Understanding & addressing wildlife poisoning in Northern Cambodia

This post originally published on the ICCS website.

ដើម្បីអានអត្ថបទនេះជាភាសាខ្មែរសូមចូលទៅកាន់: https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.12146181.v1

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to have a variety of unforeseen implications for people and wildlife. One early trend is a reported increase in waterhole poisonings in Cambodia’s Northern Plains. This is concerning for both conservation and human health reasons. Preah Vihear province in northern Cambodia is home to the largest remaining fragments of Southeast Asia’s deciduous woodlands. These woodlands, which once carpeted mainland Southeast Asia, have disappeared elsewhere. As such, Cambodia’s Northern Plains are stronghold for some unique and threatened wildlife species. For example, the area is home to the Giant Ibis – Cambodia’s national bird, which was thought extinct until it was re-discovered in 1993. Unfortunately, three Giant Ibis (representing over 1% of the global population) have been poisoned in recent months. These poisonings can also harm farmers and their livestock, who depend on the waterholes as a critical water source.

So why might we be seeing this worrying spike in waterhole poisoning? Research conducted in 2017, by Emiel de Lange and two Cambodian students, Yim Vichet and Leang Chantheavy, may help to provide some answers. The study is available in the journal Oryx and a full text is available here.

Figure 1:  The critically endangered Giant Ibis, sitting near a waterhole in Preah Vihear province, Cambodia
Figure 1:  The critically endangered Giant Ibis, sitting near a waterhole in Preah Vihear province, Cambodia

The first documented carbofuran poisonings in Preah Vihear: a problem for people and wildlife

In 2016, in the heat of the dry season, cows in Preah Vihear province were dying seemingly without reason and farmers were complaining of diarrhoea and stomach pains. When government officials investigated they found troubling scenes: at five vital life-giving waterholes, strange purple gravel was strewn at their edges, and dead and dying animals were scattered nearby. A slender-billed vulture, one of less than 100 individuals left in Southeast Asia, was found struggling in the grass and rushed to a vet.

The bird did not survive. However, by examining the contents of its stomach in a laboratory, vets discovered that it had been poisoned by a pesticide called carbofuran. This was even more troubling, as carbofuran is extremely toxic to birds, and was banned internationally, under the Rotterdam convention, following a massacre of Europe’s farmland birds in 1998. Such poisonings not only represented a significant public health danger to farmers and their livestock; they also threatened the rare wildlife which depend on the waterholes for their survival.

At the time, conservationists could only speculate as to the causes for these events. Was it an accidental consequence of pesticide use in agriculture? Was it an intentional attack, perhaps intended to kill a cow in retaliation for a land dispute? Or a protest against conservation rules? To address this problem, we would first need to understand the root causes.

Understanding the root causes of waterhole poisonings

Emiel and his team interviewed local residents and organised group discussions in ten villages in the area, to get a broader sense of how people perceived poisoning, and to attempt to measure its prevalence. Given the sensitive nature of the behaviour, they used a mixed methods approach drawing on theory from social psychology, sensitive questioning techniques, and triangulating multiple data sources. Their conclusions have important implications for managing poisoning in Preah Vihear province, and for studying sensitive behaviours in other contexts.

1. The who, what, where, when, and why, of wildlife poisoning

“In the dry season, when the waterholes are dry, I put the poison in a coconut shell. It is a powder which I dissolve in the water and put in the shell […]. Using this poison, I used to catch a lot of birds, maybe five or six each time, and I would try three times in one season.”

This description is typical of practices documented in eight of the ten villages visited during the study. It is a method used to harvest wild meat, which is primarily consumed at home. It is considered extremely efficient, and easy to learn compared to methods such as setting traps or using guns. In the dry season, a lot of wildlife concentrates at waterholes which makes them easy targets. However, from a conservation perspective, this indiscriminate killing is concerning and witnesses reported that many important species have been affected. It is usually young men, perhaps up to the age of 30, who are using poisons, but we also heard about children playing with poisons and catching animals too. They might learn this from relatives in the village or from shopkeepers, who sometimes sell the poison repackaged in clear plastic bags for ~$0.25.

We might assume that the poorest households are using poison because of food insecurity, but the evidence for this was not clear in 2017. A more important factor in deciding whether to use poison or not seems to be how health risks are perceived. This is one of the key factors that may have changed following the outbreak of COVID-19, as migrant workers are forced to return home and no longer have employment opportunities.

Figure 2: a poisoned waterhole with a dead plaintive cuckoo. The purple carbofuran pesticide is visible on the tree trunk.
Figure 2: a poisoned waterhole with a dead plaintive cuckoo. The purple carbofuran pesticide is visible on the tree trunk.

2. Social norms and village reactions

“The villagers are all unhappy [about poisoning] […]. Last year I told everyone at a meeting to not do it and forbade the shopkeepers to sell the poison, […] but people continue to do it in secret.”

