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The future of tropical biology research and conservation

Fan palms in the Daintree rainforest in Far North Queensland. Photos by Rhett A. Butler.

Last week, the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), the world’s largest organization devoted to the study and conservation of tropical systems, held its 51st annual meeting in Cairns, Australia. In addition to the normal symposia, plenaries, and poster sessions on a wide range of conservation topics, the convening produced a declaration calling for stronger protection of the Great Barrier Reef and two resolutions on expanding research funding in Papua New Guinea and imploring Australia to restore its environmental leadership.

The selection of topics for these public statements — two conservation-oriented and one more directed toward traditional biological research — reflects the changing nature of the organization, which has evolved over the years from a pure biology society to one that now also emphasizes conservation of natural resources. While that shift has at times produced some tension within the group, ATBC seems to be increasingly interested in how it can go beyond straight research to also influence policy and conservation outcomes.

To get a better understanding of where ATBC may be heading in the future, polled several members, including past, current, and prospective leaders within the organization. Note that these comments reflect the views of researchers as individuals rather than the organization itself.


Robin Chazdon (University of Connecticut) – ATBC Executive Director

One of the areas we’re exploring is providing opportunities for members to engage beyond the annual conference and the journal. We’re looking into the idea of offering training sessions and short courses, including leadership programs that would help ATBC members strengthen their ability to communicate with the press and advance broader awareness of their work. A mentorship program that pairs young ATBC members with established scientists is also something that we plan to develop in the next year. We want to increase visibility of the research that our members conduct and to get our messages out clearly and prominently to policy makers and to the general public.

Another area for development is collaboration with other societies around specific interdisciplinary topics. ATBC’s strength is biology and conservation but solving environmental challenges will require a wide range of expertise.

Given these new areas, I see ATBC expanding in terms of scope, membership and budget in the long-term.

Tropical fungi in Far North Queensland

Susan Laurance (James Cook University) – ATBC President

I personally think the organization has a number of roles. First, it is charged with developing innovative and excellent research in tropical regions. Second, through capacity building in the tropics, we can broaden our impact beyond scientific literature into decision-making and policy development that will enhance conservation outcomes. To this second goal, I am very excited about how as a society we might seek funding in order to initiate programs such as “leadership training”, so that our future tropical scientists can also become society leaders. Its ambitious but if we don’t try to fill this void, no one else will.

Bar-shouldered Dove (Geopelia humeralis) outside Cairns, Australia

Alice C. Hughes (Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

As the most prominent tropical biology and conservation society I hope to see the society evolve to take a greater role in capacity building in addition to a more prominent role in raising awareness of conservation issues and priorities in various parts of the world. I can also see the efforts the ATBC is putting into making both these a reality. The ATBC is now making efforts to be more strategic in the conservation issues it is involved with, and make the processes behind the development of resolutions easier to enable developing countries to attract international attention and support to critical issues in their regions.

In addition to this, the capacity building elements are also being restructured to better meet the needs faced by researchers in developing apporaches to address the complex issues threatening their regions. As a member of several societies I can honestly say that my greatest affiliation is to the ATBC and especially the Asia-Pacific chapter, I very much hope that the efforts currently in motion will help raise the profile of the organization as an active conservation and biology organization, and maintain attention between conferences and allow the ATBC to be a recognized leader in raising awareness of conservation issues of conservation across the tropics.

Due to its growing impact in tropical ecosystems, palm oil is increasingly a topic of discussion at ATBC conferences.

William F. Laurance (James Cook University) – Director of ALERT

I’d like to see the ATBC continue its international growth. The organization is strong in Latin America and growing rapidly in the Asia-Pacific region, but it needs to increase its presence in Africa—which will be an epicenter of environmental change. We need much more research, training, and outreach in Africa to help manage the escalating environmental challenges there.

Beyond this, I’d like to see the ATBC become more engaged in real-world environmental issues, as leading advocates for sustainable development and conservation. We have a great deal of expertise and could and should play a bigger role.

Logging is a frequently topic at ATBC events. Some ecologists feel that selective logging is largely a benign activity, while others argues that it degrades forests, heightens the risk of fire, and opens the door to future deforestation.

Erin K. Kuprewicz (The National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution)

Actually, I would like to see ATBC evolve by returning to something that was fundamental to its creation: incorporating more input from early career scientists. Historically, ATBC has comprised members of all education and career stages (with many early career scientists serving as leaders on the council), but recently I feel that the association has lost some contact with the younger generation of tropical scientists. However, many people within the organization are eager to change this and with the creation of ATBC’s Student and Early Career Scientist chapter (SECSCI) we are moving towards this goal of more inclusivity and involvement from members of all academic and life stages.

For me, ATBC fulfills personal and professional needs (which for many of us scientists overlap a great deal). Personally, I appreciate the warmth and friendliness of this society’s members—this is an inclusive, rather than exclusive, group. By being a member and attending conferences, I have found many collaborators/friends, first as a graduate student and now as a postdoc. In ATBC I have also found an encouraging space for scientific development without the intimidation that can be present in other scientific societies. Tropical women scientists especially have held leadership positions within the organization (and within the field of tropical biology in general) since ATBC’s inception; women in tropical science are excelling and ATBC continues to serve as an example for the female STEM community at large. I think that we are fortunate to do what we love and interact with a welcoming community of tropical scientists, united under the ATBC network.

