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Saiga antelope mother and calf

The sudden death of over 200,000 saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan in May 2015, which affected more than 80% of the local population and more than 60% of the global population of this species, baffled the world. In just three weeks, entire herds of tens of thousands of healthy animals, died of haemorrhagic septicaemia across a landscape equivalent to the area of the British Isles in the Betpak-Dala region of Kazakhstan. These deaths were caused by Pasteurella multocida bacteria.

But this pathogen most probably was living harmlessly in the saigas’ tonsils up to this point, so what caused this sudden dramatic Mass Mortality Event (MME)?

New research by an interdisciplinary, international research team has shown that many separate (and independently harmless) factors contributed to this extraordinary phenomenon. In particular, climatic factors such as increased humidity and raised air temperatures in the days before the deaths apparently triggered opportunistic bacterial invasion of the blood stream, causing septicaemia (blood poisoning).
By studying previous die-offs in saiga antelope populations, the researchers were able to uncover patterns and show that the probability of sudden die-offs increases when the weather is humid and warm, as was the case in 2015.

The research also shows that these very large mass mortalities, which have been observed in saiga antelopes before (including in 2015 and twice during the 1980s), are unprecedented in other large mammal species and tend to occur during calving. This species invests a lot in reproduction, so that it can persist in such an extreme continental environment where temperatures plummet to below -40 celsius in winter or rise to above 40 celsius in summer, with food scarce and wolves prowling. In fact, it bears the largest calves of any ungulate species; this allows the calves to develop quickly and follow their mothers on their migrations, but also means that females are physiologically stressed during calving.

With this strategy, high levels of mortality are to be expected, but the species’ recent history suggests that die-offs are occurring more frequently, potentially making the species more vulnerable to extinction. This includes, most recently, losses of 60% of the unique, endemic Mongolian saiga sub-species in 2017 from a virus infection spilling over from livestock. High levels of poaching since the 1990s have also been a major factor in depleting the species, while increasing levels of infrastructure development (from railways, roads and fences) threaten to fragment their habitat and interfere with their migrations. With all these threats, it is possible that another mass die-off from disease could reduce numbers to a level where recovery is no longer possible. This needs to be countered by an integrated approach to tackling the threats facing the species, which is ongoing under the Convention on Migratory Species’ action plan for the species.

This research was conducted as part of a wide international collaboration, adopting a ‘One Health’ approach – looking at the wildlife, livestock, environmental and human impacts that have driven disease emergence in saiga populations.

Adopting such a holistic approach has enabled the research team to understand the wider significance of die-offs in saiga populations, beyond simply the proximate causes of the 2015 epidemic.

Professor Richard Kock, Professor in Emerging Diseases lead researcher at the Royal Veterinary College, said: 'The recent die-offs among saiga populations are unprecedented in large terrestrial mammals. The 2015 Mass Mortality Event provided the first opportunity for in-depth study, and a multidisciplinary approach has enabled great advances to be made. The use of data from vets, biologists, botanists, ecologists and laboratory scientists is helping improve our understanding of the risk factors leading to MMEs – which was beneficial when another MME occurred, this time in Mongolia in 2017. Improved knowledge of disease in saigas, in the context of climate change, livestock interactions and landscape changes, is vital to planning conservation measures for the species’ long-term survival.'

Professor EJ Milner-Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at Oxford University, said: 'This important research was possible due to a strong partnership between European universities, governmental and non-governmental Institutions in Kazakhstan, and international bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation and Convention on Migratory Species, as well as generous funding from the UK government and conservation charities worldwide. During the more recent saiga disease outbreak in Mongolia, this international partnership was useful for supporting in-country colleagues, for example by providing emergency response protocols. It’s excellent to see the real-world value of research partnerships of this kind, and the great advances we have made in understanding disease in saigas thanks to such a productive collaboration.'

Mr Steffen Zuther, Project manager for Kazakhstan at the Frankfurt Zoological Society/Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, said: 'This research is not only the first of its kind through its complexity and interdisciplinary approach, it also helps in capacity building inside Kazakhstan and shaping the public opinion towards a more evidence based thinking. MMEs are a major threat for the saiga antelope and can wipe out many years of conservation work and saiga population growth in just a few days. Therefore, understanding these MMEs, what triggers them and what can be done to combat them is extremely important to develop effective saiga conservation strategies. The triggering of such MMEs in saiga through weather conditions shows that not much can be done to prevent them occurring, and therefore how important it is to maintain saiga populations of sufficient size for the species to survive such catastrophes.'

