07 August 2014 | Interview by Craig Kasnoff
This is Part 3 of the interview with Jean-Christophe Vié on Saving Threatened Species from Extinction. Jean-Christophe Vié is the Director of IUCN’s Global Species Programme and Director of SOS – Save Our Species. Vié joined the IUCN Global Species Programme in 2001 as its Deputy Director. He oversees many diverse aspects of the Programme, including regional and global biodiversity assessments and the Red List of Threatened Species, the assessment of climate change impact on biodiversity.
CK: How, and why, did you become involved working on the threatened species issue?
Jean-Christophe Vié: I’ve been fascinated with animals since my childhood. I was just fascinated by them. So I knew early on I wanted to work with wildlife. And at the time, I would just see things on TV in black and white which inspired me. So I said to myself, “if I want to work with wildlife, then I have to be a vet”.
So I became a vet, but I was not satisfied. So I trained to be a wildlife veterinarian specializing in working with primates. That’s where I started to be involved in nature and where I started become aware what was going on with threatened species and so forth.
And being a wildlife veterinarian, as part of a conservation project, you capture animals, you anaesthetize them, you measure them, you take samples and so on. But that was too limited for me as I just wanted to do something much broader.
So I had my NGO, which was named after a species that is threatened in French Guiana, which was the spider monkey. And I used that logo and the name of the spider monkey because it was a threatened species as a way to carry this message about threatened species.
And then I joined the IUCN.
And even though I have only been with the IUCN for around 13 years, I have been associated with them for over 20 years because I was a specialist in some of their specialists groups and Commissions.
What I have realized is if you want to work with wildlife, you need a few things. You need to be committed, you need to work hard. You need to be persistent. You need a little bit of luck. You need to be in the right place at the right moment. And importantly, you need to take risks.
And sometimes the risk is just sometimes to leave your comfort and move to a country short of human capacity, accept to live in remote areas, sometimes under tough conditions and limited budgets. Your friends may make much more money working with business, maybe indirectly contributing to the destruction of nature rather than saving it, and these can be tough things to deal with. But having the passion balances things out.
Now we are seeing some different. Many more people are looking for something useful to do. They are looking for value. And this was certainly not the case 20 or 30 years ago, when if you wanted to work in conservation you were like a ‘bizarre’ individual.
Today it is very different. Taking care of the environment has become a cool thing to do but it also has become a much more competitive sector.
Certainly it is about passionate people, because that is what makes the change. And that’s what I find is great about SOS which is, you can help people with passion. That’s really what we need to find is these people with passion, and then help them. We need to help them channel their passion. I strongly believe that if appropriately supported passion will achieve a lot.
Because as part of my journey, I can tell you I was not always supported. And that is a most frustrating thing. You do something you believe is useful, and when you’re alone, or when you’re a small NGO, people often, instead of trying to help you, are putting hurdles in your way. Your enthusiasm may not be well received by administrations or research organizations.
You need to be persistent.
People are looking for very complicated things to do, while conservation can be actually very simple. Conservation is about putting people back in the field so they can see, be there and report on what is going on, and what is happening. It’s not very fancy in terms of reporting, it’s just people patrolling, studying, watching and reporting. There just needs to be more people in the field.
And even though it is ‘simple’ it is in another way quite hard. If you do it for three months, you find it absolutely magnificent. Doing it over 10 years, that’s something different. You get a little bit isolated, which is why you need support and need to be connected.
So it is fascinating. But it can be very hard.
CK: What do you think the ‘everyday’ person can do to help threatened species?
Jean-Christophe Vié: You have to explain to people how it relates to their daily life. We have an impact on nature and we know that. Many things you do has an impact on nature. We use paper, we use wood, we use water and we drive so we impact nature. We also need food every day and we are more numerous on the planet every day and we all want more of everything. And all these things we do daily are the main indirect drivers of biodiversity loss; of species loss. So what we need is to minimize these impacts. And there are many things that can be done by each individual.
If you are very rich –and there are a number of people like that in the world- then you can set up a foundation to save life or support an endeavor such as SOS; to save life on Earth. That’s a most wonderful thing to do and I would love to be a very wealthy person to do that. Because you can do plenty of very concrete things for nature and people, help NGO’s, provide alternative livelihoods to people; you can find many solutions to very concrete problems.
If you’re not rich but have a little bit of time, you can join and support an NGO. You can just go and support them. And the reason the environment is on peoples’ minds is because the NGO’s have really worked hard, with very little (compared to the corporations) to make this happen.
NGOs have done very well to bring these issues to the forefront.
So you can join them, and you can support them, even with a little bit of money. But join them, get their information, and then apply that to your private life. This doesn’t mean not driving, but it may mean buying a more efficient car or a smaller car. Don’t waste energy. Don’t waste water. Don’t waste food. Don’t buy what you don’t need. And you’ll save money by the way. Try to get just a little bit distance from just being an avid consumer.
These are just some of the things people can do in their daily lives.
People can also use social media to discuss, and make people more aware of, the issues. You can blog about it or you can tweet about it. Even relaying the information about SOS and helping us to get it known will help us a lot.
I believe a lot, that many of these changes will come from people themselves, local towns, from municipalities, from local regions more than from centralized governments. Governments can help, but people have to encourage them to help. And in the developed world we start seeing this.
People vote and people consume. And these are the two most powerful things we can do to create change. We can change the way we consume, and we can change the way we vote by voting for the people doing the best for the environment and societies. The environment is a global public good, a universal cause that should not be the property of a few political parties. If the people make the environment central to their aspiration, then the politicians will position themselves.
Consider the debates in the last presidential election, both in the U.S. and in France, when there was nothing mentioned about the environment. And that is really worrying. This is a subject that is important to one hundred percent of the people on the planet. Yet they talked about issues that were only important to a certain percentage of the people in the world, and not on an issue which is important to one hundred percent of the people on the planet.
People who vote can change that.
CK: Are you hopeful, or concerned, about the future for those species facing extinction?
Jean-Christophe Vié: I would say both.
I am really concerned because things are really bad. In the last years, we have lost even very charismatic species like three sub-species of rhinos; one in Vietnam and two in Africa (Cameroon and DRC). And when you lose a species like a rhino, which is not harmful to anyone, is actually a very peaceful animal that can generate large tourism income, then that’s quite worrying.
Also, fifty percent of primates are currently on the brink of extinction including species like the mountain gorilla. And it’s because people are hunting them, but also because their habitat is being destroyed. Mountain gorillas are stabilized for the time being, but for how long?
On the other hand, we have also had a number of conservation successes. Some species were extinct in the wild and are now making a comeback because people really wanted them back such as the Arabian oryx, Prezwalsky horse, black-footed ferret. The white rhino and the California condor were all on the brink of extinction and they are doing much better.
I think we are going to lose a lot of species that will go extinct because of pressure. But I also think something will change. Because the world, the way it is now, is in a period of crisis. People portray this as a financial or economic crisis. But I think it is much deeper than that.
Unfortunately this is not how politicians think. And I think at some point, people will start organizing themselves in ways that will be friendlier for nature but will also recreate social links. After all we are a social species part of nature!
There is a limit to what we can consume, or what we can produce, so we will have to change. And this will lead to a much more reasonable way of life.
So my view is both optimistic, and not optimistic.
Endangered Earth Journal would like to thank Jean-Christophe Vie for being so generous with his time for this interview.
Find organizations saving endangered tigers at Saving Endangered Tigers.