Thursday, 3 June 2010

June Research Colloquium - Conservation and Development – some perspectives

This month’s colloquium was a talk by Neil Maddison, who is in charge of our conservation programme links here at Bristol, with some insights into the problems faced by conservation programmes. The focus was primarily on our work in partnership with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which we are involved with as part of the conservation project for the Livingstone’s Fruit Bat Pteropus livingstonii. (image taken at Bristol)

All too often it seems to me, conservationists focus entirely on the species they care about, without any regard for the people, especially the locals, who are at the centre of the problem. The Comoros is a good example of work Bristol is helping to pioneer in aiming for a more broadly based approach.

First, some background. The Union of the Comoros is a group of three islands situated north of Madagascar. The population is mixed as a result of the islands being on major trade routes, and there are three official languages – Comorian, Arabic, and French. The island was ruled form France until independence in 1975. In the 35 years since then, coups or coup attempts have averaged at least one every 2 years. The country is extremely poor, with more than half the population with an income of under $1.25 per day.

The main conservation problem on the island is deforestation. This destroys the habitat for the endemic species, especially the Livingstone’s Fruit Bat and the Comoros Scops Owl, and also results in loss of permanent water flow, siltation of the reefs (which results in loss of fishing), and loss of firewood for fuel. The loss of fule wood also impacts the foreign exchange, as one of the few export earners is Ylang Ylang oil, which is distilled from flowers and used in perfumes and aromatherapy. Although the tree grows in many countries, the Comoros are the world’s major producer. For a look at what production of Ylang Ylang actually involves in practise, here is a clip of a film taken at a distillery:

With people in these circumstances, talking to them about the importance of bat conservation is frankly a non-starter. It is first necessary to deal with the actual needs of people on the ground, such as healthcare, employment, education, and a host of other issues.

We employ a team of local facilitators to identify and aim to resolve local issues. Many of these facilitators are women, as most of the burden of agricultural labour falls on them, and an outsider, especially male, has no chance of having any useful effect. The work is sponsored by Airbus, and has been for several years. Sponsorship and funding for these projects is an issue in itself, as most donors will only supply funding for 3 years or so, and any effective work requires an investment of decades. For more on our work, see the Bristol Zoo Conservation and Science Foundation website:

I seem to be getting a fair number of views of this blog now, so I would like to throw this open for comments. Most people have some local conservation or environmental issue affecting their neighbourhood, although it may not be as severe as the situation in the Comoros (I hope). What practical steps could be taken to reduce the impact of your local problem that would cost less than say $500? It could involve local volunteers, planting trees, clearing weeds, protecting river banks – whatever takes your fancy. Let the other readers of this blog know what you would do.

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