Observations from the World Conservation Congress: A Pigeon That Was a Canary

Jeju, Republic of Korea -- A passenger pigeon named Martha who died nearly 100 years ago in Ohio is on my mind in Korea this week.

After her death, she was mounted and placed in a case at the Smithsonian Institution with a plaque stating:

Last of her species, died at 1 p.m.,
1 September 1914, age 29, in the
Cincinnati Zoological Garden.

As I navigate more than 500 events taking place these first two weeks in September at the World Conservation Congress in Jeju, Republic of Korea, I keep a focus on Martha as her story has lessons for all of us who are here with an agenda to save wildlife in a world where everything is intertwined. In a world where the science of conservation is just as important to saving our own human species as it is to saving wildlife.

Martha, named after Martha Washington, was the last known passenger pigeon. Her species was once one of the most abundant bird species on the planet, with a population exceeding 5 billion birds. The demise of this species was due to over hunting and habitat transformation brought on by the great industrial movement in the United States in the 19th Century. As development unabashedly forged across North America, the impacts on species like the passenger pigeon were not as well understood or calculated as they are today.

A century later, as I have the privilege to meet with our world's leading conservationists, from more than 175 nations, our discussions and debates are not exclusively about species but about a range of social, political and economic issues. If you weren't aware that this event was organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, you could mistakenly feel you were attending a development convention with social scientists rather than a meeting of conservation biologists who spend their days saving species like elephants, turtles and gorillas and protecting wild places like the oceans, tropical forests, wetlands and prairies.

Conservationists realize that economic growth and social justice issues are a part of our work if we are to succeed in saving species. The human footprint is growing every day and at the congress this year, with the world's leading conservation NGOs and hundreds of governmental leaders, we are asking these pivotal questions: Can nature save us? Can we feed the world sustainably? Green growth: myth or reality? Can conservation tackle poverty? Saving nature, why bother?

In order to succeed as conservationists, we know we must rally around common goals and reach out to other stakeholders who have been trained in a multiple of sciences.

So why do I hold dearly the story of Martha? As we build a new model for development, I want to make sure we don't forget the species that don't have a voice and the ecosystems that sustain them. By saving wildlife and wild places, we address a multitude of issues vital to creating a planet safe and secure for generations of humans to come. In Jeju, where 8,000 have gathered for 10 days, the matters of social, political and economic scientists are integral in our workshops and discussions. While we need to focus on these other disciplines to save wildlife, I would contend that the science of conservation has become vital to saving our own human species.

What if there had been a conservation movement fighting for Martha as powerful when her species was blinking out as we are seeing in Jeju this week? I wonder if the rapid industrial change of her times -- while important to advancing civilization -- would have looked the same, with its host of unintended environmental impacts. Martha could be considered just another canary in a coal mine.