Below is a response to a paper published in Science March 2013 about legalizing the trade in Rhino horn.

Original paper can be found here: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6123/1038.summary

Response to Biggs et al (2013) Science 339

Biggs et al put forth the case the now is the time to legalise the trade in rhino horn, as the best option we have left. Whilst the overall argument of proponents of this idea is convincing and provocative, Biggs argument was much reduced, and featured several key omissions. An article in a journal such as this is sure to reach a huge audience, but the opportunity to present a compelling argument for legalisation of a trade that is inherently abhorrent to many people was somewhat missed.

When mentioning current destinations for horn, the authors mentioned Yemeni daggers and traditional Chinese medicine, and yet failed to mention Vietnam. Demand for horn in Yemen is actually decreasing whilst that in Vietnam appears to be driving the ever increasing poaching levels. It is a crucial error to miss out Vietnam, where a politician is said to have started the now widespread idea that rhino horn can cure cancer. The “cure” is now also being marketed and extended to maladies such as hangovers. Failure to mention this growing demand centre is a worrying sign. It is also of great importance when it comes to predicting the implications of legalising the trade. A lack of case studies prevent anyone from truly knowing what will happen if the trade is legalised, and yet this doesn’t stop the authors making spurious claims. The potential of a huge increase in demand is answered by the authors asserting that with stockpiles and harvesting a growing natural population future demand can be met. Whilst current stockpiles are estimated to be sufficient for ~20 years of current demand, we have no knowledge of how demand will change, and claims that natural harvesting can meet an unknown demand are inherently dubious. One key point that the authors neglected is the potential that legalising the trade could give legitimacy to Vietnamese claims that rhino horn is a broad cure for common illness. This could potentially hugely increase demand, beyond that sustained by natural harvesting. The authors back up their idea that demand may not increase by refuting claims that one off sales of elephant ivory to China in 2008 increased demand and/or poaching. Whilst concrete empirical evidence is indeed lacking, it is foolish to think that demand and poaching of elephants has decreased. Another issue with this, is that even if poaching wasn’t to increase, and we don’t know if that is true, demand is the key variable of interest.

Criminal syndicates who transport horn from Africa to Asia often do so under the protection of fraudulent CITES paperwork. One could easily argue that a complete legalisation of the trade will make the illegal trader easier, and not halt it. This may result in illegal trade still finding its way into the market. There is also the current international issue that trade and use of rhino horn is illegal in all destination countries, so any decision of African countries to legalise trade has to occur concurrently with Asian legalisation, something they may be reluctant to agree to. At this point, criminal syndicates in Asia would still benefit from a legal trade.

Biggs et al briefly mention a ‘safeguard’ against legalisation going badly wrong, namely halting the legal trade. A counter argument to this is that the damage done in this scenario would be huge. The potential Asian market for horn is 2 billion people, and the more people exposed to horn, the more who are likely to demand it. For this reason it can be argued that legal trade is largely irreversible without huge negative effects, and therefore needs to be thoroughly and meticulously planned, not rushed into.

I am inclined to agree that, in time, a legal trade is going to be the only card left to play. Killing poachers isn’t an effective conservation action, as the incentives present a seemingly limitless supply of potential poachers. Whilst acknowledging that time isn’t something available in abundance to Rhino, the framework for a legal trade simply isn’t yet in place. Under the values of the precautionary principle we need evidence that legalisation won’t cause an explosion in demand. Populations of Black Rhino are still increasing, and until we have more information on the impacts of a legal trade, and plans of how precisely it will work, the focus is still rightly on preventing poaching, and, of utmost importance, education and awareness in Asia.

© Brent Stirton / Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012

© Brent Stirton / Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012

FIFA World Cup – Caps and Goals: why some players get more than others

 Football culminates in the FIFA World Cup, the premier showcase of global talent. We investigated factors influencing the number of international caps and goal efficiency of players selected for the 2014 World Cup, focussing on differences between continents. We found that goal efficiency is affected by whether players play in their home country, and age but these relationships differ markedly between continents. We also found that international caps are affected by continent, and the interaction between age and whether players play in their home country. We recommend further analysis be conducted on larger longitudinal data to determine if these relationships hold for the careers of individual players.


