Episode 22: Gabi Fleury on Actual and Speculative Conservation Biology
Image: Tree-climbing lions (Panthera leo). (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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For more from/about Gabi:
- Gabi was recently featured on the Forbes 30 Under 30 2021 list for science!
- For more on their research and other appearances, check out their website
- Gabi is a founder of Bright Frog Game Studios, which creates environmental education games
- And is also a member of the organizing committee for Black Mammologists Week
- They also have a YouTube channel, Breaking Bio, where they interview other biologists
- Scent cues for deterring unwanted wildlife
- “Olfactory communication to protect livestock: dingo response to urine marks of livestock guardian dogs” (Australian Mammalogy, 2015)
- “Scent‐Mark Identification and Scent‐Marking Behaviour in African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus)” (Ethology, 2013)
- “Managing the ranging behaviour of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) using translocated scent marks” (Wildlife Research, 2011)
- “Cheetah communication at scent-marking sites can be inhibited or delayed by predators” (Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 2020)
- “Conservation’s Biggest Challenge? The Legacy of Colonialism (Op-Ed)” (Live Science, 2019)
- IUCN Red List of Endangered Species
- Not specifically conservation, but Robin Wall Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, has two books on plants – highly recommended!
- Conservation… in space!
- “Will humans inevitably cause microbial colonization of space?” (Filling Space, 2020)
- “How NASA Planetary Protection Works” (How Stuff Works)
Hello, this is Assigned Scientist at Bachelor’s, the only science podcast I know about with no cis people allowed. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.
And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.
And today we have on as a guest, Gabi Flurry. Who is there’s almost too much to say one of the organizing committee of black gemologists. Week, Forbes 30, under 30 for science, a conservation biologist, somebody who has their own YouTube page where they interview other scientists. Gabi, welcome to the show.
Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. It’s great to be here.
Thank you for coming on. It’s great to have you. So normally, to start out conversations, we just asked people, how did you get interested in science? How did you get started in science?
So that’s always a really hard question to answer. I always joke that I watched too much Captain Planet and the planeteers growing up, but honestly, I’ve wanted to be in conservation since I was about three years old. I’ve really always been passionate about African wildlife, my dad is Brazilian of Angolan descent, I’ve always been really interested in southern Africa in particular. So I can’t, I can’t really think of a time that I wasn’t into wildlife. And I’m actually I’m a cancer survivor – so, pediatric cancer, so I spent a good amount of time in the hospital, and while I was in there, I was only about seven, eight. And I did a lot of reading about wildlife and that just kind of expanded it more. So I was always kind of an animal nerd, and it’s been with me my whole life.
My first reaction is really just… conservation biologist feels like marine biologist or astronaut, in [being] the kind of careers that a lot of children want, and then it becomes kind of a joke of like, Well, everybody wanted to be a marine biologist. But you did it! So congratulations.
Thank you. Yeah, it’s um, it’s just been something I’ve always wanted to do my whole life. And I’ve kind of set that as my goal. It’s worked out, almost having to take kind of an entrepreneurial mindset towards science and finding my own opportunities. But I’ve been lucky enough to have, you know, years of experience on the African continent. I did my master’s degree at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. So I kind of ended up exactly where I wanted to be.
Can you tell us a little bit about what your research is now?
So I’m a human wildlife conflict specialist, mostly. What that means is that I look mostly at predator and livestock conflict. So when predators go after farmers livestock, and then farmers get angry at predators, and then try to kill the predators, and it’s a very difficult problem in terms of trying to figure out kind of what the sweet spot is for coexistence. Because there’s a lot of other factors that can make a farmer want to kill a predator. Apart from just losing livestock, there could be cultural factors, or how the community has felt that they’ve been treated by the government in the past from conservation, and just a lot of other different aspects that could be driving it. So it’s looking at kind of behavioral ecology is like, how can we get into the head of a jackal, or get into the head of an African wild dog or a cheetah or a leopard and figure out which non lethal ways we can come up with to try to prevent them from going after livestock, but also working closely with local communities and making it community driven to try to work on, Okay, what are the ways that we can improve tolerance for carnivores? And that might mean kind of figuring out what the overall problem is. That might mean, you know, if we reduce livestock losses, would that directly lead to tolerance? That’s an assumption that’s often made, but we don’t really know. And it’s very context specific. So I work mostly in southern Africa, I spent a little bit of time in eastern Africa on these kinds of issues. And I recently received a Fulbright to do research in Botswana, essentially using lion scat, so lion dung, as a natural deterrent to try to change the behavior of African wild dogs, which sounds a little goofy, except that lions are actually a major driver of African Wild Dog mortality, so it’s trying to essentially manipulate that relationships between predators to reduce conflict with farmers, so.
Honestly, just makes a lot of sense that – Oh, you don’t want wild dogs? Put the scent of something that wild dogs really, really don’t like.
Right, yeah, yeah.
