Wildlife Trade Extinctions and 21st Century Psychology

The second instalment of the Prisms Podcast from Cambridge University Press
20 October 2023
Presented by Chris Smith
Production by Chris Smith.


This time we hear how many species are being driven to extinction by human trade, why clinical psychology needs an update for the 21st Century, how non-specialists can help to plug the gap in mental health services, what art can do for science and conservation of coastal habitats, and the role of epigenetics in medicine...

In this episode

Spices on sale at a market

00:39 - Extinctions linked to wildlife trade

How vulnerable is nature to over-explotation for the purposes of trade?

Extinctions linked to wildlife trade
Amy Hinsley, University of Oxford

Thousands of species of animals, plants and fungi are traded internationally. And as human pressure on the environment intensifies, and the relentless drive for economic growth increases, some species are - unsurprisingly - buckling under the strain. But how many? The answer is that we don’t really know, so Oxford University’s Amy Hinsley, speaking to Chris Smith, decided to try to find out by mining the literature for reports on species driven to extinction by trade. She found at least 511 taxa extinctions, but it’s likely this is very much the tip of the iceberg…

Amy - People often say that wildlife trade is a really big threat to wild species, and people often talk about it as a major driver of extinction. But we hadn't seen any evidence of how many extinctions there had been linked to wildlife trade. We didn't know where these claims were coming from, whether there were recorded examples of extinctions linked to trade, or how many there were, what kind of extinctions were happening, whether it was complete global extinctions or local extinctions. So we really wanted to know what the actual evidence was.

Chris - I suppose there's two sides to the coin as well, isn't there? Because it's not just a one-way street bad news. You trade in something and it goes extinct because there are some things which are safeguarded and cherished because we trade in them and so therefore they're gonna get conserved and preserved.

Amy - Yes. Wildlife trade can sometimes be portrayed as a purely negative thing. It's often discussed in terms of illegal wildlife trade or over harvesting, but wildlife trades is happening globally on lots of different scales from people collecting things from the wild and selling them in local markets to people exporting plants and animals and fungi internationally in legal markets and sustainably. There's lots of evidence that wildlife trade in certain species, if done well and managed well, can be sustainable. It can support livelihoods, it can support economies. Obviously there can be negative impacts of wildlife trade if over-harvesting takes place or if the management of things like where people are harvesting or what parts of a plant, for example, people are harvesting. But it's really important to acknowledge from this that wildlife trade is not always a negative process and it can also lead, like you say, towards people valuing species more. It can lead to better protections for species in the wild, when it is done in a well-managed and legal sustainable way.

Chris - How well documented is all of this then? Where did you begin?

Amy - The conservation status of many species has been assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature or IUCN. So we looked at the redlist data to see whether any of the species that are noted as extinct or extinct in the wild by the redlist had any links between that extinction and any kind of trade. But we also know that lots of species are not assessed by the redlist process. So plants, for example, fungi, very few species overall have been assessed by the redlist. So we also looked in the academic literature. So we did structured searches. We used keywords such as "trade" or "over-harvest" and "extinction". And we combined these keywords to try and find as many papers as possible that referred to extinction and the trade. And then we went through all those papers. It took a very long time. There were more than a thousand papers and we looked for concrete examples where people had reported that a species had gone extinct. And when we're talking about extinct, we might be talking about global extinction where the species has not been found again in the wild extinction in the wild where it is known from cultivation, but it no longer exists in the wild, or local extinction where it has disappeared from a certain area, but it still exists in other areas.

Chris - There's going to be a lot of ice under the waterline of this iceberg, isn't there in the sense that there will be things that just haven't been studied. There will also be things that are not explicitly referred to as extinct. They may have used other terms like "lost" or "disappearance", which means you wouldn't spot them with this analysis. So this is very much tip of the iceberg stuff.

Amy - Yes. And I think there are are three main ways that this should be considered as an underestimate. Somebody might have reported an extinction, but used words such as this species has disappeared from the wild, this species has been lost. They might have thought it was extinct but not really have the evidence for that, so they might have said that it had declined and not been found. What was quite striking for me in the results was that we had lots of examples of animal extinctions. Very, very few of plant extinctions, and only one example of a fungal species going extinct. So there's also the problem of under-researched and overlooked groups. So there could just be a lot of species out there going extinct that we don't know about. And, finally, extinction is a very complex process. So lots of different things could contribute to extinction. So there could be extinctions out there in traded species where trade was the main driver of extinction, but that's not known or it's not being investigated. So the links between trade and extinction have not been made.

