Science for saiga conservation: interview with EJ Milner-Gulland

E.J. Milner-Gulland is the Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity and the Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science at the University of Oxford. At the 2018 edition of the Student Conference on Conservation Science in Bengaluru, Professor Milner-Gulland spoke about her research work on the Saiga antelope. During the conference, Hari Sridhar spoke to her about how she got interested in this species, her research interests, and how that research has informed Saiga conservation.
Q: I want to start by asking you about how you got interested in the saiga antelope.
Sure. I think for many scientists it’s just chance, how you get into a species and then you decide that you like it. I was starting my Ph.D. on the ivory trade in elephants and also later on rhinos. When I was researching about rhino horn use in Chinese traditional medicine I found that the saiga antelope was associated with rhino horn often, it was in the same medicines and it was actually seen as a substitute, though it’s really a complement, not a substitute. That was exciting for me because my father is a professor of Russian arts, literature and history. He was translating Russian dissident poets and we had lots of Russian stuff in the house. He was going to Russia lots and so I was really interested in the Soviet Union. When I read that saigas from the Soviet Union were complements to rhino horn I thought this is my chance to go and visit the Soviet Union. So I put in a grant proposal, got the money and went to visit. I was a population modeller doing population models of elephant and rhino populations and the effect of trade. I thought I could do something similar for saigas. When I got there I just really loved it and I stayed!
Q: Do you remember your first sighting of the animal?
Yes, it was in Kazakhstan, in 1991 possibly; maybe 93. I had a bit of time, I was there for a month, and we went up on a survey. That year the calving was very far north, so we were starting to give up. We couldn’t see any saigas and we were also a bit late for the calving. I was thinking I had driven for 2 or 3 days in vain and that I was not going to see a saiga, when we saw a single baby saiga right on the tracks, sitting in the sand! Quite often, late calving subdominant females put them in the sand in order to keep them warm. So, on that trip, I saw just one baby saiga on the road. I took a picture of and 25 years later, it is still my Skype icon. I’m very proud of that picture. It’s not the best picture but it was my first saiga.

Q: And what was that first project about?
Well, the field trip was just for fun, to see the area. I was doing a model of Saiga population dynamics and hunting to understand sustainable use. At the time, it was a game species that were harvested sustainably by the government and I wanted to parameterize the population model. So I went and worked with these guys, to get access to their data sets and their knowledge and understanding, and we published a paper together
Q: Stepping back a bit, how did you decide to work on trade in elephants and rhinos for your Ph.D.?
It was another bit of random chance. I was interested in conservation and population modelling. I turned up in my supervisor’s lab without a topic, but he had just been given a contract by CITES, the international wildlife trade body, to look at population dynamics of elephants, before their uplisting to Appendix 1. This was in 1988-89. He’d been asked to look at the effect of the ivory trade, the amount of trade that was going on at that moment, on the dynamics of elephant populations to see whether it was sustainable and whether declines in elephant populations could be attributed to the ivory trade. He’d been given this consultancy, I turned up and he said, “well, why don’t you do it?” That’s how, in my very first few months in my Ph.D., I was providing input to one of the most important decisions that CITES has made. That was quite a baptism of fire for me, as a 21-year old. It was an amazing opportunity but also incredibly stressful, and made me realise immediately, from the first days of my Ph.D., how political conservation can be. I did my population model as best I could and it was taken up and argued about by both sides, which made me not want to do anything related to ivory for a few years! This is another reason why I moved into rhinos and from that into saigas, but I was interested in the dynamics and sustainability of trade from that moment.

Q: Who was your Ph.D. supervisor?
John Beddington, who was a population modeller at Imperial. Later, he became the government chief scientist for the U. K.

Q: Stepping back even further, where did your interest in conservation and population modelling come from? 
I was always interested in conservation. I grew up in the countryside in Sussex, enjoyed nature and my parents were very good at telling me about plants and animals and that kind of thing. I was also very interested in theory, in behavioural ecology and evolution and all those theories as an undergraduate. My undergraduate in Oxford was on pure and applied biology, so it was some behavioural ecology and evolution, but also agriculture and forestry, which I found really interesting, that application of theory to practice. As I went through my undergraduate, I started to think that conservation biology, which was just starting then, really needed some of these more quantitative and theory-based techniques. The terms ‘conservation biology’ and ‘biodiversity’ were coined while I was an undergraduate, so it was a really fascinating time to be in this field. I wanted to do something applied, do something for nature and felt that all the things I’d been learning in theoretical biology, about game theory, and about population modelling, was really useful for conservation. I was just really lucky to get into conservation at that time.

