The goal of our Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) Europe Section Blog is to share stories and relevant information about activities going on within our section and more broadly in the conservation community. Stories and articles shared on our blog should not be taken as an official position or statement of SCB or SCB Europe Section. Thank you for reading!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Nature conservation should proclaim a solution, not a problem

Guest post by Maxime Eeraerts

To live on our planet for generations to come, we need to stop destroying it. Yet, those of us at the heart of nature conservation, those who value ecosystems, and those who connect with and understand the biological world, make the general public raise their eyebrows more often than not when it comes to discussing these issues. Labelled as “tree-huggers”, our message is anticipated by many to be negative, such as the rhetoric around consuming less and taking actions to reduce our impact on the environment.

This current conservation rhetoric might have the opposite effect on people's decisions and actions then what it aims to do. Therefore, it is worth exploring whether positive messages of hope would result in more success stories. As scientists and nature conservationists, focussing on and promoting the principles and benefits of proven success stories could be a key way to better our community engagement, to inspire action and change. All around us we find genuine success stories of conservation, nature reclamation, and climate mitigation. I believe that these examples should be our teachers. One such example, is the Bumblebee Conservation Trust established by Dr Dave Goulson whose work emphasizes the need for more bee-friendly habitat. The trust enhances community awareness about bumblebees and their decline through education programs geared toward both children and adults, and by popularising the science and involvement of farmers, and gardeners and politicians. Since the establishment of the trust in 2006 it has grown by over 10,000 members, and restored over 2,000 hectares of flower rich habitat in the United Kingdom.

Surely, as it stands our natural capital is almost bankrupt, we need to change our ways and do it fast. As described in the above-mentioned example, solutions and movements of change can be very variable, science-based or from a business point of view, from bottom-up to top-down. It shows that conservation can work. Besides the fact that a lot of nature and biodiversity is already lost, there still is a great deal that remains and which is worth fighting for!

Maxime Eeraerts began his PhD in January 2016 at Ghent University. The PhD project aims to quantify the natural pollination service to sweet cherry, and to determine if this pollination service is feasible in landscapes with varied intensities of agriculture. You can find more about his research here.

Friday, 1 December 2017

1-1=1? Little time left for the Polish Government to explain how destruction of Białowieża Forest is for its conservation

An update to recent posts on Białowieża Forest from Stefan Kreft, SCB Europe Section Policy Committee Chair 

The European Union Court of Justice has adopted the decision to give the Republic of Poland two weeks to explain all their pertinent activities in Białowieża Forest. The Polish administration has claimed that the ongoing deliberate destruction of Białowieża Forest is an effective protection measure in line with EU law. According to the Polish government forest cuttings are done just for the purpose of ensuring public safety. Allegedly, the EU Commission is ill-informed and misled by manipulated evidence. But can 1 (protection of the forest) minus 1 (destruction of the forest) equal 1 (forest protection)?

We invite everybody to scrutinize the material that the SCB Policy Committee have brought from Białowieża Forest, and shared in our recent blogs (here, and here). In particular, we have shown:

1. Extensive clear-cutting is ongoing in Białowieża Forest. 
2. Harvested wood is being piled up, tagged for being marketed and then carted away. 
3. Many old spruce trees are being cut that were abandoned by bark beetles years ago. 
4. Many trees of other species, naturally unaffected by bark beetle colonisation, are also being cut. An extremely high percentage of the remaining trees around logging sites are run over or damaged by falling trees and heavy machinery. 
5. Good forestry practice indeed prescribes ensuring public safety by selectively extracting unstable trees. We have observed, and documented, that clear cuts extend from forest roads deep into the Białowieża Forest area. If public safety is the reason for logging, then logs would be left lying in the forest. However, this is not the case (see above: item 2)

The list above of observations made by our Policy Committee members sets out key points that go against statements made by the Polish Government. The Polish government now has to publicly conform to the fact that 1 minus 1 equals 0, not 1, and change their behaviour.

If you suspect we may have actually not been there, but manipulatively recorded the material somewhere else, say, in a German or Austrian forest, then please refer to the Polish border patrol. Two polite gentlemen of the Polish executive checked the identity of some Policy Committee members at a forest road blockade of “Save Białowieża” activists close to Teremiski on Monday, 9 October 2017.

