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Stirling scientist wins £1.1 million to tackle global environmental conflicts

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Elephant in Gabon
Elephant in Gabon: Photograph courtesy of Carlton Ward Jr, David Korte, and Elie Tobi Smithsonian Institution Gabon Diversity Program

University of Stirling scientist, Dr Nils Bunnefeld, is tackling one of the biggest environmental problems facing government agencies and communities across the globe –how humans and wildlife can co-exist successfully.

ConFooBio, a five year £1.1 million international study - funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant - aims to solve the conflict between the parties promoting biodiversity conservation and ensuring food security. Spanning seven locations across the Arctic, UK, Europe and Africa the study will produce a new model to both predict and resolve these conflicts.

Setting up research bases to examine communities as diverse as Gabon in Central Africa, Norway, Sweden and Denmark in Scandinavia and Orkney in Scotland, environmental scientist Dr Nils Bunnefeld and his team aim to produce outcomes that protect livelihoods as well as promote and protect the wildlife in these areas.

Explaining the significance of the research Dr Bunnefeld said: “Each year governments across the world pay out millions of pounds in compensation to farmers for crops destroyed by birds and mammals. In developing countries an entire community’s annual crops can be ruined overnight by elephants, and there is an ongoing debate on the importance to economies of producing farmed salmon at the expense of preserving wild salmon.

“These conflicts are difficult to resolve, even at the highest levels there is usually a winner and a loser, and in many cases negotiations are stalled. Creating a process that achieves a positive resolution for all the parties involved is our goal. We will do this by using our existing expertise, extensive field research, as well as combining for the first time a range of academic approaches from social sciences, economics and ecology.”

To be used by a wide range of international agencies including the United Nations (UN) and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES) the model will also benefit UK agencies including the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

Dr Bunnefeld continued: “Having a diversity of wildlife is important for the environment but also for the well-being of people. Europe and the UK have lost their larger wildlife but some species remain in small numbers and others have made a comeback such as geese and cranes which create damage to agriculture. Our new model will attempt to ensure the protection of threatened species as well as secure the livelihoods of those who live and work alongside them.”

Professor Gerry McCormac, University of Stirling Principal and Vice-Chancellor, said: “Balancing economic and environmental benefits is a difficult challenge and this innovative research model, combining a range of academic methods, illustrates the interdisciplinary approach undertaken at Stirling to solving real world problems.

"This project shows the strength of Stirling's impact-delivering research, which saw us ranked in the Research Excellence Framework 2014 as being one of the UK's top 40 universities for research intensity."

Drivers for the research include the increasing impact of climate change, mitigating conflicts between food production and biodiversity, increasing the economic benefits of tourism and ensuring the protection of endangered species.

The five year study “ConFooBio: Resolving conflicts between food security and biodiversity conservation under uncertainty” is funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant.

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