Ivan Palmegiani is an environmental scientist turned to data for answers. One does not simply cross into the realm of data. But Ivan did. We wanted to know more about nature, ecosystems, and the role of collecting and analysing data in the fight against climate change.

 

Hi Ivan, it is a pleasure to interview multidisciplinary experts like you. Can you tell us a bit more about what you work on and how you got here?

For about 8 years I worked as a wildlife ecologist, with a particular focus on large predators. These species typically roam over large areas and feed on other animals to survive. You can easily guess that such traits generate competition with humans. It is about space and resources as, sometimes, predators feed on human-related resources, namely on livestock.

The best way to mitigate conflict, in my opinion, is understanding the reasons for both parts. While livestock breeders and stakeholders can make their case, predators are elusive and cannot express themselves in words. Therefore, the scientific approach allows researchers to investigate their behaviour, to understand their needs in terms of space and resources. That was my job: gathering and processing data to produce and share results about large predators in order to put decision-makers in the best condition to make good decisions.

Cheetah tracking and conservation

Ivan Palmegiani placing tracking device on Namibian cheetahs to study their use of space and movement pattern (Credit: Claudi Coni)

In the last year, I have been doing something similar but in a different context. I make my technical and analytical skills available to people and companies like you Plan A, which are tackling the environmental crisis, and working on data-driven solutions generating positive impact in their respective fields.

Why did you decide to turn to data after having spent time on the ground? Do you find that it is a better way to gather information or find solutions?

My career shift has been long and arduous. My choices have been driven by many factors, the main one is that data needs to be processed to draw solid conclusions, and to develop effective conservation strategies. Then there are personal reasons, such as curiosity and search for new challenges. Last year I changed working environment, following my aspiration to have a more direct impact on society, as I felt the academic environment being limiting in that sense.

Despite these arguments, I wouldn’t say that analytics is more or less functional to wildlife conservation than fieldwork, they are complementary. For instance, I have worked extensively with GPS data to study movement patterns of large predators, and therefore their behaviour. Those analyses brought to valuable results, but there is no chance to fit a GPS collar remotely.

Read also: For a New Relationship with Wilderness

Another important aspect of fieldwork is dealing with the people who live in close contact with wildlife. This is a big responsibility because a false step in that context could nullify large conservation efforts.

I have sat multiple times with stakeholders and made data accessible to explain how predators were moving around them, what they were after, and how to coexist with them. It is not an easy task. One has to deal with frustration, misinformation, diffidence, and of course with the economic aspect of the human-wildlife conflict, but I felt that I was doing something meaningful in those contexts.

What can we learn from climate data analytics? 

Artificial intelligence is kind of ubiquitous nowadays, at least in the western world, and is changing our lives at an incredibly fast pace. When it comes to climate, I think that the amount of information made available to the public through new technologies already represents climate action, because it is likely to raise awareness. Large data sets are now available to analysts, scientists, to whoever is able and interested in processing them, in forecasting future trends, in developing data-driven solutions. Data can be used to optimize production processes, transportation of goods and people, to predict ecological dynamics, and prevent destructive events to occur.

The potential of data goes beyond my own imagination BUT… Potential is well different from the real impact data may have. While the first is inherent the data and the technology to process them, the impact is given by people using data, and their final goal is what matters. The irresponsible and unregulated use of data and technology is likely to become detrimental both for societies and for the environment. If instead we decided to use data for good purposes, if we handle the rush of having ‘data-tech-super-powers’ and focus on social and environmental health, we may be able to optimize the utilization of resources and to make them available to most humans, as it has never done before. It’s a matter of choice.

How could wildlife conservation impact climate change?

There is a theory named after the primordial goddess impersonating the Earth in Greek mythology, Gaia. That theory proposes that each organism on Earth is interacting with other organisms and their inorganic surrounding to guarantee the conditions for all of life to persist on the planet. In this perspective, any organic and inorganic component of an ecosystem is crucial for the functionality of that ecosystem, and of any other ecosystem related to it.

