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Calls for action at Controversial Conservation debate

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17 October, 2013 - 14:09 -- World Land Trust
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Issues that are rarely discussed outside conservation circles were raised publicly at Controversial Conservation, a debate held by World Land Trust (WLT) at the Royal Society.

With threats to the world’s biodiversity coming from every quarter, and new threats looming daily, WLT decided it was high time to bring some of the issues to the table, despite the fact that there is resistance to discussing many of them.

This wasn’t a debate for debate’s sake and, following the presentations, there were calls to action. And, notwithstanding the seriousness of the environmental challenges raised, people went away motivated and inspired.

WLT Patron Chris Packham and the other four panellists (Vivek Menon, founder of Wildlife Trust of India, Mark Avery, former Conservation Director of RSPB, George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy and Celia Haddon, author and cat expert) spoke eloquently and passionately about their topics and were not afraid to raise contentious issues.

The opening speaker, Chris reminded those present of the scale of the problem, and warned that nature reserves face becoming museums of wildlife past. He stressed how important it was to value all wild spaces, not just those designated as nature reserves. As for the number of people on the planet: “We are doomed if we don't curb our own population growth.”

While human population is expanding rapidly, numbers of wild animals are falling dramatically. Some extreme examples: tiger numbers have plummeted from 40,000 tigers in 1961 to just 2,000 today, Black Rhino have gone from 70,000 in 1970 to 5,000 today and we have lost the Western Black Rhino in the same period. On average, one Black Rhino is poached every nine hours in South Africa.

All well and good that wildlife is thriving at Lakenheath Fen, a successful conservation project in Suffolk on land that was once a carrot field,  but on the other side of the globe a commercially motivated land grab is destroying the natural ecosystems that provide the planet with fresh water, clean air and a stable climate. Meanwhile, WLT offers a successful model of habitat conservation overseas, but in the UK land prices make land purchase for conservation unaffordable.

The second speaker, Vivek Menon responded to several of the issues raised by Chris, and presented a compelling and holistic vision of conservation that combined science, policy and spirituality. Vivek shared anecdotes of his dealings with the Indian government and the banning of dolphins in captivity, and he quoted Mahatma Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

In the second half of the evening Mark Avery's discussion of the persecution of protected birds provoked interaction with members of the audience, and George Fenwick and Celia Haddon took up amicable but opposing positions in a debate about the effect of free ranging cats on wildlife.

Speaking out for conservation

No one could describe the future of the planet as an unimportant topic, yet conservation rarely features on the political agenda, let alone in the everyday conversations of ordinary people. Despite some differences of opinion within the panel, the speakers were united in calling on those who value environmental conservation to be more vocal.

So, why doesn’t conservation make front page news? And how can people who care about wildlife make their voices heard?

“This is a democracy, we can have a say.”
(Mark Avery, former RSPB Conservation Director)

“We haven’t agitated enough,” said Mark Avery, “We’re not victims. This is a democracy, we can have a say. Change comes from people being angry.”

Mark challenged the audience to write to their MPs about conservation issues. “Make it your New Year’s resolution to write to your MP every month – and then we’ll have the beginnings of a movement.”

Celia Haddon supported these suggestions and called for people to use the written word and social media in support of conservation: “You are the media,” she told the audience. “You don’t have to wait.”

“You are the media. You don’t have to wait.”
(Celia Haddon, Author) 

George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy, warned against getting bogged down in economic arguments for or against conservation, for they will never win the day. For George, the true value of wildlife to most people is its aesthetic quality. “Economics is always a short term argument. If you have a strong feeling for wildlife in your heart, use that argument.”

Have your say

The event was tweeted live by WLT and by members of the audience (using the hashtag #WLTcc), and attracted wide media coverage. Mark’s idea of writing to MPs, for example, was echoed by several tweeters including the Wildlife Trusts.

“Controversial Conservation has done exactly what we hoped it would do,” said John Burton, WLT Chief Executive, after the event. “It has started a public debate, and thanks to social media, we can keep these discussions going.”

Members of the public are encouraged to join the debate, online questions and comments will be forwarded to panellists, and more Controversial Conservation events are planned.

More information

  • The event, which was sponsored by Sibthorp Trust, was held on 14 October 2013.
  • A podcast of the event is now available, and a video will be released in due course. Listen to the podcast »
  • You can also listen to the audio soundtrack on WLT's YouTube channel »


Submitted by Graham Game on

If all Mark Avery can suggest is writing to our MPs then biodiversity is doomed. Time to think differently for goodness sake!

Submitted by Mark Avery on

Graham - that isn't 'all' I can suggest - see my daily blog at ! But public policy has a huge impact on biodiversity - doesn't it? So you can either embark on a journey to become Prime Minister, Environment Secretary or some similar public role or, since we live in a democracy, influence those who have got there already.

