The Future of Wildlife, According to a Conservation Veteran
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it isn’t all doom and gloom when it comes to wildlife.
By Taylor Mayol
Happy Wildlife Conservation Day! Today we get to gaze at cute photos of animals and reflect on how humans are destroying many of their kind. But it’s not all doom and gloom, says John Robinson, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s chief conservation officer (yes, that’s a real job title). A conservation veteran, Robinson helped turn what was then the New York Zoological Society, with a small field-biology arm, into a global conservation force over the past 26 years. OZY caught up with Robinson to learn about some of the bright and not-so-bright spots in the world of wildlife preservation in the past year, what keeps him up at night and what he’s gearing up for in 2017.
Our conversation about conservation has been edited for clarity.
What are some of the wins and losses for wildlife conservation in 2016?
John Robinson: The threat to elephants has really come to a head, and people have recognized how deadly serious it is. If you look across Africa, elephants continue to be heavily poached. There’s a lot of ivory coming out of Central Africa and some real bad hot spots in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique. But we’ve had significant turnaround in Kenya. As a country it has really stuck in its heels, and a lot of local communities and landowners have stepped up. Conversely, there’s been a real uptick in poaching of southern African rhinos because of organized operations from Mozambique.
On the plus side, there has been a recognition that the illegal wildlife trade is hugely important — as a conservation and a security issue. Countries recognize that the organized crime of wildlife trafficking is having a big negative impact and fueling insurgencies. You see Europe and the U.S. making significant investments, and the recent domestic ivory ban after the CITES meeting in South Africa is urging countries to close their domestic markets to stop the laundering of illegal ivory. All of that is building to what I hope will be the Chinese closing down their domestic ivory market.
A big loss has been Grauer’s gorillas in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The population has dropped by 70 percent, I think, in the last two to three years because people hunt them for bush meat.
On the upside, pandas are doing very well. The Chinese have done a good job at bringing them back from the edge of extinction. There’s also been an incredible interest in establishing marine protected areas, where fishing is managed more effectively. President Obama created the largest MPA in the world in Hawaii this August.
Are there any less “lovable” species people aren’t paying attention to?
Robinson: The African grey parrot has always been very big in the pet trade. To my shame I had one when I was a child. They’re big, intelligent parrots that live long lives. They were very, very common in Africa, but no one quite knew how many there were because they fly huge distances. You never knew if the African greys you saw in Cameroon were the same African greys you saw in Senegal. We’ve managed to get a much better sense, and at the CITES meeting, we got them uplifted to stop the international trade for now. They are most likely an endangered species.
Pangolin populations in the wild are really, really down. In 2016 there was a recognition that the pangolin trade into China was huge because people would seize illegal shipments of 20,000 pangolins, a species that was kind of common in a lot of tropical forests around the world. It’s a loss because they’re being hit hard, but a win because people are doing something to control the trade.
Who are some lesser-known wildlife heroes?
Robinson: I’ve just read Joel Berger’s latest book, Extreme Conservation. Joel has been working in the high altitudes and the high latitudes with musk oxen in Russia, in Wrangel Island, and in Alaska; with wild yak and saiga antelope and gazelles in Tibet. Tough work. He is sort of a conservation hero who is just about to break out. Another is Carl Safina, who does a lot of marine fieldwork, which he turns into these totally compelling conservation books. Iain Douglas-Hamilton has had sort of a comeback. He established his name early on as an elephant researcher, but over the last two to three years, his organization Save the Elephants is increasingly having a bigger impact.
What’s on your radar for 2017?
Robinson: Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to put a road or infrastructure through a protected area because there are not many people. One that is coming back is the road that cuts right through the Serengeti, a World Heritage Site and one of the great important areas of the world. There’s a similar situation in Nigeria, with a road that aims to connect the southern ports with the northern production areas. It will cut through the Cross River National Park, home to a large number of endemic species, including the Cross River gorilla, the gorilla subspecies with the lowest population. We’ve got to draw a line in the sand on that one. The other two big stories out there are the damming of the Mekong River and in the foothills of the Andes on the western side of the Amazon.
What keeps you up at night?
Robinson: In some sense it’s the global issues: climate change, ocean acidification, the loss of intact forests. They’re happening much faster than we thought. We’re already seeing collapsing of coral reefs, and the impact on access to fish will be dramatic and have a cascading impact. If we continue to think of it as interests of specific nations at the expense of global commons, then we’ll be in a total pickle.
How do you think about the arc of wildlife conservation?
Robinson: I got into the business of conservation because I thought we could make a difference. Through the course of my career I became a bit more pessimistic, thinking we could make a difference only in local places — for that species or in this forest. Recently, though, there are some global trends that give one a little bit of hope for the conservation of wild areas. Poverty is very dramatically falling. People are also moving into cities, and even though city life can be pretty grim, their standard of living is going up, and the ecological footprint of those living in cities is so much less than people living in rural areas. India, for example, has been able to hold onto its protected areas and the largest tiger populations, despite its human population. I won’t say I’m optimistic, but I’m increasingly optimistic that we may be able to turn this around.