At the end of 2016, Dr Simon Stuart completed his tenure as Chair of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Species Survival Commission after 8 years in the position, and more than 30 years with the IUCN.
In January this year, Simon joined Synchronicity Earth as our Director of Strategic Conservation. We took the opportunity to speak to him about what his new role will involve and to find out his views on some of the key challenges for the conservation community.
Q: You have a new role as Director of Strategic Conservation at Synchronicity Earth. Can you tell us what this role entails, and why you decided to take up this new position?
A: Well, I will be trying to build a new vision and a more ambitious programme for Synchronicity Earth, building on what the organisation already has, not replacing it. We aim to build something very much around the themes of partnership with other organisations that have similar philosophies and biodiversity conservation agendas, to work together more efficiently by sharing resources and supporting each other in various ways.
My previous job was Chair of the Species Survival Commission at IUCN, which is a term-limited job, so just like Obama, after 8 years was up, I had to find new work! Around nine months before that post ended, Adam and Jessica (Sweidan) offered me a role helping to build a more ambitious programme for Synchronicity Earth, so I had a lot of time to think about it and I was really persuaded and excited by their vision. I found it a better way to spend probably my last few years in paid employment than some of the other possibilities out there. I thought about joining one of the big international NGOs, which would have meant learning a new bureaucratic and political system; another option was to go back into academia. But it was the Synchronicity Earth vision that attracted me most, partly because it is building something new and, I think, breaking new ground, and partly because I like the people. I have spent my entire career in IUCN trying to build partnerships between organisations, rather than build one big organization in potential competition with everyone else.
Q: As you begin your new role, what do you think are the most pressing current priorities in conservation?
A: I think you could answer that at several levels.
We need to do a lot more work on those conservation problems for which we have no solutions. For example, we are not being realistic on coral reefs and the threats they face from ocean warming and acidification – we are going to lose the reefs unless something dramatic can be done. Thinking that we can manage the ecosystems to improve the resilience of coral reefs is fine: we might buy a decade or two and we probably should be doing it, but as the ocean warms and becomes more acidic, we are going to run out of options. Also there are some diseases, such as amphibian chytridiomycosis and others, that still have no solution in the wild. Captive breeding is sometimes essential for buying time, but the future we want is amphibians in healthy populations in the wild.
Another thing to look at would be conservation finance, what works and what does not, especially in terms of donor education. Donors are driving a lot of the problems: short-term project cycles, unrealistic deliverables being demanded in order to secure the money, the wrong things being measured, conservation organisations having to spend way too much time fundraising at the expense of other things and so on.
On another level, biodiversity data and information collection processes are not funded by any intelligent system, especially for the IUCN Red List and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) and also for population level monitoring of species and ecosystems. Using a time-bound, project-based funding system for something that is a service, not just to the conservation community but on a much broader level to corporations and governments doing due diligence and so on, means that decisions are made in the world without the correct information being readily at the fingertips of those that need it. The provision of data needs to be funded differently, perhaps through a data licensing system, perhaps through public sector finance with countries coming together and agreeing that this is something they should do.
Q: Do you think that is something which is likely to happen in the near future?
A: Well, it is not politically in vogue at the moment, but I think there are possibilities, for example, for corporate finance. Not from a philanthropic point of view so much – because that just gets you stuck in the project mode again – but rather as a sort of data-licensing service for corporations that want the data downloaded on their own decision tool systems and would pay for it. To some extent, that is already the case, but I think it could be developed much further.
Q: Despite the challenges, there seems to be a focus on conservation optimism at the moment – the idea that we should focus on success stories, what works and the progress being made (rather than just the bad news). What, in terms of conservation, makes you optimistic for the future?
A: I do not like the term optimism, or the heading ‘conservation optimism’. I prefer the term “hope”. At a spiritual level, my Christian faith gives me hope for the planet. At a scientific and empirical level, I can also find reasons for hope. For example. there was a paper by Mike Hoffman et al on ungulates which came out a couple of years ago which looks at what would have happened if there had been no conservation efforts. It showed that in fact we are more effective than we think we are. Yes, we are ineffective in relation to where we want to get to, but this does not mean that what we are doing is having no impact.
Q: So having hope is partly just understanding what has actually been achieved?
A: Yes, conservation does actually have a measurable impact, but the sad thing is that most of this impact has been slowing down decline rather than bringing about recovery. Even so, there are some parts of the world where conservation has been surprisingly effective. If you look at large mammals generally we have seen population recoveries in North America and through much of Europe. There have been population recoveries of deer and carnivores in northwest Europe for a long time, but those recoveries have spread into southern and eastern Europe over the last decade or two. We have also had strong population recoveries of some species in southern Africa and in India.
Q: But in all those cases, is their recovery a direct result of conservation action?
A: In all these regions we have seen more conservation action and effective law enforcement bringing about recoveries. In southern Africa, management of wildlife trophy hunting, which is of course controversial, has also brought about population recovery.
So, recoveries have been brought about in various places, usually where there has been better governance.
Q: What is your favourite example of a species that has made a successful – perhaps unexpected – recovery in the wild?
A: I think you could say that many of the wildlife recoveries in India would be unexpected because there is such huge human impact on its environments. So, for example, a species like the Blackbuck is one that you would not necessarily expect to survive and yet it does. It is a beautiful antelope which has recovered hugely in India, mainly outside the protected areas. It is extinct in Pakistan, but you can see it widely across much of India, sometimes in paddy fields and other agricultural areas, where it is tolerated by people, sometimes revered. And you can go on and list a number of other species like that. If you can bring about the recovery of species in a place like India, then you can do a lot in this world.
Q: On a personal level, what do you see as your greatest achievement in conservation (so far)?
A: Well, it was partly while I was at the IUCN and partly before. Some