April 27, 2022

“The Iceberg is Sinking”

A Conservation Conversation with Dr. Peter Wyse-Jackson

A conservation interview with Dr. Wyse Jackson, President and Director of Missouri Botanic Gardens and Dr. Eric Miller, Senior Counsel, Zoo Advisors

Note: This interview has been edited for readability.

Dr. Eric Miller: My question for you, as a founder of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, is to talk about botanical gardens and their conservation efforts across the world.

Dr. Wyse Jackson: Eric, it’s really a pleasure to get with you today to talk about conservation, which I know is a passion for both of us. Most of my career has been spent in botanic gardens, specifically working to enhance the role that botanic gardens can play in plant conservation. When I started my first job after university, it was a curator of a small botanic garden for Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, and I became interested in plant conservation when I discovered that some of the plants we had in cultivation in the garden were listed in the first IUCN Red List of Endangered Plants.

I realized that the little botanic garden for the university could play a role in plant conservation, and so my interest in plant conservation grew and developed over the years. I remember in the mid-1980s, I led an expedition to the island of Mauritius where I was involved in helping to set up plant propagation, facilities, and activities for some of the really rare and endangered plant species of that island. I got to know people who have been lifetime friends subsequently, like Carl Jones, who has given a lifetime of work to conservation of species like the Mauritius kestrel, the pink pigeon, and the Mauritius echo parakeet. In some ways, my task has mirrored that with conservation of some of the endangered plants of Mauritius and indeed, other parts of the world too.

After my time as curator of the botanic garden in Dublin, I moved on a sabbatical to join IUCN to help set up a secretariat for botanic gardens to enhance the work that botanic gardens would do in plant conservation.

And that network grew to become an independent organization in its own right: Botanic Gardens Conservation International. I was secretary general of that for many years before returning to Ireland as director of the National Botanic Gardens, and then president of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis in 2010. All along, I’ve been able to keep up my interest in plant conservation throughout those career changes.

Dr. Eric Miller: My understanding is you led the global strategy for IUCN on plant conservation.

Dr. Wyse Jackson: I have been heavily involved in global strategies for botanic gardens, and indeed for plant conservation. In 2000, I was an author of the international agenda for botanic gardens and plant conservation, which became a framework policy document for botanic gardens in what work they could do in plant conservation. But in 1999, in St. Louis, the International Botanical Congress was held and that included about 5,000 botanists. One of the resolutions of that Congress was that the development of a global plant conservation-focused strategic plan needed to be put in place, and subsequently, I took up the baton with others.

We proposed that a new global plant conservation strategy was needed and decided that the best home for that would be with the Convention on Biological Diversity. So obviously organizations like IUCN have been involved in that and continue to be involved in that. But really, as the framework for biodiversity conservation worldwide, the Convention on Biological Diversity was absolutely the right place for such a strategy. We presented a case to the convention. And then in 2002, the biodiversity convention adopted a decision to create a global strategy for plant conservation, with 16 targets to be implemented by every country in the world that is a part of the biodiversity convention. We created in 2004 a Global Partnership for Plant Conservation which I’ve been a chair of since then, or a co-chair of, and that is to support countries to implement the global strategy for plant conservation. And those 16 targets, which were renewed then in 2010, ran up to 2020. And really provided the guidance for the individual actions made by countries, and indeed, by so many organizations and hundreds of botanic gardens worldwide, on what plant conservation needs to be achieved to conserve plant species worldwide and their habitats too.

That strategy still provides the framework for what each one of us does in our own individual botanic gardens. For example, at the Missouri Botanical Garden, our strategic plan is firmly anchored in the objectives of the global strategy for plant conservation. And so, it’s obvious that I should be playing a key role and supporting and working with partners around the world to ensure that goes ahead.

This is a crucial year for the global strategy for plant conservation. Because, as you know, the Convention on Biological Diversity is currently negotiating the development and, we hope later this year, the adoption of a global biodiversity framework which will have a series of targets to be achieved by 2030 on the conservation of the world’s biodiversity. Now, we’ve worked to make a very strong case for the continuation of the global strategy for plant conservation as part of that, fitting right into that global biodiversity framework. And just last month, the biodiversity conventions conference that was held in Geneva, Switzerland, the meetings of its subsidiary body on science and technical advice, and its subsidiary body on implementation, adopted the recommendation, which will go to the Conference of the Parties when it meets in China later this year, that the development of a new phase of the global strategy for plant conservation should be developed in collaboration with the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation, and be put in place as a component of the new global biodiversity framework.

So sorry, that’s a very long answer to your question, but at least it gives the framework in which the plant conservation efforts of individual institutions and countries can contribute to the global scene in ensuring that biodiversity is sustained for the future.

Dr. Eric Miller: That was really inspirational. Would you be willing to talk to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums? Because I think they would gain from hearing what the botanical garden industry has done. I think, in many ways, you’re out there in front. They’re working on doing conservation, but I think what you just described will be inspiring to them.

Dr. Wyse Jackson: Well, I’m always happy to. The more biodiversity conservationists are active and effective around the world, the better because it’s really one of the great global challenges that we all face. And if we can change hearts and minds and policies and actions, then we must do so. It all comes down to the individual actions each one of us takes to contribute to the whole. So, yes, absolutely. I think that where botanic gardens have been very effective over the last few decades is in getting their act together and developing shared policies and shared practices. And continuing to look at how they can scale up what they’re doing individually and then collectively contribute to a coordinated framework.

