At the beginning of September, more than 9,000 experts descended on the Hawaii Convention Center on the Pacific island of Oahu for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)'s 6th World Conservation Congress. The triennial 10-day Congress is the largest global forum focussed specifically on addressing the challenges facing nature and wildlife.
Arguably best known for its assessments of the status of species for its 'Red List' database, the IUCN is the world's largest and most diverse environmental network. Its 1,300 members include governments, government agencies, non-governmental organisations and private sector companies. With input from some 16,000 scientists and other experts from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines, the Union is universally acknowledged as the global authority on the state of nature.
Themed 'Planet at the Crossroads', the meeting in Hawaii took place against a backdrop of ever-increasing pressure on the natural world. The catastrophic destruction and degradation of nature, unprecedented species declines, and the associated negative impacts on human livelihoods and security are constantly in the news. The IUCN's 'Red List' classifies one in five of all animal species and over half of all plant species that it has assessed as 'threatened with extinction', with many other species classified as 'near threatened'.
It was no coincidence that just days before the Congress opened, US President Barack Obama announced the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument, which at more than twice the size of Texas is now the largest marine protected area in the world.
The Congress provided a forum for discussion of a large number of issues including climate change mitigation, protected area management, freshwater and marine system management, species protection, conservation economics, and wildlife trade and trafficking..
The protection and promotion of human interests and the value of natural resources to human well-being also featured heavily, with a big emphasis on respecting indigenous knowledge and protecting indigenous rights, particularly pertinent given the Congress's location. The high-level output from the Congress, in the shape of the 'Hawai'i Commitments', reflected these broad aspirations.
But the World Conservation Congress isn't just a forum for the exchange of information and ideas between nature conservation interests and a means of articulating high-brow nature protection values. It also has a significant political focus, principally through the development of motions aimed at expressing the global conservation community's collective opinion on a range of issues. In all, IUCN members were asked to consider and vote on 105 motions relating to nature protection and wildlife conservation, and a further six affecting to the governance of the Union.
While IUCN motions have no legal status, they can be hugely influential, perhaps particularly this year with other binding international meetings just over the horizon, including the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) later in September, and the International Whaling Commission's 66th meeting in Slovenia in October. Motions calling for greater protection for pangolin species from international trade, actions to avoid the extinction of Mexico's Vaquita porpoise, improved conservation of Amur tigers and leopards, silky and thresher sharks and mobular rays, the establishment of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, and expressing concerns about whaling under special permits, could be particularly significant; in some of these cases, the IUCN has urged or encouraged governments to take specific action at CITES, IWT and other forums.
Other motions were clearly if indirectly critical of the actions (or lack thereof) of certain governments. The motion to protect bats from culling programmes comes as the government of Mauritius plans a second year of culls of endangered fruit bats, ostensibly to protect fruit crops. Calls to ban the use of the veterinary medicine Diclofenac in livestock, which is highly toxic to vultures and has resulted in the devastation of many vulture populations, were aimed at governments that are dragging their feet on this vital issue. The motion calling for the termination of captive-bred lion hunting was clearly directed at the South African government in the face of increasing global public concern over so-called 'canned hunting'.
The motion that resulted in the most heated debate at the Congress called for the IUCN to support and encourage the closure of domestic markets for elephant ivory. Elephant populations across Africa are being devastated by poaching to supply ivory into global markets; census data released at the Congress outlined 30% declines in savannah elephants over just 7 years, with forest elephants faring even worse. There is increasing recognition that elephant populations cannot thrive in the face of any trade in ivory, and markets have closed or are being closed in many countries, including the United States, China, Hong Kong and France. But a small number of countries, including Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Japan, supported by some pro-trade and hunting organisations, continue to insist on maintaining a domestic ivory trade, which made for some prolonged and heated debate at the Congress. In the end the motion passed, but not before some government delegates had allegedly threatened to withdraw from the Union.
Ultimately, the IUCN cannot force governments to take action; it can only 'urge' and 'encourage'. The real test of the international community's resolve will come at legally binding international forums such as CITES and the IWC, and through the individual and collective actions of governments, supported by the wider conservation community.
Nevertheless, the IUCN represents a powerful voice, a voice governments across the world ignore at their peril.