When the United States Embassy in New Zealand asks if you’ll do an Earth Day post about impacts of mismanaged waste on the global environment—with a focus on seabirds—what do you do? Quick, call Lilly Sedaghat and Steph Borrelle!
This week Borrelle, Sedaghat, and I had a group video chat about the plastic problem: what’s so bad about the situation we’re in (for seabirds, humans, and the environment), and what we can do about it. Our conversation about this massive topic is massively simplified below…
How does plastic pollution affect humans and the environment? (And how do seabirds fit into that story?)
Plastic is flooding into the ocean with ever-growing speed: around 8 million metric tons of it entered the sea in 2010, projected to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025. Besides being disturbing to think about, that gargantuan amount of nondecomposing material does all sorts of damage. One of plastic’s most insidious roles, Borrelle said, is as a sponge for toxins. When animals eat microplastics and are in turn eaten by other animals, those toxins get passed up the food chain and concentrated in apex predators—like seabirds, and humans.
In some parts of the world, including New Zealand, humans may actually ingest toxin-laced plastics through seabirds. As we speak, there’s a traditional annual seabird harvest happening on the southern New Zealand islands, just off of Rakiura (where I’m stationed right now). About 400,000 sooty shearwaters—known by Māori as tītī—are harvested on these islands every year, Borrelle said. She is working on a project involving the passage of toxins from plastics to seabirds to humans, and has colleagues studying how that phenomenon “is being translated into human health impacts.” It’s an issue particularly in need of investigation, she noted, because these indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by other negative social and economic factors.
Unsurprisingly, plastic can also harm the seabirds themselves. Toxins carried by ingested microplastics can be absorbed into body tissues; many such chemicals are estrogen mimickers that can cause reproductive problems. Larger plastic fragments pose other problems with fatal results—they can damaging internal organs when eaten, or simply entangle and drown wildlife. The biggest problem, Borrelle said, is when parents feed chicks a regurgitated meal containing plastics, which ends up killing the young birds through starvation and dehydration. Zooming out to the population level, a lot remains to be studied. Borrelle is in the midst of a project looking at the factors that might influence seabirds to ingest plastic, to see if it’s possible to predict the risk for species we don’t have data on yet. She has hopes to get more studies running, with the collaboration of groups such as the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust, to find out more about plastic ingestion and the impacts on wildlife in understudied regions.
It pays to investigate these effects on seabirds, and not just for their own sake. Being long-lived and slow-reproducing animals that spend their lives on the ocean, seabirds are particularly good bioindicators of ocean health. “They’ve been telling us about these sort of plastic pollution levels since the 1970s,” Borrelle said. “New Zealand was one of the first places we found plastic in birds,” specifically in fairy prions washed up on the beach. In the northern hemisphere, she said, a study on northern fulmars is “one of the longest and most extensive plastic ingestion monitoring programs for any species,” but much more study is needed in the southern hemisphere. Seeing Antarctic albatrosses coming from the southern ocean with plastic in them, Borrelle said, brings home the direness of the situation.
What can people do to turn the tide of plastic pollution?
To combat the plastic problem, individual people can take responsibility for their trash—in terms of choosing and using materials, as well as channeling those materials onward to waste management systems. Sedaghat is leading by example: she is currently video-blogging her 12-day zero-plastic waste challenge, and on an ongoing basis is providing resources for people to understand waste management systems and how best to use them (e.g. “7 things you didn’t know about plastic and recycling“).
But in order to navigate that complexity, people have to care—enough to pay attention and change their habits. Borrelle has encountered plenty of resistance while working to make the city of Auckland plastic-bag free. “People like convenience,” she said. “A lot of people tend to resist change when they think it’s going to affect their quality of life.” One way of convincing people that the effort is worthwhile: putting the unsavory effects of plastic into the forefront of public consciousness. Sedaghat is currently working on ways of doing that in Taiwan. “A lot of the challenge has to do with people not visually seeing or being affected personally in their own lives by the results of plastic over the long term: how it affects sea animals, how it affects the human body.”
So educating individuals on consumption, disposal, and effects of plastic is vital. But individuals’ ability to control their own plastic use and disposal depends on many factors, including what products are available to them and what waste management systems are set up where they live. A recycling symbol, Sedaghat notes, is by no means a guarantee that waste is being recycled. In both New Zealand and Taiwan, a lot of “recycling” is currently going straight to the dump (more so now that China has stopped accepting imports of plastic waste), simply because there are insufficient facilities and systems in place. “Recycling companies are only effective if there’s money to be made off those recycled products,” Sedaghat said.
That concept holds true at the production end as well as the disposal end. “Everything comes down to the market, and the price in the market, and what people want in the market,” Sedaghat said. Real change comes from governments pushing against the big industries that have control over the market—which in case of plastics is none other than the petroleum industry. So how can individuals play a role in that change? How can you make a dent in the sea of plastic packaging that greets you in the supermarket, or a city-wide waste system that channels your recycling to the dump?
