “The rest is commentary.”

The interdependent and complicated workings of food webs, speciation, community dynamics and every other detail of ecology are the logistical framework of conservation. We need to organize our plans to protect species around the scientific details.

But I haven’t dived into what that means. How do you protect a bison population that roams beyond the boundaries of a national park? How do you protect a species of frog isolated to a disappearing corner of the rainforest? How do you keep poachers from taking rosewood out of a forest and shipping it around the world?

Those questions are the basics of conservation. But we conservationists are often so excited about explaining our plans, we can forget that we’re not always on the same page. We ramble on about our ideas without a common acceptance in the general public of why that work is so important.

We’ve decided to carry on in the fight for our planet, but we don’t always do a good job of convincing others to do so.

So I wrote this column.

And now you know about specific habitat requirements for species, so you can understand why coastal development can be detrimental for ecosystems. Now you know about what differentiates one species from another, so you can understand why protecting some random, rare hummingbird is vital to the legacy of evolution and ecosystem function. Now you know about the ramifications of (what you heretofore believed were) insignificant species going extinct, so you can pipe up next time someone asks “What do we need to save that stupid butterfly for?”

“Who you callin’ stupid?”

But where does this leave us? How do you all truly become advocates for conservation-in-practice if all I’ve done is talk about why it’s important in theory? I could continue this column with the actual fundamentals of conservation on the ground. But it wouldn’t be the same.

This column’s soul has come, I realize in retrospect, from the relationship that has always fascinated me the most: the one between habitat and species. And I could write more on that relationship. A lot more. But I have new ideas for more stories that go beyond that framework. So with this article, I’m closing out the Conservation Basics column.

“Wait!” you might say. “There’s still so much I don’t know. You just asked us: how are we supposed to be conservation advocates when people have so many questions that we won’t know the answers to?”

In the first article of this series, I introduced you to an elephant in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I wrote:

I don’t know where, exactly, the elephant is at this precise moment or if any other elephants are nearby. I don’t know if the elephant is sick, well-fed, hungry, stressed or relaxed. I know nothing about this specific elephant. But I know an elephant is somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Those African Forest Elephants, still there in the DRC. Photo by Caroline Granycome/Flickr

Point is: there’s a lot we’re uncertain about when it comes to conservation. But later in that article I wrote:

Science is about uncertainty, but uncertainty does not consume science, nor does it immobilize it… We need not know every detail to save our planet. We only need to keep learning.

It’s ok that you don’t know everything. I don’t know everything. David Attenborough doesn’t know everything. People ask me questions I don’t know the answer to all the time. I’m sure if you asked David Attenborough about the digestive system of deep-sea vertebrate fishes he wouldn’t know the answer.

Actually, I wouldn’t put it past him.

But I will keep learning. David Attenborough has spent 90+ years continuing to learn. And, I hope, so will you. I’ll keep writing about conservation science, theory and practice on this blog, too. So keep tunin’ in folks!

I hope this column, if it did anything, relayed the splendor and wonder of habitats and species and their inexorable, dynamic relationship. I hope this column let you fall in love with the questions. Because we’re at a crossroads. Our planet is facing potential world-shattering consequences. And I need you to carry on.

It’s daunting. And it’s unpleasant to think about what happens if we fail. The task at hand might ask us to make unlikely friends and go places we’re not used to going.

But if Legolas and Gimli can forge on together, so can we. If Sam can jump from a river into a canoe so as not to abandon Frodo, we can ford that river of doubt.

The best conservation-surrogates in this whole extended metaphor might be Merry and Pippin who teamed up with trees to defeat deforestation. And evil.

I bet Middle Earth has some really cool wildlife. And some thriving ecosystems.

Our planet faces frightening future timelines. But the future, unlike the inscription on the One Ring, isn’t engraved in unbreakable stone.

We have the power to change it. You have the power to change it.

So as Enya said:

Darkness has fallen
A promise lives within you now

Colombia’s El Paujil Reserve Expanded

Header photo courtesy of Fundación ProAves.

Central Colombia’s Magdalena Valley is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Centered around the 700-mile Magdalena River, this lowland rainforest is a biological melting pot with flora and fauna from both the Amazon and the Chocó.

But the valley also has astounding levels of endemism, a result of its relative isolation. The Magdelena rainforest provides vital habitat for many threatened species that live nowhere else, like the Critically Endangered Blue-billed Curassow and the Magdalena Spider Monkey. Researchers consider the latter to be one of Earth’s rarest primates. The area is also home to populations of the Jaguar, Spectacled Bear and Magdalena Lowland Tapir (a Critically Endangered subspecies).