Well, I would say also, as somebody whose master is in, well, Masters of Science is working with flies. I’m intimately familiar with the importance and the biological interest of poop, basically.
Right. [laughs] I think that’s something a lot of biologists have in common. I went on the Skype call with some other biologists and we were like somebody who’s just like, I saw wolf poop. And we’re all like, whoa!
I will tell you genuinely one of the best moments of my entire life was a couple of months after I moved here to Arizona. I went on a walk, which some people might call a hike, but I, I don’t do hiking because I don’t like exertion. So just a nice stroll through a nearby park. And on my way back to my car, I saw a piece of dog poop that somebody had not picked up, which, like, bad habits, but also fortuitous for me, because I leaned in to look at it because this is what… this is what I do whenever I see poop on a walk, because it often attracts a lot of great flies. And I saw not one, not two, not three, but four different species of the family that I did my master’s thesis on, which had exclusively an Southwestern distribution. So I had literally never seen these alive in person before, I had only seen them as pinned museum specimens, and I felt like I was meeting a celebrity.
Jurassic Park moment.
Right, no, we take off glasses and stare off into the distance.
God… no, but I was… because I do a lot of macro photography, because I’m a I love insects, you know, right. And I have a very common experience for me and for other like insect enthusiasts and macro photographers is, you know, a lot of the things that you’re looking at are on the ground. And so you have to get in these weird, like hunched over positions. And some people came up behind me on the trail, and they were like, genuinely worried for my well being. Are you okay? And I was like, Yes, I’m having the best time of my entire life.
That’s fantastic. No, that’s how you know you’re a scientist, when like, you know, civilians are kind of like, Huh, what’s happening?
Yeah. Well, so speaking of looking at stuff on the ground, maybe… can you tell us more about what the experience, like what does a day in the life of a conservation biologist look like in terms of the kind of work that you do?
Sure, um, very variable. There’s a lot of spreadsheets, there’s a lot more spreadsheets than I think people realize. So what’s really funny about conservation biology is like, the higher up you climb, the more time you’re on the desk. And even when I was living full time in Namibia, I spent, you know, maybe, maybe I would wake up, you know, and go to work and be at my desk around eight. And then I would, you know, maybe analyze some data from the day before or clean it in the spreadsheet, I would check in on on some of the students I was supervising, and then there’s fieldwork. So you go out, you collect some data, you drive around, you place the different experiments out there, you might have a workshop with communities where you gather communities ahead of time, and you talk to them about kind of some of your plans, and if they have any ideas as to what to incorporate, or where to change or where to work next, because a lot of the time they’re, they’re the individuals will be able to tell you where the conflict instances are, so you can incorporate that into your experimental design. But it’s also making sure that you know, the head of the communities are happy, and that they always know what you’re doing as well, just working very closely with them.
And then you know, going out and actually, you know, whether or not there’s placing camera traps, or just kind of, like, checking different live traps, depending on what you’re doing. And then you come back, and it’s a lot more desk work, you might be working on a paper, you might be doing a lot of grant writing, and you might be running a workshop to teach people key GIS, it could be literally anything. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I really like what I do is because it’s so variable, and that no day is the same and you kind of have to have all these different skill sets that you can exercise at the highest level that you can. So, never boring.
Well, maybe the spreadsheets might be boring.
Eh, they have their charm.
I do… I mean, I do also, I love organizing spreadsheets, so I get it. I’m actually really interested in the component of working with communities.
I think there is often… one of the problems that plagues biology, from my viewpoint, is often a feeling of arrogance married to entitlement.
In that, particularly white scientists, particularly historically, have had a real sense of feeling… [sighs] you know, of feeling like they know best.
And they should be in a position to be able to tell communities what to do.
And so I would, yeah, I would love if you could talk more about the relationship between working as a scientist and working with communities and, and sort of using information – not tell people what to do, but to figure out, from what I’m hearing, to sort of figure out together the best path forward?
Yeah, sure. So that’s a major challenge. It’s something that at least I haven’t ever been formally trained in, through graduate school or through undergrad, it’s something I kind of had to pick up working with communities. I’m not a white scientist, but I think in general, just being like a foreigner, you know, you have a lot of responsibility in how you exercise some of that power. And one thing that I think is always really interesting is that a lot of biologists will be, you know, will say something like, we want to make sure that the community’s voices are heard. And I always stopped people there, and I said, you know, even by saying it in that way, you’re assuming that you’re giving the power for their voices to be heard.
That’s a really good point.
Yeah. So I think there’s a lot of in the way that we, as scientists or practitioners speak, there’s a lot of kind of like implicit biases. And our responsibility as practitioners is to be able to kind of look critically at what we do, and always be, you know, trying to improve. So the first thing that I think is important to do when you’re working with communities is figure out like what their problems are. You might have maybe an idea or guess an idea of what the problem is, might be, but until you kind of go to them very early in the process – before you even design your experiments you should be meeting with the head people in the community and as many representatives as you can find, and figure out what are the challenges that they’re facing and figure out what solutions they’ve already worked on, and what worked and what didn’t.