With the FIFA World Cup now in full swing fans all over the world are debating who should start for their country, and betting on who will be top goalscorer. Here, we have taken a more analytical approach, using data on all thirty-two national squads to determine what really impacts number of caps and goals of international players, and whether these relationships differ between players from different continents. In the U.S sport as a whole has embraced statistics as a way of enriching the discussions of fans and boosting the success of clubs. European clubs are beginning to catch up, but the statistical revolution here has yet to hit full stride. Delving into data such as this could provide insight into a number of areas. An example comes from suspected age fraud in African players, with nations such as Nigeria unable to match their numerous successes at under-17 level in the senior game. Recent improvements in ageing testing at the under-17 world cup led to a large withdrawal of Nigerian players in 2009, and retrospective testing suggests as many as 35% of players were overage in the three previous tournaments. Rumours have surfaced that professional African players may be as many as ten years older than their official age. Using a large database it may be possible to use the relationship between age and goals for players of a known age to compare to the same relationship for players suspected to be older than they claim to determine their actual age. In recent years some of the traditional dogma of football has begun to be challenged, with work such as the book Soccernomics using data to test numerous assertions, such as racial discrimination in the U.K in the 80’s, and the true age at which players peak. The author’s analysis does an excellent job of highlighting the immense value of information such as this to clubs. Regarding age of peak performance, if a club knows which factors influence this, they can make tailored predictions of when each players will reach his peak, and possibly sell players for large fees when they start their statistical decline, but before other teams notice this decline. The two variables we have chosen to focus on is number of caps and number of goals, with a separate measure created for goals per cap to account for some player scoring lots of goals purely because they have played lots of games. Age is of course a factor we would expect to have a considerable impact on both number of caps and number of goals, but we will also be investigating how this relationship changes depending on which continent a player is from, his height, and whether he plays in his home country. With the top European leagues heavily overrepresented in the World Cup it is inevitable that many countries will rely on players that don’t play their club football in their home country. Debate continues in many countries on the effect this may have, and whether in some countries these players are disadvantaged due to playing football in possibly a different style to other members of the team. This factor may also interact with factors such as age in determining the number of caps a player gets. National coaches may be under pressure to pick young players who have performed well in their domestic league, rather than ageing players playing abroad. Our chief aim here is to assess whether any of these effects exist, and whether the relationships can be quantified to allow predictions to be made about the future caps and goals of players based on factors such as age, height and where they play their club football.

Methods We have used the database of all 736 players originally selected for the 23 player world cup squad of one of the 32 competing nations.

Statistical Analysis

Descriptive Statistics To begin we have graphed summary statistics on continental differences between key factors of the database, which has revealed some interesting differences.

What factors affect goal efficiency of players? To investigate the factors affecting goal efficiency we decide to look only at players listed as forwards, as a substantial number of players have scored very few international goals due to age or position, skewing the data. We created a general linear model (GLM) with goals per game (natural log transformed to normalise) as our response variable and explanatory variables age, continent, whether a player plays in his home country, and height.

What factors affect the number of caps a player gets? To investigate factors affecting the number of caps a player gets we constructed a quasipoisson GLM, using all players with at least 1 international cap. We fitted number of caps as the response variable alongside explanatory variables age, continent, height and whether a player plays in his home country.

Results Descriptive Statistics One interesting factor we investigated is height. At a national level there was considerable variation, with Ghana’s squad standing a diminutive 173.6cm tall on average, compared to the average German squad member at 185.2cm tall. Height is a trait with considerable global variation, impacted by numerous factors. We compared average height of a nation’s squad with average height of an adult male from that nation and found some striking differences.


Figure 1.0 – Height difference between average member of the 2014 World Cup squad of a nation and average adult male from that nation. Data shown for the five smallest and five largest differences.


