September 30, 2020

The Importance of Maintaining Our Commitment to Conservation

During a time when many organizations are making difficult budgetary decisions, non-revenue generating activities have been questioned, prompting further discussions and calls to action. In the recent AZA National Conference, discussions on the topic of conservation were numerous, and we were assured that it’s alive but requires attention.

Two sessions that highlighted the following areas of importance for conservation were “Conservation Is Not Closed: Continuing Field Conservation and Research During COVID-19”, co-moderated by ZA’s Senior Counsel Dr. Eric Miller and North Carolina Zoo’s Curator of Conservation and Research Rich Bergl, and “Building A Culture of Conservation in Your Organization, Regardless of Size & Resources”, moderated by Corey Romber, Training Specialist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

  • Collaboration. Conservation programs should be outcome-driven, participatory, inclusive, and we should be maximizing our resources and reach.

  • Attention to staff. We need to give people hope, teach what people need to know, provide recognition and reward for participation, and provide multiple opportunities for people to engage.

  • Persistence to maintain long-term commitments to field projects. Keep on your mission. Adapt and evolve. Look for new opportunities. Ex., how to better involve teenagers in the time of Covid-19 (when field projects are difficult due to social distancing)? Ideas included designing social programs and media sites to support them.

  • Involving communities, where funding alone isn’t the goal, but also capitalizing on their commitment to the native wildlife.

    • Dr. Mark Plotkin’s keynote highlighted the Amazon and the importance of learning from the knowledge, wisdom, and experience of indigenous peoples (and including them in problem-solving and decision-making in conservation).

    • The critical need to include community stakeholders in the strategic planning process and implementation to be valued as partners and engrained in your mission.

    • Supporting these communities during any crisis (lack of tourism, etc.) and developing alternative models of support where possible.

  • Holding your mission close. Mission matters more than ever, or it should. People can’t visit and experience as usual, so appeal to their interest in saving wildlife to help them engage, give money, and support your work.

  • Planning in the age of uncertainty due to Covid-19.

  • Capacity building for in-country conservation. Disney uses the Conservation Open Standards/Miradi software wherever possible, which includes storytellers in planning and searches for in-country sustainability.

  • Developing a conservation culture. Walk the walk; align your practices with your messages. This starts with executive leadership. People need to take personal responsibility and assume accountability.

    • Jeff Vanek, Director of Human Resources at Utah’s Hogle Zoo, gave a good overall strategic view of how to plan for it: “Culture building is everyone’s job.”

    • Corey Romberg, Operations Training Specialist at Disney, explained: “Every person has a role.”

      • E.g., Disney is making sure every cast member has access to a shirt that reflects a species of their interest and are trained to tell that story.

      • “Team Wildlife” sends staff out on local field programs.

ZA team members also attended the General Session “Wildlife Trafficking and its Impacts on Animal and Human Health: Where Do We Go From Here?” moderated by Dr. Cristian Samper, President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society with panelists Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation; John Scanlon, Chair of the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime; and Maxi Pia Louis, Chair, Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organizations; and the “Combating Wildlife Trafficking in a COVID-19 World” session moderated by Sara Walker, Senior Advisor on Wildlife Trafficking for AZA. These insightful sessions reinforced Los Angeles Zoo’s Director of Conservation Jake Owen’s point that simply banning wildlife trade would be counterproductive. Instead, we all must take action by first understanding the impact and then evolving our approach:  

  • Acceptance. The current system isn’t working—we need a global response to wildlife-related human health risks and we’re now siloed.

    • Our current system is inadequate and not interconnected globally.

    • There’s a disconnect between international policies and local demand; we need to listen.

  • Accountability. We all have a role and responsibility to protect the Earth—we’re all interconnected via our shared ecosystem.

    • Zoos and aquariums especially can advocate to their state governments to ban the sale of wildlife items due to the potential impact of their large audiences.

    • Zoos and aquariums can help people understand the link between their health and animals; we can do research and “translate” it for the public; we can integrate health messages; we can partner with others globally.

  • A new approach. COVID-19 has been unique in that it has affected everyone around the world at the same time—this is an opportunity for change, as our current system could be creating opportunities for future pandemics if no changes are made.

    • Wet/Wildlife markets are a perfect environment for disease transmission.

    • The pace of zoonotic diseases is accelerating. They’re caused by us—by our actions such as agricultural practices and increased pressure by humans on natural systems.

    • We need a “one health” approach and we can adapt CITES to fit this model.

    • We need to ensure zoos and aquariums are “at the table” when human health issues are discussed.

We’d love to hear your favorite takeaways from the Conference—feel free to comment below or reach out to us directly. We’d like to know especially how your organization is implementing these learnings to ensure that conservation remains alive. Stay tuned for additional AZA Conference Takeaways on other topic areas.

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