And maybe then, then you could put forward some ideas, but there you know, there might be barriers as in they just don’t want to do something and might not fit into the cultural beliefs, it might be too expensive and difficult for them to access. So even though you might have these cool scientific ideas of what to test, if it’s not directly beneficial to the community, there’s no sustainability. And I think there’s a, you know, there’s a huge history in conservation, obviously, of colonialism, and what we call, even now helicopter conservation, like people who come into my country, and do their work for a few months, and then they leave. They don’t leave any kind of infrastructure or benefits to the community when they leave. And I think that’s why it’s really important to, as much as you can, make sure that you leave some kind of concrete benefit, make sure that you’re checking in, and don’t just kind of drop a project.
And also, an important thing is capacity building as well, like, while you’re there, if you have 10 seconds, you have a skill set that can be helpful, like, work with people to help build their skill sets and lift, you know, lift up local champions, and work with them as well, because one thing that as scientists, as international scientists, that we have a lot of privilege is that we might have a wider network or a wider audience, somebody could be really, really, really good, but they might not have access to those international networks. So getting a really good scientist from a local country access to those networks could really help launch a career. It’s, it’s very complicated, but I think it’s really important, and it’s kind of the whole conversation about decolonizing conservation and homegrown heroes. And basically, when I work in the community, I don’t necessarily see myself as an expert, I see myself as I’m a specialist in one particular thing, and I’m there to learn just as much as I am to try to help.
What would be interesting is to hear really what conservation means to you… not in like the what does Christmas mean in your heart kind of sense, but like, what are the philosophical underpinnings and end goals of conservation?
I think what it means to me in particular is… not neglecting the human side of the equation. I think a misunderstanding that happens is kind of we expect communities to be willing to interact with wildlife, regardless of what the cons are of that wildlife coexisting with them. Like for example, it’s really easy for someone in New York to be like, I love lions, lions are great. Or to be like, elephants are fantastic, how could anyone ever kill an elephant? But when you live in those areas, and an elephant wipes out all your bays, and then you can’t send your kids to school, or it, you know, goes after… a lion goes after your goats and then you can’t feed your family, I think it’s, it’s… a big mistake is neglecting that, that human aspect, and basically holding people to standards that we wouldn’t hold ourselves to if we were in the same situation.
So I always say that conservation, like – poverty is a conservation issue, human rights is a conservation issue. And the second they try to separate the two, that’s when it all falls apart. So I would say, conservation for me is not only conserving wildlife, but also conserving the rights of people on the land and their ability to be able to sustain themselves.
You know, I never thought about conservation biology being intersectional. But when you frame it in those terms, it absolutely is.
And I think that’s why like interdisciplinary training is so important. You know, I have I’ve trained as a biologist, you know, I got into this, working with a wildlife and loving wildlife and loving animals, you know, like everyone watching, like wildlife documentaries – that’s, that’s why I was here. But I actually, interestingly, got funded by Rotary International to do my master’s degree, because I was able to do a direct correlation of my research for my master’s degree and human wellbeing.
Oh, wow, that’s really cool.
Yeah, which is what Rotary was interested in. They were like, why is taking care of the environment going to help humanitarian concerns? And it was at that point, by having to make the argument, that I realized that the two are intertwined, and you really can’t have one without the other… is that there can be no long term conservation without taking care of humanity. So that’s kind of how I ended up kind of with this idea of inter, interdisciplinary conservation, but also having it tied to development outcomes as well.
So what we’re discussing philosophical issues… many years ago, I actually took a course in restoration ecology, which isn’t exactly the same as conservation biology, but the two have a lot of overlap. And I remember a common philosophical topic or debate that we had was, okay, you’re restoring an ecosystem, to what are you restoring it to, you know, what is your benchmark or time? Is it pre human intervention? Is it pre mass extinction?
People talk about, like, Pleistocene rewilding, of introducing horses and lions to the Midwest of the US, because until humans arrived during the Ice Age, that was… those were the major forces, populations that governed that ecosystem. I guess, is that something you run into as well? And you know, what’s your take on it?
Yeah, that’s, that’s a tricky philosophical question, in terms of… I think what you’re referring to is like a reference level, like, what is the reference level that we’re trying to reach? And I think, I don’t necessarily think that things have to be, you know, before people got involved, or before there were like higher populations before more development. But I think in terms of just looking from a very practical perspective, and looking at what does the ecosystem need to function? So when I think of conservation, and this is different than many other people think of conservation they think of as a very species based focus, like we want to reach these different criteria of the how many lions, how many giraffes, how many rhinos? You know, like, numbers-based. And for me, it’s very functional. It’s like, how do we make sure that the ecosystem is able to function. and for it to be healthiest it needs to have kind of like a full guild of predators to be able to support, you know, all the other lower trophic levels.
