by Dr. Sarah Scriven, Tropical Ecologist

May 8, 2024


Mike: Welcome to the Permian Podcast, where we explore many aspects of the conservation of nature and the people dedicated to preserving it.  Today’s guest is a tropical ecologist with a passion for conservation and a wealth of knowledge about the complexities of tropical forests. Please welcome Dr. Sarah Scriven.


Sarah: Thank you for having me.


Mike: Let’s dive right in, Sarah. Could you tell us a bit about your academic background and career and how you found your way into the field of tropical ecology?


Sarah: Of course. I’ve always been interested in the natural world from a young age, and I was particularly fascinated by things like insects and amphibians. So, pursuing a degree in biology at Cardiff University seemed like a natural choice for me. After my undergraduate degree, I knew that I enjoyed ecological research and wanted to complete a master’s degree, and I was really fortunate to be given the opportunity to spend six months in Malaysia to conduct my research project at a field center run by Cardiff University. The field center is called Danau Girang and it’s in Sabah on the island of Borneo, and whilst I was there, I was looking at the effects of oil palm plantation expansion on amphibian communities. That’s how I found my way into the field of tropical ecology.


From there, I applied for a PhD at the University of York, with Professor Jane Hill and as part of SEARRP (the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership), and my PhD research focused on promoting biodiversity and rainforest connectivity in oil palm dominated landscapes across SE Asia. This involved fieldwork looking at the movement of rainforest butterflies across forest-oil palm plantation edges and computer modelling. This was where I really started to have a much deeper understanding of the environmental impacts of deforestation and habitat degradation, and I became very passionate about working in the field of biodiversity conservation – not just in the tropics, but that is where my career path has led.


Following my PhD research, I worked as a postdoctoral research associate on several policy-focused projects based at the Universities of York and Oxford, and as part of SEARRP. One of these projects was the SEnSOR programme, which stands for Socially and Environmentally Sustainable Oil Palm Research. This was a programme of research funded by the Roundtable on Sustainable palm Oil (RSPO), which is the major certification standard for sustainable palm oil – sorry there’s an awful lot of acronyms! I was conducting research into whether the RSPO standards were improving the sustainability of palm oil production in relation to biodiversity conservation. So, my research was very applied and had a strong focus on evidence-based policy development, and the aim was to drive positive change. If anyone is interested in learning more about that then you can look at some of the work that I was involved in on the SEARRP and SEnSOR websites.


Mike: Sarah, can you tell us what drew you to Permian as a tropical ecologist?


Sarah: Absolutely, Mike. So, my introduction to Permian came through my previous research collaboration with SEARRP. I was initially really interested in the biodiversity monitoring that was being conducted by the Permian and SEARRP teams at the Kuamut project site in Sabah, as this closely aligned with some of my own research interests. For instance, I’ve been involved in helping to develop effective biodiversity monitoring strategies with palm oil companies, and thinking about how you can accurately track biodiversity trends over time. What really resonated with me about Permian was that its projects are very much underpinned by rigorous and ambitious science, and I was definitely excited about the prospect of working with, and learning from, Permian’s diverse team of scientists while also contributing my own technical expertise. Permian’s projects have real on-the-ground impact, so I saw an opportunity to be involved with advancing scientific knowledge in tropical ecology and actively contributing to preserving our planet’s rainforest ecosystems. That’s what really drew me to join Permian and why it’s a company that I wanted to work for.


Mike: Have you had opportunities to delve into other disciplines/fields whilst working at Permian?


Sarah: Following on from my last point, while my primary focus lies in ecological research and very much centers on biodiversity conservation, this is of course fundamentally linked to the two other critical components of Permian’s work.

Firstly, there’s the Climate component, which revolves around conserving and restoring aboveground carbon stocks in tropical forests. This aspect is centered upon carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation strategies through the generation of carbon credits, which requires insights from the fields of Environmental Science, Environmental Economics and Sustainable Development etc.

Secondly, there’s the Community component, which focuses on the integration of projects within local communities and livelihood enhancement. This component draws from the Social Sciences to ensure that our initiatives are sustainable in the long-term and beneficial for all stakeholders involved.

I’m really enjoying collaborating with my colleagues across these diverse disciplines and fields within Permian, which has already really improved my understanding of how these different components intersect and contribute to our overarching goals. It’s a really interdisciplinary organization that has meaningful impact on multiple levels.


