Local biodiversity is higher inside than outside protected areas worldwide

The recent study on protected areas that I carried out whilst based at the University of Sussex and in collaboration with the PREDICTS team has recently been published and received some great coverage.

We found that the species richness and abundance of communities at sites sampled within protected areas was higher than that at unprotected sites. However, we found no difference in rarefied species richness (the number of species present once abundance is accounted for) or the endemicity of the species sampled (where higher endemicity means more species with small ranges).  Our results also indicate that stronger protection may result in even higher local species richness and abundance, although more data from within strongly protected sites and more detailed information on management approaches is needed to confirm this. Nevertheless, overall our results reinforce the global importance of protected areas for halting the global extinction crisis.

Our findings have been covered in the Guardian, on the London Natural History Museum website, by the Conservation ALERT team, the Wildlife Society, ITV News, the International Business Times, Eureka Alert and by British Telecom.

Rediscover: The publication is now online

If you missed our Rewilding Sussex exhibition last year, the beautiful publication with Dan Locke’s illustrations and photos from Max Gray and Lianne Williams is now online. The stunning website was put together by Harri Tan. Check it out here:


rediscover publication


Thanks everyone who was involved and especially the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting us!



New paper out – riparian reserves may be crucial for invert conservation

We found that ants and dungs beetles are not moving out of riparian reserves to cross young areas of oil palm. This implies that forest corridors connecting populations may be essential for their survival – this connectivity may be even more important for inverts than for vertebrates due.

In addition, we found little evidence that the ants and dung beetles in riparian reserves are providing nutrient cycling services (dung removal/scavenging) in the young oil palm. However, riparian reserves may still be reservoirs for service providers in older oil palm areas – the fuller canopy and lower temperatures in the older plantations may allow greater invertebrate dispersal.

As large areas of oil palm across Southeast Asia are going to be replanted in the next few years, the limited dispersal of inverts across young oil palm could pose a threat to these populations. Protecting and maintaining forest corridors may help prevent declines of ecologically important invertebrate species.

The full paper is open access (free to all). Read it here.

gray et al 2016



ReDiscover – thanks to everyone involved


Following a vast amount of work from all of the Rewilding Sussex team, our friends and superb collaborators, we have now come to the end of a very very successful show at ONCA.  We thought we would share some of the highlights with you here! And don’t worry, if you missed it, we are going to be producing a short publication with all the best bits of the show and the workshops, on its way to you soon!


ONCA gallery, opening night (photo: Lianne A Williams)

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Blockbuilders oculus rift takes visitors into a virtual rewilded Brighton (photos: Lianne A Williams, Claudia Gray)


Seed-dispersing frisbees, part of a new Wild Games – a tournament that, through being played, can rewild and restore abandoned land (Photo: Claudia Gray)


Trash Fox Sculpture highlights the role foxes play in recycling our waste. Pine marten and Squirrel head pieces from the Wild Games, designed to…

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SENSOR network


The new SEnSOR network is delivering up-to-date research on oil palm sustainability to governments, conservation organisations and oil palm managers.

SEnSOR produces easily-digestible summaries of recent research, with helpful highlights and clear take-away messages. Each document also explains the results that scientists are really confident about, and point out the areas that need more research.

The latest brief, which gives information on co-benefits for carbon and biodiversity in different tropical land uses, features my research on riparian zones in oil palm plantations – I’m very happy to have been able to help out with this work.

pdfs of all SEnSOR publications can be found at http://www.sensorproject.net/knowledge-exchange/

sensor page

What does the oil palm industry need from conservation science?

I was recently asked to lead a discussion group on conservation monitoring at a workshop for biodiversity scientists, environmental NGOs and the oil palm industry. Organised by Jen Lucey, NERC knowledge exchange fellow at the University of York, the workshop was interesting, informative, and enjoyable.  As intended, it caused some frustration and highlighted several really sticky challenges.


As vast areas of tropical rainforest are converted to oil palm many species are lost. To try and limit these negative impacts, we need to know how much forest fragments can support, and what size, shape and spatial arrangement they should be. For many years a team of ecologists, mostly based in York, has been working on the oil palm plantations owned by Wilmar International Ltd. in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. A major focus of their work has been surveying forest fragments within the plantations, to find out what species and ecological processes remain in these small scraps of native habitat. This workshop was the first time that the results from all their studies were brought together and presented to the company that hosted the work.