Unfortunately, almost the entire Magdalena rainforest is already gone. Only 85 miles north of Bogotá, the region is under intense pressure for logging, cattle ranching and illicit coca plantations. Deforestation has destroyed over 16.1 million acres (98 percent) of the region’s lowland rainforests.

The Critically Endangered Blue-billed Currasow. Photo courtesy of Fundación ProAves.

But, as of this month, 1,178 more acres of the remaining forest are now safe from threats. After years of negotiations, Rainforest Trust and partner Fundación ProAves made a strategic purchase that blocks access to and expands the only strict-protected area in Colombia’s Magdalena Valley, El Paujil Reserve.

“The loss of all but a fraction of this incredible ecosystem is a devastating blow to so many irreplaceable species,”

said Rainforest Trust CEO Paul Salaman. “And though it has taken us more than 10 years to protect this last stand of lowland Magdalena rainforest next to El Paujil, we rest assured that this purchase blocks development access and provides a buffer to this critically-placed reserve.”

The main focus of the El Paujil Reserve is species recovery and ecological restoration, in collaboration with nearby communities. The protected area offers environmental education activities for children and adults, including a long-running annual festival celebrating the Critically Endangered Blue-billed Curassow.

This project was made possible by the SAVES Challenge and donors to the Conservation Action Fund, with a special note of thanks to Terry and Soni Baltimore, the Doolin Foundation for Biodiversity, the Felburn Foundation, Larry Thompson and the Quick Response Biodiversity Fund.

Conservation Basics: Saving Frogs at the Deli

Header photo by Robin Moore.

Rainforest Trust’s work to protect habitats for threatened species is grounded in cutting-edge conservation science. But in this series, we explore the basics of conservation science and how they inform Rainforest Trust’s scientists.

Sometimes I find myself telling people I encounter only every once in a while — like cab drivers, friend’s friends, the guy at the deli counter — what I do for a living.

“I work on protecting threatened wildlife in the tropics, like in rainforests,” I say.

“So what kind of animals are we talkin’ ‘bout here?” Sal asks as he daubs more spicy brown mustard on my pastrami sandwich.

“Oh, all sorts of stuff,” I say. “You know, elephants, monkeys, frogs…”

“Frogs!” Sal exclaims, mustard flying across the kitchen as his knife swings up with his full-body motion of disbelief. “Watcha tryna save a frog for?”

The deli. Home base of so many great conversations.

I get questions like this all the time. Which prompts the question: What are we tryna save frogs for?

In fact, let’s continue that line of questioning. What are we trying to save spiders for? What are we trying to save sharks for? What are we trying to save chimpanzees for?

For goodness sake, what are we trying to save elephants for?

Sal’s question, despite my facetiousness, isn’t a bad one. In fact, it’s a good one. It dives at a deeper question of conservation’s purpose and mindset.

Public attitudes about conservation, and, in a lot of ways, the actual work of conservation in the past century have focused on the big species. The iconic ones. Jaguars. Whales. Pandas.

Two reasons for that. Number one: Everyone knows a whale. You see a whale, the average guy on the street says “That’s a whale.” You see a Terrestrial Arboreal Alligator Lizard? Average guy on the street says “I don’t know, Iguana?”

The Terrestrial Arboreal Alligator Lizard. Or, I don’t know, an iguana? Photo by Luis Canseco Márquez.

Number two: They’re all mammals. Humans gravitate more towards species that look like us. So conservationists focus on these classic animals — pandas, whales, etc. — to keep people interested. But are these species more important?

We could get into a whole conversation (or, this is only me talking, so let’s say… a personal diatribe) on the philosophy of evolution, environmental ethics and the inherent value of organisms. But let’s talk about this with some measure of empirical evaluation.

Let’s define “ecological value” for now as relative value to ecosystem stability. As in, which species are more important to keep an ecosystem intact? Different researchers have had different theories on which species hold together an ecosystem. Plant-life is the obvious first thought, right? Every ecosystem needs a flow of nutrients, and where do nutrients always start? In plants. Photosynthesis takes sunlight (available in some quantity pretty much everywhere except cave ecosystems) and turns it into sustenance. Every species that doesn’t photosynthesize eats something that does, or eats something that eats something that does or eats something that eats something that eats something that does. You get my point. Without plants — life has nothing to stand on.

