Take the elephants out of sub-Saharan Africa, and the world would be a very different place. In fact, disrupt any kind of intricate ecosystem, and the aftereffect would be massive. Fortunately, the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) has worked tirelessly since its inception in 1985, forging a community to preserve Earth’s biological diversity, and tackle the extensive societal and environmental challenges it currently faces. Dr Heather DeCaluwe spoke with us at Research Features about her personal research, the important work happening at SCB and the future of conservation biology.
It is hard to imagine a world without some of the iconic ecosystems and animals we have become accustomed to. Whether it be the grizzly bears of the Alaskan wilderness, the spotted hyenas of Sub-Saharan Africa, or the jaguars of the Amazon rainforest – each area requires extensive conservation, to preserve the animals, biodiversity and intricate ecosystems that they contain.
Conservation biology combines science and practice with the goal of preserving Earth’s biological diversity or biodiversity. It is an integrated and interdisciplinary approach which, while rooted in principles of biology, also draws from diverse fields such as ecology, social science, natural resource management, and the arts.
Conservation biologists understand the importance of not only studying the many complex ecosystems on Earth and the effects of human activity on these ecosystems, but also the need to protect biodiversity for the ultimate survival of all species on Earth, including humans.
These beliefs form the backbone of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) – an organisation dedicated to tackling some of the major societal and environmental challenges facing the world today. Their Interim Executive Director, Dr Heather DeCaluwe, recently spoke with us at Research Features about this in more detail, highlighting the importance of public opinion.
Hello Heather! Could you tell us a bit about the background of the SCB?
SCB was founded in 1985, when many scientists, alarmed by the Earth’s rapidly disappearing biodiversity, were called to action. Scientists were literally watching their study sites change or disappear over very short periods of time, and were driven to try and protect what they could of the ecosystems they had come to know and love. In short, they decided to not only study systems but focus on conserving them.
In response, SCB was founded as a community to bring together and give a voice to all the people (including resource managers, educators, government and private conservation workers, and students) dedicated to preserving life on Earth. The founders believed such a society of scientists could come together and avert the looming crisis through sound science practices. This includes those involved in the scientific study of the phenomena affecting the maintenance, loss, and restoration of biological diversity, as well as those advancing the practice of maintaining and restoring Earth’s biodiversity. Shortly after the Society was founded, we launched the renowned journal Conservation Biology and more recently the journal Conservation Letters, both of which defined and continue to define the field of conservation biology.
How widespread has SCB become since its inception and what events does it hold?
Today, SCB is a global membership society with more than 4,000 members representing over 100 countries. We are made up of seven regional sections located on each of the six inhabitable continents plus the marine realm; each are focused on regional conservation issues. We also have nearly 50 chapters around the world which are often associated with universities and are focused on local conservation issues. Not only that, we have ten working groups focused on the interface between conservation and topical issues such as religion, marketing, and genetics.
SCB holds a global international congress every two years and regional congresses associated with our sections in off years, to engage professionals and students in cutting-edge conservation science. Finally, we manage the David H Smith Conservation Research Fellowship Program which seeks to develop future world leaders and conservation practitioners.
What are the SCB’s current priorities?
In addition to maintaining and growing the programs mentioned above, I would say SCB has four current priorities:
1 We are currently engaged in a search for a new Executive Director – we are seeking a strategic visionary to lead SCB over the next ten years or longer. More immediately, we are focused on internal capacity that will help set this person up to quickly engage in the Society’s critical work.
2 We are committed to international growth, particularly through our seven regional sections. Through the growth of our sections, we are better situated to focus our resources in an impactful way.
3 We are dedicated to becoming a leader in addressing diversity, equity and inclusion within the realm of conservation science. We believe strongly that for SCB to be a leading scientific voice for the study and conservation of Earth’s biological diversity, we must ensure that all voices around the globe can engage in the Society and be a part of this voice.
4 We are committed to providing resources to our members across the world to assist them in finding ways for their science to make an impact. Whether that be through the SCB policy committee, SCB journals, trainings at conferences, or communications to the SCB membership and beyond, SCB is committed to helping our members develop and distribute their work.
Where does the world currently stand in terms of conservation?
I think you can get a pretty good sense of where the world and conservation biology are at by looking at some of the success stories from recent years, the challenges facing the field, today, and the opportunities that exist tomorrow. In many cases, these successes, challenges, and opportunities are all wrapped up into one single issue.
There is no way to sugar-coat the big picture, quite simply, the continual growth of human population and our associated use of natural resources is unsustainable for the Earth. We see this manifest, in real time, in many ways – including climate change, the decline and extinction of many species, and the degradation of local ecosystems, including both our air and water quality. And so, conservation of Earth’s resources has never been more important if we are to persist as a species. Moreover, time is of the essence as we don’t know exactly how long we have to turn this ship around, so to speak, but chances are high that it is not long, relative to the scope of the changes required.
That said, there are plenty of successes and encouraging signs for the future of conservation biology. One of the most encouraging signs of the past decade has been the degree to which a large swath of the public is aware, interested, and cares about the environment in general and conservation biology, specifically.
Talking of challenges, could you elucidate on some of the other challenges conservation biology currently faces?