Submitted by Darren Lillywhite on

I attended this event as a result of feeling that conservation is a losing battle, and I have felt this for a very long time. Being a member of several conservation charities, I was constantly receiving news of ancient woods being destroyed, species becoming extinct or heading towards extinction, and various animals being persecuted, despite being illegal. The odd story of a conservation positive, was just a brief shot in the arm. I would visit Nature Reserves, and feel empty inside, and leave earlier than I had planned. They felt sterile and contrived. More a man made relic, than a natural area under protection. The only respite I could find, was to visit my local ancient wood, which, although managed, still had remnants of natural woodland, damp areas with ferns, lichens and mosses, mature trees forming a canopy, making it dark and shady in the summer.

When I visit the Peak District, my local National Park, I feel the same as I do in the Reserves, and find my self looking for the remnants of the UK's great forests and wild places. One place I visit is Burbage Edge, which has a Conifer plantation, and lots of Sheep, but where some rocks have fallen from the edge, thus preventing the sheep's access, some Oaks have managed to survive, and have grown to form a small wooded area, as a kind of "up yours", to the surrounding area. Mosses and Lichens thrive underneath them, and that is where I sit and enjoy Nature.

I've always read books about Conservation and Ecology, but only when I read Alan Rabinowitz book "Jaguar", did my fire ignite again, he has spoken openly about the failure of Conservation. I then read George Monbiots book "Feral", in which he speaks of being "Ecologically bored", and recommends Rewilding vast areas of the UK. Suddenly, I felt alive again, other people can see this, I'm not losing the plot.

When I attended WLT's event on the 14th October, I felt another log added to my fire, this was becoming more and more common, there may start to be changes in Conservation tactics, we may start to do what is actually needed, as opposed to what people want. With people like Alan Rabinowitz, George Monbiot, Chris Packham, Mark Avery, Vivek Menon, and organisations like Trees for Life, World Land Trust, Panthera and Woodlands Trust, we may be able to give Conservation the kick up the arse it has needed for so long, but we must keep the fire going, not become complacent again, otherwise we will be condemned to walking around "Nature Reserves", and wondering why we see very little of the Natural World.

Submitted by Rachel Smith-Lyte on

3 cheers for Darren Lillywhite! I relinquished my membership of the RSPB some years ago after becoming almost completely disillusioned with their pedestrian approach and inability to appeal to 'ordinary' people and their complete evasion of the cat issue!

Submitted by Dominic Belfield on

I too attended this event and very much enjoyed it. All the speakers held up very well, Chris especially. But I would have relished more from George Fenwick and Celia Haddon, they both had such interesting takes on the whole subject but not enough time to really put their case. Anyway, it was a stimulating set of talks all round and a GREAT subject deserving of wider exploration.

Two points struck me particularly: the first and most powerful was Vivek Menon's emphasising how Tigers aren't just big and furry; they actually kill and eat people fairly regularly. It says SO VERY MUCH for the Indian culture that folkes there revere their big cats and haven't eliminated them in line with health & safety guidelines. I mean think about it.... How long to the nearest microsecond would British "countryside lovers" even countenance the mere prospect of something dangerous lurking in the undergrowth to impinge on the overall sense of human ownership and propriety of "our" lands?

That Indians still have their tigers, lions, leopards and elephants (if only just) - and all of them proven killers - together with a population upwards of a billion, is an indication of their being REAL animal lovers. Compare and contrast with us.

And the other point was why the Chinese people at large seem so resolutely immune to wildlife concerns (tiger bones, bear bile, shark fins, rhino horn, etc etc). I think I now know the answer: I've just read Frank Dikotter's book "Mao's Great Famine".

From 1958 to 1962 some 45 million people starved or were otherwise killed by Mao's 'great leap forward'. The whole country went through extreme paroxysms, those remaining alive were those who only thought of grim survival. It was a terrible winnowing process which has left long term traumatic social and psychological scars. And then came the Cultural Revolution (more turmoil and mayhem) and now all out industrial mega-growth. Who would have any time for sympathies for anything else than number one?

And by the by, I can recommend another exceptionally good book for Darren and all those other enthusiastic 20-30 year olds packing out that Royal Society debate - namely: "Wild Hope" by Andrew Balmford (Chicago, 2012). It entirely underlines everything WLT stands for without even mentioning them!

Submitted by Darren Lillywhite on

Hi Rachel, thanks for comment, I too am looking into redirecting my membership funds, but will research thoroughly before doing so, and I agree, the Cat issue is a big one, I have untold problems with cats at the bird area in the garden!

Submitted by Darren Lillywhite on

Hi Dominic, thanks for book recommendation, I'll look it up for future reading, just ordered Mark Avery's book. Interesting perspective on The Chinese, we always seem harshly on the defensive without looking into possible reasons. We live in a world of, me first, and look out for number one, so people who care for others, be they humans or animals, tend to be a minority. We can't always point the finger abroad when people in the UK are still Hare coursing, Badger baiting etc..etc.. We need more education, make Ecology part of the world wide curriculum, it's that separation from the Natural World that makes people indifferent to it, and they destroy it to make money to fill the hole it leaves in their lives.

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