Professor Mukhit Orynbayev, Senior Researcher at the Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems, Kazakhstan, said: 'Kazakhstan plays a crucial role for the conservation of saiga, and its government takes this very seriously. This research is an important component of the government's strategy for the conservation of the species, and we as researchers are grateful for the support we have received during our work. Through several years of work on this subject, the team of the RIBPS has gained experience in fieldwork and laboratory tests. This allows us to react quickly to any disease outbreak and get a diagnosis for it.'

Developing tools for climate-conscious investment

Professor Sir John Beddington of the Oxford Martin School explains the Oxford Martin Principles for Climate-Conscious Investment

The 2015 Paris Agreement was the culmination of 21 years of negotiations about how the world could deal with climate change. The outcome is a challenge for the world’s countries to limit temperature rise to below 1.5°C, if at all possible, and below 2°C, if absolutely necessary. But, nearly 3 years on, how we get from here to there remains unclear, and the private sector in particular is woefully far behind.

The effective mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale will involve the reshaping of an economic system that in many respects, and for many generations, has been an efficient creator of human wealth and capital. For the commercial and investment communities, taking action on climate change will often be painful, particularly for short-term returns. And faced with uncertainty, inaction often feels like the natural choice. Inaction will, however, without a doubt, be more painful. This is most acutely the case for corporations who do not react nimbly and pre-emptively to the low carbon transition. If those corporations fail to thrive, their shareholders, suppliers and customers are equally implicated: shareholders via falling returns, suppliers by falling revenues and margins, and customers via diminishing choices.

The risk from inaction on the part of corporations comes both in the form of ill-preparedness for new policy and regulation, and in the longer-term, from physical risks from climate change on a company’s core activity and its supply chains. Listed corporations have fiduciary duties to their shareholders to anticipate and adapt to these risks. Yet companies are not alone in feeling unable to react to the current tangled skeins of guidance over assessing, disclosing and acting on climate-change related business risk.

The Oxford Martin School has funded a group of researchers, Dr Richard Millar, Professor Cameron Hepburn, and Professor Myles Allen, to develop a simple, scientifically-grounded set of principles that provide clarity for investors and for company strategists in analysing a business in the light of what we know about climate change and the likely path of mitigation. We have named them the Oxford Martin Principles for Climate-Conscious Investment.

The Oxford Martin School funded this work with the Sullivan Principles in mind. These were used in the 1970s by investors, customers and suppliers of corporations doing business under the South African apartheid regime. The challenge of doing business under climate change presents a similar moral conundrum. Like the Sullivan Principles, the Oxford Martin Principles are designed to have a material impact on corporate decision-making. Like the Sullivan Principles they provide a more sophisticated alternative to simple divestment for the investment community to use. And like the Sullivan Principles, they help, by setting out clear guidelines of what is expected of companies as they navigate a contemporary moral maze.

The principles, published last week in Nature Climate Change, are as follows:
1. Commit to reaching net zero emissions from their business activities
2. Develop a plausible and profitable net zero business model
3. Set out quantitative mid-term targets compatible with their net zero goals

The Oxford Martin Principles should be seen both as a code of conduct and a set of tools for existing and potential investors. They prompt three deceptively simple questions: first, is this company committed to moving to net zero emissions for its own activities? Second, under current plans, will this business be profitable in a net zero economy? And third, can the company provide quantitative mid-term targets that are consistent with its net zero goal? In the paper, these questions are applied to three companies with very different business models: BHP Billiton, Unilever and Statkraft. The case studies reflect that whilst most companies would not be able to claim compliance with all three principles today, to do so is not unachievable in the future.

Simply put, these Principles are a call for companies to commit to net zero; to remain profitable; and to be verifiable. Deceptively minimal, they provide a framework through which to interrogate a company’s future plans, on timeframes that are relevant to both investment horizons and to climate change mitigation.

Image credit: Shutterstock

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) has awarded 2018 Winton Capital prizes, which recognise the outstanding work of young researchers, to Oxford University scientists Dr Rebecca Bowler and Dr Kerri Donaldson Hanna.

Dr Kerri Donaldson Hanna, UKSA Aurora Research Fellow in the Department of Physics, is honoured for her contribution to her field of geophysics. Specialising in the study of the surface compositions of rocky, airless bodies through infrared remote sensing, Dr Donaldson Hanna is currently playing a key role on NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission to return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth in 2022. 

Her research record includes leading on projects combining datasets across multiple wavelength ranges and work in the field of thermal infrared spectroscopy. Alongside her research goals, Dr Donaldson Hanna also makes contributions to the wider planetary science community, organising RAS specialist discussion meetings and acting as a committed mentor for budding planetary scientists.

