David Quammen has done consistent and conscientious reporting from the trenches of ecological and evolutionary research for over thirty years now. Few in
the world can claim as intimate and broad an understanding of conservation biology as he can. His books such as The Song of the Dodo and Monster of God match scientific and literary perfection. Nandini Velho and Umesh Srinivasan talk to him about the history of conservation science
and what it can seek to create.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID QUAMMEN
Nandini Velho for Mongabay.com: In your opinion what studies have contributed the most to our understanding of ecology and conservation in a significant way?
David Quammen. Photo by Sandesh Kadur
David Quammen: I think the most important scientific insight of the last forty years for conservation was the recognition of island biogeography, fragmented landscapes
and corridors. That begins with Robert MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson. I’ve documented that in The Song of the Dodo, probably ad nauseum.
The application of the work that came out of island biogeography led to the theory of minimum viable populations. I would trace some of that to Daniel
Simberloff, Mark Shaffer and there were also scientists from Australia who did some very good work on island species.
The second most important scientific set of insights for conservation has been around invasive and exotic species, the realization that they cause local
extinctions. That probably begins with Charles Elton in his book The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants published in 1958. I think
MacArthur, Wilson and Elton are the founders on whose work conservation biology has been built.
Nandini Velho for Mongabay.com: Are there areas of conservation science that require more focus?
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
Yes, infectious diseases are emerging rapidly as a new area for ecological research. The implications for conservation are two sided. People realize that
these diseases have their reservoirs in wildlife (such as bats, monkeys, rodents). Diseases generate new forms of human political enmity for their
reservoir hosts. For instance, people advocate that we should eliminate flying foxes from Australia because they carry Hendra virus. I say, no, we need to
protect those bats as they serve important ecological purposes.
The reasons that these diseases are spilling over to humans is because we are pressing into their habitats by harvesting timber and bushmeat and exposing
ourselves to viruses. These new troubles in turn are threatening further ecological disruptions, because then we feel we should exterminate the reservoir
For instance, it was considered a canonical rule that malaria could not be transmitted between humans and other species, and that the malaria vector
carries it only between humans. Now scientists researching in Borneo have documented a fifth species of malarial parasites, Plasmodium knowlesi,
that can be transmitted between humans and macaques. I respect the noble goals of Bill and Melinda Gates when they say they want to eradicate malaria. But
I hope that their scientific advisers are thinking about all these other factors too.
Nandini Velho for Mongabay.com: What do you think about payment for ecosystems services?
Rainforest in Uganda. Photo by Rhett Butler
I think payment for ecosystem services is a good idea, if we can arrange it. It’s not the only solution, but it’s important for people to realize the
ecosystem services being delivered by intact ecosystems. Everybody depends on and profits from them. So when people do the economic calculus, these should
be included. People say “Oh…protecting this area is costing us 500 jobs in the agricultural sector.” As soon as people start to talk like that, they
should also talk about the dollar value and rupee value of ecosystem services.
Is that the only thing we should talk about? No. We should also talk about the issues that are aesthetic, spiritual, imaginative – the cost to the human
species if your grandchildren are never able to see a tiger in the wild, or never able to go to Africa and see a gorilla. That goes beyond ecosystem
services. That goes to aesthetic and spiritual losses that can’t be measured in dollars.
Nandini Velho for Mongabay.com: John Fraser and Vic Pantesco, two clinical psychologists surveyed about 140 professional conservationists, and they found them to react much more aggressively towards peers, and were a highly emotionally distressed lot in general. Do you think there’s any thing in there?
Well, it’s not illogical that conservation biologists would be sad and frustrated – crabby – because they are watching the disappearance of their subject,
which they love. But I want to see the data, because it’s also possible to imagine that conservation biologists would be more cheerful than many other
professions. They deal with the most wondrous subject on the planet. Even as we move forward in this sixth mass extinction, they are dealing with species
that are wonderful and precious – more precious all the time. If you’re a tiger biologist, part of your head is always going to be gloomy looking at the
trends, but the other part of your head is going to be thrilled and feeling privileged at the fact that you’re spending your life dealing with tigers! Or
seals. Or insects. I’ve heard in the past that suicide rates among dentists and psychiatrists are very high compared to other professions. I’ll bet the
suicide rates for conservation biologists are not high. Because they have such meaningful work to do.
Nandini Velho for Mongabay.com: You take on a contentious issue; that of sport hunting of large carnivores with the economic involvement of local people to ensure their continued existence. How has this been received by conservationists?
Lion cubs in Tanzania. Photo by Rhett Butler
Yes, that’s a complicated ongoing debate. I spent a few weeks recently in Tanzania–in the Serengeti, and also in the Selous wildlife reserve. Hunting of
lions is a very live discussion in Tanzania. It’s not allowed in Kenya at all, but it is an important commercial activity and an important element of the
conservation mix in Tanzania. To use a cliché, the devil is in the details.
Hunters will tell you, “Oh…hunting is the panacea for conservation.” Many hunters don’t know beans about the situation on the ground. This is just a
received generalization that hunting is the answer.
Hunting can be part of the answer if done correctly. That means, for instance, killing three to four year old male lions damages the population, while
killing six year old males does not.
So when people say hunting is a good way of preserving big predators, you have to answer “Which hunting? Which big predator? In which ecosystems? Is there
adequate enforcement? And equitable distribution of income? Show me the numbers.”
Nandini Velho for Mongabay.com: One hand there is no empirical evidence for the existence of God, yet common ground might be is necessary between science and belief in God for
conservation. How do you reconcile these seemingly divergent world views?
That’s a tricky question. I tend to be very un-religious. That’s putting it mildly. But, I absolutely acknowledge that religion can be an important ally in
conservation. My wife Betsy Gaines is devoting her life to that, and I see that it’s a valuable strategy that has worked quite well in Mongolia initially,
and now in Bhutan. I can’t reconcile the two – it’s a conundrum, a paradox. But religion is there! My wife cites a statistic; something like 80 per cent of
the people in the world embrace a religious culture. You know, that’s almost as high a percent as eating and sex! It’s a reality, and in some crucial
cases, aligned with conservation concerns.
Nandini Velho for Mongabay.com: You yourself have written several influential books, what are the books that you yourself have been influenced by?
Well, I love Charles Darwin’s work. Learning about Darwin and Wallace has been very important to me. I am surprised at how many biologists have not read
Darwin or Wallace directly. I enjoyed Edward O Wilson’s books, including The Theory of Island Biogeography and Biophilia. Charles Elton’sEcology of Invasions by Animals and Plants has been very important to me. As also early Stephen Jay Gould and J.B.S. Haldane’s popular essays. The Growth of Biological Thought and Systematics and the Origin of Species by Ernst Mayr have been influential. My favourite book of Jane
Goodall is her scientific work, The Chimpanzees of Gombe. Sarah Hrdy wrote The Woman that Never Evolved, a very interesting book about gender
Selected works by David Quammen
- The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction
- The Flight of the Iguana: a Sidelong View of Science and Nature
- Wild Thoughts from Wild Places
- Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind
- The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature in the Eye of the Beholder
- The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution
- Blood Line: Stories of Fathers and Sons
- Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic
Nandini Velho is a doctoral student at James Cook University, Australia and a research associate at National Centre for Biological Sciences, India. She
is interested in understanding broader matters related governance of tropical forests as well as smaller scale interactions betweens plants and
animals. Umesh Srinivasan is a doctoral student at National Centre for Biological Sciences, India. His broad interests lie in community ecology and
population dynamics in response to anthropogenic pressures.