If the Polish government does not comply with the prompt of the EU Court until beginning of next week, then the country will be fined at least 100,000 Euros per day until it does.


Thursday, 23 November 2017

Reality check – reality shock: The Policy Committee holds its annual meeting in hard-fought Białowieża (Part II)

Post by Stefan Kreft, SCB Europe Section Policy Committee Chair 

*1 of 2 blog entries on Bialowieza Forest 

We continue our walk through Bialowieza Forest. Taking a long second look at the harvesting sites, the picture is completing.

Our colleague of the PC Peter Zulka outlines the importance of deadwood for an enormous number of saproxylic beetle species, many of which have not persisted elsewhere than in Białowieża Forest, but: “If you remove a resource like this in such quantities, you remove a lot of resources for saproxylic beetles”. Apart from the intrinsic value of these populations, their reduction and extinction will further weaken the forest’s resilience.

Scrutinising the harvesting sites more into detail, the picture is completing. Shaking our heads, we have a hard time to believe our eyes. What we witness here is evidence of deliberate destruction of one of the most precious ecosystems Europe is still hosting.

It becomes obvious that the forestry administration is in a hurry. Heavy machinery has moved across the entire clear-cuts. Every tree that stands in their path has to make way …

… forest soils are being cleared from vegetation, logging roads become half-meter deep ditches …

… harvesters in some cases can hardly cope with the diameters of old-aged trees …

… and a disturbingly high percentage of trees nearby carry the wounds from carelessly moving harvesting machines and falling trees.

Logs have been tagged for commercial use, as PC member Vassiliki Kati shows here, against UNESCO recommendations and in contradiction to the forestry administration’s claim that the additional wood harvest would only be for local use as fuelwood.

Logs of old pines are camouflaged among spruce wood …

 … and trees were harvested even though the bark beetles had already left long before.

Dusk has fallen. We leave the harvesting sites, thinking we have learned a lot about the forest administration and the government in charge.

The next day, to comfort our stressed conservationist souls after the two shocking visits to the harvesting sites, we entered Białowieża National Park. Spruces colonised by bark beetles are much less prevalent there, and so far the national park has been exempted from the cuttings. Mind you, our wretched nerves were not spared from the searing sounds of the chain saws doing their destructive work just outside the park borders.

Forests predominate in the EU, and they provide the widest range of services among all ecosystems. However, pressure on all types of forests over wide parts of the EU is rising. At our meeting in Białowieża, we decided to take our work on forests to the next level. In the future, the European Policy Committee will address forestry and forest conservation issues on a large scale. Primeval and old growth will stay in focus, of course.


Hansen, M. C., Potapov, P. V., Moore, R., Hancher, M., Turubanova, S. A., Tyukavina, A., Thau, D., Stehman, S. V., Goetz, S. J., Loveland, T. R., Kommareddy, A., Egorov, A., Chini, L., Justice, C. O. und Townshend, J. R. G. (2013): High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science 342, S. 850–853.


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Reality check – reality shock: The Policy Committee holds its annual meeting in hard-fought Białowieża (Part I)

Post by Stefan Kreft, SCB Europe Section Policy Committee Chair 

*1 of 2 blog entries on Bialowieza Forest 

Some things you have to see with your own eyes to believe. We thought we went prepared, but what we saw in Białowieża Forest was worse, much worse than we could have imagined. What we witnessed can only be called deliberate destruction.

As part of SCB’s Global Forest Initiative, the Europe Section has stood up for conservation of Białowieża Forest through many years of its complex history. Scientists work with evidence, and the Policy Committee subscribes to this principle. As credible information, let alone solid data, are hard to get these days when it comes to Białowieża, we decided to hold our annual meeting right (7-8 Oct) in the middle of the mayhem and find out by ourselves.