Dr Donaldson Hanna said: 'I feel quite honoured to be recognised for my early career achievements through such a prestigious award and genuinely appreciate those that nominated me for the award.'

Dr Rebecca Bowler, Hintze Fellow in the Department of Physics at Oxford University, receives the prize for astronomy. Through her work demonstrating that highly luminous objects do exist into the epoch of re-ionisation, and understanding star-forming galaxies at ultra-high redshifts, she has helped to shape our knowledge of the world above us.

Although still in the early stages of her career, Dr Bowler has already served as principal investigator on Hubble Space Telescope, ALMA and VLT projects. She was also awarded the 2016 Block Prize for ‘promising young physicist.’

Dr Bowler said she was ‘delighted and honoured’ to receive the RAS award.

A scientist’s week in Westminster

Professor Peter Magill, Deputy Director of the MRC Brain Network Dynamics Unit at the University of Oxford, gives his account of a week of science and policy in Westminster as he began his participation in The Royal Society’s Pairing Scheme.

Once a year, around 30 scientists are paired up with UK parliamentarians and civil servants by the Royal Society, to foster interactions and mutual understanding between researchers and policymakers. Over the ‘Week in Westminster’, the scientists take part in workshops focused on the interface of science with policy, and spend two days shadowing their pair in government. In turn, parliamentarians and civil servants experience the world of research through undertaking reciprocal visits to the scientists’ institutions.

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to take part in this year’s Scheme. After an introductory tour of the Palace of Westminster on the first day, we got straight down to business in the impressive Portcullis House. After hearing from expert speakers working in academia, learned societies and government, we examined and discussed several topics that are close to many scientists’ hearts; investment in Research & Development, the recent Higher Education and Research Act, and the routes by which researchers can feed into policy making. This was especially well timed, given the publication in November of the Government’s white paper on Industrial Strategy. In just a few hours, we gained some indispensable insights into how science can - and does - inform policy, and vice versa.

On days two and three we visited our pairs at their workplaces. I was paired with Lord James O'Shaughnessy, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health (Lords). I was invited to shadow Lord O'Shaughnessy and his team for many of their daily engagements at the Department of Health, the House of Lords and further afield, including policy briefings, strategy meetings, and a keynote speech. I got to see first-hand the nuts and bolts of Parliamentary business, and how evidence is gathered and used by policymakers to shape their decision making.

I also had the chance to share our own neuroscience research at Oxford, and to explain how we conduct our research, its potential impact on healthcare, and the challenges we have met (and will face in the future). As a memorable conclusion to my shadowing experience, I found myself sitting in on live questions in the chamber at the House of Lords - to see democracy and policy in action and on centre stage was thrilling. I then raced through the Victorian splendour to attend a Mock Select Committee for scientists, another highlight of the week.

The Scheme was rounded off by a morning at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, where we heard from teams at the Government Office for Science, and then had a Q & A session with Professor Chris Whitty, Interim Government Chief Scientific Adviser. What a week!

My time in Westminster was an extraordinary and invaluable experience. It was highly informative and empowering, and - just as important - really enjoyable. I have taken away a fresh perspective on how research findings can help inform the creation, scrutiny and revision of policy, as well as a better understanding of how researchers can get involved in the process. I was also struck by the openness, veracity and multitasking of my hosts working in government. There were many lessons learned in this short period of time, and I have no hesitation in strongly recommending the Pairing Scheme to other scientists and policymakers.

Image credit: Rory Biggs

The issue of whether ivory trading should be legalised to fund elephant conservation, or banned altogether, is long standing and widely debated. Both sides of the argument are so contentious that emotional investment can distort our understanding of the core issues.

Hoping to restore some balance to the conversation, Professor EJ Milner-Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity in Oxford’s Department of Zoology, outlines both sides of this complex debate. She warns that the continued policy stalemate and intense media interest are inflaming the issue and harming the conservation of iconic, endangered species in the process.

The conservation of wildlife is complex and often contested, particularly when the species concerned is large, charismatic, with monetary value, and whose presence in an area can cause major direct impacts on people's lives. Such is the case for Africa's elephants, but it is true for other species as well, including big cats, large ungulates (hoofed mammals) and wolves. Conflicts over how to manage these species are widespread and challenging to resolve.

In particularly high profile cases, the public debates around these conflicts can become very heated and emotional.

