African forest elephants have been taking a beating, down 65 percent in a decade due to ivory trade. Science is one of the keys to save them, along with law enforcement and education.
Research published last year on forest elephants by WCS scientist Andrea Turkalo is a great example of the importance of science to wildlife conservation. Turkalo unveiled groundbreaking research looking at the trends and threats to forest elephant populations over decades and showed that it will take almost a century for them to recover from the intense poaching they have suffered since 2002.
Andrea’s research demonstrated the particular susceptibility of the elephants to poaching and has been a powerful basis for the push to close domestic elephant ivory markets. It also showed that forest elephants are one of the slowest reproducing mammals in the world. It take more than two decades for female forest elephants to begin reproducing, and they give birth only once every five to six years. Turaklo arrived at these conclusions after collecting data from 1990 to 2013 during nearly daily visits to a bai that attracts elephants and other wildlife.
It is this type of research that is helping conservationists learn more about how to protect habitats and wildlife across the globe. And this is why as a tropical biologist I will join dozens of other WCS scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society at the March for Science on Earth Day 2017.
Science is at the core of all wildlife conservation efforts. It allows us to understand how to conserve wildlife and wild places and measure the impact of our work to save them. At WCS, we march for science every day through our field work in nearly 60 nations and in our zoos and aquarium in New York City. Our WCS scientists produce more than 400 research papers a year. Science informs our work every day – helping to discover new species, to prevent the extinction of species, to achieve recovery of species, to establish protected areas, and to inform policies that help wildlife and communities.
Across WCS’s 122-year history, our scientists have created a body of research that continuously aids in conservation efforts across the globe.
Take for example:
A scientific paper, published last year by WCS scientist James Watson and a team of fellow researchers, included the most comprehensive look to date at humanity’s impact on the terrestrial environment. This study on the changing global human footprint showed that three-quarters of the planet is now significantly altered. This science will be critical as we look to decrease human impacts to ecosystems and species, especially those that harbor most of the world’s biodiversity. Already, the maps produced by the research are helping identify which places on earth are still fundamentally “wild” and where we should focus our conservation and restoration efforts.
In another paper last year, scientists reported that the coral reefs surrounding Glover’s Reef Atoll in Belize are home to more than 1,000 juvenile hawksbill sea turtles. This was great news for the species and evidence that efforts to protect these and other marine species in one of the world’s great barrier reef systems are working. This science is helping to safeguard this natural wonder and inform a conservation plan for the site. The study was the result of field research between 2007 and 2013, during which time 12 snorkel surveys on sea turtles were conducted in the coral reefs around Glover’s Reef Atoll.
This emphasis on science in conservation is not new to our profession. In the 1960s, for example, conservationists Roger and Katie Payne undertook a five-year study of humpback whales. Through their research they discovered the role that the whales’ “songs” played in their mating and social structures, helping the public think of whales as intelligent, complex creatures and not just sources of fuel and fertilizer. Their science changed people’s minds about wildlife.
These are just a few examples of how we need science to protect wildlife. Without science, we cannot do our job as conservationists. We will not be able to guide the placement of dams in the Amazon to minimize ecological impacts. We will not be able to manage fisheries for the mutual benefit of both marine ecosystems and the fishing communities that rely upon them. We will not be able to place resources toward protecting certain tiger “source sites” that are critical to the survival of the entire species.
By marching this Earth Day, we aim to celebrate science, not to politicize it. Science helps us navigate the complicated world of wildlife conservation with the facts. Nothing we do in our efforts to save wildlife is accomplished without science.
In addition to serving as President and CEO of WCS, Dr. Samper was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2015.