Conservation is not always equal. If you go to a zoo you’ll find inescapable evidence of that, the megafauna are the main attractions; elephants, tigers and of course great apes are what you go to see. Visitor numbers are not determined by the species of rare invertebrates, birds or even the monkeys you’ll find housed in many collections and this same pattern is repeated across much of conservation science. A new study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment has highlighted the problematic bias caused by primarily studying great apes across Asia and Africa.
The study highlights that this bias has implications for a huge range of other species as scientists focus on protected areas which home the charismatic great apes. As a result of this we now next to nothing about protected areas where the great apes are missing.
Whilst the bias surrounding species selection for studies has long been known, anthropologist Andrew J. Marshall of University of Michigan and his colleagues decided to use Google scholar to determine whether this bias influences where people work.
By searching for publications which contained the names of one or more of the 565 protected areas across Africa and Asia where great apes are known to occur. They then used the number of hits found on Google Scholar as a proxy for the research effort in each protected area.
What they found was worrying, out of the 52,502 publications their search found more than 50% of those papers were focussed on 17 protected areas. Even worse than the clear bias shown for studying certain areas is the evident lack of study in others. One-third of African and one-fifth of Asian did not return a single hit on Google scholar.
“We imagined that research allocation might be skewed, but did not envisage such a strong bias.” claims Marshall. Of course his study could not determine a reason for this bias however he suspects it’s probably a similar reason as to why great apes are popular zoo attractions. People are drawn to charismatic species and those which express similar anthropogenic features to us. There is also the factor that great apes are more broadly known and have better research facilities.
With regards to a bias towards larger national parks, this could again be attributed towards a number of factors. For a start they are more likely to provide pristine environments which are favourable to scientists. Moreover the larger parks are better protected and provide safer, more stable environments for researchers and funders.
These obvious benefits are however outweighed by the negative impact this bias can have upon protected areas. As scientists are not studying the species, any local threats and conservation opportunities in a vast area therefore there is a vast lack of knowledge. Marshall highlights this problem; “If our knowledge of threatened species and ecosystems is based primarily on data collected in the places where populations are well protected and ecosystems are functioning best, we likely have a dangerously optimistic view of the world.”
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