So that’s kind of what I think in terms of reference level, it’s working within where we have like what we have, which means that, you know, there’s a huge background, you know, of like force, forcing people out of their land to create protected areas and things like that, that I think just lead to more problems in the long term than the short term apart from, you know, the ethical considerations of that. But I think looking at the situation that we have is like, this is the situation we have people who live outside of protected areas, who have a lot of cattle, and it’s hard for wildlife to coexist in that environment, so how can we conserve what we have in the situation that we’re in, and in a way that communities are equally as… not just involved, but they’re driving conservation, that they can be passionate about conservation, and be able to see themselves through conservation, rather than just kind of feeling that conservation is not for them.
When I was in Kenya, there is speaking to a lot of the people from from local communities around where I lived, and they thought their wildlife, you know, was for white people, is from the people, you know, who stayed in the lodges, they didn’t feel any ownership or sense of connection to a lot of the wildlife because they had been historically segregated from it. So there’s a lot of you know, social justice work as well as political justice work to be done. Because if people are resentful towards wildlife, and they don’t feel a connection towards wildlife because of historical inequities, then there’s no way they’re going to want to conserve it.
Two things. First off, so I guess just to clarify it, and also falling back on my distant background as a ecologist, it sounds like you’re talking about conservation more in like sort of the context of ecosystem services and the idea that having a richer biodiversity is going to lead to sort of more optimal ecosystem services?
That’s a very instrumental viewpoint. Yeah, but…
[jokingly accusatory] Yeah, Tessa!
[laughs] But yes, largely, where in terms of like, I don’t really see it framed as that, you know, like, conservation is just instrumental.
Right, it’s not purely anthro-centric.
Yeah, exactly. But in general, yeah, the more, the more pieces of that puzzle that exists, because we don’t even know how many of those interact. So removing that before we even understand the system could lead to you know, catastrophic…
… consequences. So yeah, the more the more that’s there, the more healthy an ecosystem is.
And the second thing is, it’s more of a comment is just we talk, Charles and I talk about like issues like catastrophic climate change and environmental degradation…
We’re a very fatalistic podcast.
YOU are, I’m actually pretty optimistic. And I would also like to say that it is actually delightfully refreshing to have someone on here, such as yourself, who, from the sounds of it, is very positive, very optimistic about the possibility of humanity and nature, however you want to define that, being able to coexist.
Yeah I think that, I mean, from a purely just kind of, like practical perspective, I think without optimism, there’s no chance of making anything better. Um, I think it’s important to be realistic about the challenges, but I think could be kind of shrug our shoulders and say, the situation is bad, and it’s not going to get any better, then it certainly isn’t going to get any better. Yeah, and I’d rather, you know, be optimistic and be proven wrong than not try.
Well, as Alex Stephen, who’s an environmental thinker is fond of saying, optimism is a political act.
As Charles, who has Generalized Anxiety is fond of saying, Oh, no. Yeah, well, to the point re: preservation of not just species but ecosystems… as an insecta-centric person, this is really the case with often like insects, generally, we don’t have a lot of it. Last time I checked, we don’t have a lot of good data on like, insects being endangered to begin with, because it’s hard to measure, right. And people aren’t paying as much attention as they are to, for instance, lions.
And then also … I did a project in university once where I just went through the IUCN Red List to quantify what threatened status, or endangered status of arthropods was attributed to and where there was information available, it was like, environment loss, environment loss, environment loss. Yeah, it really was a case of like – to preserve insects, you have to preserve the places where they live.
Yeah, for sure.
And I don’t I…. I’ve gotten to the end of that point and realize I don’t really have a takeaway, except that insects are very good, and I care about them.
I guess maybe the question that raises for me is like, is that the major thing you’re having to deal with is, you know, as Charles says, preserving where these organisms live.
I’ve kind of kind of like a circle around kind of ask the question as what do you mean by preserve?
Because does that mean… kind of, one of the things I think is really important to think about in terms of long term sustainability or preservation is does that mean something like fortress conservation, where communities are not incorporated into protected areas? And if they are incorporated into protected areas, to what extent? And how much feedback do communities have upon some of those rules? Because when you look at things like bushmeat poaching that a lot of communities do, they’re doing it to feed themselves, but of course, that can have ecosystem effects. So I think it just becomes really tricky when you talk about preservation, like yes, habitat preservation is important but in terms of long term sustainability, what does that mean? And what’s the benchmarks for preservation?
Well, it’s also interesting because I took another class in undergrad that really twisted my noodle in that it was like, it was about like humans and the environment specifically. And what was so eye opening about that class was the repositioning… challenging the idea of there being human society and there being nature and then restructuring it, as humans are intrinsically a part of nature.
We’re part of the ecology of the world.
Right. And the tricky thing is, like for large predators, you know, the stats are for certain species, 70% of their population are outside protected areas. That’s just where they live, because their ranges are so huge. If you want to protect African wild dogs, for example, in protected area, your protected area would cross over three countries. In some cases, it would be almost impractical to be able to protect them in that way. So that’s where a lot of the community work is, and a lot of the work kind of in these less ideal landscapes, because that’s kind of the only place they have to live. That’s kind of what I grapple with mostly is, what happens outside a protected area, and how can you try to create the best conservation outcomes without there being kind of a very segregated approach?
