Big ideas in Bengaluru

By Amanda Vincent

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I was excited to be the opening keynote speaker at the Student Conference on Conservation Science in Bengaluru/Bangalore.  Hundreds of aspiring conservationists from South Asia and a few from farther afield gather each year to share professional hopes and nurture ambitious dreams.  I’d already played a similar role with the sister SCCS meeting in Cambridge, UK a few years back and knew just how much fun it was to be plunged into this swirling, and very clever, mass of aspiration and enthusiasm.

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I’ve taken to giving talks that are essentially stories, full of passion and enthusiasm from my end, too.  I’ve dropped the intense quantification and earnest graphs that are the hallmark of most technical presentations.  They were never a natural fit for me anyway.  So I eschew numbers and words on the slides.  Instead I focus on trying to mobilise and empower.  Never more so than with students.

In recounting our adventures in conservation, good and wobbly, my message is pretty simple.  We know enough to get going.  Knowledge and data are not rate limiting steps.  Most conservation management and policy – particularly at national levels - is pretty darned crude and based on a tiny portion of what we know. The more detailed rules and regulations that implement such tenets at local level are comparatively easily revised.  So we can use what we know now even as we seek to improve our guidance over time.  

We can start by embracing many reliable generalities that are still not being deployed.  We know that we need to set aside parts of the ocean, creating no fishing zones and areas that can safeguard and reseed our overfished marine life.  We know that bottom trawling is a really bad idea that lays waste to huge swaths of seagrass and other soft-bottom communities… and should be banned. We know of general principles such as the need to protect the most successful breeders in a population and ensure that young get a chance to reproduce before they are killed.  We know that you have to generate a certain level of community/stakeholder buy in and compliance to make progress, or you just get paper agreements.  And we know that decision makers desperately need input from scientists who will offer clear ideas and outline options.

As I tell the students, it’s scary to stick your neck out and offer guidance when you are aware of the limitations of your knowledge.  But it must be done, especially given the urgency of our ocean crisis.  Bob Johannes said it best, arguing that there is no such thing as perfect advice.  You give imperfect advice or none at all.  And the latter is unconscionable if you have something to offer.  So quit with the oft-heard refrain that “we need more data”.  Of course we do, but stop stalling.   Offer what you do have, with appropriate caveats and in a clear and concise manner, and refine it later as need be.

The SCCS students in Bengaluru were passionately excited about effecting change.  As people whose regions are on the front line of conservation, they had no trouble appreciating the real calamities in our natural world… and the tricky dynamics of balancing environment and development.  So they lapped up my encouragement to begin contributing immediately.  I was deeply embedded in the meeting: participating on a panel, hosting a workshop, judging student talks, tweeting content, and much more.  The most wonderful bits, however, were the individual chats with amazing students.  We ran out of time long before we ran out of things to discuss.

A few things struck me in particular…

1.     These students listened with all their might, focusing fully. There was little or no distraction with social media or other playing on devices. Not a single student had a computer open, though every student had a notebook ready at all times.  Their universities and colleges just won’t allow supposed multi-tasking.

2.     Marine conservation issues are little appreciated or embraced in South Asia.  Most people work on terrestrial matters, with fish and invertebrates being regarded as very “other”.  Few of the students had marine interests or knowledge, or really cared much.  Although every marine person cared about terrestrial issues, or course.

3.     The rare South Asians who are active in marine conservation mostly work in tiny groups with few connections.  It would be great to see a national/regional marine conservation gatherings, and deployment of new tools (listserves, twitter, facebook) to link people.

And that the arts can be powerful allies for conservation… One of the many memorable events at SCCS Bengaluru was “How to be a Fig”, a dance performance that brilliantly conveyed the essential life of the … fig tree.  It was created by Artecology Initiative, a collective of artists and scientists who have come together to create environmental awareness through art.  A bevvy of people, many of them new to dance, told the remarkable story of the fig tree and its associated wasps, hornbills, monkeys and more.  You can read all about it here, in a blog by Mike Shanahan whose book “Ladders to Heaven” inspired the performance.

Oh, and that journalists are among our very best allies.  Bahar Dutt gave a hugely impressive account of her front line environmental work (often undercover) as an Indian television journalist and environmental editor and columnist for CNN-IBN.  It is indeed true that “her reportage has influenced policy and led to the stoppage of many illegal projects coming up on wetlands and forests.”  She discussed how to report vital stories in a way that can create change.  Most importantly, she noted that her network is more likely to allow her to cover a story if it is cast as political (aren’t they all ?) rather than environmental.

Actually, the whole meeting was amazing.  Just go to the website and see for yourself.  From Plenaries, I because fascinated with climate change in the Himalayas, women’s roles in conservation in India, behaviour change for conservation and integrating conservation as part of a lifestyle.  From student talks, I found myself recounting research on sampling DNA from livestock kills – to identify the predator – when visiting a Rajasthan forest and contemplating the effects of climate change on insect-pollinated plants while walking in the Rajasthan desert.  The intellectual richness just kept on giving.

I loved being a part of this SCCS community for a while.  The new ties really enhanced my determination to be part of the solution in India (and regional countries).  My sincere and heartfelt thanks to the organizers, student and colleagues who made it all such fun.

Editor's note: Congratulations to our PhD student Tanvi Vaidyanathan who received the prize for the best student talk!