I asked if community groups provide that much-needed bridge between individuals and the larger political and economic game, and Sedaghat and Borrelle concurred. “Community groups have been the strongest leaders in actually pushing forward these kinds of initiatives,” Borrelle said. She cited the case of New Zealand’s Waiheke Island, where islanders had their own system with “an incredibly high quality of recoverable waste” that was in high demand for overseas buyers. “That kind of grassroots movement is really important for providing evidence to governments that people actually want to see change.”
What’s the outlook for the plastic problem?
There are parallels between the anti-plastic mission, Borrelle said, and the crusade against smoking that began in the 20th century. Notably, each of those movements has involved standing up against the marketing and lobbying of a giant industry. “Plastic and oil are intimately related,” she said. “Eight percent if not more of the oil extracted every year is turned into plastic products—so you are fighting against this massive propoganda machine.”
That battle includes dispelling fear-mongering rooted in industry interests. “The idea that you would ‘lose jobs’ is a scary thought, but the reality is that people will adapt to what the market desires,” Sedaghat said. She described a situation in Taiwan where plastic manufacturers—many of them small family businesses—adapted instantly to a demand for corn starch plastics by overseas companies. “They literally just take the same system, same machines, and they just insert the corn-based pellets versus the oil-based pellets into the machines to create the plastics,” she said. “And they’re able to do that because there’s money that’s made.”
As the smoking status quo has taken decades upon decades to shift, we can expect a similarly prolonged time frame for improvement in plastic waste management. “Social change can be super slow,” Borrelle said, yet it snowballs as people are influenced by the shifting attitudes of their peers. In another parallel, methods that proved effective in changing attitudes about smoking can be applied to plastics. One such strategy for inducing change—particularly at the legislative level—is focusing on human health impacts, which are closely tied to environmental health impacts particularly where plastics are concerned.
Despite the rampant overuse of plastic bags and other single-use products that will never decompose and really shouldn’t be brought into the world by sane humans, it’s important to remember that plastics are invaluable for certain purposes, Borrelle said. Among other things they can offer crucial benefits in medical fields, furnish vital access to clean water and food, and help save the day after natural disasters. But plastic production and use needs to be accompanied by an infrastructure that can actually handle the waste, without the egregious environmental damage we’re seeing right now.
“It’s always more complex than these really simplistic ideas that get bandied about,” Borrelle said. “But if we don’t do anything, the long-term impacts are going to be incredibly severe.”
This has been a very superficial dip into a deep issue that I’m just starting to learn about. To really dive into it, follow Steph Borrelle and Lilly Sedaghat as they each investigate how to turn the plastic tide—for the benefit of seabirds, humans, and everything else.
La conservación es un desafío tanto social como biológico. Durante cinco años llevando a cabo un proyecto participativo de investigación de ballenas en un pequeño pueblo mexicano, aprendí tanto sobre el comportamiento humano como sobre los mamíferos marinos. Recopilamos datos innovadores sobre ballenas jorobadas y delfines durante nuestro estudio de 1600 horas, pero el verdadero éxito fue inspirar y apoyar a la comunidad de 600 personas para que se hicieran cargo de la salud de su medio ambiente marino. Después de cinco años, la comunidad está dando los primeros pasos para revertir décadas de degradación ambiental en lo que una vez fue y volverá a ser el país de las maravillas de los naturalistas.
Estos son los diez mejores consejos que aprendí en ese camino.
Priorizar las conexiones humanas por encima de los objetivos establecidos.
La conservación es desordenada, no lineal y difícil de cuantificar a corto plazo. Los científicos son a menudo los primeros en llegar a un lugar, evaluar su estado ecológico y determinar los siguientes pasos. Los científicos exitosos deben tener tendencias perfeccionistas y una afinidad hacia la categorización y cuantificación. También tienden a ser introvertidos. Es difícil dejar la cámara, alejarse de la computadora y tomar una escoba o pasar el rato en una puerta con alguien que no conoces muy bien. Pero es más importante responder a las preguntas sobre lo que viste en el campo ese día que limpiar, preparar y guardar rápidamente el equipo caro del día.
Ganando amigos e influenciando a la gente con nuestros cepillos y escobas de fregaR. Photo Por Terra Hanks
Enfócate en la gente adecuada. (¡Pregúntales a los locales quiénes son!)
