More than 1,300 conservationists from 87 countries descended on Kuala Lumpur to attend one of the world’s biggest conferences on conservation biology.
Themed “Conservation Beyond Boundaries: Connecting Biodiversity With Communities, Governments And Stakeholders”, the Inter-national Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) was held for the first time in Malaysia.
The five-day event at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre in July saw scientists, stakeholders, students, conservation agency personnel – and even religious leaders – coming together to talk about everything and anything to do with conservation.
The biennial conference is organised by the Society for Conservation Biology; the last time it was held in Asia was in Beijing in 2009.
The 29th edition came at a time when there is no greater urgency in trying to stem the biodiversity loss that comes from climate change, unsustainable consumption and development, and the illegal wildlife trade around the world.
The gathering was also significant for being held a year before the Conference of the Parties on the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China, where conservationists are hoping to reach a “New Deal” for nature.
The opening plenary session on the first day of the conference on July 22 featured Fabien Cousteau of the Ocean Learning Centre (and grandson of famous oceanographic explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau).
In his talk on “Plastic Solutions: What’s Good For The Environment Is Good For Business”, the environmentalist stressed the need to make that connection between the corporate sector and the environment in ensuring the planet’s sustainability.
This was followed by a panel discussion on “Plastics: Perspectives From A South-East Asia Country”.
Other topics that saw lively discussions included the illegal trade in wildlife, human-animal conflict, invasion of alien species, the role of faith in conservation, biodiversity and genetics, climate change, conservation fundraising, and resource extraction.
A To Z Of Everything Green
One of the most interesting plenary sessions was by Taiwanese environmental statistician Prof Anne Chao from National Tsing Hua University’s Institute of Statistics.
Known for her work in estimating the size and diversity of wildlife populations, she proved to be a hit among attendees, many of whom stayed back for selfies or a private discussion with their idol.
A critical issue that came up for a plenary discussion was the continued survival of the Sumatran rhino, a species that now numbers only around 80 individuals in the wild globally, including a single female in Sabah.
There were also talks and courses on career development in conservation, screenings, exhibitions on the latest research by universities and green groups, booths selling telemetry devices for wildlife and, interestingly, a talk on reforestation by a guitar-maker; emphasising the breadth of this conference, even BBC representatives were around to hear pitches for their Planet Earth documentary series.
Among the larger conservation groups present were the National Geographic Society, the British Ecological Society, WWF, Borneo Rhino Alliance and Wildlife SOS.
Speaking on the third day of the congress, SCB Malaysia Chapter president Assoc Prof Dr Wong Ee Phin said the event had been very exciting, with interesting speakers from all over the world, and the latest technology and science in conservation.
“I hope that Malaysian researchers who attended the congress will be inspired by all the knowledge shared here. And I hope that they will foster collaborations and build relationships with others to advance conservation,” she said, calling the congress a “very good opportunity” for networking and exposure for local scientists.
The KL Declaration
Delegates, said Wong, also came up with a declaration for ICCB 2019, calling for conservation researchers to work together and not confine their work to within their own boundaries.
“Because we are all working together to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, we should put conservation interest for the planet first,” she said.
The delegates and the Society for Conservation Biology policy board endorsed the 2019 Kuala Lumpur Declaration, entitled “The Species Extinction Crisis Is A Crisis Of Humanity”, during the congress.
Among other calls to action, the declaration calls on everyone to work together to reduce or halt species extinctions, develop policies and incentives to produce and consume food sustainably with minimum waste, link biodiversity conservation effects to climate change, and identify social and economic incentives for biodiversity conservation.
“Investment in conservation needs to increase by at least two orders of magnitude to compete with economic pressures for unsustainable exploitation,” was one of the statements included in the declaration.
Wong said plastics – or rather, plastic waste – was a hot topic this time because it poses one of the biggest problems to marine conservation right now.
“We had lots of news on how whales and turtles are dying from consuming plastic, and some insights from speakers on the danger microplastics pose to the health of smaller organisms and humans.
“We need to discuss how we can try to clean up plastics in the marine environment so that biodiversity can thrive. At the same time, we have to balance this with the economic and consumer factors.
“So there are many intrinsic problems that we need to solve,” she said, adding that “in general, there was a consensus on the need to reduce single-use plastics – although banning single-use plastics might not be feasible for certain sectors such as the medical field – and closing the loop via the circular economy to stop plastic waste leakage to the environment.
“It’s a global issue. That’s why ICCB invited government officials, industry players as well as conservationists to talk about plastics,” Wong said.
Several conservationists – including Malaysia’s 73-year-old Kevin Hiew Wai Phang – were honoured with recognition for their lifelong work during the event.
Hiew received the prestigious Edward T. LaRoe III Memorial Award for his work in establishing some of Malaysia’s first few marine parks as well as his support for the Coral Triangle initiative, a vast area encompassing waters off the coasts of Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste, and containing at least 500 species of reefs.
Others recognised with the same award were Mark Schaffer for his work in developing and implementing policies and programmes to conserve biodiversity and promote climate adaptation.
The Distinguished Service Award went to Oxford University’s Prof EJ Milner-Gulland and Australian Professor of Environmental Science Richard Kingsford while Canadian Aerin Jacob was presented with the Early Career Conservationist Award and Mexico’s Tuyeni Heita Mwampamba, the Conservation Beacon Award.
The next ICCB meeting is likely to be held in an African country in 2021.