More on otters in Jakarta

by | 20th December 2010

I had some really good feedback on a previous blog about a family of Asian small-clawed otters that I had seen in Jakarta.

A Jakarta resident wrote to me that he had observed relatively large numbers of otters for some time near his home in south Jakarta, not far from the area where I live.In fact, the otters were at one time so common that they used to keep him awake at night with their whistling calls. He used to watch groups as large as 16 individuals searching for freshwater crabs, which seems to be their staple food.

If you have never been to Jakarta you would understand that this sounds quite bizarre. Jakarta is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Its rivers are more or less open sewers with large amounts of garbage floating in it. Populations of pretty rare freshwater species such as otters would be last thing to expect.

Then again, otters probably only need a few things to survive and thrive: food, shelter, and nothing that kills them outright.

Food may be plenty in Jakarta heavily ‘fertilized’ rivers. They can probably also find shelter in the city’s many waterways and deep gutter system designed to cope with the copious tropical rains. And what Jakarta may lack compared to rural and more natural areas is hunters. People here are unlikely to go shooting birds and mammals, which is a common elsewhere in the country.

It would be great to understand these otters a little better–what a fascinating object for a committed wildlife student. Such studies and some good communication could help spread the message that nature conservation can and should happen everywhere. Not just in distant forests that hardly anyone here will ever visit. But in your backyard, and the rivers that you cross every day on your way to work.

There is plenty of work to be done. Presently the Jakarta authorities are dredging the river to improve through-flow and reduce the annual flooding problem. But in that process the river bank vegetation is destroyed and with that probably a real oasis of wildlife supported by this river. Did anyone actually carry out an environmental impact analysis before the dredging and spared a thought for otters and other wildlife species?

I am sure Jakarta’s authorities have many problems to cope with and otters won’t be high on their list of priorities. But the otters could potentially help them showcase improved management of the city’s freshwater ecosystem, the cleaning up of rivers, the planting of riverside vegetation. It might be a relatively easy start of showing that the country is actually able to effectively manage its incredible biodiversity.

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Urban Ecology in Jakarta

by | 8th December 2010

It never fails to cheer me up to see an unusual species in an unusual place.

Among all the doom and gloom in conservation it is nice to see a species beat the trend. For a while I have been fascinated by the Tree Sparrow (see my blog on the Church Bird of Borneo), a species in decline in its native Eurasia, but abundant here in Indonesia where it was introduced. I observe them regularly from behind my desk that looks out over our garden. What makes this species such a success here while in its native lands it is struggling?

Since moving into our present house in a small estate in southern Jakarta I have made another few surprise discoveries. At night, the Large-tailed Nightjar often calls its rich deep “tchoink” from a tall tree near our house. Until I moved to Jakarta I had not seen this species, despite birding its forest edge habitat in SE Asia for nearly two decades.

Asian small-clawed otter in London Zoo. Photo by the Tardigrade

Even more surprising was a small family of Asian small-clawed otters that climbed out one of the area’s deep rain gutters during an evening walk. I have only ever seen this species near small streams in dense rainforest on Borneo, so I could initially not quite believe my eyes. But sure enough, several subsequent sightings and a good look at some scats confirmed that there is at least one otter family that survives in Jakarta’s urban jungle.

According to the IUCN Red List, the typical habitats of this Vulnerable species in West Java are wetland systems with pools and stagnant water, including shallow stretches, with depth less than 1 m. This sounds more like freshwater swamps, mangroves and tidal pools than urban gutters and sewer systems.

Small-clawed otters feed on invertebrates like crabs and other hard shelled prey. Judging their scats that is exactly what they find in Jakarta too.

With all the pollution, lack of dispersal opportunities (unless the cities floods again), and threat of poisoning or shooting, I am not sure about the survival chances of this otter family. According to some of the older residents here, the otters have been around for over 10 years, so who knows.

The point for me is to take notice. Conservation tends to focus on the species in decline, the ones struggling to make it. But we could also learn a lot from those that survive and adapt. With forest habitats being lost and fragmented, we need to understand how species survive in human-dominated landscapes, and what conservation measures we can develop now to ensure that as many species as possible benefit.

Such solutions are not ideal but they are certainly pragmatic. Next time I meet the otters, I will ask them what they think of this area they live in.

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Fear and conformity in conservation

by | 22nd November 2010

Conservation is like guerrilla warfare. But are the similarities flattering for conservationists?

