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Partnerships are key to The Wildlife Conservation Society’s new conservation strategy

  • WCS has identified 15 of the world’s largest wilderness regions and laid out a new strategy for how to protect them from climate change and other human-induced environmental pressures.
  • The group hopes to reverse the population declines of six priority species across their entire range.
  • Forest conservation experts reacted positively to the new strategy, saying many of the priority regions are indeed in urgent need of additional protection.

The Wildlife Conservation Society has a long, proven track record of environmental stewardship. So when the New York City-based group recently announced an ambitious new global conservation strategy, Mongabay got in touch with WCS president and CEO Cristián Samper to get more details.

WCS has identified 15 of the world’s largest wilderness regions and laid out a strategy for how to protect them from climate change and other human-induced environmental pressures — and in the process, save half of the world’s biodiversity.

Conserving those 15 priority regions, ecologically intact wild places on land and at sea, is the crux of the group’s WCS: 2020 Strategic Plan. The group says that it hopes to reverse the population declines of six priority species across their entire range: elephants, apes, big cats, sharks & rays, whales & dolphins, and tortoises & freshwater turtles.

Dr. William Laurance, a Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University in Australia and a world-renowned tropical forest conservation expert, told Mongabay that many of the regions WCS has selected are obvious priorities, such as the Lower Mekong Basin in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam; the Southeast Asian Archipelago (including the forests, coastlines and reefs of Indonesia and Malaysia); MesoAmerica and the Western Caribbean; the northern Andes/Orinoco/Western Amazon; and Madagascar/western Indian Ocean.

Image via Wildlife Conservation Society.

Other regions seem less urgent to Laurance, such as the North American Rocky Mountains and Eastern North American forests. “Not that these latter areas are unimportant,” he said, “but in a sense we’re comparing gold to precious diamonds and rubies here, at least from a biodiversity perspective.”

Overall, Laurance said his general sense is that any effective conservation activities in the 15 priority areas is going to be useful, and the real question is whether WCS’s efforts can affect the “watershed” change needed to save half of the world’s biodiversity.

“At the end of the day, one has to come back to WCS’s record of long-term environmental leadership,” Laurance said. “Of the major international conservation groups, they’ve been among the most effective, in my opinion.”

But that’s not to say WCS will be engaging in this work on its own. “No one organization alone can achieve the scale needed to address the tremendous challenges facing wildlife,” WCS’s Cristián Samper told Mongabay, “so at the core of our strategy are strategic partnerships to leverage our resources and achieve greater impact.”

Mongabay spoke with Samper via email to find out how the group plans to achieve such a monumental task as saving 50 percent of the world’s species, who are WCS’s key partners that will be critical to the strategy’s success and how the group plans to be transparent about its progress.

Malay tiger. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Mongabay: You’ve set the goal to conserve the world’s largest wild places in 15 priority regions, which certainly sounds ambitious enough, but what exactly are the objectives of WCS: 2020 that are new, or more aggressive, or more broad in scope than WCS’s past work?

Cristián Samper: Our goal is to conserve the world’s largest wild places in 15 priority regions, representing the “last of the wild.” We estimate these areas are home to 50 percent of the world’s biodiversity, and to some 300 million people who are among the world’s poorest, most isolated from markets, and directly dependent on natural resources. This focus will also help us reverse the decline of six global priority species groups that are flagships for wild places and for critical issues facing wildlife globally. These species groups are elephants, apes, big cats, sharks & rays, whales & dolphins, and tortoises & freshwater turtles.

WCS: 2020 recognizes that we need to consolidate and focus our efforts in order to increase and scale up our impact. We have refined our mission and vision statements, as well as our goal and expected outcomes over the next five years. We can only aspire to this goal through partnerships and collaboration. No one organization alone can achieve the scale needed to address the tremendous challenges facing wildlife; so at the core of our strategy are strategic partnerships to leverage our resources and achieve greater impact.

One example is the partnership with other zoos and aquariums across the USA to expand our reach and to build a wildlife conservation movement. The 228 zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) host more than 180 million visitors each year. We will partner and provide them with conservation content for the exhibitions and education programs. We will also invite them to partner in campaigns like 96 elephants and field programs. More than 125 AZA institutions have signed up to the 96 Elephants campaign, generating hundreds of thousands of actions and supporting the ban of ivory sales in states like New York and California. With our new strategy, we will provide people an opportunity to learn, take action and join a movement for wildlife.

Why did you decide to focus on 15 priority regions in WCS: 2020, and how did you choose which regions to include? What types of conservation activities will WCS specifically be engaging in with regard to these priority regions?

These 15 regions contain some of the largest, most ecologically intact ecosystems in the world, and occur in biologically diverse areas. Within these regions, we have identified priority landscapes and seascapes, and we use science, conservation action and education to help conserve them.

