My Four Decades (and Counting) with IUCN

Thanks in part to the efforts of the IUCN, The Arabian oryx, which was once extinct in the wild, has been re-introduced to the wild so successfully that it has been downgraded from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable.

Thanks in part to the efforts of the IUCN, The Arabian oryx, which was once extinct in the wild, has been re-introduced to the wild so successfully that it has been downgraded from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable. (© Olivier Langrand)

Last week, I was delighted to be inducted as an Honorary Member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at their World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea. Receiving this award — together with President Ian Khama of Botswana, former Director-General of IUCN and current head of UNEP Achim Steiner, Brazil’s former Minister of the Environment Marina Silva and seven other honorees — really made me reflect on the work I have done with IUCN over the past four decades, as well as the advances we have made in conservation worldwide.

Many environmentalists tend to look at the problems our planet faces and bemoan our current condition — the “glass half empty” outlook. However, optimist that I am, I prefer to take pride in all we have done to maintain the magnificent diversity of our natural world — diversity that humanity depends on for survival — and think a bit about how bad things would be if we hadn’t taken these actions.

For those of you who don’t know the IUCN, it is really the global umbrella for the international conservation movement and has been for the last 64 years. Created after World War II to address growing concerns about the state of the planet — particularly disappearing species — it has grown into the world’s largest conservation body, with a membership that includes governments and NGOs like CI.

My involvement with IUCN goes back to 1974, when I began writing accounts about threatened Brazilian primate species together with the pioneer of Brazilian primatology, Adelmar Coimbra-Filho. My data came from several expeditions I had carried out in Brazil over the previous two years; in the case of some of these species, I was the first foreigner ever to see them in the wild.

Russ Mittermeier (left) and primatologist Adelmar Coimbra-Filho in the 1970s.

Russell Mittermeier (left) and primatologist Adelmar Coimbra-Filho in the 1970s. (photo courtesy of Russell Mittermeier)

Since then, I have worn many hats with IUCN. I have chaired the Species Survival Commission’s (SSC) Primate Specialist Group since 1977, and have been a member of the IUCN Steering Committee since 1982. I was also instrumental in the creation of the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group back in the early 1980s and continue to serve on that group as well. More recently, I spent eight years as one of three Regional Councillors for North America and the Caribbean, and the last four as one of IUCN’s four vice presidents.

The way I see it, IUCN’s greatest accomplishments over the years have fallen into three main realms: species, protected areas and conservation policy.

1. Bringing Species Back from the Brink

IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species underpins the entire biodiversity conservation movement. It has led to ambitious action plans, and has become a powerful force in preventing extinctions. It is also the single most widely-recognized product of IUCN and indeed one of the most visible products of partner organizations such as CI who help to make it a reality.

There are numerous examples of species brought back from the brink of extinction because of the intense efforts stimulated by their placement on the Red List, including:

  • the Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), which went extinct in the wild, was bred successfully in captivity, and has now been re-established so successfully in the wild that it has been downgraded from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable;
  • the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) which was down to around 22 individuals in the wild, but is now back up to more than 200 and counting; and
  • the Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus) which now numbers more than 400, after reaching a low of just four individuals.

According to a recent analysis in which I and more than a hundred other specialists participated, without the engagement of conservation organizations over the past few decades, we would likely have lost at least 20% more species.

I am particularly proud of our record with non-human primates — the monkeys, apes, lemurs, lorises, galagos and tarsiers that make up the mammalian order of which we ourselves are a part and which number nearly 680 species and subspecies. Thanks in large part to the work of our IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group’s more than 400 primate experts, we have not lost a single primate species in the past century, and we hope to continue this good record into the future.

2. Creating protected areas at a global scale

Be they national parks, biological reserves, wildlife sanctuaries or other designations, protected areas are simply the most important tools we have available to ensure the long-term survival of life on Earth — the global biodiversity that makes our living planet what it is.

Traditionally, protected areas were created to protect scenic landscapes or flagship species, and of course they continue to play that role. However, they are increasingly being seen as central to sustainable development, the strongholds of the “natural capital” that — especially since the Rio+20 conference this past June — has come to be seen as the key to future economic development and human well-being. Many of our critical ecosystem services such as fresh water, pollination, disaster prevention and recreation derive from protected areas, and in many of the world’s most heavily impacted hotspots such as Madagascar and the Philippines, they are increasingly becoming the only sources of ecosystem services.

IUCN has been the key player in protected area creation and maintenance since its creation. Through its World Parks Congresses held every 10 years, it has generated new ideas and set ambitious targets for expansion.

I remember clearly the 1982 World Parks Congress in Bali, where experts set a lofty goal of protecting 10% of the terrestrial planet up from the roughly 3% at that time. Many thought this impossible, but I was one of those that welcomed such a far-reaching vision. And it worked — we are now at 13%, and at the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity held in Nagoya, Japan, the target was raised to 17%. CI had been pushing for 25%, so we were a bit disappointed, but the new target is important nonetheless.

On the marine front, things were progressing very slowly up until quite recently. In Nagoya, we set a more ambitious target of 10% by 2020 (less than 1% was protected at the time). We have seen amazing increases in just the past couple of years, thanks especially to Pacific Island nations like Kiribati, the Cook Islands and New Caledonia. Their amazing new protected areas have helped bring us to over 3% of oceans protected. So we are on our way.

My good friend Gustavo Fonseca, the head of natural resources at the Global Environment Facility (GEF) has called protected areas “the greatest franchise on Earth” — much larger than the world’s largest corporate franchise, McDonald’s, which numbers more than 33,000 restaurants in 119 countries. Indeed, we are now at about 190,000 parks and reserves in almost every nation on the planet.

Russ Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International, is awarded Honorary Membership by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at the World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea.

Russ Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International, is awarded Honorary Membership by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at the World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea. (© Olivier Langrand)

3. Advancing Conservation Policy

IUCN has had a key role in the creation of the world’s most important conservation policies, especially through the work of its Commission on Environmental Law (CEL). This commission was instrumental in the drafting of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1973, as well as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992. IUCN’s involvement in these conventions has continued to the present day, and has included major participation in such key products as the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets that emerged from the Nagoya CBD conference.

Last week’s Congress in Jeju was historic in that for the first time we elected a president from China. This gentleman, Zhang Xinsheng, has broad international experience and a strong interest in the environment; in 2009, he cofounded a Chinese NGO dedicated to building a more sustainable world. Dr. Zhang succeeds outgoing President Ashok Khosla from India, and promises to continue Ashok’s great tradition of leadership.

Given the importance of the CEL, I was especially pleased that its founder and one of our great conservation pioneers, Wolfgang Burhenne of Germany, was awarded the prestigious Harold J. Coolidge Memorial Medal in Jeju. Burhenne, now 88 and still extremely active, has been to all IUCN Congresses dating back to 1951, a total of more than 20 (compared to the 10 that I have been to since 1981).

Harold J. Coolidge was one of the original founders of IUCN, the first chair of the Species Survival Commission, and one of the leading primatologists of the first half of the 20th century to boot. I had the great honor of counting him as a close friend in the last decade of his life; together with Lee Talbott, another of conservation’s great pioneers, I created this award back in 2004.

Russell Mittermeier

Russell Mittermeier

As IUCN continues to raise the bar for the conservation of our natural world, I am very pleased to join the list of distinguished Honorary Members, and hope that I have been able to play at least a small part in the success of this critically important, far-reaching organization.

Dr. Russell Mittermeier is the president of CI. He is also an author, primatologist and chairman of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group.

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