No matter how big, conventional and entwined with power conservation organizations get, they still have the posture of guerrilla groups. While conventional warfare seeks to reduce an opponent’s capability through head-on confrontation, guerrillas seek to undermine the opponents’ strength and their public support. Guerrillas often also have popular backing and are financed through outside supporters.

Conservation works similarly through strategically picked battles (our conservation projects). Public and outside support is crucial to conservation’s success. And our “armies” are so much smaller than those employed by “the enemy.”

You might be encouraged by these comparisons. But conservation and guerrilla organizations have other, less comforting similarities: the way they communicate, their near-religious underpinnings, and their penchant for groupthink.

Guerrilla fighters are dispersed and their organizations need strong internal communication to ensure that everyone is in line. External communication through propaganda is vital to ensure public support. Strict loyalty to the group is also crucial. You are either in or out, although “out” is not really an option once you are “in.”

Judged by the hundreds of daily emails, frequent meetings and many papers to sign and forms to fill in that plague our business, conservation workers encounter similar views of communication and a devotion to (if not obsession with) process. Process and groupthink bring coherence to an organization, but they also control its individuals. Holding alternative views and speaking your mind about the direction of conservation, or criticizing management, are generally frowned upon within a conservation organization as harmful to its unity.

This impulse to police makes sense: Conservation and guerrillas are strongly mission-driven. And even if the practical implications of that mission are often unclear, the organizational principles that follow it have quasi-religious powers. Stepping outside that framework and being openly critical are often seen as heretical. Also, those who control and administer the process — the priests or apparatchiks, if you will — become focused on and defenders of process to the exclusion of substantive goals, because that is how they defend their position of power and authority.

As with conservation, the success rate for guerrilla war is mixed. Some guerrillas fail in their mission and either fade away or join regular, established governments. Those that succeed often stay in power for decades, rarely if ever through democratic means. Somewhere along the line, they pass a tipping point in growth, stop being flexible and creative, and become sclerotic.

This is where I see conservation now — as a collection of aging guerrillas, holding on to an old vision, old ways of organizing and communicating, and an aging constituency as we slide toward irrelevance. We’ve forgotten the guerrilla’s ability to improvise under difficult conditions and strategically pick the battles that will lead to the biggest net gain. Do we still have that entrepreneurial spirit in conservation? Does conservation generate enough creativity and reward it appropriately? And can individuals still have a major impact on conservation, or has the agenda been hijacked by conservation organizations that have become too big and cumbersome to function effectively?

Where I hope conservation can differentiate itself from guerrilla fighters is in the nature of our wars, and what we consider success or failure. Our wars are not black and white; this is not about winning the mother of all conservation battles, after which we can rest on our laurels or sleep in our graves. Our battle is never over. Conservation is not about right and wrong, either. There are no religious conservation principles to adhere to; there is only muddling through.

Conservation will forever be a struggle to defend the wildlife and environments of this planet against human greed and indifference. Once we realize that the struggle is truly endless — that we will never “win” the war — we can step away out of our internal straitjacket and become the smart, nimble, flexible, adaptable, compromise-seeking and solutions-focused movement that we need to be. Unfortunately, these are characteristics I rarely encounter in conservation organizations, which tend to be conformist, bureaucratic, internally-focused, opaque, unaccountable, and often in competition with other conservation organizations.

All this leaves me a bit uneasy. I seem to be preaching some neoliberal agenda where conservation is driven by individuals and small groups in some meritocratic framework. While I think this is what conservation needs, there is definitely some personal irony here. Because while promoting that agenda, I realize at the same time that conservation success requires broad-level societal support and a social agenda. This puts me back on the left side of politics. No wonder I feel a bit torn these days.

Maybe I confuse practical needs now with ideal solutions in the long term. In the short term, conservation should become an accepted societal goal with practical solutions to everyday problems. Ideally, it should become a way of life, with individual people building their ethical systems on a basis of respect for nature. The key to either model is the dedication of individuals to set examples about how things can be done better. When choosing between the three spirited fighters depicted above this piece, we might want to be a bit less like Che, stop acting like Don Quixote, and walk and talk more like Nelson Mandela.

© History of / Atelier de littérature française / Nelson Mandela “Amadelakufa!” (Death Defiance!)

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Liberally Green

by | 13th October 2010

Conservation is traditionally associated with left-wing politics.