But in the later 20th century, a group of scientists made a series of discoveries that pointed to a much different reality. One scientist, a guy named Robert Paine, spent a lot of time knee deep in a patch of the Pacific Northwest coast. He, one by one, removed every individual of a predatory starfish species from one location over time. In another location, he left everything untouched.

Pisaster ochraceus, the deadly predator starfish Robert Paine focused his studies on. Look at its deadly… purple things. Ok, I don’t know that much about starfish anatomy. CC 2.0/Photo by Jerry Kirkhart.

The micro-ecosystem in the location without the predatory starfish ended up collapsing. Which led Dr. Paine — and plenty of other scientists, in what is now a widespread belief because of repeated studies in other ecosystems with other criteria — to theorize that predators, often apex predators, stabilize ecosystems.

Let’s look at a theoretical example to understand why.

If an apex predator, such as a Lion, disappears or drops in population, the dominant prey species, such as an Impala, will see population growth. Fewer Lions = Fewer Dead Impala. Impala eat plants. With more Impala, they’ll be consuming more plants. If the Impala population grows out of control, they would eat all the plants. So now, by removing the Lions, we’ve killed all the plants. And once all the plants are dead, so will be the Impala.

But you could say the same about the Impala, right? If you removed the Impala, wouldn’t you have the same impact? Not quite.

Based on how food chains (or, to be more exact, food webs) work, an ecosystem will usually have more prey species than predator species. In that Lion-Impala ecosystem, you might also have Thompson’s Gazelle, Grant’s Gazelle, Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Topi, Ostrich, Reedbuck, a few species of Duiker, Eland, African Buffalo, Zebra and Giraffe. Those are all prey species. And I didn’t even list smaller mammals or birds, let alone lizard and fish species. Predator species other than Lions might include Cheetahs, Leopards, Painted Dogs, Crocodiles, two or three Jackal species and two Hyena species. Maybe some Bat-eared Fox and Honey Badger to eat the smaller stuff.

Remove one prey species — an ecosystem has more to fall back on. Remove one predator species — the ecosystem has a lot less wiggle room.

The Bat-eared Fox, who could eat the smaller stuff. CC 2.0/Photo by Derek Keats.

We know that apex predators play an outsize role in ecosystem regulation. But sometimes other species carry a lot of weight as well. Elephants, while not eating anyone else, topple so many trees, some researchers believe they keep grasslands from becoming forests. Parrotfish eat and excrete so much coral, they make much of the sand you find on the beach near a reef.

These are what Robert Paine called “keystone species.” Like the keystone in an arch, if you take these species out of the equation, the whole structure is a lot more likely to collapse than if you take out some other random stone. A lot of keystone species are predators. Some are not. A lot of the time, keystone species are also the species conservationists tend to focus public attention on — like tigers, jaguars and elephants. These species garner public attention and help regulate ecosystem stability more than other species. It’s a win-win for conservationists.

Hold on, wait a second. What about those frogs? Weren’t we going into this whole thing to learn about why saving some random frog is important?

Yes, we were. And I’m not done.

Some species make more of an individual difference. But all those other species add up. One by one, as they go extinct, you’ll have the same impact as losing a predator species: ecosystem collapse.

Imagine, from my earlier thought experiment, instead of the Lions, the Impala (and most of the other prey species I listed) went extinct. Now the predators have nothing to eat, and they’ll die, too. Only the plants would remain — and even then, not for long. I’d bet all the Impala and Zebra dung helped fertilize the soil. Or, the herbivores ate a few species enough to prevent them from overtaking the whole ecosystem. I don’t even know what all the ramifications might be.

The mighty Impala.

Neither do conservation scientists. Yes folks, despite all we understand about how ecosystems work, we don’t understand everything. And we never will. But there’s one thing we know for certain: If we let those little species, the ones who couldn’t possibly mean anything, go extinct, we might not witness any immediate crises.

But right now, scientists say we’re experiencing extinction at 1,000 times the normal rate. If all those species play some role in their ecosystems and die off one by one, wouldn’t that mean that eventually…?

Yup. Definitely trouble.

And if our theoretical ecosystem of plants, Impalas and Lions collapses, it’s not as if everything else nearby will be fine. Every ecosystem, from the poles to the rainforest, connects to another ecosystem. Mess one up, you mess up the one next door. Which affects the one next to that, and the one next to that, and so on and so forth.

