Will the third Symposium of Contemporary Conservation Practice (SCCP 2014) be, in retrospect, an iconic conservation landmark? If one glances in the rear view mirror, so to speak, and one is seated in our ‘Sustainable future for All’ Wildlands Conservation Trust (WCT) vehicle, then there is reason to believe it will be just that. Equally, as one peers through the mist drifting across the conservation highway post the Symposium, one will be want to assess how much it has inspired conservationists to depart with new energy and passion for their work.
The Symposium stems from a history of science and practice in Natal Parks Board (NPB) and, more recently, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW). I remember bringing journalists from the National Geographic Italia, to meet the then director of NPB, Dr George Hughes in the late 1980s. They were captivated by the story he told and the evidence of practice of the provincial conservation body. The ensuing article in the publication reflected the special landscapes of our provincial protected areas through stunning photography and the realisation that one was encountering a world class organisation at work. While the transformation from NPB to EKZNW has not been a smooth or uncomplicated one, the organisation continues to boast a significant scientific capability and committed conservation practice on the ground. Today, Dr Mkhize leads an organisation that has the ability to engage creatively with communities embedded in the landscape in which formal provincial protected areas are found, and to adhere to sound science and practice of conservation.
What SCCP achieves, is the embodiment of that philosophy of science and practice, with a wide range of partners. It also reflects contributions from local to international perspectives. Against this ‘glance behind’, the burning question is, looking beyond SSCP 2014, ‘To what extent will Symposium delegates and conservation partners at the Symposium identify critical debates and offer solutions to issues that have a wide societal as well as conservation relevance?’.
I want to suggest three ideas as a backdrop to reflect on this question and provide a context for reviewing SCCP 2014. The WWF Living Planet Report 2014 contends that the state of the world’s biodiversity is in serious jeopardy: ‘..the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish across the globe is, on average, about half the size it was 40 years ago.’ Amazing! Point one: biodiversity conservation in 2014 is under greater stress than ever, and our delegates must show us how to imagine work that can halt, reverse of slow down the negative biodiversity trends identified in the Report. And the news is that KwaZulu-Natal is cited as one of those special places that have iconic work in progress that can show the way forward. A related issue is the focus of WCT and the Symposium organisers have placed on young students to participate in events such as SCCP 2014. We must develop pools of leadership to build on the iconic work being done in conservation nerve-centres around the country. They are biodiversity stewards going forward.
Sara Scherr and Jeffrey McNeely, writing in the Transactions of the Royal Society, note that the model of land use which segregates agricultural production from areas managed for biodiversity conservation is now largely inappropriate. Agricultural landscapes can be designed and managed to host wild biodiversity. ‘…practitioners, scientists and indigenous land managers are adapting, designing and managing diverse types of ‘ecoagriculture’ landscapes to generate positive co-benefits for production, biodiversity and local people.’ Point two: too often we think in ‘dichotomies’: either/or. It is time to embrace the complexity of contemporary development, and conservation within it, and develop visions for seeing complementarity rather than otherness in the work around us. Our work at WCT, and at Dartmoor farm in the Karkloof midlands of the Province for example, speaks to the idea of such complementarity. Ecoagriculture is now well established in the Western Cape and more attention needs to be placed on these principles in KwaZulu-Natal.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) has just published Guidelines for custodianship in South Africa: rewarding conservation friendly farming. Compiled by Dr Ian Little and Cobus Theron, the publication makes the point that ‘…conservation of biological diversity outside of protected areas relies purely on the commitment and actions of private and communal landowners’ and that, ‘Custodianship is the formal recognition given to individuals of the public at large in acknowledgement of their voluntary commitment to conservation.’ Point 3: Do not look behind you to see who is going to make a positive difference to our world. Each of us must be thought and action leaders committed to developing a sustainable future for all. Conservation agencies such as EKZNW are custodians of our formally protected areas and preach a message of biodiversity conservation that has relevance beyond those perimeters. Partner organisation such as WCT will increasingly have to shoulder the conservation of our wider landscapes. Conservancies are one such vehicle for this work. Individual citizens, and interest groups must begin to produce a national community of practice for biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods. This is the vision of WCT and it is one we passionately promote. It goes without saying therefore that we are delighted to be a partner in SCCP and the growing impact it is making as a space for relevant learning and conservation ideals.
Professor Thandi Nzama, Deputy Chairperson, KwaZulu-Natal Conservation Board, will preside over the last session of the Symposium, and the inimitable Roger Porter will reflect on the outcomes of SCCP 2014 in the session. Last year, I mused on the question of whether or not the Symposium was a cradle for new ideas and virile leadership needed to address the many taxing issues of biodiversity conservation. I think the Symposium delivered on both counts. We look for a continuing legacy of being inspired by our speakers and participants in SCCP 2014.
Professor Robert Fincham
Chairman of the Board
Wildlands Conservation Trust