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Conservation biology in Brazil

July 15, 2005 By Emma Marris This article courtesy of Nature News.

This year's annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology is in Brasília.

Day 4: Land lovers

Walking by the World Wildlife Fund booth this morning, with its t-shirts and stuffed pandas, it occurred to me that while most scientists get their funding primarily from governments and institutions, many conservationists work for groups that also go straight to the public for money. They are also an exception in that they are a group of scientists with an explicit agenda. When they study an ecosystem, it is not out of dispassionate curiosity. They study it so they can save it.

That love for nature is in evidence at the conference, in everything from the animal-shaped key chains dangling from conference-member backpacks to their apparent love for the outdoors. I constantly overhear snippets of conversation about requisitioning four-wheel drive vehicles to get to remote locations, or people asking, "should I tell him to bring his wetsuit?"

Day 4: Rigorous reviews

One of the most interesting presentations I saw today was from Andrew Pullin at the Centre for Evidence-Based Conservation at the University of Birmingham in the UK. He presented some results on whether birds are affected by wind turbines, in part to showcase the centre's systematic review process.

Instead of asking a few experts to write a review based on personal knowledge, the centre combs through as much literature as possible, including the "grey literature" of unpublished material, then screens it for quality, mines it for data, synthesizes it and analyzes it. The result is a methodologically rigorous review.

A similar process is used with success in the health field, according to Pullin, and it is now making ground in ecology. It has unearthed some interesting suggestions, including the idea that birds don't get used to turbines - contrary to common belief within the community. It also highlighted that sea ducks and wading birds are most affected by the giant energy-producing windmills, with obvious implications for offshore development of wind farms.

I may be sentimental, but I still rather like the old-fashioned review, where a knowledgeable person kindly explains to you the state of the field. It gives you the comforting feeling that at least one person knows what's going on.

Day 3: A losing battle

I have spent the morning away from the conference, getting to know the grassland area around Brasília, which is known as the Cerrado. Carlos Klink of the Universidade de Brasília and some colleagues took me out across the great artificial lake at the tip of the planned capital and out into the red-coloured dirt roads.

The soil here is very nutrient-poor, but a great diversity of tough, twisty and insect-scarred foliage grows in great abundance. There are some odd plants, including some that pull so much silica out of the ground that they become stiff with it. One such plant's common name translates to something like "snare-drum hit" according to Klink, because of the raucous noise it makes in the wind. There is also wildlife - a blue cerulean blue butterfly, with wings the size of my hands, drifts ahead of us on the road.

But the Cerrado is in trouble. Soy farms and cattle pasture planted with African grass is taking over from this native life. In a symposium, a series of satellite pictures showing the Cerrado evaporating over the last twenty years elicits audible gasps.

That's the hard part of this discipline. Everyone knows that most battles will be lost; that when they go back to a site after a span of years, they will find charred earth or paved road. As Deborah Jensen, president of the society, says with a coolness that must come from doing this for a living: "we still think we are going to loose thousands and thousands and thousands of species."

Day 2: Global capacity building

I'm trying to get a handle on the theme of this conference: "conservation biology capacity building and practice in a globalized world". The "globalized world" part is easy to see: there are 70 countries represented here. I have met Kenyans working in Belgium, Londoners working in Boston, Australians working in San Diego, and Columbians working in New Zealand. I have even met a very nice man from Transylvania who works with bats. No kidding.

But what does "capacity building" mean? I ask Deborah Jensen, president of the SCB, and head of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. She defines it, very broadly, as "creating an impact". The idea, I think, is to disseminate the knowledge, tools, money, and passion for conservation as widely as possible; while avoiding swaggering into regions and saying: "Right! Time to conserve your quaint native flora and fauna! Dismantle your homes at once!" Instead the goal is to enable locals to forge their own conservation strategies.

Day 2: Conservation in theory

The second day ends with a party on the University campus. The buses roll up at about half past nine, by which time a squadron of food and booze purveyors have set up in the parking lot. No one is sure how they found out about the party. "Are they here just for us?" someone wonders.

Here I chat with Australians who tell me about the joys of theoretical conservation, which according to them is an Australian specialty. They model not only the behavior of organisms under study-often in an evolutionary context-but also the decision making of conservation managers. One girl creates models that help those eradicating invasive weeds decide when to quit looking for last possible survivors and call the job done. Work like this has implications for deciding when to call species extinct as well.

Day 1: All in Earth tones

The convention has officially begun, but most of today's agenda is filled with a meeting of the board of governors at a hotel. So at the Universidad de Brasília, the younger generation of international conservationists are congregating to embrace old friends, peruse the program, and pick up their recycled nametags and stylish one-shoulder backpacks of unbleached cotton. They're sitting outside drinking juices from fruits that I have never heard of. I try the 'caja', which I'm told is from around here. It is sweet and unfamiliar, but delicious.

The conservationists, young an old alike, tend to present a slightly rumpled appearance, favouring earth tones and functional sandals. It's a look that says, "I just got back from the field". Cruising through the Sao Paulo airport looking for the right gate, all I saw was a sprawl of khaki and people sitting on the floor.

Flipping through the abstracts, I'm getting excited. Ahead lie predatory mice, musings on the definition of 'extinct', an update on the conservation of the strange tailed tyrant (a bird, I assume), reindeer herding analysis, and a slew of papers on the scourge of roads.

Roads could be the symbol for all things bad from a conservation point of view. They fragment the habitat of land animals, they carry cars that kill animals crossing the road, and most of all, they bring people. In conservation biology, we are the enemy.

Day 1: End of the day

The day ended with an opening reception in the pyramid-shaped National Theater. Some speakers spoke in Portuguese, and I found out afterwards that there were earpieces available with simultaneous translation. Miguel Marini, from the local organizing committee at the Universidade de Brasília finished up his opening speech with a pithy exhortation to enjoy the food and drinks: "Life is short, and diversity is what gives life its best flavor."

The reception was packed and jolly-it seemed like all of the convention's 1,500 registrants were in attendance-and I must say that I almost regretted my characterization of conservationists as "rumpled". There were some very fashionable people there. The food was fashionable too: tuxedoed waiters spun by with organically grown fruits and vegetables and meat from free-range animals.

I managed to find the man behind the strange tailed tyrant presentation. It turns out that the tail is the product of sexual selection, and that the females like it so much they will follow flashy males into resource-poor areas.

I also found a fellow whose organization, Wildlands CPR ( does nothing but wage war against roads: trying to prevent their construction, speed their destruction and study their pernicious effects.


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