Tropical forests cover around 6 % of the world’s land surface, yet support 50 – 75 % of all terrestrial species. Yet in addition to hosting most global biodiversity, the global tropics have also seen the greatest loss of diversity in recent decades, and over 50 % of tropical forests have already been cleared.
To combat this loss of biodiversity traditional models have largely involved either bringing trained scientists from the West to advise on conservation approaches and priorities, or taking the brightest students from local universities to the West for training. However, both of these models have problems. In the first, scientists from the West rarely have the same nuanced understanding of the socio-cultural realities in the countries they are operating in, and thus though their research may be scientifically sound, translation into practice and policy may be impossible. In the second, many of these talented students never return to work in their home country, and though this model often has the best of motives, many of the brightest from the region leave for good. This represents an overlooked “brain-drain”, with the regions most in need of researchers losing many of their future academic resources to countries which already have a strong scientific capacity, without many of the needs of these less developed regions.
What is truly needed to build capacity in the global tropics is to provide practicable training for the region in the region. Such a programme can and should take many forms to meet the realities and needs of these regions. To date, a successful component of this has been the training of rangers and local NGOs in the very best of approaches by organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and Flora and Fauna International, which has led to the better monitoring and management of a variety of ecological challenges across much of the global tropics.
However, this does not necessarily include the future conservation scientists of these regions, who may still be tempted by foreign PhDs. So what approaches best meet the needs of this growing population of energetic and enthusiastic young scientists?
Conservation science is by no means easy. It requires not only an understanding of ecology and biology, but a multifaceted understanding of social and political dimensions, which are essential in the translation of scientific knowledge into management action. Creating opportunities within the tropics for its future conservation scientists – enabling them to continue developing their skills within the local socio-cultural context they have grown-up with – provides the best possible preparation for a successful career in conservation. These kind of opportunities give them skills that extend beyond the academic through exposure to the true mechanics of conservation, management and policy that are required to effect sustainable change, and simultaneously allow them to develop and maintain their research networks throughout their PhD studies. In terms of developing its own research base of conservation-minded researchers, or even international scientific attention, across the global tropics Southeast Asia has traditionally lagged behind Latin America (with strong traditional ties to North America) and much of Africa, with its ties to Europe. This is compounded by the lack of a shared language, which makes collaborations across the region much harder than in other parts of the global tropics. Yet recent years have seen significant changes to this within Asia, such as the development of a Master’s degree programme in biodiversity conservation at the Royal University of Phnom Pehn, and the increasing role of Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) and their new Chinese Academy of Sciences Southeast-Asian research Institute in training Masters and PhD candidates in ecology and conservation within the region.
Another important component of capacity building is access to specialist skills and more holistic guidance, which even in the very best PhD studies may not be able to offer. These are sometimes included in field courses in summer schools, however even in tropical regions developed universities often run courses without inclusion of local students, thus leaving little, if any, long-term positive impacts in the countries they visit. Efforts are being made to offer appropriate and accessible courses in many parts of the tropics, with scholarships to try to provide access to students with potential and enthusiasm through tropical regions, such as the Tropical Biology Association in Africa, the Tropical Andes Alliance in South America and XTBG’s courses. However, these courses are always oversubscribed, with field courses like XTBG’s only able to take around 16% of total applicants annually. In addition, developed universities holding courses in tropical regions could and should make greater efforts to include more local students through stronger partnerships with local organisations.
However such courses are still only accessible to only a relatively small number of students, and for more holistic and specialist skills, further efforts are needed to better meet the needs of ecologists in the global tropics. This is why in 2014 the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation initiated its Capacity Building Committee with the aim of attempting to meet some of these shortfalls. Using its annual conference and the society’s Asia-Pacific Chapter (an active portion of the society based exclusively in the Asia-Pacific region) as a vehicle, various skills sessions are packaged around the conference, with fundraising to support students and all training and trainers’ time, which is given on an entirely voluntary basis. At present those sessions have included short skills sessions in lunch breaks and evenings, mentoring, and extended workshops. This year over 350 people were directly involved in training in the month of June alone.
These sessions aim to meet the needs of practitioners and scientists at all levels, but particularly at early-career level, with shorter sessions focusing on more holistic skills to help build their abilities as researchers, and extended workshops to build capacity around challenging or more specialist skills. Mentoring also allows participants to find a mentor who can best meet their needs, whether that be for research or career advice, or other forms of support, such as access to mentorship and advice, especially about transitioning between research and practice, which can be difficult or impossible to find. The trainings are adapted to meet researchers’ needs through post and pre-conference surveys, aiming to leave a positive legacy in the wake of any conference.
This is a time of unparalleled threat to tropical biodiversity globally, but with an increasingly tech-savvy and internationally connected new generation of researchers, one that is more likely to speak at least one “international” language, we also have an unparalleled opportunity to provide access to the skills they need to fulfill their potential. As a Western scientist working in the global tropics, I feel optimistic that this upcoming generation will do more than I, or solely Western-based scientists could ever hope to achieve in combating biodiversity loss in the global tropics, especially when given the training and support to reach their potential, without needing to traverse the globe to access those opportunities.