Chris - There's also potentially a domino effect isn't there in the sense that say I trade in species A, and species A is the food for species B and I drive species A to extinction because I overexploit it, then I've also indirectly caused the potential extinction or endangerment of species B because I've deprived it of what it would normally eat. But I wouldn't be monitoring species B, or writing about it, so we wouldn't know about that extinction.

Amy - Yes, and And I actually think the indirect effects of trade on a wild population or a wild species are potentially driving some species to extinction. And that includes harvesting of all of a prey species, for example, or introduction of a species for commercial trade that then becomes a predator of natural species in that area. So one of the main examples, fish species, which had gone extinct due to the introduction of the Nile perch, which was used in commercial fisheries, but then ate all of the native species in those lakes. So I think it was around 200 species went extinct due to that. And that is an indirect effect, and that was recorded in the literature. But there might have been other examples out there that didn't record trade as a driver.

Clinical psychology therapy session

07:22 - 21st Century Psychology

Older approaches to clinical psychology don't cross cultures very well...

21st Century Psychology
Brigitte Khoury, American University of Beirut

Many argue that the world has shrunk, and as a population we’re now more mobile than we’ve ever been. One consequence of that is that the patients sitting down in front of healthcare practitioners will very often have originated from a very different culture or geography than the practitioner themselves, which can impact on the way the treatment needs to be approached. Particularly when it comes to clinical psychology, as Chris Smith hears from the American University of Beirut's Brigitte Khoury…

Brigitte - Education and training in psychology has been quite archaic and traditional and does not really meet the needs of the 21st Century. Meaning that what we think needs to happen is that there needs to be a revamping of psychology programmess, especially graduate programmes, people going for their Masters or their doctorate programs who will be practicing, or who will be teaching, or who will be working on policies. So the students who graduate from the more traditional programmes are not really equipped and have the skills required for what is needed now.

Chris - We could have just upset the people running courses in clinical psychology the world over with what you just said! What's the evidence, <laugh - we will> probably; what's the evidence that what you've just said is the case though? That the courses are not 21st Century ready?

Brigitte - Because the needs are different. I think many psychology programmes started 50 years ago, and I don't think they have really been updated and the needs are very different. For example, one of the main needs that we have now are social justice and human rights. We have global migrations everywhere in the world, and it is said that clinical psychologists or practitioners would at some point in their life be giving service for somebody from a different country. But many, many psychologists are not trained nor equipped to actually offer these services. And when you are trained in a certain theoretical and more or less western framework, because this is what most programmes are, even those in non-Western countries, they still rely on Western theories. Then we are not really preparing people to service people who are asking for help from other parts of the world.

Chris - Are you saying that the kinds of problems that a practitioner will encounter are going to be different because of the 21st Century, or are you saying that the patients present differently because they'll come from different backgrounds and people need to be equipped to handle that?

Brigitte - I think all of the above, partly is that yes, the problems that are faced now are different: disasters, violence, pandemics. So we have people who are coming in with different problems than, you know, what necessarily are the run of the mill usual you know, maybe mild anxiety, mild depression that people are trained in. But also we have people who come from different backgrounds, different cultures, which actually impact and affect how these problems present, but also how to treat these problems, which are not necessarily what psychologists or early, you know, early career psychologists are learning in their programmes.

Chris - So you're advocating for some kind of global framework then where people are made a bit more worldly with their clinical psychology training so that they can put themselves in the shoes of people from across the globe rather than just the nextdoor country.

Brigitte - Putting themselves in their shoes is a bit too much of an expectation, but at least being knowledgeable, being aware of different cultures and being open to actually learning about these cultures and being able to ask and say, you know, how can I help you best? But also there's another reason for that is that recently we have seen more a global movement of psychologists, meaning that more and more psychologists now are asking and wanting and interested to work outside their countries or where they trained, especially when there are areas of disasters or where more mental health services are needed. We see an influx of people who are interested to travel to these countries and offer their services. And it's coming from a very good place, of course, except that they arrive and they are not really equipped to offer these services.