Social norms around wildlife poisoning are complex and differ from village to village. In one village, poisoning was a topic discussed freely and seemed to be quite common, while in others nobody had ever seen or heard about such a practice. Most villages lay somewhere in the middle: there were clearly groups of varying size who were using poison or who were accepting of it, while others disapproved strongly. In five villages, chiefs or other authority figures had attempted to prevent poisoning, because it destroys clean water sources and fish populations, risks people’s health, and has caused the deaths of beloved dogs, cows and chickens. They had made poisoners sign contracts promising to stop, or held village meetings to discuss the problem. One traditional doctor even suspected a young boy had been poisoned, but we couldn’t confirm this story. Many people also worry about the health effects of eating poisoned meat, and we recorded a long list of suspected symptoms. On the other hand, many believe that removing the internal organs of a poisoned animal makes the meat safe to eat.

3. The challenges of studying sensitive behaviour

“If people in the village knew this was happening, they would be unhappy as it could kill their cattle.”

Understandably, many people were reluctant to talk about poisoning. Many residents were unhappy about poisoning, and authorities have publicly acted against it in some villages. As such, those using poison may keep quiet about it to avoid social and legal repercussions. Some villages also benefit from conservation projects, such as community ecotourism businesses or organic farming projects, so village authorities may work closely with environment authorities to enforce conservation rules.

This situation raises challenges for researchers. Few people openly admitted to poisoning. Most accounts were indirect, or from those who had been negatively impacted by poisoning. Nevertheless, by carefully triangulating evidence from multiple sources, the study makes several robust qualitative conclusions, though trying to estimate prevalence of poison usage across the landscape has proved more difficult.

Figure 3: A summary of evidence collected for 9 hypotheses, showing how they vary across the 10 studied villages. Green triangles pointing upwards indicate that the hypothesis is supported, and purple triangles pointing downwards indicate it is not. The size of the shape indicates the strength of this evidence.
Figure 3: A summary of evidence collected for 9 hypotheses, showing how they vary across the 10 studied villages. Green triangles pointing upwards indicate that the hypothesis is supported, and purple triangles pointing downwards indicate it is not. The size of the shape indicates the strength of this evidence.

What does this mean for preventing waterhole poisoning in the future?

Despite the challenges of studying sensitive behaviours, the results of this study will be useful for planning interventions to reduce wildlife poisoning in the area. Local managers now understand the practices that lead to wildlife poisoning, the people involved, and their motivations. Importantly, the prevalence of this practice is now better understood, as well as the social norms and dynamics in each village, and previous efforts by local authorities to combat poisoning. All of this knowledge allows us to:

  1. Prioritise villages for intervention
  2. Identify target groups and plan how to reach them
  3. Identify potential allies to collaborate with, or use as key messengers
  4. Understand what sort of information might influence poisoners’ decision-making.

Based on the results of the study, Emiel and his collaborators at WCS Cambodia launched pilot interventions in early 2019. A full social marketing intervention has been conducted in one village, followed by extensive surveys to understand its effects. Watch this space for more news on its impact!

Finally, whether or not the recently observed increase in poisonings follows the trends described in this study remains to be seen. However, early evidence suggests that greater quantities of poison are being used than before. This might indicate that new actors with greater access to capital and commercial motivations are engaging in poisoning. A key component of our interventions to date has been to engage local communities in monitoring and reporting poisoning using a hotline, and this will continue to be critical for addressing this new challenge. High profile media coverage may also assist in encouraging greater control of trade in these deadly pesticides.

Ethical Publishing in Biodiversity Conservation Science

For many researchers, particularly in academia, publishing in peer-reviewed journals is a necessity, with major implications for their career progression. Yet, it is increasingly recognised that the current scientific publishing model is not fair and equitable, which can have severe consequences for the way science is accessed and used in nature conservation. We evaluated the publishing model of 426 conservation science journals against the Fair Open Access (FOA) principles.

Two-thirds of journals, together publishing nearly half of all articles, complied with only two or fewer FOA principles. Only twenty journals (5%), publishing 485 articles per year (<1%), complied with all five principles. We uncovered a weak negative correlation between journal impact factor and the number of FOA principles fulfilled.

Figure 1: Publications fulfilling different Fair Open Access principles. (a) Number of Journals. (b) Number of Articles associated with those Journals

Lastly, we found that Elsevier, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, and Springer represented 48% of all journals, but 80% of the 25 journals with the highest impact factor. Our results show that conservation science journals largely fail to meet the FOA standards. Conservation researchers are likely to face obstacles such as limited access to published literature, high publishing charges, and lack of ownership of their research outputs.

