Tectonic shifts at Conservation Asia

Emiel de Lange
The participants of Conservation Asia 2018
The participants of Conservation Asia 2018

This summer the Asia section of the Society for Conservation Biology held their biannual conference, Conservation Asia, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Together with three other members of ICCS (Harriet Ibbett, Hunter Doughty and Munib Khanyari), I went to share some of the early results from my PhD and to find out about the research happening across Asia.

Several hundred conservationists and researchers working across Asia gathered. We were hosted by the American University of Central Asia, in their impressive modern building on the outskirts of the city.

I appreciated the opportunity to hear from groups and places not always prominent in big international conferences. For example, sessions focused on how Central Asia is changing under the influence of climate change or Chinese infrastructure projects (the Belt and Road initiative), or opened my eyes to environmental issues in a large region to which I had previously paid little attention. I also enjoyed presentations from the large contingent of young conservationists from the Nature Conservation Foundation India who shared an optimistic and forward-thinking perspective on conservation across that vast country: from tropical fisheries to snow leopards in the Himalayas.

The thought-provoking keynotes were equally revealing. Hearing from Professor Lu Zhi from China and Vidya Athreya from WCS India was a highlight for me. Both speakers took the opportunity to reflect on their distinguished careers in conservation and to muse on the unresolved questions they’d encountered through their respective experiences. Both talks were panoramic and touched on many interesting issues, but one thing common to both struck a chord with me: the role of culture, pride, and the sacred, in motivating conservation. These are things that traditional conservationists, biologists, or economists, have struggled to understand and use in their work. Both speakers gave numerous examples of where they’d observed these things playing a powerful role. Lu Zhi spoke about the Panda Honey enterprise that was benefitting a community in China living near pandas. Although the community was earning less than they could with other livelihoods (such as poaching), the sense of ownership of the Panda Honey enterprise and identity was encouraging the youth to stay and build their community in a sustainable way, rather than migrate to the cities. Vidya Athreya spoke about the role of big cats as important cultural symbols in Hindu folklore and mythology, and how this has led to tolerance and coexistence in many parts of India.

These phenomena were presented as questions needing further research, and undoubtedly, they do. But what I felt was lacking was a recognition that scholars in fields from the humanities, anthropology, and other social sciences have developed a rich and relevant literature that is there for conservationists to draw on. Throughout the conference I noticed a similar pattern: conservation biologists working in the field would give a presentation about the ecological data they had collected, how they realised that as well as the nature side of the equation the human side of the equation needed to be solved too, and then share their attempts at doing so. However, often, the solutions proposed, such as raising awareness in local communities, often seemed simplistic, and didn’t draw on the increasing body of conservation social science. The large number of talks focussed on dealing with social issues suggests that things are heading in the right direction, but I came away with the sense that the type of interdisciplinary work done at ICCS is still all too rare, and that we need to work much harder to share and make our work available to conservationists working across the world.

My little contribution to the conference was an attempt to do just that. I spent last year investigating wildlife poisoning behaviours in Northern Cambodia and presented the results of these investigations. I then discussed and proposed some possible solutions grounded in a social marketing approach and drawing on theory from social-psychology.

Thanks to all the participants who shared their thoughts with me following my presentation. I would like to thank the Society for Conservation Biology for awarding me a student travel grant and giving me the opportunity to attend!

Receiving a student travel award from SCB Asia chair, Tony Lynam.
Receiving a student travel award from SCB Asia chair, Tony Lynam.