Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Interview with Wendy Foden, Programme Officer – Climate Change, IUCN

Wendy Foden’s passion for conservation stems from her love of wild and remote places. Following the completion of her studies in Biology and Conservation at the universities of the Witwatersrand and Cape Town in South Africa, she travelled and expeditioned through Tanzania, India and China. Wendy then joined the Global Change and Biodiversity Research Group at the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). Here she focused on the impacts of warming on the Southern Africa’s arid ecosystems, and uncovered evidence of a climate driven range shift by the giant tree succulent, Aloe dichotoma. Remaining at SANBI, Wendy then joined the Threatened Species Programme as Programme Manager. In this role, she founded of new projects focusing on the monitoring and conservation assessment of South Africa’s plants, reptiles, arachnids and butterflies. She also played an important role in developing and implementing South Africa’s Biodiversity Act, particularly in sections relating to threatened species.
Wendy now leads the IUCN’s “Species Vulnerability to Climate Change” project. By identifying and collecting data on life history and ecological traits associated with particular vulnerability to climate change, she aims to identify those species that face the greatest risk of climate change driven extinction. The results will be used to compliment the current IUCN Red Data List and to help prioritise conservation efforts.

Relevance of biogeography to your work
Antje Ahrends. Is biogeography – “the study of the geography of life” – a relevant discipline to your work for the IUCN? Do you think it is relevant to practical conservation planning in general?
Wendy Foden. Yes, definitely. A species’ geographical distribution range is one of the fundamental pieces of information needed to assess their threat (Red List) status. In terms of our climate change focus, accurately determining a species’ range is particularly important for defining the climatic characteristics it requires, and projecting the position of these under climate change scenarios for the future (i.e. bioclimatic modelling). We rely heavily on biogeographic research into species distributions and distribution and climate change models.
AA. Do you read biogeographic journals, or otherwise receive information on new findings in the field of biogeography? What are your main sources for this?
WF. While I don’t specifically seek out biogeographic journals, research on climate change impacts on species frequently falls into their domain, particularly on issues such as past and current range shifts. So yes, I do frequently read articles from them.
AA. Does the IUCN collaborate with biogeographic research institutions?
WF. The IUCN receives information on species from a huge network of scientists from around the world, particularly through the Species Survival Commission’s specialist groups. This includes individuals from biogeographic research organisations, as well as those researching biogeographic issues from within their own specific disciplines and institutions.

The general practicality of incorporating new biogeographic findings in conservation work
AA. Do you think that idealistic prioritisation schemes have much relevance on the ground (other than attracting funding)? I.e. is it useful to have these benchmarks although they are (1) necessarily based on incomplete data and (2) generally do not take into account political or socioeconomic constraints?
WF. I believe that, as planners and biologists, we need to be braver. Our role is to provide the most accurate projections possible and highlight what needs to be done to achieve a given objective. If, for example, we’re planning and mapping the areas needed to protect a group of endemic species, then irrespective of the politics or other constraints, these are our very best estimates of the species’ needs for survival. It’s not for us to downplay them. Even inconvenient or “idealistic” results should be presented so the basics are clear – and the inevitable political manoeuvring can proceed thereafter.
AA. The nature of scientific research is to continuously challenge existing paradigms, and as a consequence there frequently is a lot of disagreement and a rapid-turnover of paradigms. For instance, a predictive model for species distributions that was deemed the state of the art a few years ago might already be regarded as flawed today! Does this scientific rationale make it difficult to include biogeographic findings in conservation practice given that conservation generally needs longer term strategies and commitments?
WF. When our job is to predict the future, particularly where there’s no precedent for the situations we’re in and there are millions of variables to consider, I think we’ve got to be ever ready to humbly and frequently correct ourselves. Nonetheless, we need to act now (well, we needed to act quite a while ago on climate change) and we need to use the very best information we can find.

Communication between biogeographers and conservation practitioners AA. Do you think that biogeographers communicate the applicability of their research findings to conservationists adequately? And vice versa, do conservationists adequately communicate their information needs to biogeographers?
WF. An area in which better communication could be mutually very beneficial to conservation and biogeography is in the digitisation, ‘cleaning’ and sharing of species distribution data, as well as sharing new collection localities. In addition to publishing such findings, this is facilitated via online open access resources such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF); via taxon-specific databases such as FishBase, ePIC (Kew Botanical collections database), the Global Amphibian Assessment database; or via appropriate regional databases such as the National Biological Information Infrastructure (USA).
Given the extreme conservation crisis we currently face, I feel that each researcher who withholds species data that could be potentially useful for conservation should ask themselves some serious questions about their ethics. We need to pool our resources if we’re going to have any chance of stemming the looming extinction crisis.

AA. Are there any further thoughts you would like to share:
WF. The IUCN focuses particularly on threatened species which tend to have small distributions and few distribution records either because they’re naturally rare, their ranges have declined greatly or because they are very poorly known. Distribution and climate change models tend to perform poorly for such species, leaving us with least confidence in our projections for the species about which we’re most concerned. This is an area in which we hope the biogeography community will be able to help us.

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