For Liz Campbell, Oxford is just a base. Her home for most of the year is 1,350 miles due south in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
Liz Campbell lives in a remote town called Azrou from where she is studying a newly discovered species, the African golden wolf. Until 2015 this species was unknown and had been considered to be a kind of jackal; in actual fact the two species have been separate for 1.2 million years.
The African golden wolf – as it is now correctly identified – is top predator in this region since the Barbary lions, leopards and hyenas have disappeared, mostly from human persecution and loss of habitat and loss of prey. But even these golden, misidentified survivors are under threat.
They are seen as a menace by local shepherds. Campbell, a DPhil student who leads the Atlas Golden Wolf Project, says, ‘One of the things that the shepherds really dislike is that a wolf won’t just kill one sheep. It might kill ten and only eat one, so in the shepherds’ view they think the wolves are vengeful and spiteful, but that isn’t the animals’ motivation at all.’
This sounds devastating, but Campbell says, ‘What I’m seeing from my data is that they don’t attack sheep that often, so only 15% of shepherds have had any kind of attack in the last year.’
But if the wolves are, in some ways, harmful to a group of people scratching a living from their land, does it matter whether the wolves survive or go the way of the lions, leopards and hyenas?
In simple terms: yes, it does. ‘You need predators in an ecosystem to balance prey,’ Campbell explains. ‘In the Atlas Mountains there are a lot of wild boar and if you have nothing to eat the wild boar, the numbers increase. They reproduce really quickly and they root up the ground, destroying vegetation. It’s the same with other herbivores: if you don’t have a predator to control those populations there are too many and they destroy vegetation.’
This is a pattern of predator-eradication that has occurred across the world. Wolves became almost extinct throughout North America and Europe because of human influence. They’re now recovering and returning to a lot of places they were extirpated from. In Yellowstone National Park they reintroduced wolves and it has had ‘massive cascading effects’, says Campbell.
We are now in an era where humans are the main affecters of biodiversity through climate change and we know that biodiversity is a buffer against our actions.
Eventually the consequences of predator loss becomes damaging for humans but, as Campbell says: ‘There’s also the argument of biodiversity having its own intrinsic value. There is the argument that the wolves have a right to be alive, and who are humans to come in and decide that these wolves are bad for their livestock and wipe out a whole branch of evolution because of that?
‘They have a place in nature. We don’t even understand all the intricacies, and in the end it would affect us, but even without that fact they have a right to exist as well.’ Professor Rob Salguero-Gomez, at the University’s Department of Zoology, researches the delicate balance of ecosystems and biodiversity. He says: ‘We have a big responsibility to document everything we have – total global biodiversity – to develop methods to prevent species from going extinct. To that end, we need to assess the relative vulnerability and resilience of as many species as possible: how likely they are to become extinct and how likely they are to recover from a disturbance, such as a hurricane or a fire. Acquiring this knowledge will be critical for the development of priority management plans in the future.
‘We are now in an era where humans are the main affecters of biodiversity through climate change and we know that biodiversity is a buffer against our actions. From a human-centric point of view, the benefits of biodiversity can be understood through natural resources to support us, our infrastructures, our food sources, our physical and mental health. Biodiversity offers what we call ecosystem services. As you eliminate species the benefits of eco-services diminish.
‘We are collaborating with other demographers around the globe to create an informed world map to show which areas need to be protected and which areas are most vulnerable. We need global solutions.’
Professor Nathalie Seddon leads the Nature- based Solutions Initiative at Oxford – a research group that develops ways of working with nature to solve the global challenge of climate change, working with nature to address societal challenges, with a focus on climate change, says: ‘The last 12 months have seen the publication of several major reports on the state of the biosphere and climate. It has become clear that not only are we failing to stabilise the climate and stem the tide of biodiversity loss, but that this is having and will increasingly have severe impacts on humanity. It is against this backdrop that we are seeing the rise of nature-based solutions – ie working with and enhancing nature – as integrated approaches to addressing the causes and consequences of climate change, protecting biodiversity and enabling sustainable development.