Great Barrier Reef off Cairns.

Emilio M. Bruna (University of Florida) – Editor-in-Chief, Biotropica

One of the most important things ATBC does is publish the journal Biotropica, which is an outlet for some of the leading scientific research in tropical biology and conservation. I think that via Biotropica the ATBC needs to continue serving as a source of innovative and comprehensive research, but that it also needs to play a bigger role in making this research more accessible to the people who need it most. This can be by training researchers in how to better communicate the importance of their results, making the data used in papers available to the broader community of researchers and managers, or working closely with journalists, bloggers, and other science communicators in the countries in which research is conducted to increase awareness of key scientific and conservation issues ATBC members and Biotropica authors are addressing.

Mareeba Rock Wallaby

Stephen M. Turton (James Cook University) – Chair, ATBC 2014 Conference

I believe ATBC needs to take a leaf out of Senator Christine Milne’s book and be prepared to taking a much stronger advocacy role in key environmental and conservation matters in our sphere of influence. We need to capitalize on our enormous intellectual capital across every tropical biome and find better ways to garner our knowledge and skills to reach out beyond our immediate peers. The Conservation Committee is one vehicle for enhancing our advocacy role but we need to explore other options and be prepared to seek funds to resource them, e.g. employing a full-time conservation officer to work with the Committee throughout the year.

Tree fern in the Daintree.

José M. V. Fragoso (Stanford University) – ATBC Conservation Committee

The ATBC should use its scientific weight more frequently to influence decision makers around the tropical world. I would like to see us not only comment but also actively engage politicians and policy setters when development projects are being considered and major environmental issues are under discussion. I would like us to be able to quickly respond to these types of situations.

I would also like to see us develop more coordinated efforts across our membership for joint projects that address global issues. Having members across the tropical world places us in a unique position to do this type of work. Finally, I would like to see us think more deeply about the tropics and generate sustainability guidelines for the world that originate for these deeper views.

Looking up the hollow trunk of a strangler fig.

Cam Webb (Harvard University) – ATBC Council 2008-2009

I value ATBC as a unique community that shares the experience of living and working in tropical nature (mainly rain forest), the desire to understand it, and a passion for its preservation. Members’ experiences also usually extend to living among the rural residents of tropical lands, leading to a nuanced sense of the complexities of conservation. ATBC’s annual meeting provides a wonderful opportunity for encouragement and validation of members’ scientific and broader missions, and I would love to see this community function of ATBC further extended throughout the year. However, I think the association can also find new, powerful ways to share its members’ knowledge, message and authenticity with the public and their leaders, both in tropical and temperate countries: I believe ATBC represents a scientific and human resource of great positive potential that we have only just begun to tap as we move further into this time of great global change. This year’s meeting gave me great hope that ATBC members are beginning to recognize and develop this potential.

Fruit in the Daintree rainforest

Pieter A. Zuidema (Wageningen Universiteit) – ATBC Council 2012-2013

I see the ATBC as a platform to connect professionals in tropical biology and conservation. The ATBC connects scientists across countries and continents, scientists working in different ecosystems and with different views on conservation, and it connects across generations. The relatively small size of annual meetings and the culture of low-profile interactions across generations and continents helps to form cohesion in the society.

As for the role of the ATBC in the future, I’d like to see that

Creek in Mossman Gorge

Pia Parolin (University of Hamburg) – ATBC Conservation Committee Chair; ATBC Council 2009-2010

ATBC should remain a leader as platform for tropical biology networking and science discussion, on a scientific basis, and improve its visibility internationally and locally. It is most of all a place for people who are PASSIONATE about tropical biology and conservation to meet. The role of conservation within the society needs to be consolidated, as everybody is aware it matters but relies on a few people to take action.

Sulfur-crested cockatoo in the Daintree

Antony Lynam (Wildlife Conservation Society) – Secretary, ATBC Asia-Pacific Chapter

The Asia – Pacific chapter is one of two sub-groups of the ATBC and the only regional group of its members. We started in 2006 and held our first meeting in Mahabalipuram, India. In 2014 we have representation from 17 countries around the region. Mostly our members are faculty in universities and their students, or from research institutions. I see our Asia – Chapter evolving in our region to bring together a more diverse cross-section of individuals involved in all aspects of tropical biodiversity conservation, from students and researchers to practitioners and implementers. We plan to use our future annual meetings to reach out to the developing countries in the region which are rich in tropical diversity but relatively poor in resources and expertise available for their research and conservation.

