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The Emerging Role of Asia in Wildlife Conservation Practice

By Antony Lynam

The practice of solving conservation problems for wildlife has presented more and varied challenges for researchers and practitioners in Asia, especially over the last quarter century. While human populations have grown, lands available for wildlife have steadily decreased and habitats have been degraded.

Yet as conservation practice has matured, researchers are striving to make their science relevant to the issues at hand and practitioners have better tools and information available to implement solutions.

The current status and distribution of leopards was a topic for intense discussion at Conservation Asia 2016. As tigers have disappeared across their range, leopards are the next large cat threatened with extinction due to hunting and habitat loss across their geographic range in Asia. Photo: Dusit Ngoprasert.
The current status and distribution of leopards was a topic for intense discussion at Conservation Asia 2016. As tigers have disappeared across their range, leopards are the next large cat threatened with extinction due to hunting and habitat loss across their geographic range in Asia. Photo: Dusit Ngoprasert.

The recent Conservation Asia conference, a joint meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) Asia-Pacific Chapter, and the Society for Conservation Biology, Asia Section, showed me just how far the field has advanced. Some 600 scientists, conservation practitioners, students, and early career researchers gathered at the National University of Singapore (NUS) under the theme of Sustainable Landscapes for People, Business, and Biodiversity.

The time is ripe for such a discussion. Habitats fragmented by expanding agro-industrial plantations, roads, and infrastructure have forced wildlife into shrinking parcels. Economic development has increased wealth and resulted in greater consumer demand for rare and unusual wildlife and wildlife products, whose purchase is facilitated by the Internet. Well-developed air routes expedite wildlife trafficking across country borders.

Meanwhile, alien and invasive species threaten native plant communities. In the marine realm, coral reefs are bleaching due to global warming while illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing threatens coastal community fisheries. As a result, conservationists find themselves forced to come up with innovative solutions to save the world’s remaining wildlife and wild places.

At the conference, we heard that conservation is not rocket science; it is far more complex. I was encouraged that big “wicked” questions for conservation in Asia are being asked and addressed.

Local conservationists from around Asia debate approaches for recovering critically endangered species at Conservation Asia 2016. Photo: National University of Singapore.
Local conservationists from around Asia debate approaches for recovering critically endangered species at Conservation Asia 2016. Photo: National University of Singapore.

Are protected areas failing? How can Asian countries avoid being sources, conduits, and/or end-users of illegal wildlife?  Can we build bridges between business and the conservation world? How do we reduce impacts of infrastructure on biodiversity in the tropics?  Can ecosystem services and market-based conservation provide conservation solutions? What are the new methods and best practices in marine conservation? Is it too late to save peatlands?

Not only are the right questions being asked, but there is acceptance that for most there is no simple answer. There is good debate about what conservation success could look like.

Conservationists are working in the right places, especially in lesser-developed countries that hold the most biodiversity. And while conservation investment by governments in those places is mostly miniscule or non-existent, I am encouraged that local conservationists are emerging to lead conservation efforts in their countries and to work with other regional scientists and practitioners.

Myanmar conservationists are leading efforts to recover populations of endangered endemic turtles. Photo: WCS Myanmar Program.
Myanmar conservationists are leading efforts to recover populations of endangered endemic turtles. Photo: WCS Myanmar Program.

Myanmar, for example, has been largely isolated from the outside world for the last few decades. But we heard from more than 20 Myanmar conservationists diligently working on a range of issues that include measuring forest loss; securing captive turtle populations; managing human-elephant conflict; and documenting the last populations of vultures and crocodiles.

The gender balance has shifted too; women won all the student awards for best presentations.  Although science continues to provide the guiding principles for conservation interventions, it was observed that people’s beliefs, attitudes, practices, and perceptions are reflected more than ever in conservation.

Conservation has embraced tools and technologies that help us document wildlife, understand their genomes, measure the integrity of their habitats, and help provide evidence that conservation interventions are working.

Tony Lynam helped advise Myanmar's national survey effort for tigers. Members of the team went on to lead conservation efforts for tigers in the country. Photo: A.J. Lynam/WCS.
Tony Lynam helped advise Myanmar’s national survey effort for tigers. Members of the team went on to lead conservation efforts for tigers in the country. Photo: A.J. Lynam/WCS.

For example, camera-traps not only provide information for estimating the occurrence and abundance of animal populations. They also illuminate the identity and movements of human intruders – essential for mapping crime hotspots in and around protected areas. Software tools can help turn data collected by rangers and researchers into information about the effectiveness of patrolling and monitoring.

While there is much to be positive about, a sense of urgency to address the threats and problems posed by the illegal wildlife trade pervaded the symposia and round-table discussions.

Better information on the basic ecology and market trends in traded species is needed. Science-based solutions to environmental challenges should be integrated into business practice. Rangers, park managers, and customs officials need new tools and technologies as they come on line. Protected areas will fail without adequate staffing and resources for protection and monitoring effectiveness.

Indonesia's wildlife crime units led by local conservationists work with police to help crack organized smuggling of manta ray gill rakers and other high value wildlife products. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Indonesia’s wildlife crime units led by local conservationists work with police to help crack organized smuggling of manta ray gill rakers and other high value wildlife products. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

At a time when such areas are being downgraded, downsized or de-gazetted where the rewards for resource extraction are perceived to outweigh the benefits of protecting biodiversity, governments must strengthen laws protecting wildlife, better regulate hunting, engage more effectively with communities, and do more to ensure that parks and sanctuaries are well-managed and secure.

Our conference affirmed that there is a will to move this discussion forward and set in place the structures and practices that will secure the irreplaceable biodiversity of our increasingly fragile planet.

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Dr. Antony J. Lynam is a conservation scientist with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). He is Chair of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), Asia-Pacific Chapter, and Board Member of the Society for Conservation Biology, Asia Section.