Cuando empecé, pensé que estaría trabajando con los pescadores mayores del pueblo. Como pescador que le encanta estar cerca de los barcos y escuchar las viejas sales balbuceando, esto sonó como una excelente manera de pasar cinco años. Pero después de mi desordenado año piloto, pregunté por todo el pueblo cómo podía ayudarles mejor. Me dijeron que si quería mejorar la salud del océano y la vida de la gente del pueblo, debía concentrarme en los niños, las mujeres y los jóvenes que estaban por encontrar su camino. ¿Qué niños? ¿Qué mujeres? ¿Qué jóvenes? Presté mucha atención y pregunté por ahí. Mientras que los niños becados de alto rendimiento en el pueblo se beneficiaron de nuestros programas en la escuela, fueron los niños luchadores de campo libre y aquellos que necesitaban más atención quienes terminaron adquiriendo las habilidades más profundas en computación, recolección de datos y mantenimiento de equipo, además de recibir una fuerte infusión de inglés y nutrición basada en plantas.
Sebastian Cabrera es un chico joven que vive en la misma casa donde se encuentra nuestro despacho improvisado. Nunca perdió la oportunidad de subir a bordo, caminar hasta una estación de observación basada en tierra, y se puso a disposición para limpiar el equipo, hacer diligencias, y entrar en los datos durante el estudio de cinco años. Para el año cuatro, él estaba haciendo presentaciones sofisticadas acerca de las ballenas en la vecina ciudad de Zihuatanejo y él está planeando convertirse en un biólogo cuando crezca. Aquí, Sebastian rastrea a una ballena como lo graba Manolo Mendieta desde arriba con un dron. Foto POR Terra HanksSebastián en su puesto habitual en nuestra oficina trabajando en redactar el Resumen diario de campo junto a Terra, Manuel y Claudia. Foto POR Katherina AudleySebastián ofrece una presentación sobre las ballenas durante un mercado de agricultores en Zihuatanejo. El miembro del equipo, Terra Hanks, el mayor motivador y apoyo de Sebastian, escucha con deleite mientras clava su charla. Foto por Abel Organiz.
Encontré a las mujeres con los restaurantes de cocina más exitosos con quienes las otras mujeres se llevaban bien y alquilaban sus casas, puse a los internos con sus familias y les pagamos para alimentar a nuestro equipo una vez a la semana.
Translate Araceli Oregon organiza sus artesanías inspiradas en la naturaleza durante la Feria de arte del pueblo. Las mujeres artistas pueden ganar lo que un pescador gana en un mes durante este evento tan esperado. Foto por Katherina Audley
Me concentré en los jóvenes que tenían una inclinación hacia el ecoturismo y el emprendimiento.
El pescador local y empresario de ecoturismo, Arturo MELLÍN, recogió datos acústicos y de avistamiento con nuestro equipo. Después de cinco años de trabajo, se convirtió en el experto más importante de la región en mamíferos marinos locales. En la foto, Arturo recoge datos acústicos mientras que el biólogo Pablo CHEVALLARD Navarro registra la temperatura del agua. Foto por Patrick WEISHAMPEL/BLANKEYEDurante un viaje de recolección de datos del campo de Ciencias ciudadanas de la escuela secundaria, levanté la mirada de la grabación de datos para ver que todos los estudiantes habían emigrado a la parte posterior del barco y estaban escuchando, extasiados, a Arturo, como él les enseñó acerca de sus ballenas locales. Foto por Katherina Audley
Mantenga una taza de café y cerveza fría, agua mineral y bocadillos sabrosos en su refrigerador.
Los cambios de opinión no ocurren durante las reuniones. Suceden con un café o una cerveza. La comida crea amistades; las amistades crean confianza; la confianza hace posibles los saltos de fe y las decisiones aterradoras. La conservación NO se trata de los animales que estás tratando de salvar. Se trata de las personas y las relaciones que necesitas construir.
Trabaja duro para integrarte.
Vive en la comunidad hospedada por familias, no en un grupo de científicos. Es mucho más barato poner a su equipo en una sola casa y cocinar sus comidas juntos y compartir los gastos de la casa. Pero es la manera menos eficiente de conocer la comunidad anfitriona. Comer fuera, contratar a gente local, involucrarse, ir a las fiestas, bailar, comer y reírse juntos. Averigüe cómo puede ayudar, ya sea enseñando inglés, recogiendo botellas a medio usar de bloqueador solar y repelente de insectos para repartir a la gente local, o saltando para echar una mano con una llanta ponchada, cavando zanjas o poniendo algo pesado en la caja de una camioneta. Descubrirán cuáles son las preocupaciones y los problemas subyacentes, cómo encaja la comunidad y aprenderán cómo pueden trabajar juntos hacia un futuro más saludable.
Los internos del equipo, Andrea García Chávez y Dane McDermott se casó en una fiesta de la aldea para el deleite y la hilaridad de los mirones. Foto por Pablo CHEVALLARD Navarro
Procura la compasión y humildad.