You live in one of those ecosystems. Your food comes from one or a few of them, too. So does your water. One species, any species anywhere, going extinct puts us one step closer to global ecosystem collapse. I’m not trying to be an alarmist — it’ll take plenty of extinction to collapse life as we know it. But we’re on a path toward plenty of extinction.

That’s one reason saving every single species, no matter how obscure, unheard-off, freaky-looking, isolated or unimportant it might seem to be, is vital to the survival of life on Earth. Yeah, I said it.

Life. On. Earth.

So one reason we’re tryna save frogs ‘round here, is ‘cause they’s worth it, ya know? For everyone. Saving that frog is part of the difference between a world we can live in and one we can’t.

Sal, I’ll take that pastrami to go. We have a lot of work to do.

International Women’s Day

Ednah Nyambu, Kenya

Ednah works with our partner Nature Kenya’s Saving the Taita Apalis Program, protecting a Critically Endangered endemic bird species in the future Taita Apalis Forest Reserve.

What is a typical day like for you in the forest?

My day begins with an early morning hike to one of the largest refuges for the Critically Endangered Taita Apalis. Inside the forest, I patrol to assess forest disturbance in the form of grazing, fuelwood fetching and logging. I also carry out bird monitoring through identifying and recording birds species both heard and seen to assess abundance in the forest.

What surprises you about your job?

I was surprised about how willing and eager the local community is in wanting to learn more about the endemic species of the Taita Hills forest. Most importantly, they want to see the small bird, the Taita Apalis. I have seen the values of science through fieldwork and its contribution towards decision making and knowledge generation, especially here in the Taita Hills.

What do you like most about working in conservation?

Informing the community of the uniqueness and endemism of the Taita Hills forests and the need to protect and conserve the forests is one of the activities I enjoy doing most in this job. Taita Hills is my home, and as a young, upcoming conservation leader, I feel honored to contribute whatever I can to sustainable conservation of forests for myself and future generations.

Ndelle Lizett Messame, Cameroon

As a project assistant with our partner Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society, Lizett plans and implements field activities and species inventories. Here she is pictured (center) visiting with a baby chimpanzee in rehabilitation at the Douala-Edea National Park.

What would you like to share about your work?

As a woman conservationist, I feel very special because so many women shy away from this kind of job and consider it to be a dirty job. But they don’t know what it feels like conserving nature and ensuring sustainability of our natural resources. In addition, ever since I started working as a conservationist, I noticed that the interest I have in protecting nature is adding to my capacity as a mother to protect every person around me.

What is a typical day like in the forest?

A typical day in the forest is tedious, especially when I have to make my way through a dense forest of twisted trees. But in the end, you find yourself happy for having contributed to the promotion of nature conservation.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is to get the support of a village that has never been sensitized about conservation activities.

Kamala Rai, Nepal

Kamala Rai is a social mobilizer assisting with our partner KTK-BELT’s empowerment and conflict transformation programs. She is seated (center), documenting local traditions with community members in the future Lumbasumba Conservation Area.

Why did you choose this job?

As I got to know about the Lumbasumba Conservation Project, I thought this was my best opportunity to make locals aware of threats and conservation issues, educate them and serve my village by protecting ecosystems, habitats and species through community-based landscape conservation.

What do you like most about working in conservation?

Conservation provides long-term benefits for the locals by protecting unique habitats, forests, plants, butterflies, animals and wetlands. I think conservation supports sustainable development goals rather than promoting short-term benefits.

What is the hardest part of your job?

I think the work we are doing teaches us how to work further. I feel attached to every part of the project and feel proud for serving my village and the conservation of surrounding nature. Thus, I don’t feel anything is hard about this job and assigned responsibilities.

Petga Feukeu Emilie Laure, Cameroon

As a field assistant for our partner Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society, Petga supports eco-health education and outreach activities associated with Douala-Edea National Park.

What do you like most about working in conservation?

What I like most about this work is participating in the protection of the environment, nature, animal species, plants and rare resources. I appreciate the opportunity to sensitize and integrate the community into conservation projects, thus making it possible to shift their value to the biodiversity of a region.

What is a typical day like for you in the forest?

A typical day in the forest is full of emotions and excitement to discover new surprises, but it is also a moment of escape from the daily grind of the city and a rest for the spirit.

What has surprised you about your work?

In the course of my work, I was surprised by the hospitality of the communities bordering the national park which facilitates the completion of the teams on the ground in an area where there are no accommodation facilities.

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. The Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.