Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy

Message from the Chair

Rosie Cooney

For us who are working toward a vision of conservation in which humans have a place, that harnesses positive energy and enthusiasm rather than relying on punitive coercion, that respects and supports indigenous and local community rights, that starts with the realities on the ground rather than utopian fantasies and that is rooted in an evidence-based approach, this is a frustrating time.

Media reports relating to charismatic species are regularly wildly inaccurate, relying on simplistic narratives that obscure the dynamics of institutions and incentives that so critically shape conservation outcomes. Animal lobby groups regularly hit the wrong target, diverting precious energies and attention away from the major conservation threats. The juggernaut of international conservation policy rolls on, with voices of range states and of local communities regularly squeezed out by those with louder voices or deeper pockets.

It’s tempting to retreat to eloquent blogs addressed to the converted and to throwing stones from the barriers. But for the sustainable use community this is a time to be reaching out to other groups, communicating our views and experience, and actively seeking to build understanding and relationships.

Two recently published articles emphasise the need to build robust, broad-based consensus in the conservation community, based on the evidence. While they both focus on the highly contentious issues of ivory trade and elephant management, key messages are equally applicable to other areas of sustainable use.

The first is a paper in Oryx led by Simon Stuart, Chair of SSC from 2008-2016. This paper reaffirms the unique value of IUCN as a forum in which conservationists of different stripes and preoccupations can pursue vigorous debate and build consensus. It responds to the controversy over Motion 007 at the last World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in 2016 (known naturally as the James Bond resolution), which called for domestic bans on ivory trade. IUCN is no stranger to controversial issues. But remarkable here was the level of acrimony and antagonism involved, the lack of respect shown to dissenting views (including those of range states successfully conserving large elephant populations), and the lack of willingness to make space for their concerns in the final resolution. This article argues that this is a trajectory that IUCN should not pursue – to do so would be to compromise part of IUCN’s unique value. This is a pressing concern for many, as groups with a more overtly campaigning background and an animal rights approach to conservation seek to join IUCN as members.

The second is a paper led by SULi member Duan Biggs (researcher at Griffith University in Australia). This highlights the need to recognise that different people’s values and their concepts of how actions lead to outcomes (their “mental models”) shape their positions. It calls for a structured process on ivory trade capable of bringing to light these shadowy cognitive machinations and in the process increasing mutual understanding  and ultimately better decision-making.

What does this all mean for us? To me, it means we have to intensify our efforts to communicate. We have to explain our views without assuming our audience is stupid, brainwashed or corrupt. We need to engage with all accessible media in ways that don’t simplify complex reality, are firmly grounded in evidence, and convey our concern and care for nature as the bedrock of our approach. We need to stop talking to each other and build bridges and understanding across the broad conservation community. More plans for SULi on this front in the new year!


Dr Rosie Cooney is Chair of the IUCN SSC/CEESP Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group and Visiting Fellow in the School of Biology, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University of New South Wales, Australia.   Contact: .

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