Mike: That sounds fascinating. Now, in your current role, you’re heavily involved in tropical forest conservation. Can you tell us about the work you do and the importance of conserving these ecosystems?

Sarah: Absolutely. My research has focused on studying and understanding the dynamics of tropical forests and the ecology of the species within them, and how these species and ecosystems are impacted by anthropogenic threats such as deforestation, habitat fragmentation and climate change. In order to understand what’s happening to biodiversity, we need to monitor it, and in some circumstances manage it. So, the same general ecological concepts from my work with palm oil companies apply to my work with Permian. We need to determine whether our projects are having a positive impact on biodiversity, and to do that we need to have a rigorous scientific monitoring programme in place, which can then inform subsequent management activities. I’ve been involved with the Kuamut project biodiversity monitoring along with Dr Sunarto, the SEARRP team and other external collaborators, and we’re monitoring the orangutan population, along with other rare, threatened or endangered (what we call RTE) bird and mammal species. Dung beetles are also being monitored due to their functional role in these ecosystems as they recycle nutrients and disperse seeds, as is the structure and quality of the forest habitat within the project area. This monitoring is done primarily by the local field team who have extensive experience in this kind of data collection and then data are passed to me, and I’ve been helping to summarize, visualize and analyze it for our monitoring reports.


In response to the second part of your question, the forest within the Kuamut project area, and within all rainforest habitats, is incredibly biodiverse and provides invaluable ecosystem services, from carbon sequestration to water regulation. Conserving these ecosystems is crucial for mitigating climate change, supporting countless species of plants and animals and ensuring the well-being of the communities who depend on these forests for their livelihoods. We engage and work closely with communities and policymakers on the ground to develop sustainable and long-lasting conservation strategies.


Mike: It sounds important and challenging. What technologies do you use in your role as a tropical ecologist, and how do they assist you in your research and conservation efforts?


Sarah: Technology indeed plays a significant role in my work at Permian, and we utilize a diverse array of tools to assess and monitor tropical ecosystems. For instance, we rely on remote sensing techniques like satellite imaging and LiDAR to analyze forest structure and track changes in forest quality over time. Additionally, camera traps and acoustic sensors (also called song meters) help us monitor wildlife populations, providing valuable data for our conservation initiatives. As I just mentioned, a major aspect of my role involves sorting and analyzing the biodiversity monitoring datasets generated by using these technologies.


While these examples represent our current practices, the field of ecological monitoring is rapidly evolving. Looking ahead, I’m also excited about the potential for collaboration with scientists using emerging technologies. For instance, collecting Environmental DNA (eDNA) from water or soil samples could drastically improve our ability to monitor some more elusive or difficult to sample species. While the integration of thermal imaging cameras with drones offers exciting possibilities for monitoring cryptic and arboreal animals such as primates in the forest canopy.


By using these technologies in conjunction with advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), we can gather and analyze vast amounts of data to study tropical species populations more comprehensively than ever before. This enables us to make more informed decisions in conservation planning and management, ultimately contributing to the protection of biodiversity in tropical ecosystems.


Mike: With technology itself advancing so rapidly and in complexity bringing us a more profound level of our understanding of the natural world. Looking ahead, what excites you the most about your role as a tropical ecologist on the Permian technical team?


Sarah: There are so many aspects of this role that excite me, Mike. As an ecologist, delving into our extensive monitoring datasets and unravelling the population dynamics of rare and threatened species is really interesting. The ecology of many of these species is still poorly understood, and studying how they respond to rainforest regeneration and restoration holds immense potential to guide future conservation efforts.

I’m also looking forward to collaborating with other scientists and researchers in Southeast Asia and South America, where our projects are based. I hope that through these collaborations, we will be able to use some of our monitoring data to improve our ecological knowledge surrounding rainforest restoration and the relationship between biodiversity and aboveground carbon.

Before we finish, I should also add that our work goes beyond biodiversity monitoring and extends to capacity-building efforts on the ground. Sharing our technical expertise with the biodiversity teams and engaging with stakeholders and conservation partners is vital for promoting sustainable conservation practices. As the threats facing tropical forests escalate, these effective conservation strategies are increasingly urgent. By combining science with traditional knowledge and innovative technologies, we can really work towards a more sustainable future for tropical ecosystems for both the people and the millions of species that call them home.


Mike: Absolutely. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your insights and passion for tropical ecology with us today. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show.



For more news click HERE

Permian Global · Permian Podcast 7 Tropical Ecology With Dr. Sarah Scriven