African and Australian squads picked the youngest sides for the tournament (Figure 2.0) with Ghana, Nigeria and Australia all picking teams with an average age of under 26. Squads from the Americas were much older on average, with Argentina boasting the highest average age of 28.5 years. There was substantial goal efficiency variation within continents, translating to small differences in averages between the continents, with South America achieving the highest goal efficiency (Figure 3.0) alongside highest average age (Figure 2.0). Brazil, Mexico and Germany have the highest goal efficiency of all nations, with Greece, Costa Rica and Italy having the smallest.


There was much more variation in number of caps between continents, although on the whole continents with older players on average also unsurprisingly had players with more international experience on average. It is important to note at this stage that the continent of Australia is only represented by the nation of Australia, whereas there are 13 countries representing Europe so there are some issues in comparing these continents. The most experienced nations are Spain, Uruguay, Honduras and Germany all with an average of over 40 caps for each player. At the other end of the spectrum is Algeria, Australia and France with under 25 caps on average for each player.


Average number of goals was highly variable, and as a result it is difficult to suggest substantial differences between continents. At a national level, Germany and Spain we big leaders in average goals, with the average player from that nation having over 9 goals. Algeria, Colombia and Nigeria brought the squads with the fewest average goals.

What factors affect goal efficiency of players? Goal efficiency was significantly influenced by an interaction between home continent and player age (F5,140=2.4199, p=0.03871) and an interaction between continent and whether they played for their home country (F4,140=3.6123, p=0.007796)


What factors affect the number of caps a player gets? Number of caps was found to be significantly influenced by continent (Quasipoisson GLM, F1,627= 4.3008, p=0.0007445) and an interaction between player age and whether they played for their home country or not (F1,627 =10.579, p=0.001205). There was a trend for increasing number of caps with increasing height, but this relationship was not significant (F1,626 =3.3297,p=0.06852). fig7

Does it matter if you play in your home country? In terms of number of international caps we found that for players playing their home country, number of caps increases slightly with age, but for players not playing in their home country number of caps massively increases with age. Again it is important to note that this data isn’t following the ageing of individual players, rather it is a snapshot in time of players of different ages. Nonetheless, it still shows that playing away from your home country can do wonders for your international career, and unsurprising trend that is probably driven by non-European nations due to the likes of Spain, England and Germany having players from their home country playing in the best leagues in the world. In this model number of caps was also significantly influenced by continent, unsurprising given that we know some continents brought more experienced teams than others (Figure 4). More interestingly there was a trend that was not quite significant of number of caps increasing with increasing height. More work on this is needed to confirm this relationship, particularly by controlling for position as goalkeepers and defenders may be taller and have longer international lifespan for reasons other than their height. Figure 1 shows the five lowest and five greatest differences in height between the nation and its football stars. Interestingly the Netherlands is the only country where footballers were smaller on average than males from that nation, although as arguably the tallest nation in the world that is somewhat unsurprising. At the other end of the spectrum both Ecuador and Nigeria named squads where players were on average over 15cm taller than the average adult male. With the heritability of human height at around 0.6-0.8 perhaps genetic factors are more important in becoming an international footballer in countries such as Nigerian, Ecuador and Iran compared to nations such as Spain, Ghana and Germany, where it takes much more that height to get spotted.

Do South America and Asian players get less efficient with age? Figure 6.0 shows that older players from South America and Asia show a decreased efficiency in terms of goals per game. It is important to first note that this is not data following the ageing of individual players, rather it is a cross section of efficiency of players in the squad as a whole. Furthermore this analysis was performed using only strikers, so cannot be explained by any effect of these continents tending to pick younger strikers and older defenders. Several possibilities remain. Firstly, young strikers may only be considered for selection if they have proved themselves efficient, whereas older players may still make the squad based on previous form, experience and leadership. Secondly players from South America and Asia may indeed peak at a young age. This could be easily tested using data from previous international or domestic competitions and investigating the change in performance of individual players with age. Perhaps the style of football utilized by South American teams favours younger players, or perhaps Africa has been unfairly scrutinized when investigating age fraud in young players. Further analysis is definitely warranted here.

