Professors studies snow leopards for cues to climate change
PROFESSOR Owen Nevin is happy to travel between tropical Central Queensland and the icy mountains of Kazakhstan for his research on snow leopards.
But it's the effects of climate change on their conservation, and finding ways of achieving practical conservation, that forms a key focus of his work.
Professor Nevin is mad about big predators and spent the past few decades researching everything from brown bears in North America to tigers in India and now snow leopards in Kazakhstan.
Snow leopards are globally endangered, and because they only live in the snowy, mountainous regions of Central Asia their populations are likely to shrink as temperatures increase.
"You can say the snow leopards will just move higher and higher into the Himalayas but there's less and less area for them up there," Prof Nevin said.
"Small changes in temperature can make very substantial changes in their distribution."
Very little is known about the snow leopard population in Kazakhstan and, with his proven research on population ecology of other large carnivores, Prof Nevin was chosen to find out how many snow leopards inhabit the region.
"For any conservation project, knowing how many you have is of critical importance. You don't know whether you're succeeding if you don't know how many you have," he said.
Snow leopard numbers will be estimated using habitat assessment methods and 'camera traps'.
The research team will then use climate change scenarios to work out how the current habitat and population will change through time.
The Republic of Kazakhstan is the world's largest landlocked country, and crosses the Russian continent to Eastern Europe.
It's a land of extreme diversity, with mountains and deserts, thriving cities built on the back of resources boom in oil and gas, and a rural landscape characterised by oil exploration, mining and farming.
The enthusiastic Irish researcher moved from England in 2012 to take up a position with Central Queensland University where he manages graduate research and heads up the Gladstone campus.
"I really like Gladstone. It's very different from where I was before, and a bit of a culture shock to come from living in a national park to living in an industrial town but it's a really thriving place.
"There's this mentality of 'can do'. People here want to succeed and I think probably it comes from being a newer community. People choose to come here."
Finding solutions to problems such as habitat loss from climate change requires an open mind according to Prof Nevin, who says solutions are often counter-intuitive.
For example, a site owned by an explosives company in South Africa had fenced and secured a large rural site for safety and commercial reasons, he said.
It's naïve to say we should just stop industry.
The site happened to be home to rhinoceros, and the fence stopped poachers which lead to recovery of that population of rhinos. This kind of 'practical conservation' is what really excites Prof Nevin.
In Gladstone, Prof Nevin says, we have an opportunity to showcase world class protection of the environment coupled with successful industry and a thriving economy.
"We have a really exciting case study here in Gladstone. There's this industry here and there's a world heritage site right next door."
Port Curtis is not pristine, he said.
"It is an environment that is very carefully managed and while it's undergoing a lot of change, a good balance between conservation and industry is being struck.
"We need to be able to say to people globally, come and learn from this absolutely incredible juxtaposition, you've got a world heritage site and industry absolutely side by side.
"It's naïve to say we should just stop industry. The benefits are really big.
"Sometimes we have to admit we are going to keep using fossil fuels because we like the lifestyle that we have. So how best should we do that? That's the question."
Prof Nevin hopes to guide research into this and other environmental research questions through practical conservation projects at CQU, where restoration of ecosystems is a focus.
- World's largest landlocked country
- Population 17 million
- Land area 2.7 million sq km,
- Highest mountain is Khan Tangiri Shyngy 6995m
- Main religions: Muslim 70.2%, Christian 26.2%
- Natural resources: 37.9% of GDP from industry: oil, coal, minerals, production of iron, steel, agricultural machinery, electric motors and construction materials
- Island state
- Population 22 million
- Land area 7.7 million sq km
- Highest mountain: Mt Kosciusko 2229m
- Main religions: Protestant 27.4%, Catholic 25.8%
- Natural resources: 22% GDP from mining, industrial and transportation equipment, food processing, chemicals, steel
- Australia is the world's largest net exporter of coal accounting for 29% of global coal exports