Giving conservationists and nature lovers (some) reason to hope for the future

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ImageIt’s high time I write something which doesn’t seem to be the work of a manic-depressive. Many of my blogs have majored on the negatives, but I honestly wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t have within me a deep-rooted hope for the future. As I have remarked before, conservationists are a wonderful band, but put a group of ebullient conservation friends together, and within half an hour the conversation has quieted down, turned grumpy, and you need to watch out in case any of them looks as though they are contemplating jumping from the office balcony or a handy cliff. We don’t celebrate the successes, or even the potential ones, enough. It’s a cliché to say that the war is being lost while battles are being won, but we should at least encourage each other with battle victory parties.

I’ve just left Beijing after attending the Annual International Congress of the Society for Conservation Biology. Despite being the 23rd such Congress, it was the first time it had been held in Asia, so as you might expect, there were many participants from China and elsewhere in Asia.

My first speaking duty was on a panel at the end of a session convened by Shan Shui on ‘Conservation in China’. The moderator asked the panelists to briefly critique the papers we had heard, and put them into an international context. And she told us that she expected us to develop new hope for conservation in China. My hope did indeed increase – not just because of that session’s papers but to a large extent because of the scores of mainly young Chinese conservationists who were in that room, and all those who presented in the many parallel sessions.

Being surrounded by lots of optimistic, ambitious, and wholly dedicated young people from a large range of countries can’t but cut through the sticky layers of cynicism and despair that seem to build up over time. There were also many solid papers by older Chinese conservationists in workshops and seminars (notably, for me, the plenary address by Professor Wei Fu-wen (doc) on a masterful summary of why we should be hopeful for the future of Giant Pandas). The number of Chinese conservationists is not remarkable in itself – it’s a huge country – but because 17 years ago when I first worked in China, you could count Chinese conservationists on the fingers of one hand (and even have fingers left over).

For those who live and work in China, it is clear that once it is decided at the top levels that something will happen, it will happen – be it a massive dam, a logging ban, an outstanding Olympics, or improvements in Beijing air pollution.

One such high-level decision seems to have been that the South China subspecies of tiger, (functionally) extinct in the wild, will once again roam (fairly) free in at least some of its former haunts. I blogged on tigers just over a year ago which resulted in a torrent of comments from readers. During the Annual International Congress, Philip Nyhus presented a paper on the conservation of the South China tiger on behalf of a number of co-authors. He reported that a number of sites in Hunan and Jiangxi have been identified as potential sites for reintroduction, perhaps using the animals being ‘rewilded’ in South Africa by Save China’s Tigers. None of the sites is without its major problems – not least the paucity of prey and large numbers of people in and around the nature reserves – but there is something inexorable about the bold plans. The management of one or a few areas that would allow some South China Tigers to sustain themselves would have all sorts of immediate and induced benefits for Chinese biodiversity, in a part of China which does not have that much to boast about biologically.

ImageMy final pleasurable duty at the Congress was to help launch the Directory of Important Bird Areas for Mainland China. Half of those in the large room were from Conservation Leadership Program, a subject for hope on its own. But for me the hope from this publication derives from the scores of local birdwatchers who submitted and checked information about the 512 identified sites. Some of these people are professional biologists, but many are not; some are the ‘local guardians’ of the sites, a full quarter of which do not enjoy any sort of formal protection.

The meteoric growth in the numbers of Chinese birdwatchers is at least partly due to the translation of China’s first field guide to birds which the World Bank supported nearly 10 years ago. Go out to a good birding spot near Beijing on a weekend and you will see people carrying spotting scopes, binoculars, and this well-thumbed book nestled into their arm. These people are the middle-class drivers of environmental movements, just as has happened in many other countries.

Of course, together with the hope for the future come critical thoughts: that many of the young and rising conservationists aren’t cutting their teeth on good solid fieldwork; not getting their knees dirty, or face time with their animals or plants in the wild, or earning their stripes through hardship the way many of us did when we were their age. Many seem to be tending towards doing desk reviews of others’ syntheses of executive summaries.

I must stop; I’m becoming a grumpy old man again.


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