Does it matter if you play in your home country? For goal efficiency it may depend on continent. We found a significant interaction between continent and home country affecting goal efficiency. In Europe and Asia playing in your home country led to decreased goals per game, whereas in the other continents it led to increased goals per game. This is in contrast to the general view that players in many continents benefit from playing abroad in the best European leagues, as they may actually have higher goal efficiency if they play in their home country. This could potentially be influenced by small sample sizes of some players, and a larger database is needed to see if this effect is real, and players perform better at international level if they play in their home country. In terms of number of international caps we found that for players playing their home country, number of caps increases slightly with age, but for players not playing in their home country number of caps massively increases with age. Again it is important to note that this data isn’t following the ageing of individual players, rather it is a snapshot in time of players of different ages. Nonetheless, it still shows that playing away from your home country can do wonders for your international career, and unsurprising trend that is probably driven by non-European nations due to the likes of Spain, England and Germany having players from their home country playing in the best leagues in the world. In this model number of caps was also significantly influenced by continent, unsurprising given that we know some continents brought more experienced teams than others (Figure 4). More interestingly there was a trend that was not quite significant of number of caps increasing with increasing height. More work on this is needed to confirm this relationship, particularly by controlling for position as goalkeepers and defenders may be taller and have longer international lifespan for reasons other than their height. In this report we have highlighted several intriguing statistical relationships, particularly related to how the factors affecting goal efficiency and number of international caps vary depending on which continent the players are from. These conclusions are based on a relatively small sample of the 736 players selected for the world cup, unevenly split up into continents. In the information age much larger datasets exist, on a much deeper array of football stats. This relatively untapped data source could enhance comparison of player ability and improve efficiency in the transfer market. 

Why the Devon beavers need to be caught

England is once again home to wild beavers, with a group of at least three living along the River Otter in Devon[1], the first wild beavers in England since the 12th century, when they became nationally extinct due to hunting for their meat and pelts[2]. This has been widely celebrated, with the ability of beavers to maintain wetland and coppice, opening up habitat for a variety of other species, alongside their potential to improve water quality and flood defence cited as reasons to support the presence of wild beavers.

Following this, DEFRA announced that the beavers are to be ‘caught and rehomed’, whichhas, unsurprisingly, been met with seemingly universal public condemnation by those interested in wildlife and ecology, with influential writers adding to the growing calls for these beavers to be left alone and studied[3]. Unlike the polarising nature of the debate on control of badgers, this seems to be a wildlife issue that everyone agrees on. Indeed the badger situation has undoubtedly had an impact on people’s views, with unsubstantiated fears rising that DEFRA intend to cull the animals[4]. This distrust of DEFRA on wildlife issues has been fuelled by the badger debate, and has led to claims that the motivation for removing the beavers if pressure from the Angling lobby[5], who are worried about the effects of beaver presence on the ability of commercially important fish species moving through streams to reach their spawning grounds. Whilst the Angling Trust are indeed against the reintroduction of beavers[6], and the current conservative government are rightly questioned over their motivation for many environmental policies, in this case the primary reason for beaver removal is being mostly ignored or dismissed.

DEFRA are right to move to remove these beavers from the wild due to their risk of carrying the tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis, which causes alveolar echinococcosis, a potentially lethal disease, in humans[7]. This pathogen has a lifecycle usually involving foxes and other carnivores, alongside small mammals, with domestic dogs also able to be infected and carries significant economic and health costs through livestock loss and costs of treatment[8]. The UK is currently free of this pathogen, with steps being taken to ensure this remains the case.

