Biologist Marina Cords has been studying monkey social behavior in western Kenya’s protected Kakamega Forest since 1979, and is currently a professor at Columbia University’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology. Her work has led to insights about how primates manage conflicts, mate and carry out other social functions closely related to human behavior. She has also learned much about forest conservation, and is involved in grassroots efforts at Kakamega. Recently, she coauthored (along with scientists from 164 other institutions) a paper in the journal Nature assessing the successes and failures of tropical-forest reserves around the world. The authors found that about half of all reserves work effectively, or at least passably–but that the other half are seeing an alarming erosion of biodiversity, due to habitat disruption, hunting and exploitation of forest products including logging. Environmental changes outside reserves appear to be as important as those in the reserves themselves. Recently, Earth Institute senior science writer Kevin Krajick spoke with Cords about her work.
Q: What is the most important point of this recent study on forest reserves?
A: A reserve is not an island, but is connected to the landscape around it. No biologist would find this surprising, as any reserve boundary is manmade, not made by nature. But it’s great to be able to show this with data, to help convince others who may not realize the importance of the connection between the organisms and conditions inside versus outside. The paper raises the question of reserves functioning as “arks,” but the results show that they often do not function in this way. This is not to say they are not important, of course–just that alone, without attention to drivers of biodiversity decline and their relationship to the surrounding land, they are often not sufficient.
Q: What’s going on outside a reserve that so strongly influences what goes on inside? And what can we do outside to help the reserves themselves to function?
A: What’s going on outside seems, in a way, to be a barometer of the threats that the reserve itself faces. This would be obvious for things like climate, which will clearly be the same over limited geographic areas. But it’s also true for human disruption through hunting, logging, fires or harvesting of critical forest products. If the area surrounding the reserve is full of people using forest in these ways, there are more threats, and more chances that these practices will overflow the reserve boundaries. A fire doesn’t respect the boundaries. Hunters on the prowl will follow animals who don’t respect those boundaries. And of course biological systems like pollination, seed dispersal and animal mating are not constrained by manmade boundaries. Buffer zones are important, especially where some limited human use is allowed. These would be located between the real reserve and where people live.
Q: There seems to be evidence that when reserves are successful, the groups that benefit most are larger creatures, and primates. Are we concentrating too much on big, fuzzy animals–the so-called charismatic megafauna–to the detriment of other groups that are equally important to a diverse ecosystem?
Well, this could be a methodological issue, related to who is studying what in reserves and how the reserve health index is computed. But in general, charismatic groups act as “umbrella species,” in that conservation action focused on them actually helps everyone else, since ultimately one is conserving habitat that different groups use. i think we also often know more about these groups, and, unfortunately, less about some of the other less charismatic but equally or more important groups.
Q: Why do you keep going back to the same study area year after year?
I’ve gone back because of the added knowledge I gain about my primary research focus, on the behavior and reproduction of individual animals that live for more than three decades. If you want to know their ages, kinship, and the history of their groups and social mileux, and keep track of their reproduction, you have to be watching them for long periods. It also took me many years to be able to gather some of the information that is now routine–it’s not easy to observe these animals in a forest!
Q: To what degree are you and others working to conserve your own study area?
It has been interesting to see how the forest and local people’s attitudes about it have changed over the 33 years I’ve worked there. Conservation was not in the mindset of anyone for the first 20 or so years, but it became more important in the 1990s. Kenya’s government has passed legislation aimed at preserving the the forests they have left; they’re very aware of the problems and the importance. But those charged with protection are understaffed, underfunded, and until recently, undertrained. It’s a tough problem, dealing with human predators. Which is where education comes in. People can learn about forest health, how their actions affect it, and how changes in their behavior can benefit both them and their environment. I’ve been involved with an education program for kids for about 15 years now. I raised money to build three conservation resource centers, which regularly host visitors, and inspire locals to become teachers and, in a way, crusaders for forest health. New, similar organizations have also sprung up, Just last year the local university, which created a new center for forest study, hosted a conference attended by hundreds. I am really impressed by the level of interest, especially remembering earlier days.