Chances are good that you’ve seen the story about the discovery of a super tiny and super adorable chameleon in Madagascar this week. If you haven’t, click these links, one from Reuters at the Chicago Tribune with just the facts, Jack, and one from the open-access scientific journal PLoS ONE with the original article and some adorable pictures of the chameleon on a thumbnail and on the head of a match. I’ll give you a moment to squee. OK, are we back now? Good.
Discoveries of new vertebrate terrestrial animals are fairly rare. Much of the world has been charted, tracked, and discovered, and so it’s generally cases like this – small animals in limited habitats – that bring up new species. Tropical forests are especially rich in species and are ripe for these discoveries. Unfortunately for scientists, conservationists, and nature lovers, forests, especially ones in areas like Madagascar, are disappearing at an alarming rate. Many articles that covered this discovery called for more forest conservation.
But, even as someone who loves new species, loves nature, and thinks that the study of the evolutionary and ecological processes that have created the world we live in today is absolutely the tops (hey, NSF, fund me?), I am uncomfortable with the calls for forest conservation that inevitably come from such discoveries. Don’t get me wrong – forest conservation is a noble and overall great goal. However, I feel uncomfortable with scientists and conservationists advocating for conservation in areas that they have no real connection or understanding of.
The deforestation problem in Madagascar is complex – it has its start in the effects of French colonialism and coffee plants, the socio-economic reverberations from that initial event continue to shape the landscape. While scientists and conservationists working with local conservation or environmental groups on a problem would be encouraged and would lead to productive solutions, coming from the outside, not working with the people affected, and not fully understanding the complex economic realities of the region would only lead to disaster.
Scientific articles and science writing should talk about solutions and should look beyond just the research to delve into the implications, but we should be careful not to overstep our boundaries and force uninformed solutions on other people and groups. I hope that this tiny chameleon discovery spurs some good conversation about conservation, but this conversation will not be productive without including the people who are most directly affected.