If you want to see primeval lowland forest in Europe, you will go to Białowieża National Park in Poland. Actually, there is nowhere else to go anymore, anywhere Europe. This national park, of 10,500 hectares, is embedded in the Białowieża Forest. This forest region covers 150,000 hectares and stretches to both sides of the Polish-Belarusian border. Its ‘skeleton’ are sizeable tracts of old growth characterized by trees of 150 years age or more. These tracts have an eminent conservation value in themselves, and they are also essential for the national park, the primeval ‘heart’ of the forest. The Białowieża Forest nomination as a transboundary UNESCO World Heritage site was extended to almost the entire forest in 2014.

Forest loss 2000-2016 due to a combination of natural disturbances and clear-cutting in Białowieża Forest. Colour scale ranges from yellow (2000) to red (2016). The white circle indicates the approximate location of the logging sites we visited
(Hansen et al. 2013, in Google Earth Engine 2017).

In 2012, after years of advocating for appropriate conservation of the old growth surrounding it by a broad range of civil society actors, including SCB-Europe Section, the former Polish government finally issued a Natura 2000 management plan. This management plan did allow for continued use, but limited annual wood harvest volume. The government currently in charge has annihilated this cap and ordered extensive cuttings. The Minister for Environment Jan Szyszko claims that bark beetle colonization (‘outbreaks’) of local spruce stands must be fought back by ‘salvage loggings’ (see map above).
Forest ecologists counter that colonized spruces have mainly been planted and are now being reduced to more natural densities. Ecologists further protest exceedingly large-scale logging operations, bark beetles being nothing but an excuse for fighting back Polish, EU and UN conservation proponents. The issue has been taken to the EU Court of Justice by the Commission and is currently being dealt with.

We invite you to join us for a walk through Białowieża Forest and judge yourself. There are a many harvesters active at different places concurrently all over the forest, and we picked two logging sites in walking distance north of our home base in Teremiski, a village near the town of Białowieża.

We pass by towering stacks of logs.

Still image capture from:
Upon arrival, a 360 degree view provides an overview of the scenery.

Still image capture from:
Our long-standing PC member Nuria Selva explains to us that we are standing in a “Partial Protection Zone” of the world heritage site, prescribing non-intervention management. The reality, though, is different.

Still image capture from:
Looking up, we see that the closed canopy has given way to large holes. We discuss the impacts and risks of large clear-cuts to the resilience of the forest against extreme events such as storms (Zdenka Krenova)…

    Still image capture from:
… and droughts (Stefan Kreft).

Still image capture from:

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series on 16 November where we will scrutinize the harvesting sites in more into detail.


Friday, 10 November 2017

A place to find hope: Student Conference for Conservation Science

Guest post by Snežana Popov
August 29, 2017

"So, what's your topic about?" he asked me looking at a detailed conference program.
 I responded enthusiastically: "Hoverflies".
"Flies." I added. "They are so nice and they're really important pollinators. You know, pollinators are disappearing".
"Ahem. Interesting." he said, not so convinced.

I could hear the disappointment in his voice. Insects and nice in the same sentence? Who am I kidding? 

Why do people not care about the loss of pollinators?! I looked nervously at my watch. Budapest is an hour away. I have enough time to explain to him the importance of the insects... pollination and biological control...biodiversity loss... I could show him some pictures of really beautiful specimens. Ok, they are not fluffy pandas, but maybe I can provoke some sympathy.

"Sir, you know..." I spoke up decisively and looked at him.
The man has fallen asleep. Well done, Snežana, well done!

August 30, 2017

"Hi, what's your talk about?" she asked me while pouring coffee.
"Wow, that's great! I have an urban garden at home so I often enjoy looking some specimens around the flowers. They are so beautiful." she said all in one breath, and making me smile.

Two similar situations but with different audiences - a random person on a train and a young scientist at a scientific conference. Of course, hanging out with people that are enthusiastic about the same thing as you is a godsend! As conservationists we understand each other (at least try to do so). But, what to do when you have a person in front of you who is not that interested in conservation science (yes, somehow these people exist)?

For me, the answer emerged from a plenary talk by Andrew Balmford, and that answer is simple, we must give people hope by presenting successful conservation stories. The definition of hope is "a feeling of optimism or a desire that something will happen". If conservationists don't offer hope to others about conservation issues we study, who will?