 

For example, reforestation is one of the most effective actions to address climate change. One way of doing it is planting trees, creating new forests, another is maintaining the conditions for natural forests to persist. This latter is the approach I recommend. It involves what we call in ecology as top-down and bottom-up dynamics, or more generally speaking trophic cascades. A sound example of this is being recorded in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (USA). The last wolf present in that area was shot in the ‘30s, until the mid ‘90s, when wolves have been reintroduced, prey and particularly the elk have been doing very well, too well actually. Their population grew over the ecosystem capacity, meaning that they were eating too many young willow, aspen and cottonwood plants. The result of this was that the delicate balance between forests and meadows was being jeopardized, forests were gradually shrinking and other animal species, which apparently have nothing to do with those mentioned so far, were disappearing. One example is the beaver, which needs willows to survive in winter, and that has started recolonizing its natural habitat only after wolves have been reintroduced. Just an example of how members of ecological communities are connected, and why we should invest in maintaining ecosystems healthy, before attempting to create new ones.

What is Ivan Palmegiani’s position on climate change? How do you want to impact your world?

We are now in the phase when the consequences of irresponsible behaviour and pernicious environmental policies are evident to anyone willing to see them. With great regret I have to admit that too many are not willing to see them yet. Anyway, I like to think that we are still capable to slow down the process and to keep our lives worth living, but I cannot be sure of that, nobody can, so the earlier we take action, the better it is. Every day spent without planning or doing something meaningful in the fight to climate change is a lost chance. A sensitive and aware community of people all over the world, as well as science and technology, are precious allies, if used responsibly. If not, no drama…life goes on, without humans. 

When it comes to me, I always try to estimate the effects that my actions may have on the environment and on society, so I keep adjusting my lifestyle as I acquire more accurate information to minimize consumption and waste of resources. I like keeping myself informed on certain topics, and I enthusiastically share information which can enable people to make more sustainable choices. I support projects and initiatives aimed to tackle environmental issues, or to make people sensitive towards them. Also, I enjoy fixing stuff, and finding solutions to reuse items which otherwise would end up in the trash, and maybe on an Indonesian beach shortly after.

It is a good start, but I want to do more than this, much more.

You have spent a lot of time working for the conservation of large mammals. What are the main risks for these species?

In general, I would say that ignorance, arrogance and neglect are the main risks for wildlife conservation. In practical terms, the main threat to large mammals, and not only, is habitat loss. Our species colonised the entire planet and keeps managing the surrounding environment with disturbing superiority, as if our survival didn’t depend on that very environment. As said before, ecosystems are delicate and large mammals are just a part of them but the good side of these species is their high ecological demand. In most cases one needs to work on the entire ecological community to preserve one single mammal species, because that constitutes the habitat for the target species. For this reason, certain species are named ‘umbrella species’, because saving them means saving the habitat they live in.

Do you see hope in large terrestrial animal conservation? What are the best techniques out there to support these guys?

Yes, there is hope and therefore motivation to keep up the good work. In my opinion, the best approach is knowing the species in their socio-environmental context, make the information available to the people living in close contact with wildlife, giving wildlife a value for local communities by, for instance, encouraging sustainable wildlife tourism. There are local economies relying almost entirely on such resources. This is just one of the possible solutions, the one which is being implemented in Europe. Other solutions have been tested and implemented in other geographical areas. Local conditions are a key factor for successful conservation initiatives, and I am a big supporter of local solutions to global challenges.

From Berlin, what can I do to help this fight?

Typically, wildlife projects require large investments and nowadays wildlife researchers need to justify why they do a certain job. For many people that’s not even a job, but a hobby, and it is not recognized as a priority for our societies. Given that, local administrations and governments are sometimes resistant to allocate resources to wildlife research and conservation, or it could result in a political suicide.

