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Next big idea in forest conservation? Applying genomics to conservation issues

Innovation in Tropical Forest Conservation: Q&A with Dr. Jaboury Ghazoul

Tropical rainforest in Sumatra.Tropical rainforest in Sumatra.

Jaboury Ghazoul uses his expertise in plant ecology to address societal issues ranging from climate change adaptation to food production. He is excited about the use of genomics– the study of hereditary information passed down through an organism’s genetic code–for conservation. And genomics are certainly a hot topic in modern ecology.

“We do not yet really understand how rapidly and effectively species might be able to respond to rapid environmental change,” Ghazoul told, “responses to changing environments have many implications for community resilience to change, and for conservation and habitat management and restoration.”

Ghazoul strongly believes in the value of placing ecological ideas within wider societal contexts, a view that has been shaped by work in Vietnam, Thailand, India and Scotland. His main research interests are pollination ecology, plant reproduction, ecosystem services in agroforestry systems and, more generally, conservation ecology of tropical trees in landscape mosaics.

Jaboury Ghazoul served as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Biotropica from 2006 to 2013, and a member of the Executive Board of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) for the same duration. Currently he is a Professor of Ecosystem Management at Swiss Federal Institute of technology, Zurich, a position he has held since October, 2005.

An Interview with Dr. Jaboury Ghazoul What is your background?

Jaboury Ghazoul: I was born in Iraq though my early life was split fairly equally between Iraq and the UK. At the age of 13 we moved permanently to the UK. I still consider myself as an Arab first and foremost, though no doubt most Arabs would think me thoroughly British. I’m happy either way. I studied Marine Biology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and went on to do a PhD in Evolutionary Ecology, also at St. Andrews. Scotland has had a profound influence on me, being the location of much of what I feel is important in life, including immensely beautiful landscapes and solitude, and inspirational friends and great humour when the solitude gets too much. After my PhD I spent a formative year, in 1993, in the tropical forests of Vietnam working in protected areas with the Vietnamese Ministry of Forestry. Vietnam introduced me to the tropics, to rainforests, and to many wonderful people, including my wife (who happens to be Scottish – it’s a long story).

Vietnam proved to be the open door that led me to Southeast Asia more generally. A postdoc in Thailand quickly followed, where I had the very good fortune to work in Huay Kha Khaeng, a remote but truly amazing wildlife sanctuary, alongside some incredibly dedicated Thai conservationists. This also provided opportunities to work in Laos, Malaysia and Burma.

At the end of my postdoc I was rather pleased to be offered a faculty position at Imperial College London’s Silwood Park campus, and was immediately thrown into the cut and thrust of British academia – inspiring and infuriating in equal measure. Nonetheless, Silwood Park provided a great working environment, which allowed me to develop several projects on tropical ecology, land use and conservation in Malaysia, India, southern Africa and Latin America. After eight years in southeast England it was time to move, and I did, to Zurich, Switzerland, where I have been since 2005. In my current position I have continued to develop my tropical research though this has been supplemented by a number of climate adaptation and urban ecology projects in Europe. How long have you worked in tropical forest conservation and in what geographies? What is the focus of your work?

Jaboury Ghazoul: The start of my tropical work goes back to my year in Vietnam in 1993. I have never looked back. I have since worked in many locations, including Africa and Latin America, though most of my work has been in Malaysia and India, with some recent work in the Seychelles and Indonesia. Our work is broad, but the unifying feature is how changing land use affects ecological processes relating to plant reproduction, and what implications this has for conservation or food production. We approach this theme from ecological, genetic and social perspectives, and at a range of spatial scales. I say ‘we’ as our research is very much a team effort of geneticists, ecologists, and scientists working at the interface of ecology and social science. What excites me most is trying to link all these elements together into a coherent whole to respond to larger societal challenges. What do you see at the next big idea or emerging innovation in tropical forest conservation, and why?

Jaboury Ghazoul: Recent advances in genomics are very exciting. Understanding how functional genetics underlies individual performance and how this in turn shapes species distributions on local and regional scales is both fascinating and of particular relevance to current ecological challenges. We do not yet really understand how rapidly and effectively species might be able to respond to rapid environmental change, though there are now many cases of rapid evolutionary change. The problem is that no such studies have been conducted on tropical trees, and yet tropical forest biomes are experiencing very rapid and substantial changes. Some of these changes are chronic, such as land use transitions, habitat fragmentation, and climate change, while others are more acute, including severe droughts, fires or pest outbreaks. But what is really exciting, and I think often overlooked, are seemingly minor and ephemeral disturbances that might yet have lasting legacy. Some of our work implies that even minor flooding events that last no more than a day or two can determine the distribution of tree species in a forest. Such events are usually ignored or missed completely, but I suspect they are quite important on account of their frequency. Phenotype-genotype interactions and responses to changing environments have many implications for community resilience to change, and for conservation and habitat management and restoration. There is much we do not know and lots to do.

Another exciting development is the increasing willingness of researchers to work across traditional disciplinary boundaries, and particularly across the natural and social sciences. This is very challenging and there remain many barriers to this kind of interdisciplinary work, not least that it is difficult and requires a new kind of intellectual creativity (which make it all the more interesting). Yet it is also increasingly necessary if we are to properly integrate ecological insights into effective and widely acceptable decision making processes. Are you personally involved in any projects or research that represent emerging innovation in tropical forest conservation?

Jaboury Ghazoul: We are just beginning to think about applying functional genetic approaches to our work in Malaysia. While such approaches are now almost routinely used in model systems such as Arabidopsis, there is very little understanding of adaptive genetics in tropical trees. Thus we have a lot of ecological information about how tropical tree species respond to different environmental conditions, but we know little about the genetic basis of this and the extent to which genetic variation in adaptive traits might facilitate rapid evolutionary change in response to environmental changes caused by human activities. The rapid loss of many of the dipterocarp trees that dominate Southeast Asia’s rain forests imbues particular urgency to this work.

Another area of research that is particularly exciting, but also very challenging for me as an ecologist, is the work we are doing with social scientists to understand how decisions about land use management are made, and how the ecological knowledge we generate might be taken up and used by local communities, if at all. We have come to realize that concepts such as ecosystem services, which seem straightforward to us, become very complicated when viewed from the perspective of, say, a coffee farmer who has to take account of many different considerations when managing his land. Together with my colleague Claude Garcia, we are intending to extend these ideas to landscapes in which oil palm cultivation is, or is likely to be, a major land use.

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