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What a Group of 2,000 Biologists Talks About May Surprise You

(Photo by Clare Fieseler)
A conservation biologist looks out on the streets of Montpellier, viewing domesticated humans below. (Photo by Clare Fieseler)

Last night, amidst the many musicians filling the streets of France with song, one group stood out. The musicians were conservation biologists, and they played a strange assortment of exotic instruments sourced from the remote corners of the world where they do their research and conservation work. It was a jam session for an audience of their own global tribe of scientists.

The 2015 International Congress of Conservation Biology (ICCB) is happening this week in Montpellier, France. Researchers and practitioners traveled from over 90 countries in the largest numbers of the conference’s history.

What emerges when 2,000 members of this tribe converge may surprise you.

“We’re not [just] talking about ‘how to save a rhino,’” says Dr. James Watson, President of the Society of Conservation Biology, the professional society organizing the conference. “We’ve got sessions on conservation-marketing, religion, and drones.”

The interdisciplinary and outside-the-box nature of the conference this year wasn’t always the hallmark of the gathering. “Fifteen years ago, the membership of SCB was 80 percent Americans. Now it’s 50 percent. Also, during that same time period, we’ve had incredible economic, cultural, and biological change,” says Watson. That diversity and urgency has pushed the boundaries of new partnerships, solutions, and research.

Old Meets New

For example, the role of religion in conservation outcomes has taken a prominent role in this year’s conference. Dr. Tebaldo Vinciguerra, an official of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican, is in attendance at the conference and participated in well-attended roundtable, “Synergies of faith and conservation: Exploring pathways of measureable action.” But the new, green papal encyclical shared the spotlight. Buddhism, Islam, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity were all represented in projects presented at the conference; the project leaders all sleuthing how religious beliefs and communities influence biodiversity conservation.

Citizen science was another hot topic, as was the arrival of tech companies, like Microsoft and Google, to the conservation roundtable. Technological capacity, including drone technology, delivers unprecedented data and capacity to teams of formal and informal scientists, prompting the formation of new organizations to facilitate new projects, like Conservation Drones.

“If you track the emergence of these new topics and tools over the history of the conference, you can see where our future is going,” say Dr. Piero Visconti, president of the European chapter of SCB, and the chair of the ICCB Scientific Committee. It’s true that that most popular and effective conservation tools being presented at this year’s conference aren’t even in the pages of ICCB programs from six years ago.

Power of Presence

But what clearly has not gone out of style is the old-school format of the conference itself: slide-show presentations, poster sessions using printed paper, and face-to-face roundtable discussions. All interspersed with quirky evening socials and back-of-the-envelope ideas scribbled late at night on bar napkins. These persistent practices aren’t a sign of lingering on the past though: the number of conservation biologists filling ICCB seats increases each year.

“Why travel to a conference in an age of digital communication? There is no replacement for a good idea hatched over a pint,” says Watson. “I’ve worked with 400 collaborators during my career and 200 of them I’ve meet here at ICCB. That paper I published in Nature last year … That was a spur-of-the-moment idea had on a bar stool while attending ICCB.”

You can follow the live tweeting of plenary talks and discussions @ICCB_ECCB and via #ICCB2015.

National Geographic is a proud sponsor of the 2015 International Congress of Conservation Biology.