Chris - Do you have any practical tips for how this should be implemented then? Because it, it sounds on the one hand pretty simple: we need to make sure people are more cognisant of more worldly of what's what's happening in different countries and to different people. But the devil's always in the detail with these sorts of initiatives and getting them to happen and getting everyone on board is really, really difficult.

Brigitte - Absolutely sounds very simple, but it's actually quite complicated. For example, one of the things that I always encourage my colleagues who want to travel to different countries, I always tell them, please try to read a bit about the history, the sociopolitical background of the country and the cultures and the religions and everything that makes that country what it is. I'm not saying, you know, they need to sit for a one year long course, but at least to be cognisant and aware of the different issues, problems, ethnicities, cultures that exist in that country. Or, and I always encourage that, I always say try to make connections with colleagues who are from the country you're interested in. There are many in universities that you can access now. Send some emails and say, look, I'm interested. I'd like to visit to how can I help? What can I do? And this is really a great segueway into that culture and that country because then you have a colleague who's on the same level and understands your lingo and, and where you're coming from. But at the same time as a mediator between the migrating or the traveling psychologist and the one who was in their home base.

Chris - How has this gone down with your colleagues and coworkers when you stand up and say this kind of thing? Are they receptive? Are they warm to the idea?

Brigitte - Absolutely. I mean, many, of course, not everyone, but many are very interested and many people who also work in global mental health and international psychology, they realise the shortcomings of the new generation of psychologists who are very interested, very open, kind of, you know, the world is their cocoon, but they are not equipped to be, be able to function in these capacities or in different places that they'd like to go to. So many are interested, many are willing to experiment in different ways and introducing different courses in their training programmes and possibly having maybe MOUs with training programmes outside their programme and send students three months, six months to experience different cultures and mental health. We've had that happen at our university. We've had MOUs from several universities and we've received their students at our programme. So some are very open, of course some resisted a bit more. And I understand they still believe that there needs to be the traditional training of psychology, which is as important of course, and is the basis of the learning and the teachings of psychology. But we cannot restrict ourselves only to that. And we need to start basically preparing psychologists for the 21st Century.

A depressed woman

14:48 - Non-specialists effective at delivering mental health help

Rates of mental ill-health are suring internationally. But might non-specialists be able to help?

Non-specialists effective at delivering mental health help
Miya Barnett, UC Santa Barbara

Evidence is mounting that we need not rely solely on specialist practitioners to make a dent in the growing burden of mental illness. Speaking with Chris Smith, Miya Barnett, at the University of California Santa Barbara, has been looking at how non-specialists, given the right training, can be enormously valuable, especially in resource-poor settings…

Miya - So we have known for many years - before Covid 19 - that mental health problems are a huge prevalent issue in the population and a growing issue, especially for children and adolescents. So, prior to Covid, people were saying that 30% of the population worldwide experienced a mental disorder. Those estimates are actually really increasing at this point. Some are saying one in eight may be experiencing depression. Certain locations like low and middle income countries, 70 to 90% of individuals don't receive care that they need. And unfortunately, even highly resourced places like the UK or the United States also have many populations that don't get the care that they need.

Chris - Big problem, then. How do you propose we deal with it?

Miya - Absolutely. So there's a lot of strategies that need to be put into place and one of the solutions that I'm especially interested in is how we engage non-specialist providers in the delivery of mental health services. So non-specialist providers are individuals who have not necessarily gone to school to be mental health providers, not you know, counselors or psychologists or psychiatrists, but people who work with different communities already. Maybe nurses in a doctor's office, community health workers, who are able to learn some of these skills and help provide different types of treatment or link people into treatment so that they are getting the care that they need, which is so important for people to do well in their lives.

Chris - But how would these people find the people that they need to help? Because if part of the problem is that, as you've said, up to 70% of people in some places are not getting the help they need, is that partly because we just don't know that they need help?

Miya - That's exactly it. That is why non-specialist providers could be a really important part of the workforce, because they are more likely to be embedded within community settings where people are going to for help. So what kind of settings could these be? They could be the doctor's office where people are going to often for their physical health but also bringing up concerns with their mental health. Churches, community centers, schools, these are the individuals that community members who might not trust a mental health professional are going to interact with more naturally. So we want to make sure that they have the skills that they need and the knowledge that they need to be able to help when people ask for it.