‘We have to steer investments in nature away from single species plantations and towards protecting what we’ve got (ie biodiverse, intact ecosystems) and restoring what we’ve damaged. That’s what the Nature-based Solutions Initiative is focused on achieving. In particular, we apply leading-edge thinking from across multiple disciplines to shore up the scholarship around the socioeconomic and ecological effectiveness of nature-based solutions in a warming world, and to bring about a step change in how these are financed and governed, for the benefit of people and planet.’
The African golden wolves, which are key to maintaining biodiversity in the Atlas Mountains, are secretive animals and of no harm to humans. In years of studying them Campbell has only actually seen them twice. Her observations come through cameras and tracking.
After learning the basic essentials of this new species, the next stage of Campbell’s research is to develop strategies to make sure that the humans aren’t losing livestock and to protect the predators themselves.
‘Strategies are probably going to be focused on husbandry practices, for example the common problem of losing your sheep in the forest.’ she says. ‘You can fairly easily improve this issue by having guard dogs and having the sheep locked up better at night, but there are indirect costs as farmers (or shepherds) would have to pay for dogs and put up fences.
‘We need more research to understand the animals and what role they play in the ecosystem; understanding why they’re attacking livestock and how we can prevent that.’
Campbell’s work involves outreach events with local communities and educational events with children to teach them about the value of predators and the balance of nature. She also trains students in Morocco to increase capacity of conservation within the country.
The Atlas Golden Wolf project is part of the WildCRU – Wildlife Conservation Research Unit – suite of projects based at the University of Oxford. Catapulted into the spotlight in 2015 when one of their study lions, Cecil, was shot dead by a trophy hunter, the research group has roots stretching back to the early, pioneering days of environmental conservation. Founded in 1986 by David Macdonald, WildCRU was the first university-based conservation research unit in Europe. It has grown to be one of the largest conservation research institutes in the world.
One of Campbell’s WildCRU colleagues, Dr Tan, whose work has affected positive change for the clouded leopard in the previously unprotected Ulu Muda forest in Malaysia, also talks about the importance of working with local communities.
‘Ulu Muda is a water catchment area which provides four million people with drinking water and supplies water to the rice fields of four states,’ he says. ‘But there was unmanaged logging and poaching going on. We found out last November that logging is now banned and this result has come about because of a combination of research, engaging the public and a petition.’
Four of Dr Tan’s projects are funded through Oxford University seed funding.
‘Oxford is a great place to try out new ways of doing things,’ he says. ‘The University is open to innovative teaching methods. I’m proud to be training the new generation of conservation educators by helping early-career conservationists learn to be teachers themselves, so as to improve training of conservation biologists working on high biodiversity hotspot areas.’
Professor Salguero-Gomez points out: ‘We can’t manage what we don’t understand. A key question in our understanding of biodiversity, before even talking about how much of it is being lost due to human actions and climate change, is to quantify our knowledge of species across the tree of life, from bacteria to humans and anything in between.’
Dr Tan believes that some of the main challenges we face are that people are very pessimistic or lack awareness around climate change. Part of his research and practice is about empowering people to believe that they can make a difference.
‘We think we’re one small person and that we can’t make a difference,’ he says. ‘But I strongly believe in changing mindsets and understanding through education.
‘We all want to achieve comfort and provide for our families, but I believe that people can make a difference through small changes in their behaviour. Ideally, in the future, everyone would be aware of how their behaviour and actions impact wildlife and they would make small positive changes. But there would also be a top- down approach from policy-makers.’
What about a worst-case scenario? ‘In a worst-case scenario we will accelerate temperature increase, population increase will run out of control and every living thing will eventually become extinct. We as humans will be ignorant of our actions and this will be the cause of our own detriment.’
By holding this worst case in mind and working towards an evidence-based best- case scenario, Cedric Tan, Liz Campbell, Rob Salguero-Gomez, Nathalie Seddon and many more conservation biologists at Oxford are collaborating around the world to create solutions which respect the balance of human need, the right to life on earth and the intrinsic value of biodiversity.