Q: While you were doing your undergraduate degree, did you already know you wanted to do a Ph.D.?
I’m not sure about that. I knew I wanted to save the world! I actually thought I wanted to work for IUCN, but then as I came to the end of my undergraduate I thought it would be really helpful to do a PhD, to do some research first, before I go and work for an international NGO. Then when I did my PhD, I realized I was quite good at this and I just fell into a post-doc and then into a lectureship and here I am now. I’ve never actually worked for IUCN, which was my dream. I also found that as an academic you get a huge amount of freedom to follow the topics that are of interest to you. And as I grew to understand more about conservation NGOs I realized that quite quickly you can get into the management side of things and you have less freedom to pursue your interests than you do in academic life. So I now think that for a conservation biologist who wants to save the world the academic route is a good route. Of course in academia, there’s a lot of administration, but that’s true of NGOs too. Academia also means a lot of teaching, which I found that I enjoy. I enjoy interacting with young students and find it very rewarding. At first, it was very scary, but after a bit, I found that that was a really good part of my job. I would say to young conservationists that academia is not so bad.

Q: Going back to your work on the Saiga antelope, after that initial trip, have you gone back often for fieldwork and visits to Saiga areas?
 I’ve done a lot of visits to the Saiga antelope countries and attended many many meetings but have only done a very small amount of field work. But my students spend months and years in the field studying Saigas.

Q: What are your memories of doing field work at that time when you started? What were the challenges of doing fieldwork in those places?
The first thing I did was to make a real effort to learn Russian. I was the only English person around so I had to speak Russian. I think it’s really important for conservationists to speak the language of the people you’re working with. In those days, Russian was the language of the whole region, less so now. I guess initially they felt I was very young and female and so they were very kind to me, then later I grew to know them and to be their friend and to work together with them, and then I started getting grant money to support our joint work. This was a really difficult time when the Soviet Union was collapsing and there was no money for science or conservation. My colleagues who had this very proud history of science, of many years of science being one of the top professions and very respected, suddenly they came to a point where there was no money for electricity and all their staff were leaving to be bus drivers or selling cakes on the street. You could make a better living as a bus driver than as a scientist! Their proud 70-year tradition of science was falling apart and in the lab where I was mostly working, I was the only one producing money because I was their only foreign collaborator. At that time I guess the relationship changed a little bit because, although I was still a young post-doctoral early career researcher, I was still the one who was leading these big projects. We had 10 years worth of big interdisciplinary international projects, with many partners, with money from the EU for the reconstruction of the Soviet Union, which I ran. I was very lucky that there was that money, and I became one of the senior members of the team I guess. They still think I’m a bit odd, particularly because I’m a vegetarian in Central Asia, but they are used to me and my students now, and I feel like we have a really strong collaborative relationship, even though nowadays, because of all the responsibilities I have back home I don’t visit as much as I should. I feel like we’ve got nearly 30 years of shared history with the same people.

Q: Were you working mostly with one lab when you were there?
Well no. I had these interdisciplinary things going, so I worked with the Academy of Sciences in Moscow and the local Saiga captive breeding centre in the Saiga’s habitat. Then in Kazakhstan I mostly worked with the Institute of Zoology, again part of the Academy of Sciences, and then more recently with other collaborators. Generally, in the early days we were working with the Academies of Science in each of the countries, but nowadays we also work with in-country NGOs.

