Justin Brashares on emulating Jane Goodall, being chased up a tree by lions, and making the connection between European fisheries and African bushmeat markets

February 06, 2012

Interconnectedness is the most important concept in wildlife conservation. It's hardly obvious that ordering seafood for dinner in Germany, for example, might directly result in the death of African wildlife until Professor Justin Brashares unveiled the connection a few years ago. Justin showed that European fishery policies exploited traditional marine resources in coastal Africa, forcing local populations to substitute wildlife for fish as a protein source. In his brief career, Justin bridged the science and policy divide by unveiling the hard truth that food security and equity must underlie successful efforts to maintain the emblematic large game of Africa. For our inaugural Our Environment newsletter, we interrupt Justin’s sabbatical to ask him a few questions about his passion for research and his concerns for the world’s biodiversity.

Did you know that when you Google your name, one of the related searches that appears is “Justin Brashares bushmeat trade”? How did you end up studying this topic?

I try to lay off the self-Googling, so it’s a relief to hear my name is not associated with far more embarrassing things! I was a PhD student studying a species of small antelope called oribi in West Africa. My research required long, hot days searching for oribi and sitting for hours to record their behavior. Picture Jane Goodall and her chimps except replace the charismatic chimps with small, tan antelopes that spend their days sitting in the shade, regurgitating grass.

I spent months searching for oribi in remote areas of Ghana and at many sites I’d find that someone had shot or snared my hard-earned study animals within days of my discovering them. I set out to determine why people were hunting the innocent oribi and soon found myself walking and talking through wildlife markets (aka bushmeat markets) throughout West Africa.

I began to appreciate that wildlife consumption is one part of a highly complex and dynamic process by which people, most of them living in poverty, endeavor to put money in their pocket and food on their table. I became convinced that understanding the social, economic, geographic and other factors that drove people to use and rely on wildlife was the key to achieving sustainability of wildlife harvests and thereby ensuring a future for wildlife in West Africa.

I had no idea at the time that the bushmeat trade is a global phenomenon that annually provides billions of dollars of revenue, and is a critical source of calories and nutrients to hundreds of millions of people. But it is also among the greatest threats to biodiversity on our planet.

Researching the bushmeat trade seems to require a multi-disciplinary approach combining economics, sociology, conservation, and biodiversity. How do you keep up with such diverse fields of study without losing focus?

Yes, it does require multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches but I’d argue the same is true of nearly all major issues in environmental research. Like most folks engaged in interdisciplinary science, I don’t pretend to keep up with all of the disciplines that relate to the problems I’m trying to understand and resolve (in my case ecology, sociology, economics, geography, development policy, public health, nutrition).

Instead, I take advantage of the wealth of practitioners from other disciplines at Berkeley and beyond and try to listen without pretense, judgment or insecurity to what they have to say. I’m confident that with sincere collaboration, we can move into a new paradigm of environmental studies where academic disciplines fade into the background as quaint vestiges of a former era. (Now where did I leave that kool-aid? It was right here!)

I’m also fortunate in that I’ve never had focus, so it’s not something I can easily lose!

In the National Geographic documentary Strange Days on Planet Earth: Dangerous Catch, the narrator explains you made the correlation between an increase in bushmeat hunting with overfishing in the Ghanaian seas.  The intertwined issues of fishery management, wildlife population, and national and international policies are the types of problems we tackle here at Our Environment. Do you think we’re doing a better job now in 2012 in understanding these issues and their relationships?

Yes, absolutely. There has never been more incentive, opportunity and demand for multi- and interdisciplinary approaches to environmental problem-solving. By sharing perspectives, approaches, tools and experiences we are able to move among scales of space and time in thinking about an issue. This doesn’t always make it easy to solve problems, but it helps us see their true complexity, origins and consequences.

There are lots of examples of this, and our work linking E.U. fishing subsidies to fish declines off West Africa to increased bushmeat consumption in Ghana is one of them. As an ecologist, I assume everything around us is connected through a wonderful and humbling mess of direct and indirect linkages. Illuminating even a few of these connections is tremendously important and very satisfying.

As a teacher in ecology and conservation biology classes, what do you sense is the most important issue on students' minds?

Hmmmm. Tough question. Do you mean before or after they endure my brainwashing procedure? But seriously, we are bombarded by so much doom and gloom about the environment, I sense our students sometimes wonder if there is really much of a future for wildlife, ecosystems and maybe even our planet.

I work hard in my classes and through my frequent interactions with students, to dispel this dark notion because I think it breeds apathy towards environmental issues. Yes, there are great and urgent challenges related to the environment, but it is not even close to being a lost cause. In fact… [Editor's Note: Brashares’ upbeat section on cleaner air, water, the return of fuzzy animals, rainbows and group hugs flagrantly plagiarizing an episode of Dr. Phil was removed. ;-) ]

What’s your most memorable experience in Africa? Any stories of being chased by a large animal?

Lots of memorable experiences, some highlights, others lowlights. Everybody who spends time in the field comes away with stories. If you bring out the good wine from the department's cellar I’ll bend your ear for a while, but here’s a random sampler: snakes in sleeping bags, a night in a tree above the lions who chased me there, fighting baboons a lot and mostly losing, eating termites and less tasty things, getting struck by lightning with mountain gorillas, a dung beetle in the eye, a blister beetle in the underwear, a lizard bite, an eagle bite, an eland bite, a centipede bite, flung by a giraffe, many angry elephants, orphan monkeys, body bumps that hatch, smoking chimps, farting gorillas and one sexually frustrated camel named Ahmed.

And those were just highlights from my last spring break in Ft. Lauderdale; you should hear my stories about traveling around Africa!  (Is this microphone on? hello? hello? testing?)


For more on Justin and related research, visit the Brashares Group Lab Website

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Co-written by Ron Amundson & Trish Roque | Photo by Trish Roque