Escucha más de lo que hablas. Es estupendo cuando los científicos y los educadores comparten sus conocimientos, pero he visto a locales muy bien informados cerrarse y dejar de compartir lo que ven y saben después de haber hablado sobre las maravillas de su entorno. También he visto a más científicos burlarse y agitar la cabeza ante la basura, el abuso de animales, las condiciones insalubres, la dieta poco saludable y la falta de educación que encuentran en el extranjero de lo que puedo soportar. Si usted puede darse el lujo de trabajar en otro país para resolver los problemas de otra persona, se encuentra entre los más ricos y afortunados. Trate continuamente de entender las perspectivas locales, pero suponga que no entiende. Así queda más espacio para la conversación y el crecimiento, en ambos sentidos.
Invite y vuelva a invitar a todos a asistir a todos sus programas. Además, haga posible que la gente asista haciendo que sus programas se ajusten a los tiempos de la comunidad.
Abel organiz, un interno del proyecto local que aprendió las habilidades de la computadora y de la ciencia que trabajaba con nuestro equipo, montó un hidrófono usando los materiales localmente disponibles para utilizar y para vender a las guías nuevamente minted del reloj de ballena. Foto por KATHERINA Audley
Esté disponible para trabajar con todos, especialmente al principio. Da crédito a todos. Asóciate con otros grupos de investigación y conservación. Comparta sus datos. Algunas personas no estarán de acuerdo contigo y no les gustará o no confiarán en tu agenda. Escúchalos, estate disponible para ellos, asegúrese de que estén invitados a todas las actividades, pero no pase demasiado tiempo con ellos. Siempre habrá algunas personas que no quieren trabajar con usted.
Sea honesto, transparente y accesible.
La gente le preguntará de dónde viene su dinero. Diles. La gente querrá saber cómo es que usted es capaz de estar allí. Cuéntales sobre tu vida, cómo es que eres capaz de estar allí. Comparta sus éxitos y fracasos localmente, todos los días. Ten lista una explicación de por qué su trabajo es importante que cualquiera pueda entender. Explica cómo tu trabajo y hallazgos beneficiarán a la comunidad. Si no lo puedes hacer, es posible que no estés haciendo un trabajo importante.
Llegue a tiempo; sea consistente.
La integridad lo es todo. Cómo se hace cualquier cosa es cómo se hace todo.
Asume la noble intención.
Cree en la bondad de la gente. Sólo un pequeño porcentaje de la gente quiere dañar el planeta o hacer algo malo. La mayoría de la gente quiere hacer lo correcto y disfrutar ayudando. Haz que la gente se convierta en héroes del océano y campeones de la naturaleza – haz que valga la pena. Muchas personas toman las decisiones que toman porque no conocen nada mejor o pueden no tener la capacidad de elegir de manera diferente. Tenemos que ser conscientes de que la mayoría de la gente es buena. Si empezamos en un lugar de juicio, entonces probablemente ya hemos perdido.
Al atender las relaciones y enfocarme en áreas de interés compartido, más que en mi agenda preconcebida, el Proyecto de Investigación de Ballenas de Guerrero ha tomado un mayor propósito. Hemos completado nuestro estudio de cinco años sobre ballenas y delfines, comenzamos un intercambio de conocimientos con grupos de conservación y ecoturismo en Baja California, y ahora estamos co-creando un plan para los próximos cinco años que permitirá a la comunidad transformar su relación con el medio ambiente marino y, como resultado, devolverle la salud. Los invito a seguir aquí en National Geographic Voices, o vengan a aprender más y apoyar nuestro trabajo en https://www.whalesinmexico.com.
Seguimos oyendo que los niños locales querían ser biólogos cuando crecieron, así que les pedí que dibujaran fotos de lo que ellos piensan que hacen los científicos. Aquí, un chico local ha dibujado una vista aérea de nuestro equipo de trabajo en nuestras computadoras en nuestra casa simple en el centro de la aldea desde la comodidad de las sillas de plástico corona playa. ¡ una descripción muy precisa de la vida de un científico!
I spent the past five years running a participatory whale research project in a tiny village in SW Pacific Mexico. We collected groundbreaking data on humpback whales and dolphins during our 1600-hour study, but the real success was inspiring and supporting the 600-person community to take ownership of their struggling marine environment’s health. After five years, the community is taking first steps to reverse decades of environmental degradation in what was once and will be again a naturalist’s wonderland.These are the top ten tips I learned along that way.
Prioritize human connections over stated objectives.
Conservation is messy, non-linear and difficult to quantify in the short term. Scientists are often the first outsiders to come into a place, assess its ecological state and determine next steps. Successful scientists must have perfectionist tendencies and an affinity toward categorization and quantification. They also tend to be introverts. It is hard to put down the camera, step away from the computer and pick up a broom or hang out on a stoop with someone you don’t know very well. But it is more important to take a little time answering questions about what you saw out there in the field that day with a local than to get the expensive, hard-to-obtain and even harder to repair gear cleaned and put away for the day.