Science is structured in a way that forces us to first reveal a problem, and then to offer a solution. However, when it comes to raising our voices about conservation issues, besides being proactive, we need to be enthusiastic too, and we need to talk about solutions and successes, not only challenges. In my case, the next time I encounter a random person on the train who wants to know more about my work, I can discuss how each one of us can help pollinators by establishing a simple urban terrace garden at home.

After spending several days with conservation scientists, young and old, at the SCCS conference, I definitely found hope, and improved my understanding about how I can better communicate hope in when it comes to environmental conservation, particularly in relation to pollination and pollinators. Ultimately, as scientists, we need to pay attention to threats and alarming signs, but we should drive the public to make sustainable choices in their daily lives by communicating positive experiences. 

Snežana Popov is a Research Assistant in the Department of Biology and Ecology, University of Novi Sad. She recently received her PhD in Ecology. She investigates how human disturbance and landscape patterns affect biodiversity. A huge nature lover, yoga teacher, and a small craft brewery owner. You can contact her via Research Gate or by email: ekosneza (at) gmail (dot) com. 

Friday, 3 November 2017

Expanding the Conservationist’s Toolbox

Guest post by Lara Semple 

Increasingly, the world's ecosystems are exploited and fragmented, and many wildlife communities are declining and increasingly vulnerable to extinction. As a consequence of these changes, small genetically isolated populations are at risk of losing genetic diversity and becoming inbred (Ralls et al., 2017). 

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and some countries’ legalisation advise preservation of genetic diversity. However, fundamental steps towards considering genetic diversity in conservation decision making are rare, and conservation genetics have only been incorporated in a minority of governmental policies (Laikre et al. 2010, Cook & Sgrò 2017). Recently, Pierson et al. (2016) demonstrated that just 36 of 110 European species' recovery plans give explicit consideration to genetic factors related to population recovery. These European percentages are lower than species recovery plans compiled in the USA and Australia (Pierson et al., 2016). 

Genetic factors are also often overlooked in monitoring of post-reintroductions or translocations, but there is a need to consider such factors to better assess whether populations have successfully colonised (Ottewell et al., 2014).  One indicator of genetic diversity is heterozygosity, which refers to the presence of two different alleles (e.g. Aa) at a given locus - one being recessive (a) and the other dominant (A). Reduced heterozygosity in threatened species can suggest lowered evolutionary potential and reduced reproductive fitness. For example, in a meta-analysis, Spielman et al. (2004) found that heterozygosity was lower for the majority of threatened when compared with taxonomically related non-threatened taxa; threatened taxa had, on average, 35% lower heterozygosity than comparative species. Spielman et al. (2004) found that species like Eurasian Otter, a near threatened species on the IUCN Red List, had a lower heterozygosity compared to two closely related species that are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Without the explicit consideration of genetics in threatened species recovery plans and monitoring, a tool known as genetic rescue is being overlooked (Frankham, 2015; Ralls et al., 2017). Genetic rescue involves mixing of new genotypes into a population of 'at-risk' members to increase individual and population fitness (Waller, 2015). One example of a natural genetic rescue is the isolated Scandinavian metapopulation of Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) which originated from a single pair (Vila et al., 2002).  At the time of writing this there were approximately 30 published examples where genetic rescue was used in conservation (e.g., Frankham 2015; Stowell et al., 2017; Ralls et al., 2017).

The rarity of genetic rescue in conservation practice, despite being talked about in literature for more than 20 years, appears to be driven by perceived biological, cultural and political barriers (Frankham, 2015; Stowell et al., 2017). Biological barriers seem to be primarily concerned with out-breeding depression (reduced reproductive fitness), and to do with the loss of local adaptation and doubt as to the scale of the consequences (Ralls et al., 2017). It is critical to be able to predict the probability of out-breeding depression in out-crossing between fragmented populations than were once found in continuous habitat. 

