John Scanlon’s career, spanning 30+ years in international and national nature conservation, started in private legal practice as an environmental lawyer. He has worked for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, best known for its IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and with the UN Environment Programme.
He was Secretary-General for eight years of CITES, one of the world’s oldest international environmental agreements, after which he joined African Parks as its first Special Envoy. African Parks has pioneered the public private partnership model for managing protected areas in Africa. John is currently Chair of the UK Government’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, Chair of the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime and CEO of the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) Foundation.
GlobeScan’s Director Wander Meijer spoke with John Scanlon and discussed ways to accelerate progress on wildlife conservation in general, and in particular, for African elephants.
What are the main evolutions you’ve seen in 30 years in the conservation sector?
Historically we have tended to break everything down into small pieces, as it is easier to deal with them that way. Today, we see the need for agendas to converge. There is a deeply committed community who are trying to address nature conservation and biodiversity loss. While this community has been quite effective in convincing itself of the way forward, it has been much less effective in influencing sectors that are impacting the environment, such as the finance and the corporate sectors, or Ministries responsible for infrastructure or finance. Fortunately, recently there is much greater recognition of the importance of biodiversity to global health and prosperity. Globally agreed strategic plans and targets on biodiversity over the past few decades have not been met. The post-2020 biodiversity framework will be adopted this year. Perhaps this time it will be different, given an increasing recognition of the convergence between biodiversity, climate change, and public health agendas.
Despite 50 years of concerted effort since the Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, our environmental indicators are still going backwards. IPBES – an intergovernmental body – says we are on track to lose one million species over the coming decade and the WWF Living Planet Report indicates that we’ve lost over two-thirds of wild animals (vertebrates) over the last 50 years. There appears to be an awakening that we are on the wrong track and that if we do not change course, there will be dramatic economic, social, and environmental consequences. The corporate sector cannot continue to pollute or exploit natural resources without properly accounting for it, nor can we continue to use GDP as the only measure of prosperity.
Why, despite all the activities and hundreds of thousands of people working in the conservation sector, is nature still going backwards?
The conservation community has tended to look inwardly. But convincing the coalition of the willing is not enough. It has paid insufficient attention to influencing the behaviour of others. Every nation state has pursued a development path of economic growth, which has been narrowly defined. There is a growing recognition that we need to have greater influence on those actors that are responsible for driving the degradation.
How is leadership placed to change in order to move in the right direction?
We are starting to see the active engagement of sectors and government agencies that haven’t shown interest in these topics before. Maybe the accumulated effort of the past 50 years will pay off in the end. There has been great leadership within the conservation community, which is often aspirational, but it also needs to be pragmatic and grounded in the possible. One thing is for sure, if we don’t make fundamental shifts, we are going to go nowhere.
Corporations have become more involved – are they now increasingly regarded as allies?
Absolutely, and there’s an emerging consensus that we are trying to achieve the same overall objective: prosperity and a healthy planet. We have got to a point where we need to have all hands on deck. We are seeing unexpected coalitions emerge, where groups that were once hostile toward one another are now working together – for example Sea Shepherd is working with governments to help protect precious marine resources. Within the UN you see the UN Development Programme recognising the environmental agenda as being core to its business. The recent UK Government Dasgupta Review on The Economics of Biodiversity was led by the Treasury. Look at recent remarks made by the EU Commission President and the Managing Director of the IMF.
How could we further stimulate collaboration and convergence?
If you look at NGOs, governments, the private sector, and the way in which the UN and Conventions are operating, there is a growing recognition that you can’t fly solo. We also need to move away from an over-reliance upon voluntary initiatives. Governments must step up to play their regulatory role to bring everyone on board and level the playing field. Governments are the entities that can oversee what is in the wider public interest, so we achieve our collective goals on biodiversity and climate.
Let’s talk about the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) Foundation, of which you are CEO.
The EPI Foundation grew out of an organisation called Stop Ivory, which was focused on maintaining the ban on international trade in ivory and implementing the African Elephant Action Plan. The EPI itself is an intergovernmental initiative between just over 20 African states and the Foundation is working with them to mitigate and prevent human-elephant conflict, support effective conservation governance models, and provide a platform for African voices.
First, we aim to help countries address human-elephant conflict with tools, techniques, and conflict resolution that can mitigate these problems, and how to prevent them in the first place. Elephants are at the high end of sensitivity for human wildlife conflict. They are magnificent animals, people love them, but living in proximity to them can be rather problematic. Yet, when it comes to a cabinet decision on anything to do with infrastructure, agriculture expansion, or new settlements, it is unlikely that elephants and their migratory routes are part of that decision-making process. We are looking at how this might change. Second, we assist governments that have been less effective than others in attracting conservation finance over time. Third is the issue of African peoples’ attitudes toward wildlife. We have seen a lot of people from outside Africa express themselves on elephant and wildlife conservation issues. We provide a platform for African voices.
How do you plan to project the African voice?
Africa’s elephants and other wildlife are going to be saved by Africans; governments, the non-government sector, the private sector, and citizens. The EPI Foundation is working with GlobeScan to conduct a pan-African survey to measure young people’s attitudes toward wildlife. It is a youthful continent and the attitudes of youth to wildlife will be critical to the long-term survival of wildlife.
We need a space where African states can feel comfortable to openly discuss, amongst themselves, their common wildlife challenges. The continent’s population continues to grow. Human wildlife conflict is increasing as wild animals and people compete for space. These are dynamic and highly sensitive political issues, especially when you are dealing with an animal that can be as destructive as an elephant.
It is very important to listen to African stakeholders. Hasn’t this happened sufficiently so far?
The large NGOs are very effective communicators, with their own constituency and their own views. Local voices don’t often get heard, including at large meetings, such as those convened under international conventions. We want to change this. Is there a space where governments can comfortably discuss their challenges and the full range of possible solutions? We need to amplify African voices. We may find that there’s more common ground than some might think. External, well-funded organisations can offer huge technical and financial support to help reconcile some of these issues.
What are the benefits for corporations to participate?
There can be massive global and local benefits from managing elephants and their habitat. From protecting biodiversity and combating climate change, both in terms of mitigating climate change through sequestering carbon and adapting to it, to issues associated with public health, and local and regional security, to tourism benefits. As the benefits are many and varied, so too must be the sources of funding. We need to see much more resourcing going directly to local people to support nature conservation. One can envisage a situation where local people are paid for managing and protecting elephants and their habitats, given the carbon, biodiversity, and public health benefits.
How do we link net-zero carbon strategies with elephant protection?
Elephants and nature conservation more generally need to be at the heart of the response to climate change. We know that nature-based solutions can offer about a third of climate mitigation between now and 2030. We have an opportunity to link biodiversity and elephant conservation to the climate agenda. To be effective, we must see financial benefits going directly to local people for managing the conservation estate. That is where the external investment community needs to come in, governments, the private sector, and donors. It is massive opportunity and if we get it right it will be a game changer with benefits for all.