‘We still have time’

The natural world is beset with threats such as climate change and wildlife poaching, but it can be saved, says WWF chief executive Carter Roberts.

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Protecting the natural world was never going to be easy. In Africa, wildlife poachers are using increasingly sophisticated technology to hunt rhino horns and ivory; in Asia and elsewhere, tigers, gorillas, giant pandas and other species near extinction; across the world, business leaders and politicians are turning a blind eye to climate change.

For environmentalists, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) should need no introduction. The influential conservation organisation works in 100 countries and is supported by almost 5 million people. Established in 1961, it aims to protect nature and reduce the pressure on natural resources, wildlife and ecosystems. Spearheading such efforts is Carter Roberts, president and CEO, who joined WWF in 2004, and who has been in love with nature since childhood. “My heart beats slower, my endorphins start fluttering and I’m always happiest when I’m out in nature,” he says.

Nature, though, is changing fast. Climate change is jeopardising species, ecosystems, people’s livelihood, and, through rising oceans, low-lying nations such as the Maldives. “We are already living with the consequences of climate change,” says Roberts. “People are having a hard time figuring out what crops to plant in places like Africa, because the weather patterns are unfamiliar. We’ve seen ice melt in the Arctic. We’ve seen it everywhere we go.” He adds: “But believe me, things can get a lot worse.”

With environmental alarm bells already ringing, such warnings ought to be acted upon. Roberts calls for businesses to begin reducing carbon emissions immediately, and says there is “still time” to prevent the worst from happening. But only so much. “We figure that if businesses start now, at three per cent a year, we can get there,” he says. “If businesses wait 10 years, they will have to make reductions at 10 per cent a year. If they wait 20 years, I think the game is over, and I think we’re going to see the worst.”

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As consequences become more evident, public awareness is increasing. Roberts points to polls showing growing concern over climate change. So what is needed to stop it? “It’s pervasive and it’s global,” Roberts says. “It requires doing lots of things, across industries, governments and individual lives. We have to find a way to live using less land, energy and water.” Positively, he says, much of the required technology is already available. “There is a path forward, it just requires conviction, will, and it requires leaders to make commitments,” he says. “It’s not a scientific issue anymore; it’s a political issue.”

Roberts says one of the best ways to increase public awareness is by travel. He believes tourists acquire an incomparable perspective by experiencing for themselves how people and nature interlink, for instance in Africa. “They learn the story about how much not just animals, but people depend upon the planet, and they see that these landscapes are changing in front of our eyes,” he says. “There’s no substitute for being there, and once you’re there and you see it, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t decided to act.”

One example is Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor, who visited Nepal during a search for tigers. He later co-founded Save Tigers Now, which aims to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022. “He fell in love with it, not just the landscape but the people,” Roberts says. “He has devoted himself to campaigns to prevent tigers from going extinct and also to save these landscapes.”

As DiCaprio will know, it is not an easy task. Wildlife poachers have become highly organised, using tools such as night-vision binoculars and helicopters. But help has arrived. In late 2012, WWF received a $5million grant from Google to innovate technology to track animals and poachers. Conservationists are experimenting in places such as Namibia and Nepal. Technology includes GPS collars from which one can download information, and drones tracking nighttime poachers. Software is also being developed. “What we want to find is the sweet spot: an affordable, practical technology where you don’t need a PhD to run these things, but where field scientists can run them easily in places like Nepal, the Arctic, Tanzania or Indonesia,” Roberts says.

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Such high-tech is crucial, he adds, but it’s not the whole game. Roberts believes quelling the demand is critical, referring to markets in Vietnam, China, Thailand, and even parts of Europe and the United States. Spreading the message is also crucial. “The biggest challenge in our work is making the natural world come alive to people far, far away,” he says. “When people travel to places, they see it first hand. But to those who won’t travel, how do you convey what’s happening – whether it’s deforestation or animal trade? This kind of technology is a big step in that direction.”

Among many threatened species, Roberts highlights tigers as particularly vulnerable. Of the 3,200 remaining in the wild, many reside in the forests of Asia. WWF has initiated a major global campaign designed to spur leaders, communities and individuals into action. “If we don’t take care, the only nature people are going to see will be in zoos, or small parks,” Roberts says. “You’ll pay your money, you’ll walk through the turnstile, and you’ll see what the world used to look like. We can’t let that happen.”

How can eco travellers contribute? Roberts advocates visiting countries that are in the process of becoming ‘eco destinations’. He mentions Myanmar (“more rivers and forests than almost any part of Asia”), Nepal (“some of the most breathtaking conservation stories I’ve seen”), Namibia, South Africa (“the most accessible wildlife story in Africa”) and Cuba (“one of the richest coral reefs in the Caribbean”). “Pick your travel provider carefully, pick eco-friendly travel providers such as Natural Habitat Adventures, and then pick your destinations so that you can see not just those places that are famous for conservation, but those that can be part of a future conservation story.”

Buyer Beware

Products from poached wildlife are sold illegally across the world. People who buy them fuel the demand for more killings. Visit WWF’s guide and make sure you don’t become one of them. http://worldwildlife.org/pages/buyer-beware

Natural Habitat Adventures

WWF works with Natural Habitat Adventures to provide nature-friendly holidays. Between five and ten per cent of fees go to WWF’s conservation efforts. http://worldwildlife.org/travel

Save Tigers Now

Only 3,200 tigers remain in the wild. Save Tigers Now is a global campaign founded by WWF and Leonardo DiCaprio, with a goal of doubling the number of wild tigers by 2022. http://www.savetigersnow.org/

Photos: Arangan Ananth/Shutterstock.com, World Wildlife Fund.