Thursday, 12 April 2012

Conservation design: artistic solutions for biological problems

Who do you call when a pest species invades a public space--animal control? Wildlife managers? Scientists? How about...designers? That's the unique suggestion of a group of international collaborators working to solve the problem of greedy South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens) who have recently taken to begging for food in the fish market of Valdivia, Chile. Because the sea lions are both a nationally protected species and a popular tourist attraction, locals are interested in dealing with them as sensitively as possible. Unfortunately, early management measures, most notably the use of fencing around the market area, failed because they were not consistently employed.

(South American sea lions, Otaria flavescens)

Where some people might view this as a setback, local researchers saw it as an opportunity to explore the power of interdisciplinary collaboration. They placed advertisements for university design students looking to get practical work experience, then challenged applicants to design innovative solutions to human-seal conflicts. Each design was founded on background information--gleaned from newspaper articles, blogs, photographs, videos, and scientific literature--on sea lion biology and attitudes toward human-sea lion interactions. The researchers encouraged designs that would function at a variety of scales, from temporary use by affected individuals to long-term architectural projects designed to benefit the entire riverside area. They also sought ideas that could facilitate different types of human-wildlife contact, including none at all, controlled contact such as that found in zoos, or unlimited, free contact such as that found in the wilderness. In addition to looking for useful, biologically-grounded designs, the researchers wanted outputs that were aesthetically pleasing, durable, and long-lasting.

Despite having keep all of those concerns in mind at once, designers ultimately managed to come up with seven different suggestions that seemed both appropriate and feasible. These were selected as the "finalists" not only because they seemed useful on an individual basis, but also because they could be mixed and matched in different combinations in order to achieve local management goals.

(Distribution of South American sea lions. Although the designs described here were created for use in Valdivia, Chile, they could be useful throughout the sea lions' range, and also for similar species found elsewhere.)

Two of the products are fliers (also suited for poster or sign format) presenting basic information on sea lion behavior--in particular, the animals' body language and signals of agitation and aggression. The first flier is meant to be posted in areas where human-sea lion interactions are undesirable, and thus is devoted to explaining why a distance should be maintained between the two species; the second is meant for distribution in areas where interactions are permitted, and therefore provides information on how to safely engage the animals.

The next two designs are barriers that can function temporarily or can be left in place for longer-term use. Both sets of fencing are made of sturdy metal that curves towards the sea lions, preventing the animals from climbing over into areas where they are unwanted. The barriers are made in segments that can be hooked together to exclude sea lions over different amounts of space. The only difference between the two types of barrier is that one is completely solid, while the other is fitted with a slot through which humans can feed the sea lions fish; the slots have a distinctive pattern that should help the animals recognize, and frequently revisit, areas where they are likely to receive handouts.

(A sea lion visiting Valdivia's fish market)

For situations where humans can wander freely amidst the sea lions (or vice versa, depending on which perspective you take), the designers have created a "fladry umbrella" that can be quickly opened in order to scare off animals that have approached too closely or are becoming aggressive. "Fladry" are ribbons of fabric whose fluttering is unsettling to animals; here, they are combined with bright coloring and an eyespot design to produce an alarming display that should keep sea lions at bay.

The final two design solutions are both longer-term, larger-scale architectural projects that could be installed along the river where the sea lions rest and, when they are not eating handouts, hunt for fish. Both are high, smooth-walled embankments, level with the sidewalk at the top, and with the river bank at the bottom. A curvature in the walls would not only prevent sea lions from climbing up to the sidewalk, but would also provide shade for the animals during sunny days. Rest areas could be built into the bottom of the embankments, providing sea lions a place to nap--and humans a spot to do some wildlife-watching. Whereas one embankment would provide a complete barrier between humans and sea lions, the other includes feeding stations that use the same slot mechanism as above to allow visitors to pass fish through to the other side.

The authors stress that each of these designs is currently only in the "idea" stage and has yet to be made into a testable prototype. Although this will hopefully the be next phase of the project, the main point of the current paper is not to discuss which of these potential solutions will work best in Valdivia, but instead to highlight the utility of collaborations between designers and biologists. For others who wish to follow their footsteps, the authors list a number of things that should be considered both before anyone sits down at the drawing board. To begin with, it is important to research local values in order to understand what type of products will be most useful, and to whom. It is also necessary to understand the biology of the wildlife in question--in particular, what sorts of behaviors they engage in, and where; after all, these are the characteristics driving the need for management activities in the first place. Finally, designers should be aware of how much money is available to fund mitigation efforts. After all, even the most ingenious solution won't be very useful if it is too expensive to implement.

 (Sea lions wait for handouts in Valdivia's fish market)

Once potential ideas have been developed, the researchers strongly advocate the creation of prototypes and the conductance of field research. It is important not only to see how wildlife respond to the proposed designs, but also whether people approve of the products and their installation. In the case of the sea lions, for instance, the researchers indicate a need to ascertain whether the animals learn to cue in to the feeding slots, whether different patterns of fladry umbrella are more or less effective, and whether locals will find the proposed embankments to be aesthetically pleasing enough to be installed in the middle of their city. The creation of multiple different options, such as the seven generated in the current study, is useful for doing side-by-side comparisons of potential management solutions.

The researchers offer one last suggestion to future interdisciplinary collaborators: publish papers detailing the design process. Currently, they say, there is very little literature on conservation design; managers looking for solutions often have to start from scratch. If more people publish information on design proposals, assessments, concerns, and achievements, then advancements in the field will be made more quickly--to the benefit of both humans and wildlife.

Root-Bernstein, M., Rosas, N.A., Osman, L.P., and Ladle, R.J. 2012. Design solutions to coastal human-wildlife conflicts. Journal of Coastal Conservation, online advance publication.

Thanks to the following websites for providing the images used in this post:

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