Dr. Richard Frankham has focused on exploring the professed biological barriers of genetic rescue. Frankham shows that the chance of out-breeding depression occurring increases when crosses are between distinct species, which have not exchanged genes for ≥500 years or inhabit different environments. Therefore, the probability of out-breeding depression being a consequence of two populations of the same species is low for those of the same karyotype that have been isolated for < 500 years and occupy similar habitats. Incredibly, it has recently been shown that genetic rescue can benefit fitness and evolutionary potential in F2 and F3 generations (Frankham, 2016) and even up to F10 (Bijlsma et al., 2010). Loss of local adaptation is usually a minor issue, as an isolated population experiencing genetic drift will not be fully equipped to adapt to changing environmental changes anyway (Ralls et al., 2017). With thorough planning, local adaptations can be sustained into the new population as seen with the Florida Panther (Puma concolor) (Johnson et al., 2010). 

Cultural barriers related to genetic rescue seem to originate from people's fear that genetic rescue could result in the loss of genetic purity or integrity after an out-crossing is implemented (Stowell et al., 2017).  However, if we consistently choose to view nature anthropomorphically, categorising life into discrete species, and are reluctant to consider genetic rescue, extinctions could result that could otherwise be reduced or avoided by employing such methods in conservation programs.

Political barriers are often related to logistics, such as the movement of biological material across jurisdictions, and the lack of hybridisation or sub-species definitions in current endangered species legalisation (Frankham et al., 2015; Stowell et al., 2017). Repositioning taxa across boundaries is regular practice in zoos and botanic gardens, and such approaches could be extended to cross-jurisdiction genetic rescue programs. In addition, incorporation of the dynamic nature of species into conservation policy will provide population managers greater flexibility to make decisions about genetic rescued in the future (Stowell et al., 2017).

European Bison. Image courtesy of Arkive. 
These current barriers are compelling inaction, which is indeed a consequential action. One subspecies which has suffered from inaction is the Dusky Seaside Sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens) found in marshes in Florida, USA (Stowell et al., 2017). The United State's Fish and Wildlife Service would not allow any dilution of the genetics by out-crossing the last males with females of a different sparrow subspecies. In turn, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow subspecies became extinct in 1987. Despite the United State's Fish and Wildlife Service's hesitation, many subspecies and closely related species hybridise in nature (Stowell et al., 2017). For example, the European bison is a hybrid of two extinct species; the steppe bison (Bison priscus) and the auroch (Bos primigenius) (Soubrier et al., 2016). Hybridisation between these species occurred >120 kya years ago, and demonstrating that hybridisation is certainly a naturally occurring phenomenon and it is a consequence of out-crossing which we shouldn’t necessarily avoid within conservation practices.

With increasing access to genetic data for a diversity of species it will soon be possible to further reduce the perceived barriers of genetic rescue through improved management guidelines. Simply put, the more we know, the less risky the decisions will be! Frankham and an increasing number of researchers believe that the current genetic rescue examples represents a “miniscule proportion of the populations that might benefit from out-crossing”. Given the continued decline of plant and animal populations, conservationists should regard genetic rescue as a welcome addition to their toolbox. My goal is for this blog post to promote consideration of genetic rescue as one of the tools in the conservation toolbox to help us to prevent species extinctions.

Literature cited: Bijlsma, R et al. 2010. Conservation Genetics 11: 449-462; Cook, CN and Sgrò, CM. 2017. Conservation Biology 31: 501–512; Frankham, R. 2015. Molecular Ecology 24: 2610–2618; Frankham, R. 2016. Biological Conservation 195: 33-36; Johnson, WE et al. 2010. Science 329: 1641-1645; Laikre, L et al. Conservation Biology 24: 86–88; Ottewell, K et al. 2014. Biological Conservation 171: 209-219; Pierson, JC et al. 2016. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 14: 433-440; Ralls, K et al. 2017 Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12412; Soubrier, J et al. 2016 Nature communications 7;  Spielman, D et al. 2004. PNAS 101:15261-15264; Stowell, SML et al. 2017. Biodiversity and Conservation 26:1753–1765; Vilà, C et al. 2013. Proc Roy Soc B 270: 91-97; Walker, CW et al. 2001. Molecular Ecology 10: 53-63; Waller, DM 2015. Molecular ecology 24: 2595-2597.