Chris - And what would the shape of that help take? Would it be things like cognitive behavioural therapy, someone to talk to, someone who's well versed in the different sorts of things that could be done for that person and who they should go and see? Or is it softer than that?

Miya - A lot of research has been done in different low and middle income countries, Kenya, Ethiopia, looking at if these providers could do interventions like cognitive behavioural therapy. And the evidence is actually quite strong that individuals get better if they work with a non-specialist providing a cognitive behavioural therapy intervention. So that's really exciting that we know that that can happen. There are other models that are being used in places where there may be are more professional providers like the United States where these individuals possibly are going to be more the link to services. The people who say, oh, I hear what's going on with you, let's call this mental health agency. They have those types of services. Oh wait, you have a question about that? You're concerned, you feel some stigma around that. Let me talk you through what that might be like. So the roles can be diverse, but the goal is that individuals will get linked with excellent evidence-based care.

Chris - When governments in some countries have tried to introduce interventions a bit similar to this, but for other aspects of health, cynics have said this is medicine on the cheap. Rather than training a proper practitioner, you train people who are not so well trained, they're a bit more focused, but they're also less skilled generally and they're cheaper. And so as a result you get lots of them, but it is medicine on the cheap. How would you answer that?

Miya - I think that's a really important point and I think that from the most cynical place, we don't wanna be providing care, especially to more vulnerable and marginalised populations that's just cheaper care. What we want is to recognise that we need to have high quality training available to these individuals. So more people are able to provide this, but not necessarily because it's such a cost savings way. So I focused a lot on a recent paper that I published on how it's imported that you are providing a lot of, not only training, but ongoing supervision and making sure that this is high, high quality care that's being provided, not just cheap care that's being provided.

Chris - And have you got any evidence yet that as an intervention this would work or can work and not just work in a place where it's relatively easy to start the wheels turning, but in some places on the planet where infrastructure's, poor funding's poor; education overall is poor and therefore they've got everything not going for an initiative like this?

Miya - You know, as a researcher located in the United States, which is a place that you know supposedly has a lot of resources, I actually look to the countries with lower resources, a lot of things like you said where it's not going for them for the strongest evidence of how this can work. Places that have done a lot of innovation on how to really increase the quality and access of care through the task sharing with non-specialist providers. The studies that have been run in places like Kenya, Iraq, Thailand, places that maybe are not considered to be having as many mental health resources really are paving the way for where we might want to go in the United States or the UK to, with the struggles we're having on reaching enough of our population. So I think learning from places that have done these types of projects successfully with less resources is really important. We really have to learn from places that have done this work successfully so that we could be reaching our most marginalised populations in places that are considered to have more resources I think.

Fishermen on the horizon on the seashore

Science and culture collaborate to save marine ecosystems
Francesca Porri, Rhodes University

Coastal ecosystems are under pressure. The best way to save them is to garner the support of local communities; if they understand the issue and the solution, and they have a stake in the game, interventions are more likely to succeed in the long term. But gaining the trust and support of the community, and making the knowledge they already possess part of the solution is critical. And that’s where, as she explains to Chris Smith, Rhodes University's Francesca Porri comes in. She’s merging the arts, indigenous knowledge and science to, in her words, “ensure that the knowledge gathered through nature-based scientific research remains a part of community developed Indigenous knowledge systems. The merging of innovative, eco-creative approaches the potential to sustainably and ethically improve the functioning and diversity of coastal urban habitats.”

Francesca - The art is helping hugely in communicating the science, but also into getting the communities that we are working with really engaging, and getting the buy-in from relations with the environment and being really co-creators. So far it has been a truly active participation from the community that we work with. So the art is almost like the mechanisms that help us integrate this potential challenges in communicating and talking to one another.

Chris - Are you arguing then that if a scientist comes along and talks to a remote community, a coastal community and says, we've got some good ideas to help you, they're more likely to trust a musician than a scientist? Is that what you're saying? It's, it's, there's, there's an, there's an element of familiarity with art, which isn't there with science?

