Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

What Sustainable Wildlife Conservation Really Looks Like

The future of threatened wildlife such as these endangered forest elephants will depend upon the next generation of conservation leaders now being supported by the WCS Graduate Scholarship Program. Photo credit: Mike Kock/WCS.

By Peter Zahler
December 14, 2017

[NOTE: This commentary, the first a 2-part series on training the next generation of conservationists working to protect wildlife and wild places across the globe, originally ran at the National Geographic Voices blog.]

Conservation is a long-term effort. Many of the field programs I have been affiliated with have been in existence for 20 or 30 years. One reason for this is that it takes years to collect the data to really understand the threats and potential solutions to a landscape, whether it is poaching of wildlife (local subsistence? outsiders profiting?), predator conflict (poor livestock management? loss of local prey species?), and so on.

Then it may take years to successfully implement actions to solve those threats — building trust with local communities, trying and adapting innovative solutions. Each of these are long-term steps. Meanwhile, new threats may arise that need to be dealt with to avoid having years of work come undone: a canine distemper outbreak in a tiger population that is finally stabilized after decades of poaching, or a new dam or mine threatening a recently designated protected area.

I know first-hand the long-term efforts required for conservation, as I have been in the field of international wildlife conservation for over thirty years. I’ve worked hard at my career, and I’ve been lucky — but if I were honest I would have to admit that this career was mine to lose. I was born into a solid middle-class life in the United States, I received a great education, and I had a wonderful support structure in terms of friends, family, and colleagues who helped me along the way.

Now compare that to a young man from the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a young woman from a rural Mayan village in Belize, a Cambodian born and raised in a refugee camp in Thailand, or a young Afghan man forced to flee with his family to Pakistan from decades of violent conflict in his home country.

Realistically, the chances of success for these young people, in any field much less in wildlife conservation, are miniscule. Hard work, luck, and even support from family and friends will only get someone so far when they start from such an incredibly disadvantaged position.

Wakhan National Park’s long-term protection — and the protection of its iconic wildlife such as this snow leopard, Marco Polo sheep, and other species — is being guaranteed by two brilliant Afghan conservation leaders now completing their PhDs in conservation at international institutions of academic excellence. Photo credit: @WCS Afghanistan.

The international community is coming around to understanding that the people best positioned to ensure successful conservation on the ground are local. They know the language, culture, threats, and potential solutions better than any foreigner could, even after decades of living in a region. They are invested in a way that no outsider can be, and their lives, hopes, and goals are directly tied to these landscapes and to improving the situation in their countries.

However, especially in the developing world (where much of the remaining biodiversity can be found), opportunities for professional development are limited or even non-existent. Because of this the careers of future local conservation leaders from these countries can be dead-ended as surely and definitively as a mud track that dies out deep in the Amazon rainforest.

But there is hope. A series of programs — the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Graduate Scholarship Program, and similar scholarship programs run by the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) — offer scholarship funding to the next generation of conservation leaders from the developing world. In some cases they also provide support in finding, applying, and getting into international institutions of academic excellence, and mentoring throughout their studies and into their next professional steps in life.

The results have been staggering. For the WCS Graduate Scholarship Program, even with over a hundred students entering the very best schools in the world — Yale, Oxford, Cornell, Florida — 99 percent of our international scholars have graduated or are on track to do so; and almost all have returned to bring their new skills to bear on conservation problems in their home countries or regions.

Just a handful of our conservation leader examples from the WCS program include the Country Director of the WCS Uganda Program; WWF Deputy Wildlife Practice Leader and Innovation Lead; Director of the World Elephant Centre Project; Senior Environmental Specialist for the World Bank; Nigeria’s Cross River Gorilla Landscape Director; Head of Biodiversity for FFI in Indonesia; and Director of the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research.

Wakhan National Park was announced as Afghanistan’s second protected area in 2014, after eight years of hard work by WCS staff. Photo credit: @WCS Afghanistan.

As for the young conservationists I described initially, our Graduate Scholar from the Democratic Republic of Congo is applying to get his Masters degree in forest elephant conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, while our Belize Scholar will be getting her Masters degree in coastal marine resource management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Our Cambodian Scholar will be getting his Masters degree on wildlife disease threats at the International One Health Program, while our Afghan Scholar, who spent much of his formative years across the border in Peshawar, is now getting his PhD at the University of Florida on geospatial modelling of snow leopards in Afghanistan’s second protected area, Wakhan National Park.

Our Afghan Scholar says that after he graduates he expects to assist his country in the development of resilient land-use plans that will help preserve the rich fauna and flora of Afghanistan and contribute to the reconstruction of his country after nearly 40 years of civil unrest and conflict.

Now that is long-term, sustainable conservation.

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Peter Zahler is the Director of the WCS Training and Capacity Building Program, as well as the Senior Advisor of Conservation Strategy for the WCS Health Program and the Coordinator of the WCS Snow Leopard Program.

Originally published at on December 14, 2017.



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Wildlife Conservation Society

Wildlife Conservation Society

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.