THE WHALES OF GUERRERO TEAM WINNING FRIENDS AND INFLUENCING PEOPLE VIA SCRUB BRUSH AND BROOM. Photo by terra Hanks.
Focus on the right people. (Ask locals who they are!)
When I started out, I thought I would be working with the senior fishermen in the village. As a fisherman who loves to hang out on boats and listen to old salts gnatter away, this seemed like an excellent way to spend five years. But after a messy but successful pilot year, I asked around the village about how I could help them best. They told me if I wanted to improve the health of the ocean and the lives of the people in the village, I should focus on kids, women, and young men who were just finding their way. Which kids? Which women? Which young men? I paid a lot of attention and asked around. I ended up focusing on the feistiest free range kids and those who needed the most attention. They were the ones who rushed our boat when we returned from the field each day, eager to get the daily whale scoop. They ate with us, helped maintain our gear, enter data and rallied the whole village to attend our weekly workshops and presentations. While we lit up thousands of kids through our school and library programs, it is this little posse of kids who have gained skills, knowledge and inspiration over five years with us, that will lead the village toward long term, lasting health.
Sebastian Cabrera (in orange above) lives in the same house where our makeshift office is. He never misses an opportunity to hop aboard and made himself available as gear cleaner, errand runner data enterer throughout the 5-year study. Here, Sebastian tracks a whale as Manolo Mendieta records it from above with a drone. Photo by Terra HanksSebastian at his usual post in our office working on writing up the daily field summary alongside Terra, Manuel and Claudia. Photo by Katherina AudleyBy year four, sebastian was making sophisticated presentations about whales in the neighboring city of Zihuatanejo and he plans on becoming a biologist when he grows up. here, project member Terra Hanks, Sebastian’s biggest motivator and support, listens with delight as he nails a talk at the zihuatanejo farmer’s market. Photo by Abel Organiz.
I found the women with the most successful kitchen restaurants who the other women got along with and rented their houses, put interns in with their families and paid them to feed our team once a week. We also assisted in every way possible with the creation and growth of a women-run village arts fair.
Araceli Oregon arranges her nature-inspired crafts during the village arts fair. Women artists can earn in a day what a fisherman earns in a month during this annual event. Photo by Katherina Audley
I focused on the young men who had a bent toward ecotourism and entrepreneurism and who hadn’t already blown it so many times as to have lost respect in the village.
Local fisherman and ecotourism entrepreneur, Arturo Mellín, collected acoustic and sighting data with our team for five years. Pictured here, Arturo collects acoustic data while biologist, Pablo Chevallard NavarRo records water temperature. Photo by Patrick Weishampel/Blankeye.By year five with our study, Arturo had become the region’s foremost expert on marine mammals. pictured here: During a high school citizen science whale survey, I looked up from writing to see that the students had all migrated to the back of the boat and were listening, enraptured, as Arturo taught them about their neighborhood whales. Photo by katherina Audley
Keep a pot of coffee on and cold beer, mineral water and tasty snacks in your fridge.
Changes of heart don’t happen during meetings. They happen over coffee or a beer. Food creates friendships; friendships create trust; trust makes leaps of faith and scary decisions possible. Conservation is NOT about the animals you are trying to save. It is about the people and relationships you need to build.
Work hard to integrate yourself.
Live in the community hosted by families, not in a clump of scientists. It’s a lot less expensive to put your team in one house and to cook your meals together and share the household expenses. But it’s the least efficient way to get to know your host community. Eat out, hire local people, get involved, go to the parties, dance, eat and laugh together. Find out how you can help – whether it is teaching English, collecting half-used bottles of sunblock and bug repellent to dole out to locals, or jumping in to give a hand with a flat tire, ditch digging or lifting something heavy onto a truck bed. You’ll find out what the underlying concerns and issues are, how the community fits together and you’ll learn how you can all work together toward a healthier future.
Team interns, Andrea García Chavez and Dane McDermott get faux married at a village party to the delight and hilarity of onlookers. Photo by Pablo Chevallard Navarro
Strive for compassion and humility.
Listen more than you talk. It is great when scientists and educators share their knowledge but I’ve seen very knowledgeable locals shut down and quit sharing what they see and know after having been speechified to on the wonders of their environment. I’ve also seen more scientists scoff and shake their heads at the garbage, animal abuse, unsanitary conditions, unhealthy diet and lack of education than I can stomach. If you have the luxury of working in another country on someone else’s problems, you are among the very rich and fortunate. Try continuously to understand local perspectives, but assume you don’t understand. It leaves more room for conversation and growth, both ways.
Invite and re-invite everyone to come to all of your programs. Also, make it possible for people to attend by having your programs fit with the timing of the community.
