A Conversation with Dr Stuart Pimm

8 months, 1 week ago 0
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Dr Stuart Pimm is an American-British conservation biologist and a world leader in the study of present-day extinctions. He has been a conservation biologist since the term was first coined, and is also a staunch advocate of bridging the interface between science and policy.

In this interview, Vaishali Rawat of WCS India speaks to him about biodiversity conservation, why science must be communicated, especially to politicians, and why conservation is a field worth working in! Listen to the interview:



Vaishali Rawat: Today we talk with Dr Stuart Pimm, who is a conservation biologist and a world leader in the study of present-day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them. He is the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at the Nicholas School of Environment at Duke University and his research covers global patterns of habitat loss and species extinction. He has been a staunch advocate of bridging the interface between policy and science, and he has testified in the US Government’s House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. A recipient of multiple prestigious awards like the Heineken Prize and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Dr Pimm has been studying conservation biology since before the term was coined 30 years ago. We caught up with him to chat about his early beginnings in the field of ecology and his work on conservation science and policy.

Thank you for speaking with me Dr Pimm. Let’s begin with where it started – about how you got interested in ecology and conservation and who your early influences were.

Dr Stuart Pimm: You know how Lord Elrond in Lord of the Rings says, “I was there at the beginning.” Well, I was there at the beginning. I was there one Thursday afternoon after tea time when the Society for Conservation Biology was formed. So, I have been a conservation biologist since we have coined that term. So, Why and How?
The answer is, I started out as a teenager being interested in natural history, especially birds. Did my bachelor’s degree in Zoology at Oxford, did a Ph.D in ecology at the Mexico State University, and then almost by accident ended up in Hawaii which is a place that I thought I would never go to because I know that the environment there was very, very damaged. When I got there as an enthusiastic bird watcher I expected to see all the birds that were in the bird book because I was a good field biologist, I was going to be in the field a lot, and I DIDN’T see them. Some of those species were already extinct; some of them were tiny remnant populations. That experience changed my life because I realized that extinctions were real, that we are losing biodiversity. So there was this immediate observation of things we had said back. That was combined with a strong sense of ethics that we ought to be not allowing species to go extinct, we ought to be handling biodiversity like children, we ought to be concerned about the future generations and the insight that as a scientist I was seeing things, I was understanding things that informed the science of endangerment, rarity and extinction. I knew why some of these species were going extinct and others were doing well. So, I started doing what we would now call conservation. So, a few years later I got a phone call from a man called Michael Soulé [A prominent conservation biologist and co-founder of Society for Conservation Biology (SCB)]. Michael Soulé phoned up and said, “You don’t know who I am, but my name is Michael Soulé, we have friends in common. I want to invite you to a meeting on conservation biology.” And I said what’s THAT? And he said, “Whatever it is, you are doing it.” So I went to the meeting 4’o clock on the Thursday afternoon just after tea you know the society was formed. And to me, I made a deliberate choice to stop doing pure ecology, theoretical ecology, community ecology which I was doing very successfully. I made a choice to switch from that to doing conservation, to try and work out what the scientific issues are, to find ways for science to make a difference to conservation.
So, I have been enormously honored to being given some of the top prizes – International prizes – I have the prize from the Royal Netherlands Academy of arts and sciences and essentially, I got those prizes for making conservation safe for scientists, of saying that there are substantial scientific issues with better understanding. But above all, we better ensure that our science makes a difference. It’s not just okay for us to go around saying, “I am a scientist”. We have to do science it’s going to change things and that means we have to think what you mean by science. It’s not just population genetics, it’s not just population ecology, it’s not community ecology, it’s a mix of a stuff. It can involve a wide range of different scientific disciplines. The conversation we were having when you came was to the extent to which your different religions impact how different communities tolerate snow leopards. Now, as a scientist, you never do that, as a conservation professional it’s something clearly very important. So I find conservation to be an intellectually, extremely exciting business. But more important is its importance for the future generations. We are trying to ensure that no more species go extinct.

VR: You are a staunch believer that science needs to be communicated to the public, especially policy makers, to make a difference in conservation. What are the hurdles in place for someone moving away from pure ecology to the broader sphere of communicating complex issues and advocating for conservation, as you have done?

SP: The biggest challenge is I think convincing scientists. They can’t just do nothing. So, scientists need to become active, they need to be encouraged to do science which is relevant. So the first challenge is to say, I love scientific curiosity, I am a curious scientist. But we have an ethical responsibility to use our science for tackling challenges of the era, the age for which the loss of biodiversity is clearly one of the major ones.
How did I learn to communicate science? The answer is sort of by trial and lot of error. But it is clearly very very important that we get our message out. The difficulty is that we want the science to be light, but we also want it to be simple enough that people can understand it. I don’t think it’s acceptable for us to cut corners with the science. What we have to do is to try and use every communication technique we have to get those ideas across in a credible way. So, yes, I am always doing interviews, yes, I am always talking to the media, yes, I am active on Facebook, yes, I blog. All of those things are important ways of the getting the message out.

