Let’s hear it for wildlife conservationists. These unsung heroes deserve our praise

No scientific activity being conducted in the world today is more important than the science of wildlife conservation for one simple reason:  conservationists are defining the world we – and our children – will live in tomorrow. But the heroes of wildlife conservation are creating this future with an inappropriate anonymity.

Wildlife conservationists are preparing the future for our children and grandchildren. They are establishing the textures of our landscapes, the color and clarity of our skies and waters, and the sounds that sweeten our lives. But they are not greeted with the acclaim and attention we lavish on music, movie and sports stars.

We know the names and laud the talents of Beyonce, Adele, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Lionel Messi and Stephen Curry. But the names and achievements of Patricia Wright, Steve Amstrup, George Schaller, George Archibald and Iain Douglas-Hamilton are rarely heard of outside conservation circles.

Today’s conservationists are our knights, our champions for the planet. As with the knights of legend, they are rigorously trained and they pursue the noblest of causes. And the sharing and retelling of the stories of these heroes for nature is one way we all can play a part in sustaining them in their epic fights to save species and habitats.

Through the Indianapolis Prize, we are working to elevate such stories by biannually awarding our planet’s unsung wildlife conservation heroes $250,000 and rockstar-style recognition. We just named this year’s winner, Dr. Carl Jones, and his story is one for the ages, featuring critically endangered species, long odds and unprecedented achievements.

Spanning almost 40 years of work, Jones has brought back at least nine species from the brink of extinction and has worked to restore the populations of many more. His achievements are truly awe-inspiring: He has led the recovery efforts for six of the 63 bird, mammal and amphibian species worldwide that have been down-listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List as a result of conservation initiatives. Think about that for a moment…nearly 10 percent of the threatened species that are doing better today than before are doing so because of the leadership of one man!

Dr. Simon N. Stuart, chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission, says he knows of no other conservationist in the world who has directly saved so many species from extinction. That’s the stuff of legend.

Jones works primarily on the island of Mauritius – a special place in the Indian Ocean perhaps best known as the home of the extinct dodo bird. When Jones arrived there in 1979, he didn’t comply with the prevailing wisdom and shut down a failing conservation program. Instead, he put his innovative methods to work and took a single-breeding pair of Mauritius kestrels – the world’s most endangered species at that time – and saved them from extinction. There were only four Mauritius kestrels alive, and now there are one hundred times that number!

Today, Jones continues his work, and more of the world should know him and the important role that he – and other heroic wildlife conservationists – play in protecting the endangered species and habitats that our children and grandchildren deserve to experience.  And those wild things and wild places have more than aesthetic and intrinsic value; they’re key components in the preservation of the ecosystem services that preserve life on earth.

Let’s acknowledge, honor and reward the animal conservationists who are achieving notable successes. And let’s provide them with bigger platforms and funding from which they can conduct their work and share their stories with the public.

I admire and respect the talents of Beyonce, Adele, Clooney, Jolie, Mesi and Curry. They are stars who entertain and inspire us. But I’m in awe of the talents, heroism, and selfless commitment of Jones and the other leading wildlife conservationists doing the heavy lifting to protect our planet.

Let’s start greeting our conservation heroes with the acclaim and attention we lavish on music, movie and sports stars. Our shared future depends on it.

Michael Crowther is CEO of the Indianapolis Zoological Society and the founder of the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation.  

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