Abel Organiz, a local project intern who learned computer and science skills working with our team, assembled a hydrophone using locally available materials to use and sell to newly minted whale watch guides. Photo by Katherina Audley
Be available to work with everyone, especially at first. Give credit to everyone. Partner with other research and conservation groups. Share your data. Some people will not agree with you and will not like you or trust your agenda. Listen to them, be available to them, make sure they are invited to all activities, but do not spend too much time on them. There will always be some people who do not want to work with you.
Be honest, transparent and accessible.
People will ask where your money comes from. Tell them. People will want to know how it is that you are able to be there. Tell them about your life and how it is that you are able to afford to be there. Share your successes and failures locally, every day. Be ready with an explanation on why your work matters that anyone can understand. Explain how your work and findings will benefit the community immediately and in the long term. If it will not, you might not be doing important work.
Show up on time; be consistent.
Integrity is everything. How you do anything is how you do everything.
Assume noble intent.
Believe in the goodness of people. Only a tiny percentage of people want to hurt the planet or do the wrong thing. Most people want to do the right thing and enjoy helping. Set people up to be heroes of the ocean and champions for nature – make it worth their while. Many people make the choices they make because they don’t know any better or may not have the ability to choose differently. We need to be aware that most people are good. If we start from a place of judgment then you have probably already lost.
We kept hearing that local kids wanted to be biologists when they grew up, and so I asked them to draw pictures of what scientists do. Here, a local kid drew an aerial view of our team working on our computers in our simple village house, ensconced in plastic Corona beach chairs, glued to our computers. A truly accurate depiction of the life of a scientist!
In October of 2015, Tanjona Ramiadantsoa walked into my office at Princeton University. “They tell me you work in my country!” he said. I glanced up from the dissertation chapter looming on my computer screen to take in his stereotypical Maki-brand baobab T-shirt. “Malagasy ianao!” I said. “You are Malagasy!” And a new collaboration was born.
I wrote to you last as a Princeton doctoral student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where I studied the transmission dynamics of potentially zoonotic–or human-infecting–viruses carried by Malagasy fruit bats. Disease ecologists like myself use mathematical modeling tools to understand how pathogens persist in finite host populations over time–and to predict when such pathogens are most likely to pass from one individual to another. I wrapped up that PhD a few months ago and started a postdoctoral fellowship with the Miller Institute at UC Berkeley, but I’m still chasing answers to many of the same questions as before.
Tanjona is a Madagascar-born mathematical biologist who did his PhD training under the celebrated father of metapopulation theory, Ilkka Hanski, at the University of Helsinki. Like me, Tanjona is now a postdoctoral fellow – he at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – and he studies how environmental degradation affects biodiversity loss. Conservation biologists use metapopulation theory to model how species might survive habitat fragmentation by seeking refuge in neighboring patches of still-intact habitat. Typically, species with better dispersal capacities, or the ability to move between distant habitats, are more resilient to fragmented terrain. As Tanjona will tell you, disease ecology and conservation biology are essentially the same thing, except that disease ecologists typically are interested in making their pathogens go extinct, while conservation biologists are doing their utmost to help their species avoid such a fate.
Together, Tanjona and I organize the eight-person instructor team that teaches E2M2: Ecological and Epidemiological Modeling in Madagascar, a week-long workshop in quantitative biology aimed to introduce Malagasy graduate-level students in science and public health to the use of models in their research. We teach the course at Center ValBio, a research station in spectacular Ranomafana National Park, close to the offices of one of our partners, the health-care NGO, PIVOT. In keeping with the spirit of E2M2, PIVOT uses quantitative modeling tools to evaluate the impacts of their healthcare interventions, and their research advisor, Andres Garchitorena, is one of our instructors. Our course is additionally supported by Princeton’s Center for Health and Well-Being and the Institut Pasteur of Madagascar (IPM).
This year’s class of E2M2: Epidemiological Modeling in Madagascar gathers out front of Centre ValBio (CVB), Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar. January 2018. Photo by CVB staff.
“What is a model?” Tanjona asks on day one, showing a slide with an image of an attractive man in a tight sweater. The class laughs appreciatively.
Models are simplified versions of reality, and we use them to try to understand patterns in the real world. “All models are wrong,” statistician George Box, once famously said, “but some are useful.” As scientists, we know that we are largely incapable of explaining all complex processes in an ecosystem, but we hope that by building models of simplified subsets of reality, we might better understand at least a few aspects of the larger ecosystem. Tanjona and I primarily build models in the form of mathematical equations, which produce projections of interacting population densities over time – we can model populations of viruses, infected hosts, or endangered species in much the same way. And just as we hope that the sweater might look as good on us as it does on the model in Tanjona’s powerpoint, we aim for our equations to accurately recapture the past or predict the future.