Can you tell us more sort of specifically what that looks like, of, of helping people to live alongside these large predators outside of areas specifically for those predators?
Yeah, it could look many different ways. When I did some time with a big, big life foundation in Kenya, they have a comprehensive compensation policy for losses of livestock. And this is a very unusual case of a compensation policy being very effective, because usually they’re not particularly effective. But because this was actually brought up by the community, and was structured so closely with the community, it’s been pretty sustainable. And that’s basically they lose a goat or a cow and then they get basically compensation for those animals, which has helped improve tolerance. It could look… by hiring people from the community to help change people’s mindsets.
So there’s a project called lion guardians in Kenya that basically hires local Maasai warriors, so people from the community, to basically… if people hear that there’s going to be a lion hunt, these warriors kind of speak to the people who are going to go on a lion hunts and try to talk them down and kind of explain the importance of why they shouldn’t do that. And you know, why they should want to conserve lions and what lions bring to the community in terms of like things like tourism income. And yeah, and I think that that’s a great approach, because it’s people that they grew up with, so that it could look like that it could look like…
When I worked in Namibia, there were livestock guardian dogs. So basically, farmers could sign up for livestock guardian dogs, which were very effective and reduce over 80% of livestock losses in the field, just by having the dog there as a deterrent. So yeah, it’s a lot of mixture of working with communities closely to kind of figure out, you know, what are the different things driving predator loss, because a lot of the times, you know, when you think of predator loss, you think the predator that causes the most losses is the species that people are going to have the most distaste towards and what to remove. But sometimes it has nothing to do with which one is the actual problem and more about kind of cultural beliefs about a certain predator or other factors.
So for example, I was in Namibia… I thought people would really hate jackals more than anything else because jackals were the species everyone said was taking the most livestock. But it turns out the African wild dogs were the ones that they had the biggest problems with, because although African wild dogs take less livestock, they kill in a very dramatic way. Because they’re courses and they basically, sometimes, you know, kill cows or you know, by, you know, while they’re still alive, and it’s very dramatic and bloody and it’s kind of a hurricane that comes in and kills a bunch of animals and then moves on. And that’s sticks in like the public consciousness more so people were actually more against African wild dogs, even though they were less of an objective problem.
Well, to interject, just briefly, did you describe them as coursers?
Yeah, so they they chase down animals. They’re not ambush predators, they chase down animals.
[laughs] [quietly] I’m, I’m an entomologist…
That, although that situation also kind of reminds me of stuff that’s happened here in the US is that, you know, ranchers are usually very ambivalent, at best, about wolves, you know, as a potential source of losing livestock, even though I believe statistically most of it, most livestock losses in the US from predators are actually due to like, um…
They’re secretly killing a lot of cows…
No, uh, stray dogs, or like feral dogs. That’s what I was looking for – feral dogs.
Yeah, but but wolves have gotten so politicized that people are more aggressive towards wolves than they are towards feral dogs, even though for exactly, yeah, no, it’s definitely I mean, it’s human nature, I think to be able, you know, to, to… your perception of what a predator is ends up having a direct impact on that predator’s conservation. And I think that’s something really, that’s important to learn as a scientist is that, you know, we can’t really understand the problem until we understand the community’s perception of the problem.
I mean, it really illustrates one of, I think, the central paradoxes of science communication, where you have to balance genuinely knowing… not necessarily more, but knowing something, from a certain perspective, with a certain amount of data that other people might not know versus I hate being told what to do and what to think.
And I, you know, I can imagine that other people feel the same.
Yeah, for sure. And I think it’s just all about tailoring it to your audience. So when I worked in Namibia, I was able to get through to a farmer who was trying to kill the jackals on his farm, not by saying, you know, like jackals are great, you shouldn’t kill jackals! You know, because like, what did he care, but I basically explained to him that if you kill jackals, jackals can actually sense when they’re being culled and they actually have more baby jackals. So they increase their reproductive rate and the females go into heat more often, or they reproduce more often, and then you end up with more jackals than you would have had if you hadn’t tried to cull them.
And then he kind of went like, oh man, like, I don’t want more jackals. [all laugh] And that kind of helped get through to him… the same idea, we’re trying to explain just kind of like how animals work. If you have a leopard that’s crawling around the farm, and he’s taking your goats, that’s bad. But if you kill that leopard, then you’re going to have three leopards fighting for dominance over that area, and then you’re going to end up with more livestock loss because they’ll be more cats on your farm. So sometimes it’s better the leopard you know than opening up to a lot more incursion by other animals. So just like by explaining those kind of basic biological principles in a way that has direct economic impacts for other people, I think that’s, that’s kind of the way to get through the peoples that you know, think about what they need and what they want and what they value and tailor how you speak to them based on that.