We also need to engage politicians. I was talking to a couple of students about an hour ago, and they said, “How did you get involved in doing policy?” The answer is not by writing papers on policies. There are too many papers on policies. Policy is done by politicians; we have to engage those politicians in face to face. So, I am very active in going to local meetings, state meetings, national meetings to engage the politicians talking to politicians one on one. To communicate the science that I have done, to communicate the need for better policies, we live in democracies. There may be times that we think our democracies are messy, democracies usually are, but we do have access to our political leaders and we need to communicate our ideas. If we don’t, the people who will be the people who are acting in their own personal self-interest; by large we are not. I don’t go to Washington DC to ask the federal government to give me money. In fact my university or most universities specifically prohibit that. What I go there to do is to encourage certain pieces of legislation or discourage other pieces of legislation. I am an activist in the sense that I communicate truth to power. My group, my students are people who engage policymakers by saying this is my best assessment to the science. This is what I think it means, this is how it informs policies and I think we have to be prepared to do that.

VR: And how receptive do you find politicians to hearing out concerns relating to conservation and the environment?

SP: Look, the way politicians spend most of their time is not in parliament debating, I mean that is a sort of a naïve view of what politicians do, they don’t! They spend most of their time in their offices meeting people who are going to ask them to pass a piece of legislation that will personally enrich them. I go in there and ask an MP or a congressman to vote for or against a particular piece of legislation. So, I am very hands-on in my policies, I think we have to get out there and talk to politicians. And when was the last time I did that; it was in December, you know I want to be in DC talking to politicians trying to persuade them about a particular viewpoint. Does it work? Yes, on scientists, because they are not going in asking for money, often get a surprisingly good hearing. The politicians know what you are up to, you are asking for their vote and a good politician needs to understand that that’s how he or she gets elected or gets thrown out of office. So, I try to exercise my democratic rights.

VR: That’s wonderful to know. But these are difficult and volatile times in global politics, and of course, we see this trend of environmental concerns being least priority, and a steady thrust from those in power to delegitimize scientists and open up wilderness areas to exploitation, especially in the US. How do you deal with the burdening depression of it all and still stay optimistic?

SP: That’s the question I get in every interview I do. “Professor Pimm, you are the person who is responsible for the statistics that Al Gore uses that the species are going extinct the thousand times faster than it should. How do you get up in the morning? Why don’t you just get up and cry?” Well, certainly it’s not because I just sort of go often to the beautiful places and forget about the trouble.

I am in the business of finding solutions and the analogy I draw is to medicine. Supposing you are my Doctor, if I came to see and say- Doctor how am I doing and you will say Professor Pimm you are almost 70 years old, you have several kilograms of weight, you probably eat the wrong kind of food (I don’t), but you don’t get enough exercise (I do), but you know what you are probably gonna die and it’s not gonna be very nice, you probably gonna have a heart attack, you are gonna have cancer, it’s really gonna be pretty brutal. I think- Ah good lord, I don’t want to visit you ever again. Right? So, what you tell me instead is to continue to eat your diet, continue to exercise, avoid salt, not too much alcohol, do all the right kind of things, take your medicine and with a little bit of luck, you live to be 90. I will say thank you doctor and I will write you a cheque. It’s the same thing with ecology, with conservation, what I do is I look for ways of making species live as long as they can.

You as a doctor would know there is an enormous amount of human mortality, an awful lot of it could be avoided. There were things that have gone terribly wrong in the society, we ought not to have many of the ills that kill people. Does that stop you from being a physician? NO. What keeps you going I HOPE is the sense that you can make a difference – one patient to a hundred patients at a time. I feel the same way about conservation that yes, it’s my work which shows how many species are going extinct, but I am also someone who is looking for new and creative solutions. Moreover, the ways to implement them. That’s why I am here in India, I am here in India to try and fund projects that are creative, that are novel, that have different approaches, so we can prevent species extinction. That’s how I get up in the morning. I get up in the morning, I am very optimistic, a lot of things we can do, there is a lot more we can do. But we need to get on and do what’s within our grasp.

VR: in the span of your career what would you count as a few conservation success stories that you have seen?

