A natural source of optimism
The biodiversity that is vital for all our well-being is eroding at an alarming rate. Jon Paul Rodríguez, Chair of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), looks at what will motivate us to make change and the technologies that can help.
Impact: Why does biodiversity matter?
Jon Paul Rodríguez: Everything we eat, everything we drink, the air we breathe comes from biodiversity. We are very closely connected to all other species. We depend on them and they depend on us. But for me that is only the pragmatic perspective. From a personal point of view, seeing animals and plants around me makes me feel good. I spent a lot of time in nature as a child, and that triggered a lifelong love.
According to the IUCN Red List, more than 32,000 species are currently threatened with extinction. How bad is the crisis?
Species have been going extinct forever, so people ask why we should worry about it now. The answer is because it is happening at a much higher rate. Fossil records tell us what we call the background extinction rate: one species per million species per year on average. Currently it is about one thousand times higher.
Jon Paul Rodríguez
What are the principle causes?
One cause is overexploitation, meaning we use a species more than it is able to regenerate. Another is habitat destruction through industrialization, urbanization and agriculture, and a third is invasive species. Most of the extinctions we have seen on islands are closely linked to invasive species. Small birds or insects are typically threatened by habitat destruction. Bigger species like whales, tigers or elephants are heavily impacted by over-exploitation.
What is the biggest hurdle to dealing with biodiversity loss – do we lack knowledge, resources, policies or will?
It’s a mix of all these things. There have been lots of attempts over the last decades to explain why we should do conservation, and I often use economic arguments around the value of biodiversity to convince people. But ultimately I think it is a personal choice about the world you want. The mathematical ecologist, Robert May, used to say, “sure, there will be life on Earth in 100 years – there’s no question about that – but would you like to live on that Earth?” That’s the right question. We will be able to live in a more homogenized world. Maybe there will be more pandemics that wipe out populations. It will be different, but it will have life. It’s our choice how we want to shape the future.
How does the IUCN contribute to solving these challenges and what is your role?
I represent the Species Survival Commission within the IUCN. It is a global network of nearly 10,000 experts from 174 countries. Our main role is to provide the evidence base for conservation decision- making and to guide conservation policy. Historically, it was very Eurocentric. But we are diversifying our leadership to include more people from the regions where the species live and we are trying to identify emerging leaders, too. Social sciences and communications have both become a bigger part of what we do. We work with zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens. Those organizations are experts in dealing with the public and communicating and creating awareness.
How do attitudes toward conservation and nature vary around the world?
Opinions about conservation as an idea are generally positive around the world, but the r eality of conservation on the ground can be much more complicated. Attitudes towards wildlife depend on culture and on how communities benefit from conservation. For example, Asiatic lions are widely tolerated by local communities in the Gir forests in Gujarat, India, whereas in many other parts of the world there can be strong retaliation to human-wildlife conflict events.
What are the big conservation issues in your home country?
Modern Venezuela was built on the extraction of oil and minerals, so our perspective on nature is very influenced by mining – nature is a resource from which you extract the things you need. This also influences our relationship with animals. If you see someone selling a parrot on the road, the reaction is typically tolerant – if people are poor, they have to sell something to live.
I derive my optimism from seeing the capacity of nature to recover.
Citizen science is making an increasing contribution to conservation – what is driving this?
There is something incredibly powerful about the cell phone. I’m a big fan of the apps iNaturalist and eBird. You take a picture with a georeference and send it to the cloud where the image is then identified by experts. Those data sets are then fed into the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. That means everyone can contribute to the data that supports decision-making at the global level. Early in my career, the only valid biodiversity data reference was a plant or animal specimen in a flask in a museum. That was the only way to prove the identity of what you had observed. Today, most records on GBIF come from iNaturalist. The power of a distributed network of citizens is huge. I see a lot of potential for that to grow in the future.
What other technologies are changing the way we do conservation?
Remote sensing and satellites have completely changed the way we look at land cover. Some satellites can even go just under the water and see what is happening with coral reefs. With environmental genomics you can take a sample of water from a river and tell from the environmental DNA present what was swimming in that water. Genetics has also made it easier to control the illegal trade in species – it is much harder to lie about where they come from. But the biggest change is that these tools are free to use. When I started my career, a satellite image cost thousands of dollars. Now you can download the whole catalogue of Landsat for free.
Genetics has made it easier to control the illegal species trade.
Which emerging technologies are you most excited about?
I always take a step back when I look at these things. For example, in the IUCN world we produce a lot of data sets and yet they are not really connected. What I hope to achieve in my role is to have these different tools integrated. It’s not very cutting-edge. But sometimes we are distracted by exciting new tools and leave behind the building blocks. Imagine a huge cloud-based website with all these data sets integrated in a systematic way and anyone in the world can access them and extract the data they want – whether it’s for their country or their back yard. We’re moving toward that, but we aren’t there yet.
How effective is biodiversity offsetting or putting an economic valuation on ecosystems and natural capital?
Both tools fulfil a purpose and are important but ultimately what is driving the private sector and governments toward conservation is pressure from the public. I see more creativity, originality and forward thinking from subnational governments because they are more directly connected to their constituencies and more prepared to experiment and try different approaches. That’s the same for the private sector, too. They are much more nimble than national governments or international organizations.
Are you optimistic that we can achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal to halt biodiversity loss by 2030?
I derive my optimism from seeing the capacity of nature to recover. Given a chance it will bounce back. Of course, there is no way to recover an extinct species. For example, when I was at university here in Caracas we had a national park nearby with a road crossing it. The road collapsed because of heavy rains and was closed for several months. Within three months you could not see the road anymore. It was reclaimed by the forest. With Covid-19 there have been lots of examples of animals showing up in places we haven’t seen them before, like whales jumping in coastal bays normally busy with shipping. Once you give nature a chance, it comes back. That’s the reason why I am hopeful.