Data on birds, dung beetles, butterflies, ants and dipterocarps (the main family of trees in Southeast Asian forests), collected from 28 different forest patches, were combined to give guidelines for which fragments should be protected. The mixture of oil palm growers, consumers, sustainability experts, environmental consultants and members of various steering groups were very excited to receive some real, useable numbers:

  • Fragments need to be more than 10,000 ha before species richness becomes similar to that in larger areas of continuous forest
  • Fragments with a core area (the part more than 100m away from the edge) smaller than 20ha do not have higher species richness than oil palm
  • To keep 70% of species richness found in large areas of continuous forest, fragments need to be 200 – 500ha


Scientists often shy away from making such bold, clear statements:  these findings clearly suggest that the minimum size for fragments should be 20ha and that fragments larger than 200ha are highly desirable.  If these numbers are written into the principles and criteria of the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), oil palm plantations in 60 different countries will be asked to stick to them if they want to keep their sustainability certification. What if the results aren’t true for other taxa, like mammals? What if other features, such as the connectivity of the fragment, are more crucial? Using these numbers might not achieve the best outcome for biodiversity.

However, the oil palm industry desperately wants numbers like this to be delivered. It will always be possible to say “wait, we should collect more data before making precise guidelines”, but decisions are already being made for huge tracts of tropical land. Precise guidelines are already needed by the oil palm industry and the organisations that set the criteria for “sustainability” (such as the RSPO and High Conservation Value Resource Network (HCVRN)).

There are some really practical issues that need answers.

For new plantations, more precise guidelines on what can be converted are crucially important. If 15,000ha of forest is going to become a plantation, approximately 7000ha must be planted to ensure costs are covered. If there is some doubt over what counts as High Conservation Value (HCV) or High Carbon Stock (HCS) forest – the stuff that must be protected – this could affect whether or not the whole plantation goes ahead. And the plantations really do want to get it right and keep their certification.

Ecologists are normally happy saying that larger forest fragments are better, that more connectivity to large forest areas is better, that square, or circular fragments with a lower edge to core area ratio are better. But imagine a plantation has a wiggly, upland patch of forest that is deemed to be HCV.  The plantation needs to know whether it is better to keep the whole wiggly forest patch, most of which will suffer from edge effects (drying out, higher risk of fire) – or keep a more circular fragment that includes as much of the wiggly forest patch as possible, but not all.

For existing plantations, an important issue is the degradation of HCV forest fragments. To maintain their certification, oil palm companies must ensure that these forest fragments are protected, that the features designated to be high conservation value are not lost. However, there will always be cases where damage by people, fires or other disturbances causes these fragments to deteriorate. The pressing questions for oil palm plantation managers are: When is a high conservation value fragment no longer good enough to deserve protection? When should it be restored? When should that investment be put into something else, such as higher levels of enforcement around remaining habitat?

The answer, for either the landscape being converted or the existing plantation, will be context specific. There is no general rule that will work in all cases. However, ecologists should be able to put together more informative decision making frameworks, sets of criteria for each possible course of action, even apps or software with algorithms to calculate the best land use design. The general principles of what makes a forest fragment good for biodiversity and carbon storage are surely understood well enough to provide this. Unfortunately, the outputs required by a “successful academic” don’t tend to be this kind of product. Hopefully collaboration between universities, NGOs and the industry can provide these tools – I’d certainly like to be part of that effort.

Another key observation that came out of the workshop is the importance, and influence of the international organisations that already exist to try and provide answers. Without the RSPO or HCVRN backing changes in sustainability criteria, the oil palm industry is unlikely to take it on board – they risk investing in changes that may not be required, or that could even count against them. This is both encouraging, as the certification bodies do have some influence, and problematic, as it is a slow, tedious process to get large organisations moving on anything.  But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

The trickiest question to answer remains far from resolved.

Everyone wants to be told how much biodiversity we need to conserve. This is not a question either scientists or oil palm managers can answer. Scientists may be able to give a minimum forest patch size, below which the fragment cannot regenerate and maintain itself. Oil palm companies may be able to give the minimum area they must cultivate to make a profit. These pieces of information are crucial for identifying when sustainability criteria will not work. But they don’t help set the targets, the goals for how much forest should be kept, how many species should be retained. These are value-based judgements that the whole world needs to tackle. Do we want only the biodiversity that supports human food production, or do we want more? The 70% of species richness discussed at the workshop seemed acceptable to most people – you can’t expect to have everything, but 70% seems pretty good. Whether or not 70% is enough, the scientists working on Wilmar plantations have presented some great work that will help achieve biodiversity conservation targets, once we know what they are.

