No room for slothfulness, communication and collaboration are key to successful conservation

The dramatic events of 9 September in Panama caused a number of different reactions amongst the conservation community; including surprise and anger.

Personally I felt frustration. But given the chance to sleep on it (much as the sloths do), my frustration has turned to cautious optimism, as I’ve re-examined the events and the response to see what lessons could be taken forward.

The vision I have of an endangered species being crated up and moved towards a private jet for export before being intercepted by local conservation activists is particularly unsavoury for two reasons:

First, conservation is, at its heart, about people. Most extinctions today are caused by human activity, and so we have to accept that we, by and large, are the problem.

This knowledge actually puts us in a very powerful position. If we can understand our damaging behaviours, then we, as the perpetrators of those behaviours, have the power to save many endangered species from extinction. But to do that we need to communicate with each other in order to understand those behaviours and the motivations behind them.

If we want to save the world’s wonderful and endangered species from extinction, then we have to communicate that vision with transparency and be willing to hear all sides of the argument. Differences of opinion, such as those relating to how best to conserve the pygmy three-toed sloth, are to be expected. But these can only be resolved if we have open discussion. So for me the foundation of good conservation is effective communication.

Second, conservation is complex. It incorporates all of the world’s social and natural complexity and dynamism and for any situation we witness multiple drivers of biodiversity loss in action. There are plenty of different challenges that need our attention, and a desperate need for collaboration and what we term ‘joined up thinking’ and coordination to design conservation strategies that work together to meet this complexity. That’s why any conservation intervention that acts in isolation is a risky thing and can undermine other efforts if not properly integrated.

Estimates for the rate of species extinctions range, but a conservative estimate might be 10,000 species a year, which equates to just over one species lost every hour. Clearly, there is plenty of work to be done. There should be no need for infighting, but a need for collaboration in this enormous and noble task of conservation that we are undertaking.

When these basic building blocks of communication and collaboration are in place, we do see great successes. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme is a collaboration of three international organisations working with local groups, across three countries with combined efforts leading to an increase in mountain gorilla numbers since the programme began.

Back in Panama, the conservation champions of the pygmy three-toed sloth have been working hard since the events of September 9 and have now formed a pygmy sloth conservation committee. So despite the recent controversy, efforts to conserve this Critically Endangered species continue undaunted.

As a final thought, I think it’s worth remembering that we live life in real-time, with imperfect knowledge of any situation. Unfortunate events are bound to happen and we must meet them as best we can; and have a duty to learn what we can along the way. If we adopt this open minded approach, we can look forward to facing – and overcoming – the unknown challenges on the horizon.