Q: You started by doing research mainly in biological sciences, then moved to also doing research in the social sciences and now you are also involved in many different aspects of conservation practice. What were the main challenges for you, as a biologist, in making these transitions?
We were very naive to start with. I told you I had 10 years of money from the EU. After that stopped we started to look for other money. I got some money from the Darwin Initiative which funded projects which integrate research and conservation. But around that time we also just started to find that we couldn’t ignore the conservation issues anymore. We were doing ecological research, disease research, all sorts of things and we were finding it harder and harder to find saigas. The biologists who were out in the field were saying there was huge amounts of poaching, that the saigas are going. This was in the late 90s – early 2000s. It was getting harder and harder to do our research, but we also thought that if this is really true we can’t just stand by. So I got the Darwin grant in 2003 with my colleagues to do research on what was going on with the poaching. And the answer was really worrying. Also, when this money stream came to an end I wanted to keep our network going and I wanted it to start working more on conservation issues. In 2006, I happened to be asked by the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN) in the US if I would like to apply for our program to join that network. The whole thing again just came together nicely – funding was running out, we were starting to work on conservation issues, we were seeing serious issues, and we were asked if we would like to join WCN as a conservation organisation. We didn’t have a conservation organisation so we made one. It was basically the science network that I built up over 10 years but starting to work on conservation issues, and then, over time, we’ve moved that into a collaborative network doing all sorts of conservation. From the beginning we wanted it to be a network that brought a range of state actors together. The other thing that was happening was that people internationally were getting concerned about saigas because of our work and others who were saying that there was a problem. But I felt there was a huge disconnect between all the talk that was happening internationally, in the UN conventions and IUCN, and the huge experience that my colleagues had on the ground. This was not reaching those people because they didn’t speak Russian and they hadn’t worked with them. So I thought why can’t we have some network that would allow some of this huge expertise to be translated up so that the people who are making decisions internationally that were directly affecting the saigas had access to the expertise from the science on the ground. One priority for the network was to make that connection between global and local much more explicit so that there was a way that the information was channelling in both directions.

Q: At the time when you started working on Saigas, how much was known about them?
The Academies of Science in the range states had been working on Saigas since the early 1950s. So it is 40+ years of research. What frustrated me was that the international conservationists who were coming in had no knowledge of this research or respect for this research, mostly because it was in Russian. I was really keen to make people more aware of the expertise that already existed.

Q: Looking back at all your research on saigas and the conservation work you have done, what aspects of your research do you think have been most useful in conservation decision making?

That is an interesting question because my very first piece of research, on the ivory trade, was a fundamental contributor to a landmark decision (to uplist the elephant to CITES Appendix 1). That was very strange to me. But most of the early saiga work we did didn’t really play any role in decision making. I think it was only when the Convention on Migratory Species decided to have an MOU and an action plan for saigas in 2006 that science started feeding in. That action plan was informed by the best science from all the different actors in the range states. My organisation, the SCA (Saiga Conservation Alliance), is one of the coordinators for that MOU. We collect all the science that’s been done, all the evidence available, and we put it into an action plan and an overview report, which are then discussed and signed off by the range states, and form the basis for the next 5 years of action. So for the saigas, I feel the governments are taking the science relatively seriously, some more than others, and are acting upon it and commissioning more science as well, some more than others. For the saiga, there is a fair representation of science in decision making.

“The terms ‘conservation biology’ and ‘biodiversity’ were coined while I was an undergraduate, so it was a really fascinating time to be in this field. I wanted to do something applied, do something for nature and felt that all the things I’d been learning in theoretical biology, about game theory and about population modelling, was really useful for conservation. I was just really lucky to get into conservation at that time.”

Q: Could you say a little more about the kind of science that is being used in conservation decision-making, i.e. does it go beyond population monitoring and presence of species in different areas?
It varies across countries. For example, in Mongolia one of the main issues is competition with livestock on which there is a lot of work. In Kazakhstan, on the other hand, it’s more been about population trends. Recently, of course, there has been a lot of research on the disease by a big international interdisciplinary team and that has informed Government decision making in both Mongolia and Kazakhstan.  

Q: In the talk yesterday you mentioned your paper in Oryx in 2001 ( Oryx 35(4): 340-345) which you said was influential in the saiga being listed as critically endangered.
Yes, that’s right. That was a collation of data collected by government agencies in different countries. Like I said yesterday, it was only through publishing that evidence in a peer-reviewed publication in English did it get the seal of approval which meant it could then be used in the red listing. I think with the red list and other kinds of large-scale international prioritisations, peer-reviewed papers are powerful because they give the seal of scientific approval to information that can then be used in conservation. That information was already there, but it was helpful to have the scientific paper.