Beavers can carry the pathogen, but this depends on their location. In Scandinavia, the pathogen isn’t present in beavers, but in other areas such as Bavaria, the pathogen is endemic, although at levels of 2.5-5%[9]. In Scotland, where successful beaver reintroductions have taken place at Knapdale, beavers were sourced from Scandinavia to ensure a negligible likelihood of introducing the pathogen to the UK[10]. Reintroductions were also carefully planned for many years and every attempt made to assess the impact of beavers on the local area (as is being done by the Devon Wildlife Trust[11]). Reintroductions and rewilding are excellent methods of species conservation, that have met with great success, but they also come with fundamental risks that must be managed, with pathogen transmission one of the major risks[12]. The issue here is not that beaver reintroduction is a bad idea per se, but that reintroductions must be done properly, with careful consideration made of the impacts. Inadvertent introduction of a novel pathogen to our wildlife could have negative consequences many orders of magnitude higher than the benefits of beavers to a local area. The few who have acknowledged the risk of pathogen transmission have been quick to dismiss the risk, with even notable publications such as The Ecologist referring to the ‘fictitious danger’ of Echinococcus[13]. A recent risk assessment by DEFRA identified the risk of a beaver imported from Bavaria carrying the pathogen as low, and the risk of a beaver from Scandinavia carrying the pathogen as negligible[14].

It is important to note that no one is certain of the source of these beavers. They could have originally come from Bavaria, with the pathogen, and be in a situation to spread it to other wildlife. Although on balance this is not likely, it is a lot more likely than the risk from proper planned reintroductions of Scandinavian sourced beavers. Live beavers cannot be reliably tested for the pathogen, although recent progress is being made on this front[15]. Whilst the source of the River Otter beavers is unknown, the facts that i) beavers imported from Bavaria (where Echinococcus is present) are captive in Devon[16] and ii) a captive beaver in Devon has been found to carry Echinococcus[9]should be more than enough to confirm that there is a risk of pathogen spread. Therefore it makes complete sense to capture these animals and rehome them, whilst using the massive public interest in this story to spearhead discussions and debate into the proper reintroduction of beavers into England. It is also important to remember that these animals originated from captivity somewhere, so are not being harshly removed from their wild existence. Simply observing them from a distance is not a valid option given the disease risk, regardless of the uncertain size of that risk. The beavers should be rehomed in captivity, whilst we await the results from Devon Wildlife’s Trust captive beaver project which are due in 2016. Depending on these conclusions work can then begin on a well-planned reintroduction programme. It would be an immense pleasure to see wild beavers in Britain, but this should be done properly to prevent the spread of a damaging disease.


  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-26365127
  2. http://www.wildwoodtrust.org/files/beaver-reintroduction-info.pdf
  3. https://twitter.com/TonyJuniper/status/484032531285958656
  4. http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/after-the-badger-cull-is-defra-planning-to-kill-devons-beavers-9405767.html
  5. http://www.exeterexpressandecho.co.uk/Wild-East-Devon-beavers-8216-recaptured-8217/story-21309341-detail/story.html
  6. http://www.anglingtrust.net/news.asp?section=29&itemid=2189
  7. http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/echinococcosis/
  8. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs377/en/
  9. A,M. Barlow (2011) Echinococcus multilocularis in an imported captive European beaver (Castor fiber) in Great Britain. Veterinary Record (2011) 169, 13; 339
  10. http://www.scottishbeavers.org.uk/beaver-facts/beaver-trial-faqs/where-are-the-beavers-coming-from-2010-08-25/
  11. http://www.devonwildlifetrust.org/devon-beaver-project/
  12. Cunningham, A. A. (1996) Disease Risks of Wildlife Translocations. Conservation Biology, 10: 349–353.
  13. http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2460535/let_englands_wild_beavers_be.html
  14. http://www.defra.gov.uk/animal-diseases/files/qra-non-native-species-echinoccocus-120627.pdf
  15. B. Gottstein, C.F. Frey, R. Campbell-Palmer, R. Pizzi, A. Barlow, B. Hentrich, A. Posautz, M.-P. Ryser-Degiorgis (In Press) Immunoblotting for the serodiagnosis of alveolar echinococcosis in alive and dead Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber), Veterinary Parasitology, Available online 18 June 2014
  16. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/5db19ec8-8369-11e1-9f9a-00144feab49a.html#axzz36Psq6Bu5

Obesity; are we still looking for answers in the wrong places?

In recent months there has been a paradigm shift in public health reporting, with fat breathing a sigh of relief as sugar faces a rapid rise to public enemy number 1. However, as campaigners take aim at fizzy drinks and fruit juice are we still focussing on the wrong macronutrient?