ATBC can play an increasingly important role in advising how to solve “wicked problems” in conservation. It can do this by assembling research and local knowledge and making it available to conservation planners and policy makers. At our annual meeting in Aceh, Indonesia, the conservation community called upon ATBC to make a statement about a proposed spatial plan for tropical rainforests that would potentially have huge impacts of wildlife and forests. With the support of our Conservation Committee, Asia – Pacific chapter was able to put out a timely Declaration that helped inform the debate about this critical issue. In 2014, the Conservation Committee rounded up ATBC members with relevant expertise to put together a Declaration calling for stronger protection of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, as well as Resolutions about the importance for Climate Change Mitigation and Environmental Protection in Australia, and about conservation and PNG. These examples show that ATBC can be a leader in the field.

Freshwater creek in the Daintree

Lian Pin Koh (Lian Pin Koh) – ATBC Web Editor; Founding Director,

I see two main roles of ATBC going forward. The association should continue to build relationships between researchers working in the tropics, particularly in terms of connecting student researchers to more senior scientists. ATBC has always done very well in fostering this ‘village’ feeling among tropical biologists. The second role going forward is to develop the ‘C’ in ATBC by being more vocal and active in communicating our science to policymakers.

Great Barrier Reef.

Yadvinder Malhi (University of Oxford)

I’d like at see ATBC becoming a “convening hub” for the science and conservations of tropical ecosystems, being a service for the wider community as well as its own membership. This includes becoming a centre for networking and distribution of information, but also support on strategic priorities such as capacity building in tropical nations, sharing educational materials, linking students to potential advisers, and bringing attention to neglected topics (e.g. seasonally dry forests) or regions (e.g. African forest regions). This means more activities between the annual meetings, possibly at the regional (continental) scale that is more amenable to interaction.

Mangroves in the Daintree

Jaboury Ghazoul (ETH Zürich)

The idea that tropical biology is a field of research that merits its title by virtue of geographic locality alone has been eclipsed by the massive growth of local research capacity and activity in many tropical countries. Scientists living and working in the tropics might be bemused to think of themselves as working within a ‘tropical biology’ discipline. I expect that they rather consider themselves to be biologists who happen to be living (and working) in the tropics. We may ask, indeed, if tropical biology is truly a distinct field from non-tropical biology other than by virtue of its locality. There probably is good reason to consider it as such, as there remain several ecological and environmental challenges (and questions) that are uniquely, or at least predominantly, tropical in prospect and nature. The most obvious of these is rapid land use change which continues to transform tropical systems at a rate that is unprecedented in human history. Of course there is a need for land allocation to food production and resource extraction, but there is a competing need for environmental management to mitigate the current and future costs of continued development. The constellation of rapid land use conversion and the immense richness of tropical systems provides particular context and emphasis to a distinct field of tropical biology. This context demands effective management, informed by the best science available, to resolve these predominantly tropical challenges.

It is ATBC’s role to facilitate and support the production of this ‘best science’, and its dissemination and delivery to other scientists, as well as stakeholders, policy makers and the wider public. ATBC, as the world’s largest association of scientists working in the tropics, has a responsibility to offer expertise, information and guidance to support well-informed decision making. While scientific excellence has never been as impressive as it is now, we have been somewhat less effective (with some notable individual exceptions) in communicating new scientific knowledge in clear, transparent, accessible and targeted ways. In this respect we have failed decision makers and failed the society that funds us. This is a central challenge that ATBC will have to grapple with in the coming years.

To reverse this failure, the ATBC should play a more active role in encouraging ecologists and conservationists to look beyond what occupies them on a day-to-day basis. This should include better engagement with media, extension agencies and policy makers. We need training to do this well, and the ATBC could facilitate the provision of these essential communication and outreach skills.

Related to this goal is the need for our ecologically-orientated prescriptions to bear some semblance to realities on the ground. Our fellow academics in the social, economic and political sciences could teach us a thing or two about the pursuit of not only credible scientific outputs, but also outputs that are sensitive to the variety of risks and constraints to which land users, companies and policy makers are exposed. ATBC is well placed to catalyze fertile cross-disciplinary interaction as its own membership includes ecologists working alongside socioeconomic and political scientists to deliver science for impact. Rather than just looking inwards to the heart of our ecological discipline, we should also look out to its fuzzy boundaries. By reaching across such boundaries to complementary disciplines we can deliver conservation-oriented solutions that are more likely to be acceptable to local actors.

Moreover, the ATBC should be engaging with conservation-focused non-government organizations (NGOs) who, in recent years, seem to have divested much of their in-house research capacity in favor of more direct influence embedded within business and government partnerships. This is no bad thing, so long as pathways for the transfer of new scientific knowledge to these NGOs remain open and strong. The ATBC has an important role to play in fostering collaborations between scientists and NGOs to ensure the uptake of scientific knowledge, which will in turn maintain the credibility and effectiveness of environmental NGOs.

The purpose, procedures and players in ecological research in the tropics have changed greatly since the ATBC’s birth 50 years ago. The ATBC is evolving to meet new demands and expectations. This includes wider engagement of scientists with global society, including governments, NGOs and, of course, other academics. Above all, though, the ATBC will serve as the society that fosters excellent ecological and conservation research by supporting students and young scientists. To do so effectively requires the active participation of the membership. The society can be much more than the sum of its parts, or it can be less. That depends on the members.