Does a conference make a difference?

By Adam Roberts


First impressions

Attending the conference as a representative of Y4WC was a fantastic experience, one which I am honoured to have been a part of.

Walking in to the conference building in Battersea park on the first morning, one could feel an overwhelming sensation of togetherness and potential power between our small band of youthful conservationists, each coming from different backgrounds, areas of conservation and countries. For myself to be surrounded by peers of around the same age and stage in career, whilst listening to some of the most powerful global influencers exploring global conservation and trade issues, and to be able to bounce our own ideas and theories to each other regarding those same issues felt like there could be real hope for the future of modern conservation.

Many of us had never experienced a conference of this magnitude, and without Y4WC, would find it very difficult to. Aside from the many varied talks over the two-day event, there is the unlimited potential for networking with organisations and individuals you would have never thought possible, for this reason alone I cannot recommend enough joining Y4WC in their future endeavours. A huge moment for myself was meeting and networking with John E. Scanlon, the former head of CITES, and special envoy for Africa Parks, who was very enthusiastic regarding the representation of young conservationists at the conference with Y4WC.

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Catching a picture with ex CITES Secretariat John Scanlon!

On top of simply attending the conference, Y4WC put together a panel, the likes of which I felt had not been seen at a conference of this stature previously. The panel were given the stage and discussed issues including ‘thoughts on the issues debated at the conference they have heard’, and ‘personal feelings on the difficulties of starting out as a career conservationist’. The panel were well received, and it was inspiring to see a turnout, not just of smaller NGO’s and younger persons attending our segment, but a wide range of officials from all walks of conservation life taking an interest. 

At the conference

As a conservationist that remains strictly cynical of the words and actions of elected politicians, the conference was an interesting show of enthusiastic political wordplay, with a mix of worldly inspiring talks on global wildlife issues and the illegal wildlife trade. 

Disappointingly, but as was to be expected the representation of a wider range of species was minimal, with the number of talks dealing only with Rhino and Elephant poaching in the majority, using these animals as an over-arching umbrella for the issues of wildlife trade. It is evident that people truly feel they are connected to these iconic species, but particular talks left me wondering whether this was due to empathy, peer pressure, to save face on the global stage, or even due to the possibility of monetary gain somewhere along the line. 

There was a sense from some talks of a disconnection from reality, with one springing to mind as Interior Minister Sar Kheng declared that wildlife trafficking in Cambodia is their only issue and is only caused by demand from foreign countries, as there is no “demand for wildlife produce or for daily consumption *by Cambodians*”. This is a huge and ridiculously out of touch statement to make when examining the wide Khmer traditional medicine trade which uses many animal and plant products of conservation concern, although there is obviously a huge problem with items such as pangolin being traded through Cambodia to the Chinese and Vietnamese markets.

The talks that seemed out of touch were in the minority as others filled me with hope, addressing issues that are coming to light as being some of the most important and effective ways in which to address conservation; community involvement and local empowerment. Fatima Bio, the First Lady of Sierra Leone gave a solid and rousing speech about the empowerment of women within local communities as a first line of defence against poaching, deigning them the voices of reason for the use of natural resources within the country, and advising that other countries in which the poaching trade is seen as male-dominated could follow suit.

I found the strongest comments of the entire conference were made by Khalil Karimov of the hunting and conservation alliance of Tajikistan. His remarks that even the hashtag #endwildlifecrime did not make sense, as ‘ending’ crime is a goliath and impossible task. He argued that rather than taking the hero complex of ‘we must end this’, the global community should rather be talking to and encouraging the inclusion of local communities to understand wildlife, the threats to it and how cultural activities can be protected by managing wildlife sustainably. 

To see talks such as this, that question the status quo of global conservation techniques and challenge the current socio-political situations across the globe I found exciting.

“It is well known now that wildlife conservation needs fresh ideas and new approaches for our rapidly changing natural world”.

The IWT Conferences’ future

As a note on the future for the IWT Conference I would love to see a paper produced with open access to mainstream media and global consciousness detailing all promises, pledges and monetary donations made. This would allow them to be followed up to see which come to fruition and which may have been made at the time purely due to the pressure of being a delegate at this conference. 

Although the talks of the conference are out in the open, within the conference itself there are still closed-door discussions which I feel should be broadcast to the wider audience. Conservation, politics and our world should rely on transparency to gain trust in the current climate of fractured beliefs and distrust in political systems. Also, it would be very interesting to truly witness the creation of political documents that affect so many people on so many levels. 

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The Y4WC side-event in full swing

Final remarks

The IWT Conference opened my eyes as to the extent of what really goes on ‘behind the scenes’ of the world stage when potential global policy makers are brought together. To hear the many pledges, and vast amounts of money being set aside for various endeavours for the tackling of the illegal wildlife trade was somewhat mind-blowing, and inspirational. To be a part of this, with likeminded peers, was a huge honour. 

Without Y4WC I personally would have never had the opportunity to witness and be a part of such a situation, and I feel Y4WC has a great future in playing a part of these delegations while supporting early career conservationists in networking through the world of wildlife conservation.

Y4WC have succeeded in creating a brand that is already receiving recognition from some of the highest players on the chessboard of global wildlife conservation. I personally will be following this NGO as I believe they will be accomplishing great things in the future and hope to be involved again!

Adam Roberts is a Coordinator at Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment