By Rhett A. Butler
While vast areas of wildlife habitat have been set aside in protected areas in recent decades, many reserves continue to suffer from illegal encroachment, logging, mining, and poaching. The recent spasm in elephant and rhino poaching within African parks merely underlines the problem.
Yet research has shown that people — provided they have a vested interest in safeguarding protected areas — can be a strong deterrent to illegal activities. For example, some of the best protected forests in the Amazon basin are those that are inhabited by indigenous people, rather than those managed distantly by conservation agencies. In Madagascar, the splitting of entrance fees between the national parks management authority and local villages has helped spur community vigilance against illegal activities.
But indigenous people and local communities aren't the only ones with a presence in and around protected areas — scientific researchers often spend months, years, or even decades working deep inside conservation zones. They may be accompanied by a cohort of guides, field assistants, cooks and others.
Intuitively, it would seem that scientists' presence in a protected area would help safeguard it from illegal activities. But according to a new paper published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, no one has definitively shown that to be the case.
The paper, authored by William F. Laurance of James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, reviews some of the potential conservation benefits and detriments of the presence of field researchers. On the upside, Laurance notes that researchers' presence can boost support for the establishment, expansion, or maintenance of protected areas. Scientists can also actively deter poachers and encroachers while providing needed employment for local people, some of whom may have formerly been hunters, illegal loggers, or encroachers. Local field assistants may go on to become researchers or conservationists themselves. Better informed and better linked to international advocates, they may be more able to forge a stronger stance against outsiders attempting to expropriate their lands, according to Laurance, who cites an example in New Guinea.
"In Papua New Guinea, field researchers have helped indigenous communities respond to logging and mining companies seeking access to their lands, so that the communities can judge the promises of financial gain more realistically," he writes.
Meanwhile research facilities can complement or augment ecotourism initiatives, attracting nature enthusiasts who want to see science in action or take advantage of trail systems established by researchers. More....