And organizations like Botanic Gardens Conservation International have been very, very effective in linking what’s happening in one part of the world with what’s happening in other parts of the world and then monitoring whether we’re individually and collectively delivering on the promises we make.

Dr. Eric Miller: As you know, I’m retired from Saint Louis Zoo in the Madagascar Fauna Group. And that’s one area where we interacted with the Missouri Botanical Garden. But do you see other areas where zoos and botanical gardens can make a bigger impact by being together?

Dr. Wyse Jackson: Absolutely. I think it’s essential. I would say that the Madagascar Fauna Group is now the Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group (MFG). We are part of the same task to undertake this work together. I mean, plants rely on pollinators and dispersers of seed. Animals rely on the food and shelter and habitat that plants provide so we really cannot do it in isolation. For zoos and botanic gardens, a lot of their work, particularly in ex situ conservation, has to be done separately, but we can learn from each other.

One of the ways that the botanic garden community has learned from zoos is the focus that zoos have on pedigrees and on understanding genetic diversity and ensuring that gene pools are maximized for threatened plant species. And increasingly, botanic gardens are doing that same work. When you think about the extent to which the world’s plants are threatened, currently about a third of the world’s plants, some 100,000 plant species plus, are threatened with extinction in the wild. And we do need to have really effective ex situ conservation measures in place as a backup to in situ conservation. If climate change grows as it’s expected to, there are many cases where plants and animals will only be able to survive and exist in ex situ institutions because their home habitats and known distributions may no longer exist in a form that will sustain them.

We have to make sure that zoos and botanic gardens really work closely together to not only share expertise, but also to ensure that we’re spreading a collective message to the world’s people on the essential nature of biodiversity for ourselves and for future generations.

Dr. Eric Miller: I would just comment on MFG. You’re sponsoring an endangered plant breeding center next to the zoo that’s breeding endangered species. So that’s where it needs to be connected.

Dr. Wyse Jackson: Yes, it is. I think we all realize that conservation of our important areas for biodiversity is ultimately going to be where the biodiversity of the plants and animals have to be conserved. But to get there, we need to take the measures that zoos and botanic gardens are doing in breeding and plant propagation, in ecological restoration, in understanding and documenting the plant and animal species that make up these habitats. We know, for example, that in the plant world about 2,000 new plant species are being discovered and described and named each year. And most of those, as soon as they’re described, are going onto the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. And if we don’t take urgent measures to document them, and then to conserve them, they will disappear. And we’ll lose tens of thousands of species. From the point of view of the world of zoos, the task is huge, because we all see that there are a multitude of species which cannot be managed in any of our institutions. Just think, for example, all of the insect life, the invertebrates, and the micro flora and fauna, that may occur in habitats. And we’re just scraping the tip of the iceberg, which is melting fast, in the work we do. All we can do ultimately is try to use our expertise that we’re developing in ecological restoration and make sure that the rest of the world’s biota relies on is in a form that will be self-sustaining of those species.

Dr. Eric Miller: That sad quote about ‘the iceberg is melting fast’ – I’ll be using that one because, you know, we’re watching it go down the drain.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? I think that covered what we wanted to discuss today, to make it clear that botanical gardens and zoos haven’t interacted as well as they could have.

Dr. Wyse Jackson: I think there’s a lot for us to do together and that we need to and the will is there. There are many opportunities for us to make sure we stand up together and make the case for greater resources for biodiversity conservation and the work that we do together. And connect where we need to in terms of things like pollinator studies because that’s going to be essential. Many, many species are going to disappear because they’ve lost the pollinators there. They may not be threatened where they are. But if the pollinators disappeared, plants are going to go, and vice versa.

We also have to make the case that biodiversity is what sustains our human species as well, as we lose tens of thousands of plants and animals that are providing us with our sustainable planet. There is an awful lot more that zoos and botanic gardens can do to document the species of the planet. One of the projects that the botanic gardens of the world have spearheaded over the last eight to ten years is to try to create a flora of the world online. And that was called for in the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation. Well, we now have 1.6 million plant names in a world flora online to provide a baseline of knowledge on the world’s plants. That includes 400,000 descriptions of plants. If we don’t know and fully understand the species we’re working with, then how can we even attempt to conserve them? So, there’s a real basis of knowledge that zoos and botanic gardens need to work together on and learn from each other how we’ll document these species as a starting point for effective conservation.

Dr. Eric Miller: Thank you so much for those insights. I don’t totally agree. I always think about the Missouri Botanical Gardens creating the flora of China. Once they knew what they had, then they could know what was endangered. You know, you have to know what you have to understand what you might lose.

Dr. Wyse Jackson: Yes, you’re absolutely correct about that. And it becomes part of the palace of tools we have in our painting boxes as well, our toolbox, to move forward.

Dr. Eric Miller: Well, again, you’ve been extremely helpful. And I think it will help zoo people think over a broader palette, to use your term, than they have maybe in the past.

Dr. Wyse Jackson: Eric, it’s a pleasure to see you and great to have a chance to talk to today. Many thanks.

Dr. Eric Miller: Yes. I hope we catch up again soon.

Click here to view the interview.

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