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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.

Soeren Kunz/Wildfoxrunning

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

is Chair of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN, where he has held various roles since 1991. He is also founder of Provita, an organization in Venezuela that strives for innovation in conservation, with emphasis on threatened species and ecosystems.

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.

Jon Paul Rodríguez
Chair of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN

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.

Jon Paul Rodríguez
Chair of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN

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.

A marine biologist in French Polynesia performing genetic analysis of corals Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images

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.

1 As well as thinking about the economic value of natural capital, we should all ask ourselves what kind of planet we would like the Earth to be in a hundred years. 2 Technology should be used to solve challenges like integrating all the data sets we have and making them available to everyone. 3 We must bring in people from a greater diversity of geographies, backgrounds and disciplines to work in conservation. And we need to give bigger roles to younger people.
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