Telling stories at the International Congress for Conservation Biology

By Alex McInturff and Lauren Withey, PhD Candidates

To many Colombians, their country is poised for an incredible transformation. Colombia’s reputation internationally has long been marked by civil war and cocaine production. However, a 2016 peace accord between the government and the nation’s largest guerrilla army (FARC) offers hope not just for the resolution of real internal conflict, but for a shift in global attention as well. With improved security, many Colombians envision a country that can be famous not for its conflicts, but for its vast biodiversity, potential for ecotourism, and opportunity for new scientific exploration.

It was amid this transformative moment that the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) docked in Colombia’s Caribbean port city of Cartagena for the last week of July. The Congress, attended by academics and practitioners from around the world, covered an impressive range of topics, from new uses for agent-based modeling to strategies for diversifying the conservation community. Many sessions focused specifically on the host country’s particular conservation challenges and opportunities.

Brashares Group members were active participants in the conference, with several lab members giving talks and posters. The group also hosted a boundary-pushing symposium titled “Conservation and Storytelling in a Post-Truth World,” which sought to answer to important but overlooked questions:

  1. How can we use storytelling for more effective conservation?
  2. What can listening to the stories of others offer to conservation?

The Brashares Group settled on this topic in the context of a year of global political upheavals that many have claimed relied on stories rather than reality to achieve their successes. The Oxford English Dictionary went as far as declaring “post-truth” the word of the year in 2016. Our symposium explored what it meant to study and practice conservation in a world in which stories have so much power. Not willing to give into the doom and gloom, though, our six presenters also sought redeeming uses of stories that would help improve our understanding of our conservation goals and our means for achieving them.

Above: Kira Cassidy and Alex McInturff.

Kira Cassidy, of the Yellowstone Wolf project, and Alex McInturff, of the Brashares Group, argued that conservation, as a crisis discipline, and ecology, filled with exciting characters and high drama, are sciences particularly suited to absorbing stories. “Storytelling is our superpower,” Cassidy argued, while McInturff argued that stories have the dual abilities to make our messages simple and digestible, while also giving us access to a world of symbols and narrative truths that characterize much of our lives and politics.

Above: Stefano Wrobleski

Stefano Wrobleski, of, showed us the human side of “big data,” by illustrating how we can make compelling visual stories out of the masses of data collected around the world today. Clever and attractive spatial overlays weave new stories – and also save lives.

Dr. Carlos Rodriguéz of Tropenbos International Colombia, and Domingos Muala of Gorongosa National Park, in central Mozambique, drew from their experiences on different sides of the planet listening to stories. In the Colombian Amazon, Rodríguez has spent decades learning from shamans about their relationships with the world around them and sharing these stories – and the stunning visuals members of these same indigenous communities have made to tell their stories to the outside world. In Gorongosa, Muala works with the communities surrounding the park integrate local stories into park practice. The stories these individuals have shared with Muala, such as of their relationships with their totem animals, have been published in his book, Tales from Gorongosa.

Above: Carlos Rodriguéz
Above: Domingos Muala

Everildys Córdoba, the general coordinator of the community of COCOMASUR in northwestern Colombia, closed out the symposium with an important message: we must not only listen to stories, but also support local communities in producing and telling those stories themselves. This process can strengthen communities, build pride in their collective efforts around conservation, and enable them to share their experiences with others interested in similar initiatives. The case study of her community’s experience with REDD+ is available on COCOMASUR’s website.

Above: Lauren Withey and Everildys Córdoba

What might our symposium in Cartagena tell us about storytelling for conservation in Colombia today? The most obvious storyline is one oft told today of Colombia as a land still little explored by “modern science”: a leader of Colombia’s national parks explained, for example, that a new species is “discovered” every time an expedition goes out in the Pacific and Amazonian regions. If we are willing to listen, though, we will also hear the stories of those who have vast, detailed maps of these “unexplored” lands in their minds and hearts, who have intimate knowledge of and close relationships with their flora, fauna, and spirits, and who surely have their own ideas about the future of these lands. And while scientists from around the world are understandably excited to work in Colombia in an improving security context, conservation would benefit greatly by encouraging and supporting Colombians from across the country – equally rich in human diversity – to develop and tell their own stories.

Above: Brashares Lab group members and affiliates with workshop speaker Everildys Córdoba. Left to right: Paul Elson, Jennie Miller, Katherine Siegel, Everildys Córdoba, Lauren Withey, Alex McInturff.

Lab offers perspective on bushmeat hunting for Science

By Kaitlyn Gaynor, PhD Candidate

A child carries a basket containing a Gambian rat and a monkey in Lomela, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The harvest, consumption, and trade of wild meat is central to people’s livelihoods in many countries, yet is also responsible for widespread animal population declines. Photo credit: Lynn Johnson, National Geographic Creative.

In a recent paper in Science, Benítez-López and colleagues synthesize data from around the tropics to distill the impacts of bushmeat hunting into a striking figure: bird and mammal populations decline by 58% and 83% (respectively) as a result of hunting. But what does this number mean for wild animals, their ecosystems, and the human populations that rely on their meat?

As an interdisciplinary research group, we in the Brashares lab embrace and explore the complexity of social-ecological dynamics. Bushmeat hunting and consumption are at the center of a coupled human-natural system in which the health and security of people and ecosystems are tightly linked.

In an accompanying perspective piece in Science, Justin and I bring this interdisciplinary lens to the Benítez-López study to unpack some of the history, drivers, and consequences of hunting and associated defaunation.

