Gerald Durrell in Carl Jones' ICCB plenary talk - and a skeleton of myself...

Looking back on ICCB – four days turned upside down

ICCB was fascinating, even for a dodo not writing a Ph.D. in conservation biology right now, so many dedicated conservationists, yet so few discussions on what might actually matter…

Conservation works, well, sometimes. My dodo’s ICCB reflection actually starts at its very end, with Carl Jones of the Durrell Wildlife Foundation showing a picture of a skeleton of myself with his foundation founder, Gerald Durrell standing next to it, seemingly deeply in thoughts about how my fate could be prevented for other species to join in. Carl Jones showed that obviously the foundation does a reasonably good job on this on my former island Mauritius, saving the Mauritius kestrel, the pink pidgeon, and the echo parakeet and many more, but also making clear that even with having some reasonable numbers, these species will need human support and care for — decades. Their habitat is so badly altered that they will not make it without additional food, shelter from invasives and other supportive activities, which may even include introducing supplements for those species that are gone forever, e.g. the according giant tortoises… I somehow expected that Carl Jones might even talk about a supplement for myself, but he didn’t. Maybe the story of the calvaria tree is already too much overstretched. [and by the way, hey: can you imagine ANYTHING that comes close to a dodo?! Of course not…. ;-)].

In the end, this talk was the classic “dedication saves species”, sometimes with a huge amount of good scientific knowledge as a basis, sometimes just with action, educated guesses and good luck, and of course with being rooted well in the local human environment. The conservation classic.

Knowledge to non-action. Then, looking back at the hundreds of posters and hundreds of talks in dozens of sessions before this final session, I got very mixed feelings about these conservation biologists and their relatives. Sometimes I wondered, whether at all some of the speakers and session organisers had even looked beyond their own, small specialised section of conservation science – into the other sessions and their approaches and even more about the practices and failures of human-nature interactions in general happening all around. E.g., there was a huge number of talks addressing the picture of human-wildlife conflicts – many analysed the problems around them (more or less well), much fewer provided (potential) solutions, and often the solutions might be found in parallel sessions, e,g. with those talks (fortunately in increasing number compared to earlier conferences) addressing the social human dimension of unsuccessful conservation and nature destruction.

My dear humans: with your wit and greed and huge number, you have made this planet a very complicated, stressed placed. Before you came up, we only had this thing your dear Mr. Darwin called evolution to make our life stressful, the human factor messed this all up, so it is a major factor for keeping species alive today – the thing, again, you call conservation.

A question unanswered more than before. And here we are with the question that so deeply divides these very dedicated and positive conservationist – the Why of their work – WHY CONSERVATION? For the sake of species, for the sake of humans and their bad feelings on their impact on nature, or for the sake of their very own interests of survival and/or greed? A point that was fascinatingly rare discussed among all these talks. In fact each talk should have started with a short statement by the presenter on her or his take on this matter. Would have made quite some talks more understandable – or easier to leave after this first statement.

A lion that stirred up, and great campaigns… The session where these issues of the underlying values of conservation maybe came out best was the one not on the programme: the ad-hoc “plenary session” where some few interested participants gathered as small group in the huge plenary hall (somehow very fitting…) at noon on Wednesday to discuss the murder of Cecil the Lion, analysing this strange outcry in the human social media sphere on it (we as extinct and murdered animals just welcomed him as another inhabitant of extinction heaven). The discussion culminated in the strong believes and values behind being against these kind of actions, but maybe for hunting for the sake of conservation, intertwined in the human relationships towards nature. How does conservation relate to hunting (well, we would like not to need it, but we are not able to avoid it hardly anywhere…) and to animal welfare.

Sweet cuddly lions with a name getting killed is unacceptable, when animal welfare emotions come into play, conservation rationale is second choice… of course this can also be used positively – see the great campaigns of Asher Jay on rhinos and elephants, which she introduced in an inspiring session on how to look at conservation differently. But not to forget (I hate that one…) – hunting also seems to be a positive emotion for some of your fellow humans. They are junkies to it, like many of you for alcohol… someone nicely put it during the session: forbidding hunting lions would be like the prohibition of alcohol: it simply wouldn’t work for the junkies and just cause a black market (it is there anyway – you will always find someone with enough money and greed to pay for hunting the last of its kind….) So in the end, this session ended with some good ideas, but not with a common understanding on how the Cecil case should be addressed by SCB, showing the so many perspectives that conservation may take under its sound joined meme of “yes, we want to save species and habitats”… (see also National Geografic Blog on the session and Paul Jepson’s vid summary).

I don’t want to be too unfair, even as virtual dodo I could only attend one session at a time, especially as my dear human medium carried me into some pretty strange ones (still no clue, what a systematic review is and why you should invest much money in it, sorry…), but also from twittersphere on ICCB2015 I couldn’t spot so many discussions on this very central matter, but just like for myself as big-headed dodo, the topic of values in conservation might be too grand for others to put into 140 human letters.

Extremes what for? The Kareiva-Spash shadowboxing. So looking back in the end on WHY conservation only the so called “discussion” between Peter Kareiva of the TNC and Clive Spash, renowned criticial “social-ecological economist” on the first day of the conference stood out. Both witty and articulated in their views, but nonetheless painting black and white pictures and not really presenting options on how things could be improved in a diverse world. Peter: What remains of a natural world if you only define it by humans needs? Grass, corn, cows and chicken? Clive: What would be the consequence of wanting to scrap entirely the economic side of human societies? Even I as one of the early victims of early human economic endeavours see that without economics as a way of organising your own interactions and those with the natural world (to some, limited extend), this human dominated world will fall apart even more if not build somehow on the current fundament. So in the end, this shadowboxing was entertaining for the crowd, including many in it being enthused in their emotions about the world by one or the other talk… It left the conference with something to ooh and aah around on, but hardly taking the underlying discussion serious (but see the good tweet reflections by @AmandaConsSci on this – in 8 tweets, so 1.120 letters ;-). This is done elsewhere, but not at ICCB obviously.

So in the end – Why a 2000 people conference with a carbon footprint worth a few thousand 40 pound-dodo-equivalents? For sure, great networking and exchange for the complicated small problems of conservation of species and habitats, and often, also the human-nature relationship (there was really some quite impressive work!). But the big questions, I am afraid will need to be answers elsewhere than in the conservation science arena. The problem with mankind are larger…