It’s been a full year since I last set foot on the Eighth Continent, my longest absence from Madagascar since I started my doctoral research in 2013. The past year was exhausting and sometimes disillusioning—what with defending my dissertation, guiding my PhD chapters through peer review, and moving across the country. My Malagasy is “votsa” – rusty, like a dull knife – on arrival, and my mind is scattered. But it takes only a few breakfasts of sugary coffee and vary amin’anana (soupy rice) to feel at peace once more.
“Should I remake last year’s tutorial to match the model we went over in class today?” It is evening after a long day of teaching, and I peer at tomorrow’s schedule as I ask advice of Jessica Metcalf and Amy Wesolowski, fellow E2M2 instructors and assistant professors, respectively, at Princeton and Johns Hopkins University. “It will be more work but better teaching,” says Jess, and there is no question left in my mind. I feel rejuvenated, refreshed, and inspired to do the best I can for the students at hand. And I think to myself—this is how teaching is supposed to feel.
Next morning, I present the revised lesson on model fitting – how to adjust those equations to make the sweater fit the data a bit better – and the students are interested but also confused. “Rado would like to clarify a few points,” my longtime colleague and fellow instructor, Christian Ranaivoson, whispers to me as I wrap up the tutorial. And Rado J.L. Rakotonanahary, a scientist with IPM’s Plague Unit, steps in to explain the concept of maximum likelihood – a statistical method used to measure how closely a model replicates the data – in more sophisticated Malagasy than I am likely to ever learn to speak. I feel the pride of teacher-turned-student as I watch the class nod in comprehension.
At the end of the week, we return to Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, and the students present their independent research questions and model frameworks in cautious but excellent English at Institut Pasteur. I smile as I watch Soa Fy Andriamandimby, of the Virology Unit of Institut Pasteur, present her theoretical approach to rabies eradication on Madagascar Island, and Andry Ny Aina Rakotomalala, of the Department of Entomology at the University of Antananarivo, passionately describe his network model on the behavioral dynamics of invasive-native ant interactions in Madagascar—and his plans for lab-based experiments to test it.
“In a few years, I am going to be obsolete here,” I laugh to fellow instructor Fidisoa Rasambainarivo (‘Fidy’), a Malagasy veterinarian and PhD student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Already, three course alumni—Jean-Marius Rakotondramanga, Ornella Assimini, and Antso Raherinandrasana, respectively of IPM, IPM, and the Madagascar National Institute for Public Health— serve as mentors who teach a subset of E2M2’s curriculum. In the future, we hope to take on even more.
Fidy tells me that he is in the process of starting up a new Madagascar-based laboratory, which he calls “Mahaliana” – to spark interest. His lab’s slogan – “It always starts with a question” – captures the sentiments of E2M2 well. Critical thinking and creative, independent research ideas are more valuable than any computational skill that we might teach. Yes, programming is one component of E2M2, but the art of building a useful model is what we are really striving to convey.
We close out the week with an instructors’ meeting with Julio Rakotonirina, Antso’s supervisor at the Madagascar National Institute for Public Health, who serves as our program evaluator. Julio meets with the students both during the week and after to gather anonymous feedback for how best to improve our workshop. There are criticisms, of course, but on the whole, the students are very happy. I close my eyes and recall their singing at our final banquet, momentarily lost in the magic of Madagascar and the euphoria of a job well done.
E2M2: Epidemiological Modeling in Madagascar in action. From left to right, top to bottom: (a) Teacher Cara Brook and student Fabien Waibel, (b) Teacher Jessica Metcalf, (c) Teacher Amy Wesolowski, (d) Teacher Andres Garchitorena, (e) Teacher Tanjona Ramiadantsoa and student Ladintsoa Randrianary, (f) Teacher Cara Brook, (g) Mentor Antso Raherinandrasana, (h) teacher Fidisoa Rasambainarivo, (i) teacher Amy Wesolowski and student Elinambinina Rajaonarifara. Photo (h) by Tanjona Ramiadantsoa; all others by Fidisoa Rasambainarivo.
Featured image caption:
E2M2 student, Tsilavo Razafimanantsoa, investigates a brown leaf chameleon (Brookesia superciliaris) in Ranomafana National Park. January 2018. Photo by Cara Brook.
It was mid-morning in a reserve in Zimbabwe when a senior ranger came to deliver the news. “There’s a baby,” was all he said at first to GWC’s wildlife crime prevention officer, James Slade, who at the time was senior warden of the reserve. Earlier that morning, a team of rangers had found the tracks of an aging female Black Rhino. They followed her tracks and then suddenly…the four tracks became eight.
“The rangers hadn’t realized that the rhino was pregnant,” Slade says. “The light in this rangers’ eyes as he told me about the events of that patrol will stick with me forever. This hardened veteran, on the verge of tears knowing that the rhino population was increasing, knowing that a new life had begun, was so inspiring. I knew then that there was real hope for conservation efforts, and that that hope was thanks to rangers.”