You know, it’s interesting, cause, okay, so again, I’m back on ecology, most of which was North American, but they had the exact same thing happen, at least in some areas with cougars or mountain lions in the southwest, because it turns out if you kill the adult cougars, all you end up with the juveniles who don’t really know what they’re doing, and as a result are more likely to go after people.
Yep. Yeah, for sure. I think, you know, by trying to remove a problem that’s often a really compounded problem is, you know, it’s easy to compound the problem. So for sure, that’s actually really interesting. I didn’t know that.
Well, there’s a joke here about inexperienced cougars.
Also didn’t we do a cougar joke like last episode, too?
Yeah. And I’m not gonna edit that one out either.
[laughs] I love it, that’s great.
I want all cougars, milfs… any attractive middle aged woman to know that I support them, and I respect them.
Just don’t go after people’s livestock. That’s all we ask.
Fantastic. So it seems like a lot of your work deals with organization and communication. Do you ever get, like, a longing for just purely sort of natural historical research, of just focusing purely on the cool biology of your animals?
Not really, I mean, yes, but also not really, because everything that predators do is impacted by humans, you know, their behavior changes because there’s high human density in an area. So unless there was an actual place where there were there were no people it was a completely you know, pristine environment with absolutely no people in it, we would still not get the same kind of behavioral ecology that we would if that wasn’t the case. Does that make sense? Like there is no such thing as removing humans from the equation, having that not effect…
Yeah, I mean, I am interested in kind of in like, you know, species biology and things like that. But I consider myself kind of more of a… I feel a bit like a surgeon on the frontlines where I’m so busy trying to make sure that these species exists, that I have less time to kind of focus on things like reproductive strategy, or, you know, some of the basic scientific questions, I think are answered by by other people who are specifically more interested in that, because I think that’s kind of where a lot of people specialize. And I think there’s actually more focus in the fields on things like, like species biology, because that’s kind of where people, a lot of people start out. And I see my niche as kind of, having an understanding of that thing, of those things, but kind of letting the people who specialize on those things, specialize on those things, and doing kind of more practical hands on conservation.
Fair. I would like to move us, if we all want to load up into my spaceship, from the practical to the speculative.
So I am imagining that we have gotten to a point in human space exploration that we have come on a planet, which has some form of life and indeed, abundant life. And I would invite all of us here, not me as much because I’m just a humble entomologist, but Tessa’s an astrobiologist and you’re a conservation biologist, to imagine sort of what we would think ethical best practices would be, let’s say, to simplify the matter, there is no, as far as we can tell, sentient species on the planet. What do we imagine sort of ethical best practices are for interacting with the life that we see there?
That’s a really interesting question. My first immediate concern is how do we know that they aren’t susceptible to like diseases that we carry? Or something… like if by touching them would we wipe out all life on the planet?
This is actually more practical than you realize, Charles, because this is an issue people talk about for exploring Mars, because we don’t know for a fact if there’s no indigenous, admittedly microbial, life on Mars or not. And there is an entire sub agency at NASA, the Office of Planetary Protection, which is devoted in part to preventing backward contamination to Earth, but it’s largely focused on not accidentally contaminating other planets with terrestrial bacteria and wiping out any native ecologies that might exist there. And to answer your question, right now, their approach is to simply avoid as much interaction as possible, like human landings, and even in many cases uncrewed you know, robotic missions, are not permitted in areas where there may be habitable regions on Mars or habitable environments on Mars, specifically to avoid that, because the Planetary Protection Office doesn’t feel confident that we can sterilize missions enough to prevent that contamination.
That would be my number one concern is the same as I think Tessa just brought up is, just, you can’t really know what they would be susceptible to, I guess, avoiding as much as possible, while also maybe being able to do maybe like some observations in a very as safe as possible way, but I don’t know if they’re… the ethics of like going in and handling, you know, creatures that we don’t know if we could potentially damage or kill because of, you know, different bacteria or different, you know, pathogens that we might harbor. Yeah, I know. I know that if I was on that crew, I would be very afraid to touch anything, even if I was in full protective gear… more out of concern of I wouldn’t want to wipe out a whole planet, you know.
I mean, also, you know, you don’t want to get anything in you. I have a very long rant, which I have actually given in public at Phoenix Comic Con one year, I was part of a science panel, about the movie Alien: Covenant.
Oh, yeah, I remember that.
Walking, you know, a planet, which has clearly undergone a mass extinction event in the recent past, totally alien ecosystem, and people are just wandering around with absolutely no protection whatsoever.
They take off their helmets and I remember just like yelling at the screen and just being like, what are you doing, yeah.
Although not to make the hacky 2020 joke, but I’m going to anyway, well, I’ll just let people imagine something, something lack of self preservation, something…
Oh, good point.
Pandemic… Yeah, I mean, as we’ve established on this podcast, I’m very afraid of space, and will never go into it. So I wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with.
[whimsically] What if I told you you’re in space right now!