The global obesity epidemic is growing, with 34% of adults now classified as overweight or obese globally.

Tragically even our beloved pets haven’t escaped the obesity, with vets classing 45% of pets as obese. Despite some blaming pet food manufacturers, it is clear that the choice we make, for ourselves and our pets, are causing massive health problems.

Similar to many other species, when given a choice of diets humans prioritize protein, and are willing to overeat carbohydrates and fat to reach this target. This is likely because the costs of not eating enough protein are large in terms of growth and reproduction compared to the costs of eating too much of other macronutrients. There is now considerable evidence suggesting that human prioritize protein towards a target intake. Ancestrally this hasn’t been a problem, but with modern diets the situation changes. With the advent of modern agriculture carbohydrate and fat became much cheaper as a way of bulking out food, resulting in a fall in the percentage of diet that comes from protein from 14% in 1961 to 12.5% in 2010. This results in the need to eat more carbohydrates and fat to reach the protein target, which can lead to obesity. There is evidence that it is protein intake that is the driver of total energy intake.

It is important to note that this isn’t about letting fat and carbohydrates off the hook, it’s about considering obesity in terms of a balance of fat, carbohydrates and proteins. It is also important that a dietary shift aligned to this theory doesn’t require a large increase in protein production, which is limited in many places, rather it requires choices based on the balance of nutrients.

Many of the recent recommendations of dietary change are likely to have positive effects. The warnings of the dangers of low fat options, which often simply swap fat with sugar, are welcome, as are aims to reduce the proportion of daily intake that comes from sugar. It is the portraying as fat or sugar as the key villain against obesity that sends the wrong message and can lead to ineffective interventions.

With the massive choice available in a modern diet it seems maladaptive that humans aren’t able to choose a diet that enables the protein appetite to be satisfied without the need to overeat fat and carbs. The answer here may lie with sugar, with humans developing a sweet tooth which may have been adaptive when sugar was a rare component of diet, but is now causing massive problems.

Appetite is a powerful curse, and simple interventions involving eating less are less likely to succeed if they are up against it. Fulfilling this protein appetite without overeating is an immense challenge against the willpower of humanity, given the breadth of dietary options available, but knowledge of how this system works can alleviate the obesity epidemic. Obesity and overweightness costs the NHS alone over £4 billion annually, and full use should be made of science that can provide practical and effective solutions.

A legitimate response to this hypothesis is the fact that a lot of people get obese eating high protein foods, such as burgers and fried chicken. This is where the importance of a balance of macronutrients becomes important.

As the cost and prevalence of obesity continues to grow, we cannot continue to ignore the importance of protein targets in the battle against obesity. The science examining this issue is hidden from public view and poorly reported, with even keynote reports by global organisations failing to recognise the potential importance of these findings. As the WHO responds to recent developments by changing their guidelines on sugar intake, battled by the powerful sugar lobby, it is important that protein is brought to the fore, so the root causes of obesity can be tackled. A switch in focus to reaching target protein intake without massively overeating carbohydrate and fat could prove more fruitful in the ongoing war against obesity.

Next time you are browsing the supermarket for a healthy snack, look at the ratio of protein to carbohydrate as well as the fat and sugar content.




Sugar is being massively blamed http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jan/09/obesity-campaign-cut-sugar-processed-foods

Nearly half of pets are now obese in UK http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/pets/10747181/Nearly-half-of-dogs-are-now-obese-say-vets.html

Pet obesity report http://www.pfma.org.uk/_assets/docs/PFMA_WhitePaper_2014.pdf

UK obesity: 24% men 26% women http://www.nhs.uk/news/2013/02February/Pages/Latest-obesity-stats-for-England-are-alarming-reading.aspx

Biggest increased occurring in developing world http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25576400

Future diets report http://www.odi.org.uk/future-diets

Follows the prevailing message in talking about the increase in sugar content, but not mention of protein http://visual.ly/future-diets-sugar-consumption-rising