Francesca - In part, yes. When we work with community - and in this case, the art helped a lot - the other part was working already with not approaching the community as the typical type of getting into a community and imposing certain rules, but engaging with the community through a community that is already working with the community. We've been quite lucky to engage through the Keiskamma Trust, which is a small organisation in the Hamburg Village in the Eastern Cape, working as a trusted corridor to the community. So the art on one side and a very trustworthy and trusted by the community organisation help opening the doors to the scientists and, and show that we really wanting to do the best for everyone, which is taking care of the environment. Because the stories that have been documented through the music or through the storytelling, it really brings back to that point where everyone, it doesn't matter what background you've got everyone is intimately interested in preserving what you have as an environment.

Chris - Playing devil's advocate though, how do you know this is better and that this is the way it should be done? Have you got a sort of before and after comparison; or are you just saying, "this is one way we've done this, this is one way we've approached this, this appears to work, so let's use this as a foundation, a starting point?"

Francesca - You're totally right. I don't think there is a perfect recipe to something. We are exploring these approaches because we realise that, at least in South Africa, the news don't really report much about conservation of the environment. I still think that science communication, it's quite an elitarian type of experience that not everyone can afford. And so for us, this is the right way to do it. And we of course still having quite parallel lines, so not as integrated as we would like to have. I still have to supervise PhD students that have got very hard science type of projects, but the same students are exposed to become integrated in this setting with the community. And of course we've got the industry on the other side because the port authorities of South Africa are our key partner in this project. So I'm not saying that this is the only way going forward, but I think, like in anything, different people use different approach.

Chris - How's it gone down with the communities but also with the researchers? Does everyone buy in to this? Does everyone see the value in approaching it this way?

Francesca - Definitely the project attracted a certain type of students. Last year we already had our first <inaudible>, which is a Zulu word for gathering, and that was a space given to scientists, to musicologists, to the communities. And that's where we discussed how do you want to work together on this? This is, I must say, my first experience, and maybe I may sound a little naive, but it's already a win from my side because we've opened those channels.

Chris - There are only so many hours in the day, and the more that we add to a project in terms of endeavours and activities, the more it costs, and there's only so much funding to go around. So would your argument be then that doing these additional things, these additional duties, additional obligations, returns actually greater value despite detracting away from just doing science and pure conservation work? Because you ultimately end up achieving more, because you've got that buy-in from the community and there'll be not just the immediate benefit, but then a legacy as well?

Francesca - Definitely. We often say we have got so much information already from this project that, especially from the social sciences side, we could do more out of this project. The struggle that we get is to gather human resources for that. It's almost like within the same project we could get so much more done. And we've seen how, for example, there are PhD and Master's projects being developed through the music. I think some of the funding is still not ready for it, because the multi- and transdisciplinary research has got a component that is quite complex from a funding point of view, but in terms of information and potential output, we've got more. And so it's been a strategic good choice to add this component as well.


28:55 - Pharmacoepigenetics

It's not just our genes that affect how drugs work: epigenetic marks on our DNA also play a role...

Delaney Smith, Stanford University

About two decades ago, the first draft of the human genome project - documenting the 3 billion letters in the human DNA code - was published. With a budget in the billions, scientists said this would open up a new vista in medicine, one where disease risks could be predicted, and personalised treatments prescribed based on an individual’s genetic makeup. We’ve certainly made strides in that direction, but, in the intervening two decades, the importance of another mechanism, called epigenetics, that exerts a further layer of control over how active or not our genes are, is increasingly being recognised. And not only does it dictate the activity of genes, that means it also dictates the way we respond to drugs, giivng rise to a whole new field in medicine. Speaking with Chris Smith, Stanford University's Delaney Smith…

Delaney - The field is called pharmacoepigenetics. And basically what scientists in that area are interested in is how our genetic makeup - so our DNA - changes how we respond to drugs that we take. It might not surprise many people that when you take a drug, you might respond differently. Some people are gonna respond well and some others not so well. And it turns out that our genetic makeup is one of the factors that determine how we respond. However, in the past 20 years, we've also figured out that this is not the only thing that matters. And one of the other areas that scientists are interested in is epigenetics: how your DNA gets turned into proteins. But it is not actually part of your DNA sequence itself.

Chris - Historically, when we've made drugs and then given them to people, we've sort of done the pharmacological equivalent of you or I walking into a shoe shop and rather than expecting our feet to be measured, we're just given the first pair of shoes off a shelf and told to wear them, whether they fit our feet or not. And that's why there's this whole idea about trying to personalise medicine a bit more, isn't it? By informing what the drug should look like - what the shoe size should be - based on your genetics. And everyone thought that was the end of it. But now you're saying there is an additional wrinkle here, which is an additional layer of control on the genetics?