[both laugh] This is the part of space that I like and the rest of it, can do whatever it likes.
Well, then on a sort of a related note… in Star Trek:Discovery in… and you don’t need really, Gabi, any context for this, but Tessa and I just watched the first four episodes of season three of Star Trek: Discovery. In the first episode, we meet a guy who works as a courier – like picking up things for people, taking them other places – to essentially fund his one man, I assume, operation of saving these giant… they’re like large flatworms, but the size of like small whales.
They are actually pretty cool. And then the question is, I think Tessa, is he taking them to their like home planet or to like a planet that has been set up as a reserve for them?
I think it’s the latter. And it wasn’t just him, and it wasn’t just worms. It was just the worms that just happened to be what he had that particular mission. I think he does… he said, it implied that he tried to save other species as well.
Okay, okay. Well, so then there’s the question of, you know, holding up that situation of sort of dual questions of can or should you conserve species in this way? And then, b, does conservation still have as much meaning if you are inherently taking species out of their native environment, and this… maybe to bring it back down to earth, if we want to be boring about it, this is kind of the question that people have about, for instance, pandas or other species…
I don’t actually know the pandas are extinct in the wild, but species that are basically extinct in the wild, but are being preserved in captivity and zoos and in research institutions.
I have strong feelings. Yeah, I think… from, from, from a conservation biologist perspective, I do think that it’s possible to reintroduce certain species, but it’s been very rarely done successfully. Like there’s a few isolated incidents, where it’s been done successfully. But I think also for other species, like predators that you can’t reintroduce them into the wild, because if they don’t get trained to hunt them, they can’t function.
They also… the other question is that, you know, if you’re raising species in captivity, and you know, things continue moving on the way they have, and there’s nowhere to reintroduce them, what’s the benefit of raising them into captivity? So there’s these big, like, you know, kind of philosophical questions. And for me, you know, a captive lion is the same thing as a dead lion – from a conservation perspective. Like not from an emotional individual perspective, but from a conservation perspective, that animal cannot pass on its genes, so it’s essentially taken out of the population. So animals in captivity are fully removed from conservation. They’re not part of conservation, they’re removed from conservation.
I wouldn’t say blanket statement, it’s not a good thing to raise animals in captivity, because I think for some species, you know, it’s fine. Also, different species do better in captivity and others, you know, like meerkats and lemurs seem to be fine. There don’t seem to be a lot of, you know, issues with them. But other species, like, as we know, like cetaceans often struggle in captivity. Yeah, I think it’s very species dependent. But I also think, you know, as we talked about the importance of habitat protection, and being able to kind of create systems that even outside of ideal, ideal situations that, you know, you can work with communities to be able to make sure animals can persist in that environment. unless those things are in place, there’s kind of no real point in having a Noah’s Ark if there’s nowhere to put them.
Because it really is a question of whether species are fully something unto themselves, or whether they’re a component of a larger environment and ecosystem.
Mmhmm, and also how you define the species. Like that’s another thing is that, you know, as scientists, we throw around the term species, but there’s so many different definitions as to what a species is, in terms of the genetic hypothesis of what the species is, versus, you know, like, what the subspecies is like, for, like young people, we change that all the time, the Red List changes all the time, like what’s considered the same species versus the subspecies.
And I do think that you can’t really remove a species from an existing ecosystem, and just kind of, like, do single target species conservation, because that species has to eat something, that species has to exist in a certain place to be able to function. And there’s so many other components. So I’m a big proponent of… that’s why I care a lot about things like ecosystem health, because you know, it’s great to, I like leopards, I like lions, but you know, they they require so much more than just protecting a certain species from extinction… it’s protecting their prey species and protecting, you know, where they live and all those other aspects that I think sometimes get overlooked when you’re kind of doing a single target species conservation.
Because now I’m thinking about… okay so, a lot of people like to dunk on the speech that Mufasa gives to young Simba about, we eat the antelope and then we die and become the grass and then the antelope eat the grass and life goes on. And people like to talk about this as essentially justifying I don’t want to say parasitic because we specifically said in a previous episode, that parasites are okay by us but of a… an extractive upper class justifying their own exploitation of the masses. But, I think if you’re considering it more from the literal sense of, they are Lions, I think it’s still quite beautiful. Because, you know, it really is the thing that everybody is a part of the world. And we’re all part of the same world as each other, and we all help and hurt each other in different ways.
[laughing] I actually have heard that argument before that, you know, they make it’s kind of a bit of a dystopian thing where like, they roll over the Pride Lands but they also eat their subjects, call out the horrible power dynamics of that.
I mean… in a literal sense, it’s not great.
It’s not great. But yeah, from from a scientific perspective, you know, the whole trophic levels and all that stuff. I think it’s, um, yeah, it’s protecting all of that to make sure it functions optimally.
Yeah. And like, often mammals are very important for insects. And so my interests are taken care of.
Yeah, as well… and then also insects are kind of like the backbone of biodiversity, so.
