Conservation for a changing planet – report back from ICCB 2010

By Megan Evans

I recently arrived back from attending the 24th International Congress for Conservation Biology, which took place in Edmonton, Canada.  I was especially excited to take part in a symposium investigating Strategic Priorities for the Conservation of the World’s Mammalian Fauna, where I presented research that KerrieMoreno and I have been working on recently along with Hugh Possingham and several colleagues from Sapienza, the University of Rome.

In the spirit of the conference theme, here I’ll give a short overview of some of the presentations that I thought were especially relevant to “Conservation for a changing planet“. Of course, this list is not exhaustive (and biased to my interests) – but never fear, ICCB 2011 will be just over the ditch – so no excuses for not attending next year. Here are my highlights (in chronological order):

  • Amy Whitehead presented some solidly executed research which investigated cost-effective priorities for conserving the whio, a threatened duck in New Zealand. Following the logical sequence of first determining the threats, and then identifying a range of actions to mitigate those threats, Amy combined environmental and species distribution modelling techniques with field measurements of population trends to determine conservation priorities. A nice demonstration of the combination of spatial analyses and field research at a scale that will directly feed into conservation efforts for this species.
  • Mark Burgman gave us an insight into how to obtain better expert judgements, something that Marissa McBride and has been investigating as part of her PhD research. As part of identifying strategies for making robust and rapid decisions, Mark and colleagues questioned panels of experts on a “pop quiz” according to a modified Delphi methodology. Interestingly, they found no relationship between quiz performance and the status or reputation of the researcher – meaning that old and bespeckled scientists aren’t necessarily more knowledgeable than a younger expert! Their results also provided support for the “wisdom of crowds”, meaning that a better outcome was found by taking the average of  result from a group of experts recommendations,  rather than the single result from the “best” expert.
  • David Johns questioned how we can effectively stop the degradation of biodiversity in a society that has been hooked on growth for thousands of years.  If the conservation of biodiversity is to be achieved, he argues that the conservation movement should take some lessons on board from social movements of the past.
  • Here in the Wilson Lab we think a lot about what to do, where and when. Volker Radeloff is interested what circumstances can favours hot moments in conservation. It seems that both incoming and outgoing governments have a penchant for designating new protected areas! So how to predict the best times to strike for achieving conservation gains?
  • Corey Bradshaw extended upon some of his earlier research in determining the environmental impact of different countries, by entering into a world of hurt. He investigated the link between environmental impact and human health, and found that in short, “when you destroy your environment, you kill your people”.  Importantly, this trend was still apparent when developing countries were excluded – so total wealth is actually the most important variable driving this trend.
  • The final plenary presentation by David Schindler was a sobering reminder of the difficulties we face under climate change. The latest research has estimated carbon stocks in the boreal permafrost to be double that previously thought, and could be greater than terrestrial stocks in the world’s tropical and temperate forests combined.  Problems stemming from mountain pine beetle outbreaks and increased oil sands extraction present formidable challenges for conservation and sustainability as a whole in Canada.

The wide range of disciplines represented in presentations throughout the conference was a clear indication that conservation is not just about biology – and demonstrated the diversity of skills and perspectives that are needed in order to conserve biodiversity.

The main feeling I took away from the conference (as well as a workshop I attended beforehand) was that conservation is not effective unless people are engaged with the process – not only for on-ground projects at the local scale, but also for our society as a whole. We are in a situation where conservation professionals and others engaged in the environmental movement all understand the imperative to not trash the planet – but none of this matters if we can’t communicate this message effectively to others. This is certainly not a new insight, but still seems to be something that we struggle with.

Given that the theme for next year’s ICCB is “Engaging Society in Conservation”, there should be a renewed focus on developing innovative strategies for communicating the importance of conservation to the most important stakeholder – the public. Biodiversity will not be saved unless they demand it, and only then will our leaders truly listen.