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Candidate for IUCN President

By Dr. John G. Robinson
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Dr. John G. Robinson

Joan L. Tweedy Chair in Conservation Strategy
Wildlife Conservation Society

Why should you be president of the IUCN?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), I believe, has a unique obligation to advance nature conservation at the intersection of government and civil society, including Indigenous members. Defined by its Commissions, IUCN’s niche is to use scientific knowledge to inform policy and practice, and sets the standards for the global conservation dialogue. This diversity of entities, structures, perspectives, and expertise give IUCN huge convening power, but in recent years it has become more polarized. 

Dr. John G. Robinson

Political consideration and scientific knowledge are confused, and IUCN is no longer the go-to entity that informs key conventions and treaties. We are in danger of being just another constituency. I have the background and experience to help re-establish the role and authority of IUCN, including a deep knowledge of IUCN: For the last eight years I have been a vice president of Council, and the regional councillor for North America and Caribbean. 

I have been active in IUCN since 1985 when I joined the Species Survival Commission, and served on its Steering Committee between 1991 and 2010.  As chair of the SU Advisory Committee, I helped write IUCN’s Sustainable Use Policy, and I was the IUCN representative on the TRAFFIC Board for 12 years. I understand the organization, its processes, and challenges.       

What is the principal challenge facing nature conservation, and how will you lead the IUCN to address it?

Nature is inadequately valued by too many societies and economies. Nature is ignored, treated as a free good, unsustainably exploited, and inadequately stewarded.  IUCN has a central role within the world community to speak for Nature. To strengthen its authority and mandate to do so, IUCN needs to act more like a Union. By forging a consensus among its Members, Commissions and Programmes, by recognizing their interdependencies, and by bringing scientific information and knowledge to bear on conservation policy and practice, IUCN can become such a voice. 

To do that, I will strengthen the governance of the Union, establish mechanisms to engage members more than just at our Congresses every four years, shift the focus of the Secretariat to become more of a service provider to members (while recognizing the huge expertise the Secretariat has), strengthen the Union’s engagement with multilateral and bilateral funders, and open up the financial model supporting IUCN. I will seek greater financial support for our Commissions. I will build on the success of IUCN’s approach to gender equity and open up the Union to new constituencies such as youth and Indigenous communities. And from that greater Union, we will be able to speak more for Nature.                

Describe a direct personal experience that has shaped your view of zoos and aquariums, and how it will shape your vision for partnership between the IUCN and zoos and aquariums.

My whole career in conservation has been bounded and nurtured by zoos and aquariums. As a high school student, John Eisenberg and Devra Kleiman inspired me, and first argued for the primacy of zoos in the conservation endeavor. Years later, I would assume a postdoctoral fellowship with them at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Together we would design a program (which I founded and directed for 10 years) to provide graduate conservation education for students from tropical countries at the University of Florida and a field training course at the Zoo’s Front Royal center. Inspired by my students to engage more in conservation, I wrote to Bill Conway at the New York Zoological Society, and moved to New York to become the director of Wildlife Conservation International. Over the next 30 years, working out of the Bronx Zoo, from its beginnings as a small field unit, we would grow into the Wildlife Conservation Society, which now has over 4,000 conservation staff in 60 odd countries around the world. I believe that zoos and aquariums have an indispensable niche within the IUCN family, capturing the love of animals and nature, which inspires so much of what the Union does.            

With zoonotic diseases and COVID-19 taking center stage, what role do you see for IUCN in combating wildlife trade (both legal and illegal) that poses a risk to human or animal health?

IUCN’s ‘One Programme’ aligns the activities of members, commissions, and Secretariat. The Draft  2021-2024 Programme is structured around the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDG framework: SDG15.7 promotes the sustainability of the legal trade, while  proscribing the illegal wildlife trade (poaching and trafficking). The latter poses the greatest risk to human and animal health. 

In most countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, the greatest risk of disease transmission and the emergence of zoonotic diseases is in newly urbanizing populations and in cities where wild meat is a desirable cultural and gustatory luxury of rich elites. While laws and regulations are often not enforced, the transport of wildlife species, the butchery of live animals, and the sale of wild meat in these urban markets is usually illegal. 

Progress towards stopping the illegal trade and achieving SDG15.7 would control or modulate the sale of wild species for human consumption, especially in urban markets, and have direct positive impacts on ‘One Health’. The three pillars of IUCN have a central role in influencing national policy framework, consulting on NBSAPs, influencing the legal and regulatory environment, aligning bilateral and multilateral funding, and helping government agencies and civil society to implement effective conservation action.  

A preponderance of evidence suggests that we are losing the struggle to save animals from extinction and to conserve the planet’s biological diversity—losing badly. Do you agree, and where do you see a reason for optimism?

Not only are species going extinct, but for many, their abundance, ecological functionality, and the services they provide is declining. We indeed need “to bend the curve of biodiversity loss.” 

Species decline for local (exploitation, habitat loss) and global reasons (disease, climate change). No single solution suffices, but we recognize the general need to provide adequate “space for nature”.  Protected areas are the workhorse to conserve ecological systems, but they are not located in the best places, they are too small, and woefully underfunded and understaffed. 

Nevertheless, the post 2020 CBD dialogue, the adoption of nature-based solutions through the UNFCCC, and the UN Decade for Restoration provide an emerging new vision for conservation, and slogans like 30% by 2030 illustrate an emerging optimism for a global commitment to protect wild lands and seas. 

And while the impact of COVID-19 has been a tragedy for millions of us, it also might give us an opportunity to reset our relationship with Nature. IUCN can influence governments and the private sector to shift financial subsidies away from environmental harm and encourage investments in ecological restoration and green infrastructure and provide financial support for parks and protected areas.           

Read more about the IUCN Presidential race in Dan Ashe's blog. Visit the IUCN website to explore the full slate of candidates for IUCN Council.

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