Solving large-scale environmental problems
U.Va.,Conservation International form partnership
|Global Mammal Assessment is the flagship project of the new collaboration.
By Fariss Samarrai
Which species are threatened with extinction? What is the importance of biodiversity and ecosystems in the natural world? How do humans, in our array of cultures, affect the health of the environment, locally, regionally, globally? What can we do to conserve the flora and fauna so clearly affected by our actions, our decisions and indecisions?
These are complex questions to try to answer. But a new collaboration between U.Va. and Conservation International may lead to innovative solutions to large-scale environmental problems.
Conservation International, a leading nongovernmental organization devoted to science-based stewardship of the Earth’s living resources, has opened broad collaborations with university scientists on a number of initiatives for the coming years. CI applies research in the sciences, economics, policy and community participation, “to conserve the Earth’s living heritage, its global biodiversity, and to demonstrate that human societies can live harmoniously with nature.”
CI focuses on “hotspots,” regions of unique biodiversity that are threatened by human activity. Based in Washington, D.C., the organization has projects and offices in 40 countries and provides in-depth analysis of 34 regions that hold 75 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity.
Wes Sechrest, a scientific officer with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – the World Conservation Union, is helping to facilitate the CI partnership with U.Va. from his new office in the Department of Environmental Sciences. He is working closely with U.Va. administrators and faculty to develop programs that will complement and enhance the research, education and conservation efforts of both organizations. Already, as a result of the new partnership, two U.Va. students worked this past summer in policy internships at CI’s Washington headquarters.
“This partnership works well for both the University and Conservation International, and we are developing a variety of research and education collaborations for scientific and conservation projects in several regions in the world,” Sechrest said.
“The potential for profound science-based conservation research is enormous through this partnership,” added Hank Shugart, U.Va.’s William W. Corcoran Professor of Environmental Sciences and director of the Center for Regional Environmental Sciences. “CI has direct access to officials, scientists, universities and nongovernmental organizations in some of the most important and sensitive ecosystems in the world. This partnership gives the University access to research sites and the key players in those areas, allowing us to have a very direct role in the study of major conservation issues.”
Likewise, CI will benefit from decades worth of scientific environmental data gathered by U.Va. scientists. Environmental sciences faculty, have, for example, been working in southern Africa, one of the world’s most important and sensitive regions, for more than 25 years. Much of that work has grown into interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaborations with other departments in the College and the medical, nursing, law, architecture and business schools.
“The focus of CI’s mission works hand-in-hand with the collaborative nature of U.Va.’s international research projects,” said Jeffrey Plank, associate vice president for research and graduate studies. “Our many projects over the years have led to new collaborations with universities
and nongovernmental organizations in several countries, and the CI partnership is a culmination – building on those works, and it is sure to further enhance the Uni-versity’s capabilities in global environmental studies.”
“Our partnership with CI potentiates our capabilities to effect positive change on our environment, raise public awareness and enhance our educational mission,” noted Dr. R. Ariel Gomez, vice president for research and graduate studies. “Working on conservation is the right thing to do.”
The result of the collaboration will be a clearer and more detailed big picture view of what is happening in several of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. This produces a “science-based” vision for environmental management decisions, which should result in improved sustainability.
In explaining the rational for CI’s science-basedadvocacy for protecting the environment, Thomas Brooks, a senior director in CI’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, said, “Biodiversity scientists are notorious for not asking questions relevant to conservation in practice, and conservation practitioners [are] notorious for not listening to science even when it is relevant. This CI/University of Virginia collaboration blazes a new trail towards bridging this gap.”
In conjunction with his role in the partnership, Sechrest, who holds a Ph.D. in biology from U.Va., also works with the organization’s partner through his position at IUCN, the world’s largest and most important conservation network. The Union brings together 82 states, 111 government agencies, more than 800 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 181 countries in a unique worldwide partnership. In this role Sechrest is the director of the Global Mammal Assessment, a massive effort of thousands of field, museum and university scientists aimed at understanding which mammals may be vulnerable, endangered or facing extinction, and what might be done to intervene.
“The mammal assessment project is a specific and tangible way the University and CI can work together on an immensely important area of conservation,” Shugart said.
Shugart’s own work involves computer modeling of ecosystems. “CI has been studying flora and fauna in southern Africa and that fits right in with some of the work I’m doing in the same region,” he said.
“The flagship project of the collaboration, the Global Mammal Assessment, is particularly exciting in bringing the power of U.Va. data analysis and computer modeling together with the field data collection of thousands of conservationists on the ground,” added Brooks. “Its product will be the first-ever comprehensive synthesis of the distributions, threats and actions necessary to ensure the future for all 5,000 of the world’s mammals.”
Jay Zieman, chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences, noted that CI’s science-based conservation mission matches well with his department’s focus on understanding habitat as a key factor for sustaining healthy populations of plants and animals. “Our CI partners understand and appreciate the value of the range of our research on habitats and will make good use of it,” he said.
As part of the partnership, CI scientists periodically will receive visiting appointments to U.Va.’s environmental sciences department and U.Va. students will earn internships at CI’s Washington office and at field sites around the world. And next April, Russell Mittermeier, CI president, will visit the University and meet with faculty members and administrators, and will deliver a keynote address. That visit is part of a series of events this academic year on the Environment, Conservation and Culture, sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.
To learn more about Conservation International, visit its Website at: http://www.conservation.org/xp/CIWEB/home.