29/04/2024 12:56

“Politics pose the greatest challenge for conservation.”

  • Blog Fundamental Science

Ecology expert Anne Magurran dedicates herself to bridging the gap between scientists and politicians.

Art by Julia Jabur

By Pedro Lira

Conservation is not a scientifically complex task. While researchers can effectively study and characterize species within ecosystems, implementing effective conservation measures often faces a significant political hurdle. According to Professor Anne Magurran, a leading ecologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, this is the biggest challenge for conservation.

Author of several books on measuring biodiversity’s importance for conservation, Magurran highlights a key challenge: protected areas often clash with financial interests. “Successful conservation efforts can inadvertently create conflicts with economic agendas,” she explains. This is what she calls the “conservation paradox”: the more an area resists development, the more attractive it becomes to economic interests. The onus then falls on researchers to protect these critical areas.

Magurran argues that while a standing forest may not have an immediate financial value, its ecological benefits are enormous. Preserving these forests regulates the climate by influencing rainfall patterns, prevents soil erosion, and moderates river flows, reducing flooding and ensuring clean water supplies for cities. “While ethical considerations compel us to protect the environment,” she acknowledges, “there are also numerous practical reasons. Ultimately, it’s in our best interest, a form of enlightened self-interest.”

The professor warns that this mission will face increasing challenges in the coming decades. She urges the new generation of scientists, especially ecologists, to engage more with politicians and policymakers. “While environmental protection once found a more receptive audience, it’s increasingly seen as an obstacle to development in many countries. It’s our challenge to open the dialogue and advocate for this cause.”

Expertise is essential as preserving biodiversity is at the heart of conservation. That’s where Dr./Prof. Magurran’s work becomes crucial. “Ecosystems are constantly evolving, with species naturally appearing and disappearing,” she explains. This dynamism is what drives evolution.” Her focus is on protecting that very dynamism.

Mathematical models are a powerful tool for scientists in their conservation efforts. Dr. Magurran’s research focuses on developing statistical methods that enable biologists and conservationists to analyze and understand their environment. The principle is simple: robust statistical models can estimate biodiversity instead of laboriously counting every beetle species in a forest. This allows important comparisons, such as how species differ between a protected habitat and a modified agricultural landscape. As Magurran explains, “Models elegantly distill complex ecological interactions into an understandable format.”

A cornerstone of ecological research is understanding species-area relationships. This involves modeling how the number of species in an area changes as the area itself increases. “Imagine surveying a one-hectare forest and meticulously counting all the species, you get a specific value,” the scientist explains. “Now, if you want to estimate the number of species in a ten-hectare forest, you can’t just multiply the smaller count. Species richness and area have a non-linear relationship.” This is where models come in – they provide robust estimates of species diversity over larger areas.

Although she focuses on theoretical ecology, Magurran has a wealth of field experience, having studied diverse biomes in Brazil, Ireland, Scotland, and Argentina.  “Hands-on experience is critical for ecology students,” she emphasizes. “Only through direct observation can you truly understand the concepts and challenges of data collection. It teaches us respect for those who collect the data we analyze in our theoretical work.”

Her advice to the next generation is pragmatic. Since policy is a big challenge in this field, she urges young scientists to choose topics they are truly passionate about and become experts in their field. Armed with that knowledge, they can shape public policy and inspire future generations. “If you love what you do,” she concludes, “you become its most powerful advocate.”

This text was originally publicated on blog Ciência Fundamental, on Folha de S.Paulo