Workshop: Enhancing biodiversity conservation in the oil palm industry: Translating science into action. Amsterdam, June 4th, 2015.

Rewilding Sussex redesigns Brighton

Since moving to Brighton I’ve got involved with helping to lead the Rewilding Sussex community group – a really energetic group of people who want to see more wild places, relax the tight human control over much of the British countryside and hopefully restore some of the species and ecological processes we’ve lost.

For most of the winter we were meeting in the pub every couple of weeks, to brainstorm urban rewilding ideas, plan stalls for science festivals and update each other on exciting places to see or wildlife news. As the days have got longer and warmer we’ve been able to go outside more, to try and find the wilder places and species near to where we live. Trips have gone to the Knepp Estate, a wild safari park with deer, horses and cattle recreating lost ecosystems, and Brede High woods, to find the wild boar that live there.

I have a strong interest in how science and art can be combined, and visual art was already something Rewilding Sussex had embraced. So at the end of last year I suggested that we contact ONCA (One Network for Conservation and the Arts) to host a rewilding exhibition. The idea was greeted very warmly and our plan to put together an exhibition to “Reimagine British Nature” has expanded to become a full programme of activities uniting the skills and enthusiasm of young ecologists and young artists and designers.

We are planning to have the full exhibition in September – but Chris Sandom (who founded Rewilding Sussex and generally loves all things wild) saw an opportunity to have an early trial run of the process. Four keen students from the Design Futures course at the University of Brighton took on the challenge of visualising how a wilder urban space could work. After a series of workshops, and expert guidance from their course coordinator, Carlos Peralta, they put together individual presentations for us, as the “client”, to see.

The work was really brilliant. Each student had taken a wonderfully unique approach to creating a wilder space, considering not only the physical spaces that people would move through, but how that experience would make them feel and behave. The discussion of their work became an exploration not just of biodiversity conservation issues, but of much wider social problems that rewilding will need to face and hopefully, in some places, solve.

Here is a taste of what the students really impressed us with:

Francesca’s idea to put pedestrians up in the trees. The gardens would be a wild space, with no human access. Instead, people would interact with it via canopy walkways and remote controlled drones operated from above the tree tops.

Francesca 1

Francesca 2

Francesca 3

Marco’s green roof revolution. In a community driven movement, the rooftops of Brighton become a network of grasslands, interconnected with bridges and ropeways to maintain native populations and provide habitat to bring more species into urban areas.

Marco 1

Chloe 1Chloe’s wild homes for all. The gardens at the centre of Brighton are transformed into a more complex habitat, with banks of trees, caves and waterways. In amongst this, shelter and facilities are provided for the homeless.

Chloe 2

Keenan’s new rewilding traditions. Focussing on the Keenan 2importance of community centres and shared practices, new wild temples will provide the space for people to learn about native wild species, plant trees to mark life events, and be part of a group placing a high value on nature and natural processes.

Keenan 1

I am really excited to see what is developed for the full exhibition!

Biofresh Blog

Recently I’ve been asking lots of friends what they know about riparian zone legislation in their own countries. This lead to a conversation with Rob St. John (one of the many people it was brilliant to meet through my MSc course) about why I’m interested in riparian legislation, and he’s done a great job of publishing my response on the Biofresh blog.  The Biofresh platform aims to provide a global database on freshwater systems and is compiling hydrological data and ecological data for a wide range of taxa. The Biofresh blog covers a range of issues related to the biofresh platform and the people making it happen.

biofresh p

Biofresh is part of the MARS project (Managing Aquatic Ecosystems and Water Resources) – a pan-european effort to improve our understanding of what we are doing to our waterways.  Looks like some really great work studies will come out of these projects over the next few years.

Rob has also done some really beautiful work exploring the freshwater habitats of Edinburgh, and the diversity of sights and sounds they create, through the project WaterofLife. I thoroughly recommend taking a look. It is a really unique and memorable way to engage with urban freshwater systems.

You can read my piece on the biofresh blog here:



Stop Motion PhD

During the write-up of my PhD, I was thinking about how many (or few!) people would actually end up reading it. In addition to publishing the contents in peer-reviewed journals, I wanted a way to make all that work accessible to more people. I was tempted to create a graphic novel version, but that would still require people to sit down and read from cover to cover. So instead, I made a 3 minute stop motion animation – something I’d never done before but greatly enjoyed.

So, if you’d like to know a bit more about oil palm plantations and the importance of protecting natural habitat next to rivers, take a look.