November 20, 2019

Global Conservation Issues Impact Your Institution: WAZA2019 Takeaways

What’s happening on the global stage relative to the zoo and aquarium community? How are zoos and aquariums faring in realizing their missions? What does the future of conservation look like?

David Walsh and Eric Miller headed to Argentina to find out and attend the 74th World Association of Zoos & Aquariums (WAZA) conference. It was a packed agenda, but these themes were what captured their attention.

  1. There’s Power in Partnerships — True to the conference’s Together for Nature theme, examples of the value of teamwork were abundant. Most notably were the many zoos and aquariums who partnered with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to assess and create plans for over 1,000,000 at risk species. This shows there is a place for not only large organizations like the Georgia Aquarium, but also for smaller facilities like Parque das Aves to have a BIG impact on developing specific actions to save species. The new ‘Reverse the Red’ campaign seeks to downgrade species on IUCN’s Red list and increase awareness of threatened species. We especially applaud two clients, The Indianapolis Zoo and the Albuquerque BioPark, in their commitment to partner with IUCN on global species planning.

  2. Conservation Change Starts with The People – Multiple presentations highlighted how far we’ve come in understanding and acting on the importance of social and behavioral change to get people to do something meaningful for conservation. A memorable quote was: “Conservation is primarily not about biology but about people and the choices they make.” Karin Stratton shared Monterey Bay Aquarium’s 20 years of success with Seafood Watch and the fundamentals of behavior change, including this important note: “Education does not typically result in increases in conservation behavior.”

  3. The Outside Forces Pushing at Z&As are Getting Stronger – The power of tourism operators and travel providers – AirBnB, TripAdvisor, British Airways, and others – in shaping welfare, performances, experiences, and animal contact cannot be underestimated. World Animal Protection was even outside the conference hotel protesting animal abuse in top zoos. These name brand companies are shaping standards and pushing us in different directions, whether we like it or not. Robin Keith at San Diego Global explained, “We exist as part of a larger system, we need to listen to all parts of the system, and to change the system we must change ourselves.”

  4. We’re Missing the Boat on Diversity – While there was talk of the need to increase diversity among WAZA ranks and those we serve, the group is still predominantly homogeneous. The keynote talked of how gender equity is a conservation issue and one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. But the lack of diverse perspectives was especially evident during the session on the “Future of WAZA”. Comments came from a small number of similar and familiar voices. We all need to figure out ways to welcome in and hear a wider range of perspectives and non-English speaking communities if WAZA is to be truly a global organization. Kathayoon Khahlil at Oregon Zoo gave a compelling talk on “Finding the Next Generation of Leaders,” highlighting the importance of bringing more diverse voices to the table and commenting, “We [the next generation of diverse leaders] are ready for a seat at the table, but first we need bigger tables.”

  5. Where’s the Money? – It’s always a bit surprising the lack of talk regarding the funding and business model for conservation. Zoos and aquariums are doing amazing work in conservation, but way too often it’s done on a shoestring budget. A clear business and economic case for conservation needs to be made if we are to grow the amount of resources invested in our missions. There’s an incredible amount of dollars, euros, and other currencies being invested in far less compelling enterprises. The zoo and aquarium community needs to talk more about money and the ROI our missions can provide. Cameron Kerr of Taronga Zoo talked of “building a culture of economics with organizations” and “how to sweat the asset” to deliver greater returns. These are the conversations needed beyond just the CFO and finance team.

  6. The Animal Welfare Committee Directive — Excellent animal welfare is the most basic building block for our zoos and aquariums. Animal welfare standards vary around the world and have presented challenges to WAZA for their standardization. To address that, WAZA created an Animal Welfare Committee, chaired by Kris Vehrs. That Committee developed a directive that all WAZA members must meet the animal welfare standards of their national or regional zoo association by 2023. Additionally, those regional and national associations are working closely together to ensure that their standards are basically comparable (which also acknowledges that 1) Standards do have variation among regions, and 2) WAZA will not be the “enforcer,” but the facilitator).  This is a tremendous step forward to ensure all WAZA members provide the best possible care for animals in our institutions.   

The conference concluded with a huge gala to celebrate those in our community who are truly lifelong conservation champions. These celebrations leave all of us with a sense of hope and optimism that there are very smart, passionate, and dedicated women and men working to fight the dangers to wildlife every day. Yet we should also be a little scared. There are constant threats to the work we are all doing to protect wildlife and wild places. It’s this fear that should create a sense of urgency and drive us all to greater action–all in an effort to save wildlife.

Watch a sampling of the full presentations on WAZA’s Facebook page.

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