Elephants on the pill, animals on the brink of extinction

Animal Conservation (four times a year)

December 3, 1999

This journal, launched early last year and published on behalf of the Zoological Society of London, aims to publish papers "that contribute towards the scientific basis of conservation biology". More pragmatically, it emphasises research on "the factors which influence the conservation of animal species and their habitats". Subjects covered include wildlife biology, ecology, ethology and genetics; evolution and palaeo-biology; systematics and phylogenetics; biodiversity and bio-geography; disease and epidemiology; and wildlife management, including sustainable use. The publisher's blurb asserts that the journal "provides a unique and important forum for rapid publication of novel, peer-reviewed scientific studies".

The journal measures up to these fine aims in many respects. The first four issues include articles on the wild dog in Africa, the dusky seaside sparrow in Florida, a new muntjac in Vietnam, the water vole in England, the wolf in North America, an iguana in Cuba, and bats in Scotland. They cover issues as diverse as species reintroductions, DNA censusing, footprint recognition, minimum population size, evolutionary potential, mutational meltdown, genetic security, poaching, chromosome variation and - here is an image to conjure with - contraceptives for elephants. Esoteric as some of these issues may sound, they are the stuff of conservation science. More important, each article is tied in to the survival problems and opportunities posed by particular species, most of them threatened. To this extent, the journal scores highly.

It is somewhat

justified in being described by the publisher as "essential reading not only for conservation biologists working in a range of fields, but also for professionals in governmental and non-governmental bodies, policy-makers and students". Essential reading? If professionals took time for all the essential reading advocated, they would have little time for anything else. The rest of the commercial is acceptable, however, and for students the price is an unusual bargain. But I wish the target audience could include political leaders and others with their hands on the levers of major initiatives. Perhaps the editors could be encouraged to publish a summary digest of each issue for widespread distribution in order to demonstrate what is being done and needs to be done. The issue of mass extinction of species - which the journal admirably addresses, albeit indirectly for the most part - is sorely overlooked by politicians and public alike. Indeed many politicians are so ecologically illiterate that they would suppose a food chain is a line of supermarkets. Conservation biologists should attempt more of that vital activity, "outreach", to audiences beyond their laboratories.

The biggest question should surely be this: does the journal reflect the nature of our times, given that we are well into the opening phase of a mass extinction that, if it persists virtually unchecked (as is the case to date, despite fine efforts by many conservationists), may well eliminate a large proportion of all species within the foreseeable future? The length of time it will take evolution to repair the damage by producing replacement species will be several million years, or perhaps 20 times longer than humans have been around.

Does the journal convey the urgency of our predicament? Yes and no. We certainly need more and better science to understand what is going on and how to restrain it; many of the articles represent a solid advance in that respect. Not so many offer pragmatic guidelines for the wildlife manager out in the savannahs, forests and other habitats, all of which are increasingly beleaguered by human encroachments.

Urgency? We have maybe ten years to stem the tide before it works up too much momentum to be slowed in short order. Should not any journal in this field hammer home the point that time is of the essence? Let us hope that as the journal matures, it will carry more articles that tackle this pivotal point.

True, it does better than most other journals, and it is to be specially applauded for aiming to publish articles within six months of submission, whereas certain others take six months merely to get an article refereed. If we have only ten years of manoeuvering time, six months' delay represents a one-twentieth loss.

In another 20 years, when the holocaust will likely be sweeping through the earth's biotas with full force, people will surely ask whether the biologists of today were doing all they could to halt the debacle. They may well look back at this journal's early efforts and wonder how far they matched up to the level of events. But then, if I am asked the same sort of question, I am far from sure that I shall have a sufficient answer.

Norman Myers is honorary visiting fellow, Green College, University of Oxford.

Animal Conservation (four times a year)

Editor - Michael W. Bruford, John L. Gittleman, Georgina M. Mace and Robert K. Wayne
ISBN - ISSN 1 367 9430
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £78 (instits); £39 (indivs); £18 (students)
Pages - -

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