Rangers of Zimbabwe’s National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority parade in celebration of World Rangers Day. (Photo by James Slade)
In an homage to the people and rhino of Zimbabwe, the rangers went on to name the newborn rhino “Misinzo,” which roughly translates to “a good omen at the beginning of a long journey” and “a good omen at the end of a long journey.” Since then, the population of rhino has continued to increase on the reserve, and to date not a single rhino has been lost to poaching.
All around the world, passionate individuals like these Zimbabwean rangers are risking their lives day in and day out to protect the life support systems on which we all depend—our forests and other wildlands. Rangers, both men and women from government agencies, NGOs, private conservancies and local and indigenous communities provide the first line of defense against the serious ailments plaguing our planet, protecting our wildlife and wildlands from poaching, habitat loss, pollution, fire and other threats.
A world without rangers would be a world that simply could not sustain life.
Yet rangers in many parts of the world are chronically underpaid, uninsured, undertrained and underappreciated. More than 1,000 rangers have been killed on duty in the last decade according to the International Ranger Federation. A 2016 study conducted by WWF and Global Wildlife Conservation found that out of 40 countries where rangers were surveyed, 28 percent did not provide rangers with any access to health insurance. Thirty-five percent did not provide them access to life insurance and 53 percent failed to provide long-term disability insurance. Another survey that same year found that 66 percent of rangers in Asia and Africa were not given the equipment they need to be successful at their job.
Not only do rangers do their job under poor working conditions and without any protection, the complex vocation itself is, far and wide, not considered a real profession even though rangers must develop extensive and diverse skills. These include knowing first aid, search and rescue tactics, tracking skills, wildlife crime prevention, species identification, ecology, visitor education, and local community engagement.
“If conservation is the planetary health sector, the rangers are the nurses, the orderlies and the technicians,” said Mike Appleton, GWC director of protected area management. “Would you go to a hospital and want to be treated by a nurse who isn’t paid, has no training and no equipment? It is unacceptable that though rangers are protecting the health of our planet, they are too often last in line for resources to do so effectively.”
With such a demanding role, physical fitness and health is an important part of any ranger training program. This standard should be kept throughout one’s career. In environments faced by nature’s protectors, it can often mean life or death. (Photo by James Slade)
In addition, unlike other dangerous service sector jobs—police, firefighters—many countries lack both standardized training programs for rangers and a clear hierarchy for advancement throughout their career. These shortfalls are evident in the fact that there is not even a standard name for the job—rangers can also be called wildlife wardens, forest guards, foresters, scouts or watchers. We aren’t even sure how many individuals are working as rangers. Global Wildlife Conservation is currently conducting a survey in conjunction with the Game Rangers Association of Africa, Asian Ranger Federation, International Rangers Federation, WWF and EuroParc Federation just to get at this seemingly basic information.
Stand with the World Rangers
So today, on World Ranger Day, we’re calling for anyone who values clean air, clean water and the diversity of life on Earth to join us in standing with the world rangers and celebrating their vital role in protecting all life.
Global Wildlife Conservation stands with the world’s rangers. (Photo by James Slade)
How can you help?
Whenever you visit a park anywhere in the world, thank the rangers there and ask them if they’re happy with their working conditions. Talk to the people in charge about why you appreciate the work the rangers are doing and why you want to see significant improvements for the profession.
Consider supporting the Thin Green Line Foundation, a group that works with grassroots initiatives that are improving overall conditions for rangers. Recently, for example, the foundation worked with the Game Rangers Association of Africa on a deal with the South African Tourism Insurance Bureau to ensure that members of the association would qualify for insurance.
Consider supporting any of the more than 75 ranger associations that have formed in recent years in more than 50 countries. Rangers are getting organized, and these associations are key to bolstering global recognition of rangers’ vital work.
Show you stand with park rangers of the world in their fight to protect wildlife by taking a picture of yourself holding the “I stand with the World’s Rangers” poster and sharing it on your social media accounts with the hashtags: #worldrangerday #standwithrangers #naturesprotectors #thingreenlinefoundation #internationalrangerfederation
The beginning of a week-long extended patrol in to the forests of Sumatra. Rangers around the world face a variety of environments, challenges and hardships, all in the name of duty. (Photo by James Slade)
Encourage your policymakers to put government support behind rangers to turn this into a genuine profession, with decent salary and insurance, a career track, job security, training and sufficient equipment.
“As the threats to our planet mount and become more complex, the role of rangers in caring for the health of our planet has never been more critical,” said Barney Long, Global Wildlife’s senior director of species conservation. “Let’s support their incredible, life-saving work by standing with world rangers today—and every day.”
(Top photo: Rangers stand at attention during ‘drill. ‘While not all rangers have to adopt a para-military style of training, in Africa, it is becoming more common and unfortunately, necessary. While these skills are integral, rangers should remain first and foremost, conservationists. Photo by James Slade.)