SP: The things that I am most proud of are our attempts to reconnect forest ecosystems. We know from a lot of good science that species go extinct in forest fragments very quickly and the way to prevent that is to reconnect the landscapes, and that too comes after a lot of good science. And we are doing lots of projects now where we are doing those re-connections. So, I think that is the substantial body of work, that’s good science and good conservation practice. I have worked with endangered species in Florida and elsewhere where the science we have done has changed management policies, so that those species that I work with are less threatened. I think the overall thrust of conservation has been to show that tropical deforestation is a bad thing and that all together led to a binational agreement between Brazil and Norway that got Brazil to massively reduce its tropical deforestation.
Now, I am a microscopic piece in that but nonetheless, it’s a success story for conservation as a whole. Let’s say clear cutting the worlds tropical forest is not a small thing to do. So, are there success stories out there? Yes. No question that we have done a much better job of setting aside areas for endangered species than many people think; we the global community are protecting much more of the planet now than we were 25 years ago. So, there were some global success stories. The increase of the protected areas, reduction of rainforest destruction in places like Brazil, and there were individual stories of species that I have worked with in particular the habitats I connect in Saving Species.

VR: That’s wonderful. As you mentioned you have worked on a lot of charismatic species like lions, cheetahs, elephants and you also founded the organization ‘Saving Species’ which engages citizens for conservation. Can you tell us about the vision of the organization and how you execute it?

SP: Well the first thing we do is to do what I call strategic mapping. We have good range map data on about 20,000 species – birds, mammals and amphibians. Data on reptiles will be available soon. We have got crude data on about a 120K species of plant, none of that is geographically refined. What those data allow us to do is to identify the key areas for species at risk, that they correspond very closely to what Norman Miles called hotspots- biodiversity hotspots. Except now we can map them out in considerable more detail like map out things in a very very high resolved way. When you do that it becomes clear, for India, the Western Ghats or the eastern Himalayas are internationally important priorities for biodiversity. These are places where there is high concentration of species with small geographical ranges. Those are the species that have a greater risk.

So, the next thing we do is we produce what we call it the tactical maps. Those maps that I have talked about are available on the website: www.biodiversitymapping.org. So, you can look at all our beautiful maps and so we know broadly where to work. The question then is how you go from that scale to a practical scale? If one were to do that for South America, you would conclude that the coastal forests of Brazil are among the top priorities. It’s a million square kilometres. Now that’s a very long way from making a practical action. So, what we do is now to produce much more finely resolved maps where we bring in other information, the altitudinal ranges of the species, the use of forest cover, and those produce tactical maps and in the case of Brazil, those tactical maps suggest that some areas just to the east to the city of Rio de Janeiro contain exceptional number of threatened species and that landscape is badly fragmented. What does that say? It says the only practical solution we have is to reconnect those fragments and that’s what Saving Species does. So, we go from these strategic maps identifying the key places in the world to tactical maps of where we think conservations actions can be. So, where do we work – we work in the Northern Amazon, the coast of Brazil, we got small projects in the Western Ghats, small projects in North-eastern India. If you look at those maps you will say, oh Stuart Pimm, look at this, it’s obvious where we are trying to do things.

VR: I suppose it is challenging to process scientific data at that scale and then design and implement practical solutions at a local level.

SP: Identifying the broad areas where people need to work is not hard. We can do that in the comfort of our AC offices with our feet propped up on the table and a glass of beer in one hand. The challenge then is to come up with locally practical solutions. of which we found building habitat corridors is one sensible way (not the only thing we do) but it is one sensible way going forward.

The next challenge is to find good local groups who are capable of doing the work. What frustrates me about many of the big conservation organizations is they don’t do anywhere near enough to help foster, mentor, support local groups. So, one of those hotspots is the coastal forest of Brazil where we and Saving Species have done several very very significant projects, raising money for what is clearly the most effective local conservation group called the Golden Lion Tamarin Association. I founded Saving Species because I wanted to empower, help fundraise for really good local conservation groups. I have no aspirations to have a staff of 500 people in AC offices inside Washington DC building. As of a few weeks ago, we have one person working full time, and we just hired an executive director. But you know, what we do is to raise the money for people locally. We want to publicize them, we want to get the word out, we want to show what a great job they are doing and help them to do a better job.

VR: To wrap this up, any advice for young people who are trying to make a difference in conservation today?

SP: I think it’s an enormously challenging time, but I think the problems and questions are really really good ones. It’s an exciting time to be doing this because the questions are so good. When I taught ecology, I knew how to teach ecology – there is population ecology, there is community ecology, there is ecosystem ecology and there is physiological ecology and then there is behavioural ecology and divide it up into pieces, so you know what you are going to talk about.
How do I teach conservation? I don’t know! I am the first endowed chair in conservation. I don’t know what the subject contains. All I know is the questions are completely compelling. How do you save snow leopards? How do you save tigers? How do you resolve Human-wildlife conflict? How do you manage biodiversity in a country like India where so many people live next to and inside protected areas? Those are really difficult challenges, but they are intellectually rich and that’s what makes it exciting and you don’t want to go into a field that’s not exciting. So, that’s the advice. This is fun, it’s interesting, it’s important; you know your grandchildren will love you for it even if you don’t leave them millions of dollars. But you know what, you will have a wonderful time.

VR: Thank you for this conversation, Dr Pimm.


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