Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

Milken summit: Species conservation has been 'sidelined' by climate change fight

UAE project looks to expand as biodiversity funding dries up elsewhere

The Houbara bustard is classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Courtesy International Fund For Houbara Conservation
The Houbara bustard is classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Courtesy International Fund For Houbara Conservation

The job of saving animal species from extinction is proving far tougher as crucial funding is diverted to tackle climate change, experts have warned.

Campaigners said a generation of conservationists risked being abandoned as cuts to budgets meant lower salaries and fewer people willing to do the work.

The stark prediction came as the issue of protecting animal diversity was raised at a meeting at the Milken Institute summit in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

Philanthropists and financiers were told that while addressing the threat of climate change was critical, more targeted help was also needed to prevent under-threat species from being wiped out.

“The overall number of rangers in protected areas is dwindling,” said Frederic Launay, the CEO of Panthera, a wild cat conservation charity.

“The solutions are there – it’s not rocket science. It is boots on the ground, it is people. They [endangered species] cannot take care of themselves.

“For that, we need to recruit a new generation of conservation biologists. We have less and less knowledge of species, less people, for a very simple reason. There are no jobs.

“Most of us are earning a pittance compared to a lot of other professionals. Most are moving away from conservation, not because they are not interested, but because they just cannot make a living out of it.”

Conservationists spoke out on the first day of the two-day Milken Institute conference in Abu Dhabi.

The summit aims to address some of the region’s most pressing challenges, including water security, the refugee crisis and rising youth unemployment.

Delegates heard how targeted financial assistance had a long track-record of bringing animal species back from the brink of extinction.

The American bison was saved with the help of media mogul Ted Turner, while in the MENA region the Arabian oryx and the Houbara bustard have only survived with the help of generous financing.

“Large environmental organisations traditionally focused on species,” said Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, managing director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

“What happened was the conservation movement was not winning the battle so a lot [of people] diverted attention to address the root causes – climate change, habitat destruction, economic development.

“What we’re saying is they’re absolutely important, but you cannot assume, by dealing with those issues, it will trickle into protection of species.

“You need both. But the approach to protecting species doesn’t need to be so grand - it needs to be small, but consistent.

"That’s why the MBZ fund is quite unique in its approach. We believe it’s much better to give $10,000 to 10 projects for 10 years, than to give $10m to one project for one year. It’s the boots on the ground that will ultimately protect nature.”

Ms Al Mubarak said the fund operated as an endowment, with its value now standing at $30m.

All proceeds go to conservation projects. However, only 10 per cent of applicants get a grant, meaning there is a “huge opportunity” to scale up its work.

The fund is looking at new ideas, including crowdfunding to increase the fund, or opening up to donations from other philanthropists.

“We don’t focus on charismatic species, we focus on whatever the individual [applicant] is interested in,” said Ms Al Mubarak, who is also secretary general of the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi.

“We have people working on fungi, people working on insects, we have a beautiful project, with someone so passionate, about stick insects which were going extinct off the shores of New Zealand.

“Nobody will fund a stick insect – we do. We fund things that are not sexy. Sure, people will fund a car for rangers, but nobody will fund the fuel that goes into it. We will look at things people don’t want to fund that are critical for conservation.

“We have the opportunity to scale up and we’re interested in how we can make species conservation a lot more accessible to people.”

Updated: February 13, 2019 09:16 AM