Lara Semple is a Master’s student in International Nature Conservation specialising in wildlife conservation genetics. You can reach Lara on LinkedInYou can also follow her wildlife photography on her Flickr page

Monday, 25 September 2017

Studying and Saving Species in the Anthropocene

Guest post by Helen O'Neill

The world is changing.  Areas that were once remote are becoming ever more accessible; even the world’s few remaining areas of wilderness are increasingly human-dominated. The global human population’s ever growing effects on the environment has led many people to start referring to our current period in history as the Anthropocene.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are the leading threats to global biodiversity. As areas where wild species once thrived disappear and remaining parcels of wilderness become rarer and more isolated, wildlife is often forced into closer contact with local human populations.  Whilst protected areas are undoubtedly important refuges for many threatened species, human-dominated landscapes are nevertheless likely to be key for the future of conservation. 

Large carnivore populations in Europe provide tangible evidence of the importance of human-dominated landscapes to conservation. Just a few decades ago, across the continent populations of brown bears (Ursus arctos), grey wolves (Canis lupus) and Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) had undergone massive declines as a result of habitat loss in combination with human persecution. However, over recent years these carnivore populations have had a resurgence. Changes in legislation providing the species with greater protection from persecution, along with the establishment of nature reserves, has led to populations of all three species remaining steady and even increasing across Europe. Whilst the increase in protected areas has been of great importance for these carnivore species, the majority of their populations still live outside of protected areas.  =It is likely thanks to the recognition of the importance of these non-protected, and human-dominated, areas to carnivore conservation and the interventions that have focused on them, which has resulted in carnivore population recoveries.

Collaring Zuri. Photo contributed by Helen O'Neill.
My research focuses on how African wild dogs and cheetah live in a human-dominated landscape in Laikipia County in Northern Kenya, and how geographical features such as fences affect them.  Both wild dogs and cheetah have suffered from extensive habitat loss and fragmentation across Africa, with wild dogs now found in just 7% of their former range and cheetah 11%. They are the widest-ranging species within the African large carnivore guild; with individuals and groups from both species having been recorded having home-ranges of more than 2000 sq km. This wanderlust means they need large areas of carnivore-friendly land to survive. As with European carnivore populations, very few protected areas are large enough to support viable populations of cheetah or wild dogs on their own, meaning that habitat loss and fragmentation are still very real threats to their survival.

When you talk about habitat loss and fragmentation people's first thoughts are usually of vast swathes of tropical forests being cut down, leaving only small stands of trees, however such images don’t tell the full story. Fragmentation is caused by any feature that prevents animals moving from one area of habitat to another. Increases in fragmentation mean that connections between habitat patches are lost and can result in serious consequences for the species affected, ranging from animals no longer having access to the resources they need to survive or, in the longer-term, inbreeding. 

For many human-dominated landscapes amongst the key causes of fragmentation are fences. This kind of fragmentation is much less obvious than a vast swathe of deforestation as there may well be areas of apparently prime habitat on each side of the fence.  Nonetheless fences can have important impacts on the connectivity of an area - after all preventing movement between different areas is literally their raison d'etre.

In order to look at how wild dogs and cheetah live in and move through their landscape, I use data collected by GPS collars, which my colleagues and I fit to our study animals.  These collars record the animal’s location at pre-programmed times throughout the day, enabling me to see how they interact with different features within the landscape. It is perhaps not surprising that I have found that fences have important impacts on our study animals but what has been interesting is the extent to which the design of the fence affects how much the wild dogs and cheetah are affected by them. Whilst some fences have significant effects, others appear to have little or no effect at all.

Laikipia is an area of huge conservation significance. Living alongside a large and growing human population there are high wildlife densities and vital populations of several globally threatened species. Laikipia is already a human-dominated landscape as is only likely to become more so over the coming years. However, whilst it is undoubtedly important to take into account the effects of different socio-economic and cultural factors, it is nevertheless encouraging to look to carnivore populations throughout the European mainland and see them persisting, and even thriving, in human-dominated landscapes there.


Helen O'Neill is a PhD candidate at Zoological Society London, and her research focuses on cheetah and African wild dogs living in a human-dominated landscape in Northern Kenya.  You can find more about her research here or reach out to her on Twitter @hmk_oneill.