Dr. Richard Ruggiero, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will make a presentation at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Blue Heron Room at Quiet Waters Park on "The fight to save African elephants, rhinos, hippos, chimpanzees and gorillas: The amazing story of a U.S. biologist's quest to preserve Africa's wildlife."
Before that, he caught up to answer five questions about the topic.
Let's start with the question you will pose: is it possible to save that part of the world?
It depends on what qualifies as saving it. That's our goal, in essence, but our main focus is the natural world in all its complexity and as its basis of the quality and sustainabililty of life on the planet. What's interesting in Africa is how easy it is to see how closely people are to the natural world and how dependent they are that it functions properly and productively. There are few safety nets, little help from governments, and more often, more powerful forces are able to exploit natural resources, usually unwisely and unsustainably. Wildlife is the first to suffer, closely followed by local people who have few alternatives and find that the resources they have depended on for generations have been destroyed by modern, commercial-scale exploitations that feed foreign markets. Much of this exploitation is illegal and some is done without use of best practices or application of laws and regulations.
To me, there are basic, root causes of these problems that must be addressed, and unfortunately, it is not being done with sufficient effort or effectiveness. I firmly believe that it is not only possible to save this part of the world, but it is essential for quality of life on Earth. But as time goes on, and the pressure on wildlife and habitats continues to increase, the need to act grows every day. This opinion is not purely based on blind faith or hope. It is rooted in the knowledge of what is possible and then applying our collective experience more widely and with greater intensity.
Of the species you talk about — elephants, rhinos, gorillas, hippos, chimpanzees and bonobo — are the rhinos now the most at risk because of the value of their horns?
There is a serious and acute problem for rhinos due to a spike in demand, mostly from Asian markets. However, many rhino populations are relatively well protected due to the efforts conservationists in East and Southern Africa. While some elephant and ape populations benefit from good protection, most populations are highly vulnerable, and we are seeing that the growing demand for ivory, and the ease by which it can be smuggled in large quantities, is resulting in the current, massive wave of elephant poaching. The threat to apes in Africa is more chronic, but their populations are smaller and usually in once-remote forests that are now being opened for logging and other extractive industries. Hippos have not received the attention they deserve in that they have experienced huge impacts in some places where large, concentrated populations are vulnerable to poaching. Their populations in many places have crashed with little attention of the international conservation community.
What type of non-traditional solutions are being or will be shortly put into use that could help with wildlife conservation in Central Africa and the Congo Basin?
Much of what should be done is not new. Rather, it is a question of refining and adapting strategies, tactics, and methods that have already been developed and proven effective, then applying them more widely and intensively. The most non-traditional is perhaps to focus on root problems. These include developing the will and capacity to conserve and management natural resources. We should help people, from high-level decision makers to those who live close to nature and depend on it to exercise enlightened self interest. This is about awareness-raising and motivation — "hearts and minds" as the phrase goes. The traditional conservation approach of studying, monitoring and documenting the trends and decline of wildlife and habitats is insufficient. We have to work in teams to solve problems, not just document them and bring the bad news to the public. Sure, it's important to know what's going on and to bring this information to the world, but without action that deals with the immediate needs and underlying causality, it is merely hand-wringing and is really quite depressing. In most places we know enough to act, but the comfort zone of many conservationists is more studies and analysis. Science is important and the basis of our professional knowledge. Also important is our ability to work with people —I would say the most important. Getting the balance right between studying and acting is way off kilter, in my opinion. It's relatively easy to monitor what's going on and very difficult to do something effective and long-lasting about it. That's a key point we need to get right.
Does it surprise you that after doing this kind of work for the past 30-plus years, the situation seems to be getting worse when it comes to conservation?
Unfortunately, is is not at all surprising. There are places in Africa where we have succeeded brilliantly, some where we have slowed down but not eliminated threats, and others where we have been absent or ineffective. But as long as the root problems are not effectively dealt with, we will continue to be dealing with the symptoms such as poaching, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, and the impoverishment of the natural work and all those who depend on it. That includes us well fed and comfortable Americans. Sooner or later, there will come a time when what's going on overseas has obvious effects on us. But unfortunately, we wait until problems are huge and glaring before we act. By then it is often too late or too expensive to deal with. We have to be proactive, the proverbial "stitch in time saving nine." I could go on and on about this, but perhaps it is better to say, certainly, the siutation is getting worse, but also that our awareness, knowledge, and in some places like the Republic of Gabon in Central Africa, the will to do something is growing enormously. It's a Darwinian situation. Those places where the people decide nature is valuable and worth making sacrifices to conserve will continue to benefit from it. In those where people are unaware, indifferent or greedy, wildlife and wild places will continue to be destroyed. But we are all connected, so our success or failure in Africa affects all the world. It's really about people, and conservationists need to be better at dealing with source of the problem, i.e. people.
What can Marylanders who are interested in wildlife conservation do aside from donating money, if not time, to help?
Awareness rather than ignorance. Caring rather than indifference. Understanding that making sacrifices today for sustained benefits in the future, which is the essence of conservation, is something everyone can and should do. And expressing to our policy-makers our awareness and value of conserving nature. This is how democracy can work to benefit all this.
The world has become very interconnected, interdependent and rather small. What we do in Maryland has effects around the world, and vice versa. I feel that is is our responsibility to the Earth and future generations to get it right. Conservation begins at home with decisions every individual makes. Thinking about that and acting with good conscience is a great step in the right direction.