Dr Bhaskar Vira is Head of the Department of Geography, Professor of Political Economy and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College. Professor Vira is currently leading a programme of research on agrarian change and rural transformations in India, as part of the GCRF TIGR2ESS project. He is also convening a Department of Geography programme on Decent Work and Youth Livelihoods. He was Founding Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute; is closely involved with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and the Global Food Security Interdisciplinary Research Centre, and also works with the Centre for Science and Policy, Cambridge Zero and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. His work examines the social, political and economic dimensions of natural resource management, and the relationship between natural ecosystems and human well-being
Q: Conservation is a charity close to many people's hearts, but how many species are we really losing?
The numbers are a little difficult to estimate, because we still don't know how much biodiversity there is out there. Every year, scientists are discovering new species; so, it is difficult to know how much we are losing when we don't know how much we've got. But recent research suggests that we are losing species much faster than before humans arrived on the planet, maybe something like a thousand times faster, so the influence of humans on extinctions is distinct and it is really important. If the numbers are correct, we might be losing as much as 10,000 species per year; that is the upper estimate.
Q: But people often say why should they care about some frog in the Amazon that they have never heard of, if it is gone extinct?
There are probably two ways and two reasons why you should care. One is that that the frog might have some important cure that might actually improve the quality of human life. A number of diseases have been addressed by previously unknown species that were discovered in places like the rain forest. The other reason, of course, is the aesthetic beauty and the importance of nature for its own sake. So, it's not only about why the frog matters for humanity, but because the frog is important as a member of the living planet.
Q: What are the different factors driving species into extinction?
I suppose the biggest factor is that we are using more resources than the planet generates. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has estimated that we are living on one-and-a-half-planets, which means, essentially, to sustain our consumption today we would need one-and-a-half-planets! We don't have one-and-a-half-planets, so we're running out of what the planet actually has to offer. So those pressures manifest themselves in terms of habitat change, land use pressures, as well as impacts upon the aquatic environment. And that's what nature requires in order to survive; so, our human impacts are making that big difference.
Q: Now, with a growing population that is only going to get worse, and when humans and animals share the same space, what kind of conflicts can occur there?
There are a number of conflicts that are, essentially, to do with the difficulties of cohabiting in these spaces. As towns grow, there is more demand for housing, green spaces start to shrink. As land and resources become scarcer, industrial agriculture expanding for food production means that there is less forest in some parts of the world and those conflicts are becoming really important. You asked about humans and animals. Increasingly, living next to wild animals is no longer seen as something which is a pleasure but they are pests right on your doorstep: Wild elephants trampling on crops in India and Africa; wild predators lifting sheep from shepherds and lifting cattle from cattle grazers. These have become real conflicts that are manifesting themselves today. And it is to do with shrinking space and insufficient space for all these uses.
Q: So, what ways are there for mitigating these conflicts?
There are two types of things people are talking about. One is to take a good hard look at how we can reduce our own excessive consumption. What can we do to reduce that footprint that humanity has on the planet? How can we reduce our impacts on nature? How can we help people make these choices through information, through imparting more knowledge and, increasingly, through using regulation in the pricing system to try and help people make those decisions? When people introduced a 5p charge on carrier bags, people stopped using quite as many carrier bags because it suddenly started to matter. So, there are simple things that we might be able to do. The other, of course, is to try and do more with less. Using technology and innovation to produce more from the finite number of resources that we have. So those are the two ways in which we should really be thinking about this, both of which would combine to reduce that competition between humans and animals.
Q: You were at the opening of the David Attenborough conservation campus. What makes this building so special?
It is a really unique new conservation campus at the heart of Cambridge that brings together the University with nine leading conservation organisations that are based in Cambridge under the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, and the opportunity to be co-located, to work together is something that's really unprecedented. These organisations and the University have a long history of working with each other. We have been working together in this context for well over a decade. It is unusual in the world because these are often organisations that compete with each other and, of course, what makes it extra special is that Sir David Attenborough has lent his name to this building. So, what could be more inspiring?
Q: You have been elected a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in recognition of your contribution to the field. How do you feel?
I am truly honoured to receive this recognition by my peers and by the Academy of Social Sciences. I am particularly grateful to generations of colleagues and students at the Department of Geography and at Fitzwilliam College, who have provided such a welcoming and nurturing environment, as well as to colleagues across the wider University, especially in the social sciences. It has been a privilege to work with research collaborators around the world, and their thinking and work has been a source of inspiration, for which I am very grateful. For someone who has been slightly disrespectful of disciplinary boundaries, this is also a recognition of the importance of the social sciences, and the role that they play in responding to contemporary global challenges.