Delaney - Yeah, so personalised medicine, as you mentioned, is something that's been popularised in the past 20 years or so. It's still not frequently deployed in every setting, but a lot of people are now, especially for things like cancer treatment, receiving their personalised genome, and your physician is then targeting what treatments are going to be most appropriate. So you're indeed measuring your foot before you put on a shoe. That being said, it seems like that approach is accounting anywhere between 10 and 50% of the variance we're seeing in drug response. So that's not everything. And this additional wrinkle of epigenetics is promising in regards to how much of that additional variance it might be able to explain. So in the shoe analogy, you're now not just measuring the length of your foot, but you could also be looking at the shape of the arch or the width.

Chris - We've got reasonably good at tying genes to diseases and therefore indirectly, in some cases directly, tying genes to treatments. But we certainly don't know all of them; how on Earth can we therefore go the next step and start understanding the epigenetics as well? Do we start with the known - the genes we have got - and then explore the epigenetic space around them? Or are we going to carry on doing shot in the dark type science looking for possible associations, this link to this drug?

Delaney - Right. So we definitely do start on what is known. As personalised medicine has become more popular, we've generated a lot of new data. So you're right in the sense that there's still quite a few genes that are left to be discovered and studied. But, for epigenetics, what we do is we take a lot of this existing data and we look at genes where it's known that variation in them is linked to drug response. And then what we're doing is we're adding a second layer and we're saying, okay, in this gene there are several kind of body parts, if you will, the anatomy of the gene. There's a part that makes the protein and the part next to it that is controlling how much of the gene gets made in the cells in your body. And commonly you'll see epigenetic markers regulate this portion of the gene that's telling your body how much of it needs to get made. So for example, DNA methylation is one type of epigenetic marker, and that is commonly present in these areas of genes that are regulating production. So what we do is we go in using computational approaches and we can then identify genes that have these epigenetic markers and that are associated with drug response. And then try and work our way through and figure out if these epigenetic markers are in themselves affecting the response to the drug.

Chris - Do we know many associations like this yet? Do we have clear cut examples of with this epigenetic mark on this gene, this drug won't work, use this one instead?

Delaney - We do for a very specific subset of all drugs. So these are epigenetic drugs or epi-drugs, and they're drugs that specifically target epigenetic mechanisms. So they're commonly used in cancer treatment and a few other areas, but what they do is they go into your body and they're getting after these epigenetic markers that are already present on your DNA, normally removing them. And for these cases, yeah, we have quite a few studies that show if you have this set of epigenetic markers, this drug may or may not be effective for you. But the area that is still really unknown and important to figure out is the relationship between regular drugs that you and I might take every day, such as aspirinblood thinners, things like that, and how epigenetic marks might affect the efficacy or how well those drugs work in your body.

Chris - Can we filter out the effects though of the microbiome? Because some people have argued that the metabolic knife and fork that the microbiome brings to the table and therefore has impacts on drugs, drug metabolism, and our biochemistry more broadly, is on the one hand a wonderful thing. But on the other hand, it can make it more difficult because if you just analyze the human, you're ignoring this whole extra organ that we haven't considered?

Delaney - Absolutely. The microbiome along with other types of genomes as we now call themincluding like the metabolome and the proteome. So those are things inherent to the person, but also the microbiome, which is a whole other set of DNA set of interactions between the bacteria that live within us and our own systems. All of these things likely have some impact on how we respond to our environment, how we develop disease, and how we respond to treatment. So epigenetics is just one layer, and as these machine learning methods get more advanced, our screening tools develop and we generate more data, especially for the microbiome. The ideal situation would be to be able to take a patient when you are visited in the hospital, sequence their genome, their epigenome, proteome, et cetera, their microbiome, and then create a fully customised treatment plan that optimises all of these different parameters to create a medicine or treatment approach that is most likely to be effective.

Chris - And are we there yet?

Delaney - We are not, but we are moving quickly, especially with the expanding amount of data and expanding amount of computational power. It's something that we could be seeing in the next 10 to 20 years.


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