In the case of elephants, heavy poaching in some African countries has caused deep concern for the species' future, and a range of approaches to addressing this poaching has been put forward and strongly championed by different groups. These range from complete trade bans (e.g. Born Free's Bloody Ivory campaign) to limited sales of confiscated ivory (e.g. as proposed in 2016 by Zimbabwe). The confrontational nature of the discourse is clear when observing the media furore that surrounds international meetings where the ivory trade is discussed, particularly the triennial meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the most recent of which was in September 2016. This debate is heavily fuelled and mostly carried out by campaigning conservation organisations. In the heated atmosphere, the underlying values and motivations of those holding different views are questioned, sometimes destructively, and evidence is often interpreted and deployed in a strategic or partisan way.

Issues like elephant poaching for ivory will always rouse an emotional reaction, and rightly so. However the threat from poaching does need to be set within the wider context of issues such as loss of habitat, connectivity, food and water resources, which also threaten the future of African elephants.

This is not helpful either for elephant conservation, or for the governments of countries where elephants live, who are trying to manage their elephant populations under difficult circumstances and with limited resources.

Meanwhile, for more than two decades, African countries have been sharing views with one another and gaining mutual understanding through a series of dialogues. Over the years, supported by CITES, they have worked to develop and adopt two unique and extensive monitoring programmes (Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants and the Elephant Trade Information System, MIKE and ETIS) which provide information to CITES Parties about elephant killing and ivory seizures.  These two systems, as well as the IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group’s African Elephant Database (AED, where information on the numbers and distribution of African elephants is stored), have provided the information underpinning conservation policy-making. Building on this information, range states worked together to develop and implement the African Elephant Action Plan, which prioritises conservation actions, recognising and respecting the very different circumstances in different parts of the continent.

Despite this huge investment of time and resources into elephant conservation, poaching continues, public concern remains high, and the best way forward is highly contested, particularly in the international media.

An important component of successful conflict negotiation, whether in conservation or other fields (such as national peace processes or climate negotiations) is to hold discussions of the main affected parties away from the glare of the media. such as the African Elephant Range States dialogues. In other fields (particularly fisheries management), these discussions have included the use of formal structured decision-making processes such as Management Strategy Evaluation. These processes go a step further than is currently done in species conservation (including for Africa's elephants).

For elephants, this would start with the agreed goals and priorities of the African Elephant Action Plan. Then researchers would compile and assess all the evidence that exists about elephant poaching and ivory trade, including the existing databases like MIKE, ETIS and the AED, but also local studies of poaching behaviour and consumer demand. This would help us to understand what the uncertainties and knowledge gaps are. Next, this evidence-base can be used to build and test computer simulation models, to explore the conservation outcomes of different potential policy options, at different scales from the local management of Protected Areas in Africa, to initiatives that aim to change consumer preferences in Asian countries. The questions to be addressed would be decided by the African elephant range states, with scientists acting as facilitators and technical support, rather than initiators. When used in this way, structured decision-making processes have already proven to be effective at reducing negotiation times and conflict, and improving conservation and livelihood outcomes, in a variety of contexts. But they have yet to be tried in species conservation.

In a paper published today, my colleagues and I suggest that it would be worth exploring whether following a formal decision-making process would be useful for African elephant conservation. Using these methods could clarify the likely consequences for elephant conservation of contentious policy questions such as the burning of ivory stockpiles, allowing limited legal trade, or closing domestic ivory markets.

It would also clarify where we need to do more research, if we can’t predict the consequences of particular actions based on what we already know.

We also highlight the importance of understanding and respecting the values held by people who see things differently, and recognising that these values may inform the way in which evidence is viewed and interpreted, sometimes subconsciously. Starting from a position of openness and respect for others' dilemmas is an important part of building trust and moving any debate onto a more constructive footing. This message is aimed more at campaigning international conservation organisations than at those already engaged in elephant management on the ground, who are generally well aware of the challenges and trade-offs inherent in real-world conservation.

Issues like elephant poaching for ivory will always rouse an emotional reaction, and rightly so. However the threat from poaching does need to be set within the wider context of issues such as loss of habitat, connectivity, food and water resources, which also threaten the future of African elephants.

Donors need to continue to support dialogue among the range states and the further development of databases such as MIKE, ETIS and the African Elephant Database. They need to also support efforts to better forecast and plan in an era of rapid land transformation and resulting habitat loss across Africa. With the added elements we suggest in our paper, we hope the unconstructive public debates which rage around the issue could be dampened down. This would ultimately benefit the conservation of Africa's elephants. Most species do not attract the huge media attention that elephants do, but they too could benefit from the approaches we lay out in our paper. These are already well-used in other fields (like fisheries management and climate change) where similarly difficult decisions need to be made, despite not having all the facts, and where the people involved may have very different perspectives and interests.