Q: You spoke about how you were initially sceptical about big international conventions but after being part of one such exercise you feel differently about them. Can you say a little more about that? 
Yes, so that was the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) MOU on saiga conservation. Its success is partly because the saiga community is relatively small. We all know each other, have been working together for years, and so we could get together in a room and produce an action plan that could be adopted by a U. N. Convention. What I found remarkable was that governments take UN conventions so seriously. The fact that it had a seal of approval from the CMS, which the range states had signed up to, meant that they did take their reporting seriously. I guess the fact that the saiga is not an internationally contentious species also contributed. It’s a species where the range states themselves are making and implementing policy and there’s not a lot of interference from outside. Therefore the community of saiga researchers have a big input. When you get to the big international conferences like CITES, you get huge wrangling when there are large amounts of money involved or there’s a lot of public sentiment involved, like in the case of elephants. It’s very different in those cases, and I think it can be very frustrating and very, very political. But I haven’t found the saiga MOU to be very political. So maybe it’s a difference between these different species.

Q: Now that you have taken on this additional role as a conservation practitioner, I’m sure you occasionally find yourself in situations where you’re asked to provide your opinion on matters on which you might not have the backing of solid empirical evidence. How do you deal with such situations? Do you find such situations uncomfortable?
No. I think you have to be very clear that the empirical evidence isn’t there. I’m happy to give my opinion, but if my opinion is that the data are uncertain that is what I will say.  I’ll give my opinion in as much as what the evidence is telling me and if the evidence is not telling me anything then that’s what I will say.

Q: How much do we know about the Saiga’s natural history and behaviour? Are you doing research in these areas?
There is lots of work that could still be done. This kind of understanding is there from the Soviet period, but the situation has changed enormously now compared to the1970s-80s when most of that work was done. A lot of that needs to be updated. Also, we have more modern methods like collaring and DNA analysis that wasn’t available then and different ways of hypothesis testing. I think there’s huge scope for young researchers to go out and do all sorts of work on Saiga behaviour, Saiga ecology, movement, predators. I’d love someone to work on Saiga-wolf interactions.

Q: From the point of view of conservation, are there certain areas of research that you think are key in the near future?
Yes. My group has done quite a lot of research on the social side – attitudes to saiga, saiga consumption, poaching behaviour and things like that. But we haven’t done much in recent years, partly because I’ve been really busy elsewhere, but partly also because there’s less interest from the government on the cultural/social side. That kind of work is less likely to get into policy because they’re more interested in what they see as hard empirical facts. I was disheartened about the lack of engagement that governments had with research using social science methods to understand poaching.

Q: How challenging was it for you to do social science research? Did you work with social scientists, did you learn the methods on your own or develop your own methods to do this kind of work?
We use standard methods found in social science disciplines. Coming back to my early training, I was incredibly lucky that I was genuinely trained in an interdisciplinary way. Like I said, my undergraduate degree was both pure and applied. Then when I did my Ph.D. I was able to take classes at the London School of Economics on economic methods. And then over time, by working really closely with social scientists, I’ve picked up some of those methods and been able to do rigorous robust social science. Right now, I think the people in my research group are more social scientists than ecologists.

Q: It’s now 28 years since you started working on saigas. If you now look back is there anything you wish you had done differently in your research and conservation work?
I guess you always look back and think you could have navigated some situation differently. When you are learning and growing you don’t always navigate diplomacy and politics as best you can, but    I always try to act with integrity and sincerity, and I always hung in there and didn’t just walk away. Even when we had difficult times we got through it together as a group. I wish I was doing more research on saigas rather than more of the NGO stuff. But that’s the way of the world I guess. You trade off one thing with another.

I guess the other thing I would say is that because I was running a Masters in Conservation Science and training young conservation scientists, I felt it was really important that I had a hands-on understanding of what it’s like to run an NGO, to be a small NGO that’s actually active in conservation. I think it’s very easy as a professor to get more and more distant from the real world and start teaching your students in a very conceptual way. This saiga conservation work is really important in grounding me in the real world.

