IUCN International Otter Congress 2014
Nicknamed “the Marvellous City” and famous for its Carnaval celebration and statue of Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro in August 2014 hosted the 12th triennial meeting of reportedly one of the strongest specialist groups of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC).
Attended by more than 60 environmental professionals and students, this Otter Specialist Group (OSG) congress titled “An Action Plan for the Future” was opened on 11 August by OSG Chair Nicole Duplaix from Oregon State University, referring to the vision of the IUCN SSC:
“A just world that values and conserves nature through positive action to reduce the loss of diversity of life on earth.”
In her introduction, Duplaix reported a 90% decline within sea otter (Enhydra lutris) populations in Western Alaska due to overfishing which caused killer whales (Orcinus orca) to shift from a diet of fish to one of otters. This case reminds us of the fragility and interconnectedness of species within these complex systems.
Representatives of the sponsors spoke of the importance of the ways in which we think about conservation.
A very raw and heartfelt message from Silvana Campello of Instituto Araguaia, Brazil gave the audience goosebumps as she compassionately spoke about natural areas being much more than just little green dots on the map. She added,
“If we don’t stand by the otters, who will?”
The opening lecture from Fernando Fernandez of the Rio de Janeiro Federal University talked of fifty thousand years of mammalian extinctions. Despite two thirds of large mammals now being extinct (as he pointed out, owing to human causes rather than climate as previously thought), Fernandez remarked,
“Moral condemnation makes no sense.”
Over the course of the congress, lectures and oral presentations were delivered on conflicts, genetics, and recent findings and results, among others.
Why Conserve co-founder Nathan Roberts gave one presentation about the scent marking behaviour of Neotropical otters (Lontra longicaudis), and another about developing field techniques, which additionally challenged research and conservation motives. Nearly 40 works on various themes were also presented during two evening poster sessions.
IUCN SSC Otter Specialist Group Continental Coordinators, Red List Authority, and Chair also provided their respective summaries (above).
The scientific merit was impressive.
However, with the exception of a few contributions during this five-day meeting, a lasting impression was felt that conservation was not the responsibility of the researcher. Instead, Roberts suggests,
the researcher is perhaps more appropriately considered an observer than directly a conservationist.
One OSG member questioned responsibilities, asking
“Is conservation the role of international NGOs, government agencies or international agreements?”
The closing ceremony delivered future prospects for otter conservation.
In his closing speech, Jordi Ruiz-Olmo, Directorate General for the Environment and Biodiversity of the Government of Catalonia, Spain shared the conservation history of the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra). From a time of persecution as fish predators in 1900, through increased conservation efforts in the 1980s to 2000s,
today there is less economic support and conservation effort as we face challenges in finding solutions to conflict situations.
Looking ahead, Ruiz-Olmo stressed the need for:
i) useful and applied science,
ii) resolution of real problems and needs, and
iii) greater interest in education to address our present failures to translate to the general public, mass media, managers and politicians.
These proposed targets echoed a few points from earlier presentations and other isolated comments, including that of Juan Valqui of Proyecto Lontra felina, Peru:
“If [you are] not doing education, work with an NGO that does.”
In the closing minutes, several voices raised their opinions. Alejandro Valenzuela of the National Parks Administration, Argentina advocated the citizen science approach on the belief that
“once the people know the otter, [we] will have more effort to conserve.”
Gabriela Galastri of Instituto Ekko Brasil Otter Projeto, Brazil added,
“[we have to] improve our communication with the public in a way they will feel part of the problem…and [understand] the role of the animal in the environment.
“…we have all the data and information…we just need to improve the way we talk with them.
“…and I think we can change the way we look at them and we can change the way they look at the animal. We just need to work together.”
Concluding personal remarks:
Nathan felt these final statements are really at the core of conservation and would have been better staged more prominently during the course of the congress which was otherwise considered somewhat of a scientific meeting. Chair of the IUCN SSC Species Conservation Planning Sub-Committee, Mark Stanley Price stressed the significance of dealing with “real people” and embedding local culture in policy decisions and actions, or else strategies may in fact lead to inaction.
Rounding off his lecture on Thursday morning, in alignment with the vision of Why Conserve, Stanley Price said:
“Otters share a lot of our interests. There is a lot we can do in this world to help otters and help ourselves.”