Story | 01 Oct, 2021

A conversation with Dr Madhu Rao, the new Chair of the IUCN WCPA

IUCN welcomes Dr Madhu Rao upon her election as Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas. Join us in this conversation, as she discusses her career in conservation, vision and priorities for the WCPA, and her message to delegates at the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

content hero image

Dr Madhu Rao, Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas

Photo: Madhu Rao / WCS

IUCN Global Protected Areas Programme (GPAP): Congratulations, Dr Rao, on your election as the new Chair of the WCPA at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille. What are your thoughts as you take up this role, and what does this mean for WCPA members?

Dr Madhu Rao (MR): I would firstly like to pay tribute to Dr Kathy MacKinnon and to Julia Miranda Londoño, who so capably led WCPA for so many years, and who have laid such an excellent foundation for the future. I am both excited and honoured to be elected Chair of WCPA. Protected and Conserved Areas (PCAs) are critical solutions to halting biodiversity loss by 2030. As we dive into this important decade, our fundamental aim is to ensure that these areas are in the right places and are effective in conserving nature. PCAs are not just important to reverse declining trends in biodiversity and ecosystem services, but are essential as natural solutions to global challenges including climate change, providing benefits to human health and well-being. The Commission with its extraordinary network of dedicated, voluntary experts has a key role as a knowledge broker to develop and disseminate scientific, technical and policy advice and advocate for global and national systems of PCAs that result in successful conservation outcomes.

GPAP: Could you guide us through your career in conservation, leading up to this new role?

MR: I began my conservation career researching the impacts of selective logging on Sumatran orangutans in the tropical forests of the Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia and then pursued my doctoral research looking at fragmentation induced ecosystem collapse in the dry tropical forests of the Lago Guri in Venezuela. My interest and commitment to protected and conserved areas relate back to a book I co-edited in 1998, toward the end of my graduate education titled “Making Parks Work”, an issue that continues to define and dominate the agenda for area-based conservation today. As a conservation practitioner with the Wildlife Conservation Society for over 20 years, I gained experience in the implementation of protected area creation and management, addressing human-wildlife conflict, wildlife trafficking and other threats facing protected areas. I gradually became interested in conservation policy and engaged widely with multilateral policy processes. My engagement with the development of the Asian Species Action Partnership, an initiative to catalyze action for the ASEAN region’s Critically Endangered species, further drew my attention to the importance of area-based conservation for species recovery. I believe it is the moment for a transformative approach to our collective stewardship of nature and I am deeply humbled to have this opportunity as Chair, to work with dedicated conservation professionals from across the globe, toward this goal.

GPAP: What is your vision for the IUCN WCPA over your tenure?

MR: My vision for the Commission is a dynamic and influential network, integrating its work across the wider IUCN to generate rigorous, innovative and practical solutions for a robust and effective, global PCA areas network. Working together with the members, I would like to increase the visibility and impact of the Commission as a global authority on protected and conserved areas.

An important focus will be to put a spotlight on effectiveness (outcomes) and implementation - to ensure that PCAs are effective in achieving conservation outcomes. To measurably reverse biodiversity decline, we need to be able to show that these areas are impactful in achieving biodiversity outcomes, thus securing the well-being of human communities. As a Commission, we have a key responsibility to ensure that the guidance we provide is rigorous, practical and widely accessible.

​GPAP: You recently attended the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille, France, held both in-person and online. What were the highlights for you?

MR: It was encouraging to see high level political ambition on the need to simultaneously tackle biodiversity and climate goals. Evidence of successful bottom-up approaches as well as the momentum from diverse actors for a real change in how we approach nature conservation was reassuring. I felt that at many levels, there is alignment in the collective ambition to reverse declining trends in nature. The challenge would be to build on common ground, recognise tradeoffs and work purposefully toward biodiversity and climate goals with a clear understanding of the significance of these actions for human well being. PCAs help bring to focus the need for alignment across many constituencies, from the private sector to state actors, civil society and indigenous communities.

GPAP: October 2021 sees the kick-off of the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity, what is your message to delegates there?

(i) We are at a crossroads and have an unprecedented opportunity to change course and move away from business as usual. I hope delegates will make bold commitments to biodiversity targets recognising the centrality of securing nature and its benefits for the future of humanity. (ii) Area-based conservation measures such as PCAs constitute the most important strategy to reverse declining trends in biodiversity and ecosystem services, support climate goals and prevent future pandemics. (iii) As the recent Dasgupta Review reminds us,  “it is essential to view nature as part of the global economy and not external to it. And that transformative change… involves hard choices”. We need to move quickly from rhetoric to real action on the ground and implementation successes that we can measure.

GPAP: As the world seeks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, what role can Protected and Conserved Areas play in the post-pandemic recovery?

MR: Effective and equitably managed protected and conserved areas play a significant role in post-pandemic recovery as critically important measures to not only prevent future pandemics but also contribute to economic recovery both by improving economic prospects for local communities as well as in the delivery of ecosystem services that are critical for the global community. We need to place well-functioning protected and conserved areas prominently within the green recovery that is being widely acknowledged as a necessary way forward.

Learn more about the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.