Research | IZW | 10-07-2020

Evolutionary wildlife research for species conservation – a mission for the Anthropocene

Interview with Professor Dr. Heribert Hofer, Director of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW)

Elephants in a nature reserve in Kenya - the anthropogenic influence on wildlife is considerable, even in protected areas. | Photo: Jan Zwilling

In 2016, a group of experts consisting primarily of geoscientists took a remarkable decision: they declared the dawn of a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene. They believe that humanity’s impact on the nature and functioning of our planet became so profound in the mid-20th century that it justifies the assumption that humans are the most defining factor of this geological era. Whilst the majority of the scientists responsible for defining geological epochs are geologists, the implication of the term goes far beyond the boundaries of this discipline. Environmental and life scientists in particular have been documenting drastic changes in climate, biodiversity and nutrient cycles for decades. The Anthropocene can also – or must, even – be the dominant frame of reference for wildlife research with the aim of conserving species, states Director of Leibniz-IZW Professor Heribert Hofer.

Professor Hofer, the Earth has always undergone change, and the animal world is constantly having to adapt to changing environmental conditions. What is different now?

First of all, quite simply, that the changes have essentially been caused by people. The question of interest from the perspective of organisms, geoscientists or conservationists is whether, and the extent to which, the rate and spatial dimension of man-made changes differ fundamentally from “natural” processes. This is indeed the case – the speed and global impact of these changes are unusual, and comparable to only five events in the history of the Earth, events in which climatic conditions, habitats and conditions of life changed at a similarly dramatically fast pace and on a global scale as is now the case in the Anthropocene. Currently, the rate of species extinction is a hundred or thousand times higher than has normally been the case in Earth’s history. That is both remarkable – and distressing.

What does it mean for research conducted by Leibniz-IZW with the aim of protecting species and biodiversity when it is placed in the context of something unprecedented?

It means acknowledging the need for a clear reorientation, the need to take risks and to reflect on and abandon conventional thinking that has been prevailing in environmental and other life science disciplines. Reorientation: To give an example, we significantly stepped up our commitment to research in Southeast Asia (Borneo, Vietnam) since it emerged that this area is not just a biodiversity hotspot, but also one of three global hotspots of extinction. Risks: The previous conventional approaches and methods are simply no longer sufficient to maintain critically endangered species where every single individual counts. For such species, the insights and options offered by assisted reproductive technologies are absolutely essential. This is why we explore the performance of these technologies in their entirety, including the use of stem cell techniques, so as to “bring back to life” tissue from deceased individuals for the purpose of maximizing genetic diversity within a species. Thinking patterns: Traditionally, nature conservation-oriented scientists preferred to conduct research into species and communities in protected areas because “natural” conditions prevail there, and therefore those findings were considered to be particularly valuable. We have reversed this perspective. Now, we are primarily interested in habitats that are particularly dominated or have been newly created by people, such as urban spaces and the nearby agricultural landscape. These constitute “landscape laboratories” in which we can observe and capture “live” how, and how well, wildlife species (are able to) use the traits and abilities inherited from their ancestors in tackling everyday challenges in these man-made living environments. Also, both current and future research and nature conservation activities have no option but to think of animal populations in the wild and those in captivity (particularly in zoos) as a whole, i.e. to view them both as parts of an integrated approach to species conservation which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calls the “One Plan” approach. This enhances the relevance of zoo populations for nature conservation, and forces both research and nature conservation to view stocks in human care as a relevant and valuable resource.

The tremendous pace of global environmental change is one of the key challenges facing science. What strategy is Leibniz-IZW pursuing to develop analyses, conclusions and policy recommendations in real time, as it were?

This is indeed the key challenge. One of the main reasons why so many species are becoming extinct or find themselves in difficulties, despite many efforts, is the long time it takes to recognize a problem, to reliably document the scale of the problem, and then to develop policy recommendations. It cannot be that it takes seven years, even in the case of charismatic large wild animals such as rhinoceroses and other species, for us to realize that a population thought to comprise 150 individuals at time x already contained no more than ten individuals by that time – and that is just one of several concrete examples that we know of from our work. If such simple and important information were reliably known, we can already use our mathematical modeling approaches to predict future developments and to directly apply our assisted reproduction techniques to improve reproduction and increasing stocks. We think that the way to achieve such an improvement in the speed of determining the problem, analyzing it and making policy recommendations is to make comprehensive use of high-tech methodoloigies, i.e. the use of rapidly developing technologies that have emerged recently. These technologies can considerably reduce time requirements, improve the reliability of the data collected, and enable animal populations to be recorded and the situation assessed on site across huge geographical areas.

What hopes do you hold for wildlife research owing to the “high-tech strategy”? Is there still some way of slowing down or even preventing the mass extinction of species?

We are professional optimists, so the answer is yes. But for that to happen, we first have to do our “homework” and make extensive use of the new opportunities offered to us in research by the rapidly advancing new technologies. These range from the breathtaking possibilities provided by the -omics technologies in the molecular and cellular oriented life sciences, to forthcoming substantial progress in remote sensing and the associated satellite-bound communication technologies, where we are keen to operate intelligent links between wildlife, scientists and even law enforcement agencies (as in the case of poaching). This would enable us to capture the status of important habitats and endangered species of wildlife in almost real time, reducing the lead time for activities relevant to nature conservation from several years to months or even weeks. However, these technologies are expensive, so additional financial support is essential for this. Secondly, we also want to specifically advance the “human” component, often disregarded in nature conservation and the relevant research. For us, this means intensifying our contacts with the public and with the many social groups and stakeholders involved in conflicts with wildlife. We want to co-design research questions and research projects with them, integrate them more closely in research activities and, at the same time, gain a better understanding of the factors, knowledge and processes that lead to changes in attitudes and possibly even in behaviour among those involved – an essential precondition for the success of lasting nature conservation efforts.

The interview was conducted by Jan Zwilling.
Translation: Teresa Gehrs

"Evolutionary wildlife research for conservation - our mission for the Anthropocene”:

Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research

Jan Zwilling
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