Q: At the conference, you conducted a workshop on “conservation optimism”? Can you tell us a little about what you mean by conservation optimism and why you think it is important?
It’s mainly about looking forward and thinking that we can address the big problems that we have in the world, which are huge problems. And that we – conservation professionals, the general public, governments, businesses, all of us – can make a difference. And the way to do that is perhaps not to start with a huge problem. Like when you write a Ph.D. thesis, if you sit at a desk and say you’ve got to write 100,0000 words in three years time, that seems the most enormous task. But if you think, okay well, I’m going to break it down into bite-sized bits of work that together, in three years time, will add up to a big thesis, then it’s more achievable. Similarly for conservation, if we think about all the little victories we have and learn from them, and also learn positively from failure, then we can add those up into something that makes a  difference. Of course, you need to have the top-down stuff as well but the bottom-up is crucial. We can’t solve everything with an international treaty, we have to have the grassroots work as well. Conservation optimism is trying to create a support network, bring together and highlight those grassroots efforts, and help them improve. There are many young people around the world who want to help, different sectors who might want to help, NGOs around the world who might want to help. Can we bring them together and help them work together? The hope is that the burnout you experience as an individual conservationist, thinking that everything is hopeless and why should you carry on, can hopefully be relieved by being part of a wider group of people.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment in wider global conservation about the fact that we’re coming to a biodiversity super year in 2020, when lots of CBD targets are going to be re-negotiated. There’s a lot of discussion about how we can change the public’s mind and governments’ mind so that the general public of the world starts to see conservation as something that they can get behind, whichthen allows the governments to make the radical change that we need. One contribution towards that is trying to amplify these voices from around the world. That’s the bigger mission for conservation optimism.

Q: What is the origin of the “conservation optimism” idea?
Actually, this is a nice one for SCCS-Bengaluru because it started at SCCS-Cambridge. Two and a half years ago, I heard Nancy Knowlton give one of the plenaries. Nancy was one of the founders of ‘Ocean Optimism’ which was a hash tag about success stories. In that plenary, she was saying that she was thinking about starting another movement called ‘Earth Optimism’ that was broader than ocean optimism. I was very inspired by her talk. I had just started at Oxford University and I had a little bit of money that I could use for public outreach as part of my start-up package, and I just sat there and felt I should use it for this. So my group and a couple of other organizations got together and used the small amount of money I had to organise a summit and start “Conservation Optimism”. At the moment it’s still run almost entirely volunteers, and I like that. If we are going to start something similar in India, I would want that also to be volunteer-run. We’ll get a little bit of money to cover the costs of whatever we do, but we should be doing this stuff out of a love of nature and wanting to make a difference. I don’t want to turn it into a big brand. The whole point of it is that it’s not branded; anyone can be involved. Otherwise, you lose the spirit.

Q: In another interview, you compared conservation to other social movements, for example, the movement for gay rights, and said that very often it might seem like there’s no progress being made, like pushing against a dead weight, but then change happens suddenly and dramatically…
That came from a paper that I read about changes in socially liberal policies in US states that had a lovely graph, in which you see nothing, nothing, nothing or very, very slow progress and then all the states suddenly adopt the legislation. I think there’s been some literature about tipping points in social change making similar points. Another example is what we have just seen with plastics. We saw NGOs banging on about it for many years without much success and then a sudden switch. It was interesting because, if you looked at the popular media it was pottering on and pottering on, but as soon as it became something the public wanted, in the U.K. at least, the government stepped into legislate. It became easy for them to legislate because the public mood had changed. That is why I think there’s a lot of hope for conservation and cause for optimism.

Q: There are lessons from what you’re saying for the way in which we evaluate conservation work. We are looking all the time for indicators of conservation success, but what you’re saying is that maybe that is short-sighted. A lack of visible, substantial change in the short term need not indicate that the effort is not worthwhile and should be given up.
Yeah, you never know when something might shift and the circumstances might change. If you are in it for the long haul you are there to capitalize on these new circumstances. For example, when you suddenly get a new head of a government agency who sees the value of your work, then suddenly that bureaucratic obstacle that has stopped you doing something for years is not there anymore. You have to be there at the door, to go in and capitalise on that opportunity. That’s the value of being there for a very long time.

This article is from issue


2019 Mar