The distinction between left and right dates back to the days of the French revolution when those supporting radical changes in society where seated on the left side of parliament. Left-wing politics tend to strive for a more egalitarian society, achieved through cooperative, mutually respectful collaboration.Right-wing politics may see social and economic hierarchies as natural or normal.

Left-wing economic politics are often characterized by extensive government intervention. On the right side of politics, or at least the center-right, capitalism, private property rights, and the market economy with limited government regulation are more valued.

Looking at conservation in Indonesia, I wonder where, in the political spectrum, conservation fits in best. Here conservation is seen as a government duty, and for decades the standard approaches to conservation were built on collaboration between NGOs and governments. Unfortunately there has been limited success.

Many protected area in Indonesia are in a very bad shape. The majority of nature and wildlife reserves have no on the ground management. And outside protected areas, the loss of forest, freshwater and marine resources is even more rapid.

Indonesia’s private sector, both its big and small-holder industries, are a major driving factor behind these losses. But they are also the biggest hope for solutions.

Many companies in the timber, fibre, oil palm, and mining industries create conservation set asides which they themselves aim to manage. If this trend continues, we may soon find that the private sector plays a much bigger role in conservation than the government. This reflects the situation in North America and Europe where many conservation lands are privately owned and managed.

I wonder whether this is leading to a political shift in conservation. Is the increased integration of conservation in market economies, green thinking in companies, and the commodization of environmental services (think carbon ,water etc.) shifting conservation to the right? Is this green-tinged liberalism the future of conservation? If it is, would it be a good thing?

I wouldn’t mind less government meddling in conservation. Let the government govern, but leave the conservation implementation to others. Privatize national parks that the government has not been able to manage. But hold the new managers accountable. Make conservation pay for itself.

In rapidly developing economies like Indonesia, with a large natural resources sector, the private sector, not the government is the main factor determining the future of conservation.

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Degradation is in the Eye of the Beholder

by | 27th September 2010

In the discussion about where oil palm and other plantations should go we talk so easily about degraded lands. But the concept is not straightforward.

When the US and Europe cleared their forests a few centuries ago, they did so to “improve” the land. Forests were seen as a source of lumber, best to be cleared and replaced by annual crops with which a lot more money could be made.

We have learned since then, and now understand the value of forests for biodiversity, ecosystem goods and services, and also because they are beautiful to us. Many of us now see deforestation as a negative thing, and call what is left “degraded”.

Not everyone agrees though.What to us looks like hell, may to a Borneo-based farmer or plantation manager look like a good opportunity to earn some cash.

Cleared land looks ugly to us, but not everyone would agree

Of course we could think that we know better than them, but we often we don’t. Many local people in Borneo who I have spoken to support deforestation. They don’t like it if all the revenues end up in the pockets of big companies or their village leaders who are paid by those companies. But many do not necessarily disagree that deforestation is a bad thing.

We do need to keep that in mind. If we say that plantations should be developed on “degraded” lands it is important to realize that most of those lands will have been claimed by local farmers. These farmers gain some income from lands by burning them and planting crops or getting their cattle to feed on fresh regrowth.

Using those lands for plantations requires compensation for lost revenues to these farmers, and long negotiations with many stakeholders. This is one of the reasons why companies prefer to use forest rather than deforested lands.

Of course the easy way out is to say “no” to any further plantation development. But if that’s not a realistic option, then we should at least understand what it means if we direct plantations away from forests.

We might even need to rethink the psychology of conservation. If what we call degraded is by someone else perceived as improved, then it will be hard to get some common understanding. And common understanding is what we need to make conservation work.

The writer (tall giant in the middle) with Kenyah farmers on a recently cleared patch of land (photo credit, Mel White, on left of photo)

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Chinese Whispers in Indonesian Conservation

by | 25th September 2010

You can call me a scientific nit picker, but I am confused.

For almost a decade conservationists have been trying to give a more comprehensive picture about deforestation. Rather than talking about hectares, square kilometers or acres lost, the popular measure of “football fields” is increasingly used.

I guess the thinking is that Joe Public doesn’t quite get the standard scientific units of measurements. But as he sits in front on his tv to watch men run up and down grassy fields, he will have some picture of the size of a football field.

