By William Laurance
An expanding body of evidence shows that the presence of field biologists and their assistants is playing an important part in deterring poaching, illegal logging, and other destructive activities in the world’s parks and wildlife reserves.
In recent years, plant ecologist Zacharie N’Zooh has hiked thousands of kilometers conducting biodiversity surveys for the conservation group, WWF, in the northwestern Congo basin of his native Cameroon. His work has given him a unique understanding of the region’s rich bioversity and its people. It also has made him a key player in safeguarding the area from illegal poaching and gold mining.
In 2011, when poachers killed one of the eco-guards working with N’Zooh, the ecologist played an important role in persuading the Cameroon army to deploy elite troops into the Sangha Tri-National Conservation Complex. The troops confiscated weapons while Cameroon law-enforcement officials jailed some of the major figures involved in the country’s illegal bushmeat trade.
N’ Zooh is a prime example of an increasingly important phenomenon: the scientist not only as researcher, but also as a valuable player in safeguarding increasingly threatened protected areas that harbor rich fauna and flora. As human populations soar and demand for natural resources rises, many protected areas are being assailed by illegal poachers, miners, loggers, and farmers. But these reserves are also key locations for scientific research.
While evidence is mostly anecdotal, many field researchers are increasingly becoming determined defenders of protected areas. “It is high time that this came to be a standard obligation for scientists,” says prominent conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University. It is noteworthy that many funding agencies see conservation engagement by researchers as a part of a scientist’s role. For example, the U.S. National Science Foundation is now emphasizing broader criteria such as public outreach and societal benefits when evaluating research proposals, and philanthropic foundations often place great weight on conservation activities when awarding grants and prizes to scientists.
Of course, some scientists have long attempted to protect the habitats and creatures that are the focus of their work. No one who has read Gorillas in the Mist could forget Dian Fossey’s fierce determination to defend the mountain gorillas she studied — an effort that ultimately cost Fossey her life. More....