Figure 3: Impact Factor Scores. (a) Proportion of journals with an impact factor belonging to the four main academic publishers: Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis and Elsevier. (b) Mean Fair Open Access score of journals with different impact factors (as assigned in 2017)

To help authors make more informed decisions we made a database of 400+ journals with each journal ranked according to the Fair Open Access Criteria.

Ethical considerations when conservation research involves people

In 2018, I was privileged to participate in the Interdisciplinary Conservation Network – a biennial workshop organised and run by early career researchers. My colleagues Stephanie Brittain and Harriet Ibbett facilitated an excellent discussion on the ethical challenges faced by early career researchers in conservation science. All social research has ethical challenges, but conservation is particularly fraught given it’s colonial history and the huge areas of contested land that conservation aims to manage. I found this to be a therapeutic venue to discuss ethical dilemnas I have encountered in the field, and I’m very proud of the paper we subsequently published in Conservation Biology.

Abstract

Social science is becoming increasingly important in conservation, with more studies involving methodologies that collect data from and about people. Conservation science is a normative and applied discipline designed to support and inform management and practice. Poor research practice risks harming participants, researchers, and can leave negative legacies. Often, those at the forefront of field‐based research are early‐career researchers, many of whom enter their first research experience ill‐prepared for the ethical conundrums they may face. Here, we draw on our own experiences as early‐career researchers to illuminate how ethical challenges arise during conservation research that involves human participants. Specifically, we discuss ethical review procedures, conflicts of values, and power relations, and provide broad recommendations on how to navigate ethical challenges when they arise during research. We encourage greater engagement with ethical review processes and highlight the pressing need to develop ethical guidelines for conservation research that involves human participants.

Integrating models of human behaviour between the individual and population levels to inform conservation interventions

Abstract

The Open Access text is available here.

Conservation takes place within social–ecological systems, and many conservation interventions aim to influence human behaviour in order to push these systems towards sustainability. Predictive models of human behaviour are potentially powerful tools to support these interventions. This is particularly true if the models can link the attributes and behaviour of individuals with the dynamics of the social and environmental systems within which they operate. Here we explore this potential by showing how combining two modelling approaches (social network analysis, SNA, and agent-based modelling, ABM) could lead to more robust insights into a particular type of conservation intervention. We use our simple model, which simulates knowledge of ranger patrols through a hunting community and is based on empirical data from a Cambodian protected area, to highlight the complex, context-dependent nature of outcomes of information-sharing interventions, depending both on the configuration of the network and the attributes of the agents. We conclude by reflecting that both SNA and ABM, and many other modelling tools, are still too compartmentalized in application, either in ecology or social science, despite the strong methodological and conceptual parallels between their uses in different disciplines. Even a greater sharing of methods between disciplines is insufficient, however; given the impact of conservation on both the social and ecological aspects of systems (and vice versa), a fully integrated approach is needed, combining both the modelling approaches and the disciplinary insights of ecology and social science.

Improving environmental interventions by understanding information flows

I’m very pleased to share our latest publication: a review on the role of information flows in conservation interventions, published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution. The Open Access text is available here.

An animated summary of a figure from our paper

Abstract

Conservationists are increasingly interested in changing human behaviour. One understudied aspect of such interventions is information flow. Different patterns of interpersonal communica-tion and social structures within communities influence the adoption of behavioural changes through social influence and social reinforcement. Understanding the structure of information flow in a group, using tools such as social network analysis, can therefore offer important insights for interventions. For example, communications may be targeted to highly connected opinion leaders to leverage their influence, or communication may be facilitated between distinct subgroups to promote peer learning. Incorporating these approaches into conservationinterventions can promote more effective behaviour change. This review introduces conservation researchers and practitioners to key concepts underpinning information flows for interventions targeting networks of individuals.

Approaches Used to Evaluate the Social Impacts of Protected Areas

The Open Access text is available here. This paper is a version of my undergraduate thesis at Imperial College London.

Abstract

Protected areas are a key strategy in conserving biodiversity, and there is a pressing need to evaluate their social impacts. Though the social impacts of development interventions are widely assessed, the conservation literature is limited and methodological guidance is lacking. Using a systematic literature search, which found 95 relevant studies, we assessed the methods used to evaluate the social impacts of protected areas. Mixed methods were used by more than half of the studies. Almost all studies reported material aspects of wellbeing, particularly income; other aspects were included in around half of studies. The majority of studies provided a snapshot, with only one employing a before‐after‐control‐intervention design. Half of studies reported respondent perceptions of impacts, while impact was attributed from researcher inference in 1/3 of cases. Although the number of such studies is increasing rapidly, there has been little change in the approaches used over the last 15 years, or in the authorship of studies, which is predominantly academics. Recent improvements in understanding of best practice in social impact evaluation need to be translated into practice if a true picture of the effects of conservation on local people is to be obtained.