Animal behavior key in designating effective wildlife corridors

By Briana Abrahms, PhD ’16

As Earth’s habitats become increasingly fragmented, protecting connections between habitats is critical for sustaining healthy wildlife populations. Our new study in Journal of Animal Ecology reveals that animal behavior is a key component in planning which habitat connections are most essential for wildlife movement.

The establishment of wildlife corridors, swaths of habitat that connect core habitat areas, is a widely popular tool for enabling species to disperse from one area to another. Yet, effective placement of these linkages first requires an accurate understanding of species’ dispersal requirements and habitat preferences. Because dispersal data are often difficult to collect in the field, such connectivity assessments typically rely on the assumption that a habitat occupied by a species is representative of the landscape conditions necessary for its successful dispersal, despite recognition that what habitat an animal uses, or how the animal responds to a particular landscape feature, depends greatly on its behavioral state (e.g. resting, traveling, or feeding).

In our study, we examined the sensitivity of connectivity predictions to behavioral state and tested these predictions against long-distance dispersal movements of African wild dogs, an endangered species highly sensitive to habitat fragmentation. By pairing behavioral data obtained from accelerometers with GPS location data, we measured habitat selection patterns specific to different behavioral states.

We found that wildlife corridors based on habitat preferences when the dogs were traveling protected 87% of long-distance movements, as opposed to only 33% for corridors based on general habitat preferences that did not consider behavioral state. In addition, we reviewed sixteen years of prior connectivity studies and found that most failed to incorporate behavioral information, potentially emphasizing sub-optimal linkages in the landscape.

wildlife corridors based on habitat preferences when the dogs were traveling protected 87% of long-distance movements, as opposed to only 33% for corridors based on general habitat preferences that did not consider behavioral state

The new study highlights the need to account for behavior-specific habitat preferences in conservation and corridor planning. As pressures from changing landscapes and climates continue to rise, effective corridors will become increasingly important for maintaining the viability of Earth’s wild populations.

Read more about the study’s findings in its feature article on Conservation Corridor!

Study shows human illness exacerbates unsustainable fishing practices

By Katie Fiorella, PhD ’15

A toxic environment is known to create health problems for people, but sick people can also create health problems for the environment. Our new research published in PNAS shows that in a fishing community with high rates of disease and declining fish stocks around Kenya’s Lake Victoria, human illness is leader to greater unsustainability in fishing practices.

Read more about the study in articles by UC Berkeley, Cornell, and the National Science Foundation.

Figure 1 from Fiorella et al. 2017

Lab begins research on deer in Hopland, California

By Alex McInturff, PhD Candidate

Sunrise at Hopland.
Sunset at Hopland.








Gorgeous sunrises and sunsets are part of the routine of field work at the Hopland Research and Extension Center in 2017. With the support of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), Justin, Kaitlyn (Ph.D. Candidate) and I have just begun putting GPS collars on deer, whose “crepuscular” behavior makes them most active at dawn and dusk.

These collars provide three streams of information: GPS locations every hour for the next 6 months, GPS locations every 5 seconds for the next month, and data from an accelerometer – more or less a Fitbit for deer – 50 times a second for the next month. Each of these datasets provides unique information on deer movement, resource use, decision-making, fear, and risk. Together, these data help support CDFW efforts to improve deer management and population estimation as well as lab interests in behavior, population dynamics, and species interactions.

And when the rain dries up, the views aren’t too bad either.



Lab members to lead two events at Colombia ICCB in July

By Alex McInturff, PhD Candidate, and Jennie Miller, Postdoc

At this year’s International Congress in Conservation Biology (ICCB) in Cartagena, Colombia, in July, members of the Brashares lab will lead two exciting events.

A symposium, entitled “Conservation and Storytelling in a Post-Truth World,” will aim to expand on these two topics (conservation and storytelling) and broaden the personnel that have been typical of the conference in previous years. A diverse group of speakers from three continents will share their experiences of how storytelling and conservation fit together. Stories have helped broadcast conservation messages beyond academic enclaves; they have helped scientists and practitioners grapple with difficult questions; and finally, as some of our non-academic speakers will share, stories play a major role in shaping landscapes themselves, and thus are more vital than ever to conservationists’ toolkits. Lab leaders Lauren and Alex (Ph.D. Candidates) and a creative team of B-Labmates are organizing this forward-thinking symposium.

The workshop will explain methods and applications of risk models and maps like this one from Miller 2015, showing the likeliness of tiger depredation on livestock.

Jennie (Postdoctoral Scholar) will lead the lab’s second event, a workshop on “Risk Modeling as a Decision-Making Tool for Reducing Human-Wildlife Conflict”. A major challenge in wildlife conservation globally is identifying priority human-wildlife conflict sites where mitigation efforts will be most effective. Spatial risk modeling recently emerged as a tool for understanding, predicting and mapping hotspots of human-wildlife conflict, such as livestock depredation, crop raiding and attacks on people. This workshop will present the methods and applications of spatial risk modeling as a decision-making tool for informing the implementation of conflict mitigation techniques. Jennie will share case studies from India, Mexico and more so look out for tigers, lions and bears!

More information on these events will be posted on the conference website sometime soon. We hope to see you in Cartagena in July!

‘War and wildlife’ article receives media coverage

‘War and wildlife’ article receives media coverage

By Kaitlyn Gaynor, PhD Candidate

Check out the media coverage of our lab’s article “War and wildlife: linking armed conflict to conservation”, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment in December!