In the nearly 60 countries where we work, we seek to conserve wildlife and wild places, biodiversity and ecosystem services. We do so with governments, indigenous peoples and local communities. On the land, we help establish and manage parks and protected areas, promote the sustainable use of forests and rangelands, and conduct research and public outreach on the most effective ways to protect, restore and sustainably use terrestrial ecosystems. In the sea, we promote marine protected areas and are committed to improving the catch and sustainability of small scale fisheries.

The heart of our expertise and experience globally is working with partners on the ground in large, wild terrestrial and aquatic systems to conserve the full complement of native wildlife species and the vital ecological roles they play in maintaining healthy, productive and resilient ecosystems.

How did you settle on the priority groups of species? Do efforts to conserve these species have the biggest ripple effect, so to speak?

Our work with turtles and tortoises recognizes that many of these species are critically endangered, and through programs in our zoos and aquarium, and sanctuaries around the world, we can prevent their extinction. Our work with the other species groups in the wild does recognize that these large bodied, wide-ranging species are iconic representations of nature, and a focus on their conservation can ripple through and promote the conservation of wild areas and other species. By conserving them we are conserving thousands of species in these places.

How do WCS’s five wildlife parks, specifically your work with the Bronx Zoo and New York Aquarium, fit into the strategy? And can you give us some examples of the endangered species you’re maintaining viable populations of?

Our five wildlife parks in New York City (the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, Queens Zoo and New York) are integral to our conservation mission. They are gateways to conservation, annually connecting more than four million guests with wildlife and nature. For many, their visits represent the only opportunity they will have to experience wildlife firsthand, and our animals and their stories inspire people to care about conserving wildlife.

Many of our animals and exhibits link directly to our efforts in the field. This enables us to educate visitors not only about our animals and the threats they face in nature, but also about our conservation endeavors and successes. The scientific studies we conduct in our zoos and aquariums also benefit animals in nature. Whether it is breeding and reintroducing the one time extinct-in-the-wild Kihansi spray toad back to nature in Tanzania; using knowledge of zoo tigers to design and create Amur tiger holding facilities in the Russian Far East to facilitate the return of injured or orphaned tigers to the wild; or documenting lesser adjutant stork developmental milestones that enable more accurate censuring of wild storks, many of our zoo projects are designed to positively impact not only our animals but their wild relatives.

Some representative endangered species we have in our collection that are managed as Green SSPs (the AZA’s most sustainable programs) are: western lowland gorilla, Amur tiger, Puerto Rican crested toad, radiated tortoise, and African penguin.

Another important part of WCS: 2020 includes the renovation and transformation of the New York Aquarium, which was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. We are in the process of building a new aquarium which will emerge as a center for marine conservation for the East Coast.

You emphasize that collaboration will be key to achieving your goal. Who are some of the key partners you seek to work with and/or are already working with?

I already mentioned our partnership with other zoos and aquariums across the U.S., and also a few in Europe and Asia. We have also entered into a partnership with the National Geographic Society to expand our reach and engage people in conservation, with the potential to reach more than 500 million people globally.

In the countries where we work, we partner with governments, local community organizations and other conservation and development organizations. Our goal is to help build capacity to ensure long-term conservation in our priority landscapes and seascapes.

One more example is our Science for Nature and People (SNAP) initiative, a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the National Center for Ecological Synthesis and Analysis at the University of California. We have 20 working groups which are reviewing the state of knowledge and best conservation actions for issues like coastal defenses and fisheries.

What do you see as the biggest barriers to achieving your goal that are currently in place, and how will you overcome them?

The biggest barrier to achieving any ambitious goal is keeping and instilling in others a sense of optimism, and to engage them in conservation action. We cannot fail in efforts to convince people that the future can be different than the current gloom and doom narrative; we can reverse the decline of biodiversity. We are at a critical period where there is unprecedented pressure on wildlife and wild places. We are living through the most important period for conservation. The pressures on nature are building as poverty declines and the middle class grows – prompting more consumerism, which leads to an unprecedented degradation of nature. You can see why it might be hard to spark optimism. But it is important to realize that as more people emerge out of poverty and more move into the cities, we feel there will be more interest and investment in conserving nature. That’s just the starting point for our optimism.

How do you plan to track your progress in a way that accurately measures whether or not you’ve achieved your goal? And how do you plan to be transparent about that progress?

We are a science-driven organization. That science and research provides metrics for our successes and failures. We have worked with other conservation organizations to develop a system of measures for conservation and plan to deploy them across our landscapes. We will measure progress and report on successes and failures. We are holding ourselves accountable to these outcomes and welcome others to do the same.