By Elizabeth L. Bennett and Joe Walston
Jeju, Republic of Korea, September, 2012
The passenger pigeon was once among the most abundant birds on the planet, sometimes flying in flocks so vast they reportedly darkened the skies. Likewise, tens of millions of North American bison once thundered across the American Great Plains. As the United States emerged as a major global economy in the late 1800’s, both species experienced catastrophic losses due to overhunting. Yet when they arrived at a conservation crossroads, facing extinction or survival, they traveled two very different paths.
In 1914, the passenger pigeon went extinct. The bison nearly vanished as well, but its peril was recognized, responsibility was taken, and recovery resulted. Thanks to these three ‘R’s’ of conservation – combined with the work of the American Bison Society, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo, and different branches of the U.S. Government — we have 30,000 wild bison in conservation herds today, and plans for further recovery herds. The future looks good for the species.
As we convene in Asia this week at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea, it is hard not to see parallels here with the stories of the passenger pigeon and bison. Asia is now the major center for global economic growth and, like the United States, this growth has come at a major cost to its native wildlife.
Today, many species are at a crossroads. Will they take the path of the passenger pigeon or the bison? The fate of some, including the baiji (Yangtze river dolphin) and the kouprey (a species of Asian wild cattle) have already been decided. They tragically went the way of the passenger pigeon. Still standing at the crossroads are tigers, orangutans, Asian rhinos, Asian river turtles, Asian vultures, sharks, and a host of other lesser-known species.
The species themselves cannot decide which path to take. Rather, as with the bison, humans can assist in their survival by following the three “R’s”: recognizing the problem, taking responsibility for solving it, and putting species back on the path to recovery.
At no point in history have we been so able to recognize how well or badly species are doing. The science of assessing the status of species in the wild is ever-more robust. The IUCN’s Red List is a powerful method of encapsulating and interpreting the wealth of knowledge accumulated on the last 3,200 tigers, the last 40 Javan rhinos, or the collapsing range of the Asian elephant. Recognition is not our weakness; responsibility is.
Ultimately, responsibilty for conserving species, their habitats, and the ecological services they provide, rests with governments and the legal and practical frameworks that they establish. There is no question that today, standing in the world’s economic engine room, most of the countries of Asia have the resources to respond. Now they must take responsibility for doing so.
We also have positive and powerful precedents. Project Tiger, announced in 1972, was possibly the greatest example of a host government—in this case India—taking responsibility for the fate of a species. By doing so it sent a clear message that India alone would be held accountable for the future of wild tigers. That commitment – nearly unprecedented – led to a rare example of a major Asian species achieving a sustained recovery (the third ‘R’) in the parts of India where resources were focused.
Today, while problems and challenges linger, India remains committed to ensuring that tigers are conserved effectively within its boundaries. Similarly, in the Western Forest Complex in Thailand, the Thai Government is taking responsibility for protecting its tigers and taking bold steps to overcome the poaching pressures.
This World Conservation Congress highlights the many ways in which the international community – through knowledge, collaboration, resources and a shared conviction – can assist governments, local communities, and civil society in reaching their conservation goals. However, these resources only have value if governments take ultimate responsibility for conserving the species within their borders. Nowhere is this now more necessary than in Asia, a continent fully in charge of its own destiny and that of its species, with – in most but not all cases – the capacity and resources to succeed.
We recognize the challenges, we know how to recover species and habitats, and we stand ready to support those governments that have accepted that the responsibility is ultimately theirs.
Elizabeth L. Bennett, PhD, is Vice President for Species Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Joe Walston, PhD, is Executive Director for the WCS Asia Program.