Deforestation as measured by numbers of football fields , however, acts like Chinese whispers. I did a quick Google search on “deforestation”, “football field”, and “Indonesia” and found the following conflicting statements:

According to the English Football Association, the length of a full-size soccer pitch must be between 90 and 120 meters and the width between 45 and 90 meters, i.e. between 0.4 and 1.08 ha. An American football pitch measures about 0.45 ha, without the end zone.

Based on the above statements and the variation in the size of football fields, deforestation rates in Indonesia vary from 0.2 ha per hour at the lowest to 648 ha per hour at the highest. Or in the more usual measurements, between 1752 and 5.7 million ha per year. That’s a 3,000-fold difference! And at least one source ascribes most of that deforestation to oil palm.

Deforestation rates are notoriously difficult to get hold of. They are obscured by definition of what is forest, methods of detection, and willingness of governments to report to the FAO who keep the official data. More transparency and more frequent information on deforestation is badly needed to see whether we are making any progress towards reducing it. I doubt, however, that football field estimates make things any clearer.

I don’t know who started measuring deforestation in football fields lost. The obvious idea was to drive home the severity of deforestation, especially in the tropics. But I really don’t think the present confusing reporting is making things any clearer.

Obviously as conservationists we are also opening ourselves up to the criticism that we can’t even get our facts right. Ultimately I believe it puts us in a weaker position to influence the forest conservation agenda.

Let’s stick to the deforestation facts. And let’s stick to measures that everyone understands and that are unambiguous.

Or if you do need to simplify, use something that is clear. For example, when you talk to a US audience, tell them that Indonesia is losing a forest area the size of New Hampshire every year, which will work a lot better than saying that a forest area the size of 190 king size mattresses is being lost every second. Anyway, you get the point.

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Avatar Firmly Keeps the Con in Conservation

by | 24th September 2010

Clip from Avatar the movie, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

I read with interest Jeremy Hance’s article about “The Real Avatar Story“. It reminded me how I had initially watched that movie on a transatlantic flight. Despite the pokey screen and poor sound—not quite the 3 or 4D experience it was designed for—I enjoyed it. But the story somehow left a bitter after taste.

I guess most conservation-minded people are familiar with the story line. But just to reiterate, humans have ruined earth and travel to the far‐off planet Pandora to continue their pillage. There they encounter the Na’vi, tall, long‐tailed, pointy‐eared, flat‐nosed humanoids with a smurf‐like skin tone. Na’vi live ‘in harmony with Nature’, kill and harvest only what they need, ask for forgiveness for that, and apparently do not affect the world around them. Humans want to destroy Pandora’s environment for mining, but brave American soldier helps the Na’vi to beat humans and sends them back to Planet Earth.

There is an obvious environmental moral in the film. In the words of James Cameron, the film’s director: “the Na’vi represent something that is our higher selves, or our aspirational selves, what we would like to think we are”. There are good humans in the film, but the humans “represent what we know to be the parts of ourselves that are trashing our world and maybe condemning ourselves to a grim future”.

This is an unhelpful picture. I don’t like the polarization between beautiful, untouched nature, inhabited by creatures that choose not to impact their environment, versus evil capitalist, industrialist, greedy people who only know how to destroy it.

All people, urban, rural, and forest dwelling impact their environment—just ask the extinct megafaunas of Australia, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. In fact, all creatures impact their environment and will do their utter best to enlarge their ecological niche, and exploit it as much as they can. That is how nature (and we) function.

Conservation is about finding a balance. We should acknowledge that all humans affect their environment. The choice we have is to limit the impact.

Clip from Avatar the movie, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Conservation originally started by locking away natural areas, and removing humans and their activities from them. With 6 billion people on the planet and counting that is now rarely possible. If we accept that people are part of conservation, we also need to accept those people’s aspirations. And most people want better lives, including those that live in far away forests. They want to live to over 50 years, have children that survive beyond the age of 2, go to school, do not have constant diarrhea, own a television, and are not hungry.

Unfortunately, there are no Na’vi. It’s only us, an intelligent, technically skilled species, very adapt at using and abusing the resources of this planet. And there are all the other species.

The most relevant conservation question is whether we are smart and care enough individually to live our lives so that it leaves behind a pleasant place for our descendants. A secondary issue is what that means for the other species around us.

The biggest conservation mistake is to assume that our conservation problems will somehow be solved by Na’vi‐like people who care more about their environment than about themselves.

Nature does not do creatures like that.

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