Namibian wildlife on the road

Wildlife traffic jam in Namibia (Credit: Ivan Palmegiani)

That said, any citizen can support wildlife conservation, and climate actions, with their vote, with their daily habits and choices. The more motivated could get to know the species inhabiting their area, there is plenty of wildlife even in Berlin (not only rats!). People can get in touch with researchers, attend meetings where they present the results of their studies to local communities, get involved. Sometimes academic environment is perceived as some kind of intellectual Olympus, a place where normal humans are not welcome. That’s totally wrong and it generates lots of misconceptions. It is true that there are people feeling part of some kind of ‘elite’ within academia, but they occur anywhere and, in my experience, they are a minority. Most researchers are simple, smart, committed people keen to share their passion for science.

You may know the expression ‘citizen science’, it stands for research and conservation projects involving citizens which are willing to cooperate in data collection, or other tasks. The European Citizen Science Association organises events and gatherings all over Europe. In Berlin there are the Museum für Naturkunde and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research carrying on several citizen science projects.

What would you say to the people who want to support climate action but do not know where to begin or how to go about?

When someone states before me that doesn’t have a clue on how to behave towards climate change, and it happened already, I try to understand how come that person has no clue on such an important matter. If one doesn’t know how to behave in that regard, it is likely that others don’t know either, and that’s a big issue for all of us. Understanding the reasons for disinformation is the first step to fix the problem. My suggestion is to start from small things, trying to cut on energy consumption, eating less meat, buying local, getting away from single-use plastics, avoid over-consumerism…also on Christmas time.

Funniest looking animal?

Ah, there are so many. Let’s just name the Mudskipper.

Favourite ice cream flavour you’re afraid is at risk from climate change?

Honey. Ah, wait…that’s not an ice cream flavour, and it’s not strictly related to climate change, but the disappearance of honey bees is one of the scariest things coming to my mind.

Pineapple or kiwi?

How do you know that I love them?! This is the most difficult question you asked me so far! Ok, I say pineapple, and beg forgiveness from kiwi (although I’ve already renounced to both of them, and opted for locally grown seasonal products).

If you were a wild animal, what do you think you’d say to humans?

I am a wild animal, although the wild side comes and goes depending on the circumstances. As an animal, I am always happy to remind other humans that they are animals too. I like to remind them that they are special, like any other living being on Earth, that they are the result of a long evolutionary process, like any other species on Earth, so they’d better behave as part of a big system, not as its masters.

You have to live on a desert island because of the consequences of climate change. Who do you take with you, and what CD (yes, there’s a CD player on this island)

I would bring David Bowie along. I don’t mean the song-writer, but his second studio album titled after him. The LP opens with that masterpiece titled ‘Space Oddity’, great lyrics to sing out loud on a desert island. I can already figure it.

As for the person to live this adventure with, let’s see. I would like to have someone creative and adaptive to enhance the chances of survival, but also someone stimulating, smart, a good talker. How about Leonardo da Vinci in his 20s? He didn’t have a clue of modern technology and he’s still recognised as one of the most creative minds ever lived. Imagine what he could do on a desert island, but the CD player would freak him out and keep him busy for a couple of years, so I would lose both company and music. Maybe not a good idea. You know what? My favourite camping (and life) partner would be the best company for me on that island. We would make a great team there, if she agrees to join me, otherwise, it wouldn’t be fun for anyone. Eheheh

Last question, what is your equation of happiness?

Be nice to yourself, be even nicer to others. Not always easy to implement, but I try hard.

Ivan Palmegiani was born in a small town in the central Apennines, in Italy His environmental sensitivity started growing there together with a passion for ancient history about Greek and Roman mythology. Ivan started volunteering to study wildlife and mountain ecosystems as a bachelor. Passion for climbing brought him into the Alps, where he collected data for a Master thesis on the wolf-prey relationship.

He moved to Namibia in 2013 and studied the social system of free-ranging cheetahs where he learned GPS telemetry, geodatabases, spatial and movement analyses and modelling. He now lives and work in Berlin.