One such challenge, particularly in the US, is the politicisation of science, fuelled in part by political polarisation. When conservation and science become a political issue, rather than a shared core value, there are several tangible effects. Firstly, it can act as a diversion, wasting valuable time to debate well established scientific consensus, rather than undertake the difficult work ahead, all while the scope of the problem increases and the time to address it decreases. Secondly, the fight over federal budget and regulatory priorities can make it a challenge to carry out the work required, by substantially weakening government agencies and the funding sources which are vital to the work of so many in conservation biology. Thirdly, pulling science “into the fray” can, in theory, erode public trust in science and scientists, although the data largely suggests that this has not occurred, to date. Finally, the debate over the merit and validity of well-established science can weaken morale and dampen enthusiasm for future generations of conservation biologists, robbing the field of the talent and intellect required to sustain our future efforts.
One challenge that underlies this conflict and many others in conservation biology, is debunking the false dichotomy between environmental sustainability and economic growth. To a certain degree, this requires improving how we communicate with the public about our values and what we do. It also requires becoming better listeners, so that we can find solutions that are practical, achievable, sustainable, and beneficial for both the ecosystem and the local communities who must ultimately be invested in any long-term stewardship. Such outreach is both challenging and exciting. Like many scientific disciplines, there is a robust conversation in conservation biology about how to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion within the discipline. While participants bring a wide variety of perspectives and passionate viewpoints to these conversations, charting the path forward is an exciting opportunity, particularly when considering the new generations of conservation biologists that can be brought into the field with the fresh, vital, and necessary insights they bring.
I think this is how conservation biology continues to grow and succeed going forward; by continuing with the rigorous scientific study, principled advocacy, and innovative application of best practices that have always defined the field, but also by continuing to combine these activities with new and creative partnerships and by bringing a greater and more diverse body of researchers into the field.
With wildlife continuing to decline around the world, there is a concern that conservation has become overwhelmed by a culture of negativity. A new Optimism Summit is planned in London next month – the Conservation Optimism Initiative – with a mission to spread a new wave of positivity throughout the environmental community. What are your thoughts on that? Does the SCB have strategies for maintaining positivity?
Personally, I think this movement is critical. If we are too focused on a sense of hopelessness in conservation, what motivates us to persevere? It is important to focus on our successes and the innovative solutions that are working and may continue to work in the future. I think part of human nature is a need for hope and if we can’t find ways to give people this hope for the future, then we are not doing all that we can to advance our goals.
More broadly, it is true that conservation biology has traditionally been a ‘crisis discipline,’ and that pervasive pessimism can therefore be a risk. That said, when I look at our members, I do not see pessimism or defeatism; I see a group of motivated, excited, energetic, and talented researchers and practitioners. Within the context of our Society, they are passionate about their work and ideas, and excited to share with and learn from others in the field.
I think this is one of the key functions of the Society and of our congresses: we give conservation biologists and practitioners a venue to communicate and celebrate their work with their respected peers and colleagues; to see the many success stories, be inspired by new ideas, and make new connections and partnerships.
The Society of Conservation Biology’s International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) is a biennial event, which is set to take place in Cartagena, Colombia this year. Could you tell us a bit more about the event? How important is it for the conservation biology community?
This will be the 28th International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB 2017) and will focus on Insights for Sustaining Life on Earth, responding to the need for conservation science to help create a better tomorrow for both biodiversity and people who depend upon it. We are excited to hold the meeting in Colombia, where nearly 10% of all known species, including 340 endemic species, are found – making it a hotspot for biodiversity. It has been over ten years since we were in this part of the world (we held a meeting in Brazil in 2005), and we are eager to create many opportunities for our members from Latin America and the Caribbean to meet, collaborate with, teach, learn from, and celebrate achievements with SCB members from around the globe. Local organisations such as WCS Colombia, the Instituto Humboldt, Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia, Foundation Natura, Conservation International and the Universidad de los Andes are already committed to partnering with us on the event.
Most importantly, the Congress will connect our global community of conservation professionals and serve as a major networking opportunity for anyone interested in conservation. It’s also a place for training early-career professionals, and for catalysing conservation action. ICCB is global in scope, bringing together conservation professionals and students from every sector of the field, including the biological and social sciences, management, policy and planning.
One of the events we are planning that I’m particularly excited about is a ‘bioblitz’, where we encourage meeting attendees to catalogue all the flora and fauna found in a particular area. We will also be including local school children in this event.
I n your own research, you have examined aggression in captive animals, which sounds fascinating. What drew you to conducting this specific research?
My dissertation was focused on clouded leopards, which are a particularly captivating, challenging, and threatened species. I worked in the zoo field for five years before starting my PhD work and was involved in caring for and raising these remarkable animals. Through this work at the Nashville Zoo, I was aware of the international partnership between the Nashville Zoo, Smithsonian’s National Zoo, and the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Thailand, and was excited by the potential roles that innovative zoo partnerships such as this can play in species conservation. Captive clouded leopards serve as a hedge against extinction of wild populations, therefore maintaining a self-sustaining and genetically diverse captive population is an important part of the conservation effort.
For more information on how you can get involved with the Society for Conservation Biology, or on any of their fantastic events and conferences, please visit their website at conbio.org.
Dr Heather DeCaluwe
Society for Conservation Biology
1133 15th St. NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20005
- SCB: Conserving the Earth’s biological diversity