Yeah, for sure.
You’re all welcome. [interstitial music] To end our episodes, we like to ask people to weigh in on one of a few common themes, and I think you indicated that you would like to answer the question of what you would be doing post widespread climate catastrophe.
All right, it depends what the world would actually look like, because I’m not sure what the world would look like, you know, 1000s, or hundreds of 1000s of years after climate catastrophe, but I’m assuming…
That… well, you’re being very optimistic – hundreds of 1000s of years, I’ve mostly been imagining, like 100 years in the future.
Okay, wow. Okay. I was thinking more like huddled bands like Horizon: Zero Dawn.
I am the pessimist of this podcast.
Yeah, um, assuming there are still people that are still alive, and we are in kind of like small little like survival groups, I think I would be working with groups to help kind of like engineer technological solutions to try to make our lives possible.
Yeah, I mean, that’s another thing that we didn’t even get into, is that you have kind of a background in engineering.
Yeah, no, for sure. Mechanical Engineering.
There’s a lot going on.
I was about to say, I had no idea. You know, and I’m very curious now as to when that comes up in your work, or, you know, the path that led you through that through to conservation biology?
Oh, sure. So I’ve always been really interested in kind of like how things work. And kind of where the overlap is, in the work that I do, is, you know, kind of trying to figure out like different… working with people, trying to figure out different technological solutions as well, and trying to figure out, you know, different ways to collaborate with people who have all kinds of different backgrounds. I think… I don’t know if I brought up, I also co-designed a video game on human-wildlife conflict with a software engineer.
Oh, that’s amazing.
Yeah. So it’s also working with people who have, you know, expertise outside of that, and in terms of kind of, like engineer brain, I like to be able to dig my hands in and fix things and create with different solutions. And I’ve been lucky enough that, you know, I have contact with a lot of different fields, I’m interested in a lot of different things, and I also have wide networks of people who specialize in stuff that I’m less specialized in. So yeah, so I worked with a friend who is a software engineer to create a conservation video game that is entirely without text. So the entire video game is played just through photographs, like pictures and graphics, and the reason that we did that was to try to cut down on barriers to literacy or barriers to language. Because in Africa, you know, you walk on the street, there’s like 17,000 different languages. Yeah, I don’t think I also told you this, but my secondary career is actually as a fiction author, as well.
Oh, what genre?
I write mostly contemporary fantasy, afrofuturism.
That is amazing. I’m also a part time author, although I, it’s mostly been short stories published so far.
Oh, cool. Yeah, I’m working on stuff with my first book. So crossing fingers.
Oh, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for ya. Good luck with querying.
Oh, thank you. I’m working… the last book I wrote was, basically I pitched it as “Men in Black meets Fantastic Beasts in South Africa.”
Oh my god, I would read the hell out of that.
So it’s basically like a small organization, a worldwide organization called HELSING, which is a humane… humane enforcement of lawful supernatural investigation, naturalization and guardianship. And they have like little outposts all over the world. And this one focuses on the Southern African office and what they do is they study and you know, monitor the whereabouts of cryptids, so mythological creatures.
Oh my God, that’s everything I want.
This is very appealing to me, because something that often gets in my craw, about, like, parallel fantasy or cryptid existence, that kind of world building, is I just, I just simply do not believe that most people… like in the Harry Potter universe, which [disapproving tone] JK Rowling… I, like, I don’t believe that they would actually be able to hide dragons. And I also don’t believe that they would only need to learn about magical creatures in school, but that’s a whole different issue.
So but, but! I trust that you actually put real thought into your worldbuilding
Yeah, well, the whole idea is that, you know, this is like a very intensive, many person organization that literally monitors… they have trackers on every single cryptid that comes to the country, so it has a lot of immigration metaphors as well, where they fit them with trackers, and they tell them where they can have jobs. And it’s only the cryptids that can appear human. So there’s a lot of like, points about things like assimilation, and a lot of like, kind of like, dark hints about what happens if they can’t shapeshift and they can appear human, like, what does the organization do with them? Do they deport them? What happens if all these things so kind of, and the from a Southern African context, you know, it ties into all these ideas about you know, like, prejudice and things like that… So it’s actually kind of a heavy topic for a kid’s book, but yeah, so I’ve really enjoyed working on that.
Well, children love darkness.
They do. yeah…
[interstitial music] Yeah. So if people want to find you or more about your work online, where should they look?
Yeah, um, so I can link you to my Forbes profile, which has like kind of like a brief little paragraph.
It’ll be in the show notes.
I’m very active on Twitter. So @fleurigs is the best kind of place to find me kind of for updates. I do a lot of like random posts as well but with my cosplays so it’s not all science, but I do talk about my science on there. And I can also give you the link to my website, which I update regularly.
If people want to find me I am @cockroacharles on Twitter. And Tessa?
I am @spacermase.
The show is on twitter @ASABpod or at our website where we post transcripts for every episode asabpodcast.com.
And until next time, keep on science-ing.