Calls for action at Controversial Conservation debate SEARCH NEWS


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 »