Will Duckworth is the ASAP Species Advisor. He has been involved with ASAP since the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria Southeast Asia Campaign of 2011-2013.
How did you get into conservation?
Will: As a small child growing up in England in the 1960’s there were a number of important influences for me. I became interested in mammals first through being read to and seeing them in zoos. I grew up in a small town where a leading British birdwatcher had lived. He’d created a birdwatching community and it was easy to be encouraged by them.
Birds are good for children to become interested in, there is an endless turnover with the seasons and great variety. I grew up at a time when birdwatching was becoming an increasingly popular activity for children. The RSPB, Britain’s BirdLife partner, ran the Young Ornithologists Club. I also had a teacher at school who was very interested in bird watching. So I had lots of opportunities for my interest to be stimulated.
A number of people suggested I should go abroad and look for birds in places where nobody had looked for them for perhaps decades or even centuries. Doing this, I could really contribute to knowledge of the world’s distribution and status of birds and large mammals.
Was that what first brought you to Asia?
Will: Yes, that’s now over 30 years ago. My early foreign surveys were in Borneo, Madagascar, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Abu Dhabi. And there’s something about Asia; the intensity, the richness of the wildlife, the pace of change, the concern that opportunities are closing all the time.
There are places I have been back to, 20 years after I first visited, and the change has made them unrecognisable. That makes it more appealing to put your efforts into a place. They are fantastically rich, full of animals that are remarkably different, for example tapirs, colugos, slow lorises, flying squirrels. To see those while you’re out surveying is very pleasing. You get the feeling that there are opportunities which are not going to be there forever, to avert their extinction.
What are some of the projects you’ve been involved in that stand out?
Will: I was fortunate to go to Lao PDR before there was a protected area network, but when the government had committed to designating one. Between 1992-1999, I spent significant time in most of the candidate, and later approved, protected areas of Laos. This gave me an understanding of patterns of occurrence and variations of species across an area of land larger than any other I’d worked across. That was extremely satisfying to be involved with.
I then worked in Korea as an advisor to one protected area just outside Pyongyang, that was when I learnt that conservation needs to be more about changing people’s behaviour than it was just about animals.
Broadly speaking, most species are threatened by people doing something, intentionally or unintentionally. To reduce biodiversity losses, we need to be surveying people; what they are doing, why they are doing it, what the opportunities are to change their behaviour to reduce the threats.
What do you think are the biggest threats facing species in Southeast Asia?
Will: The threats that cause major declines may be different from those that threaten with actual extinction. For almost all lowland forest species across Southeast Asia, the overwhelming factor that has reduced populations is the conversion of habitat for agriculture. Many of these species are not strictly threatened with extinction by habitat loss, because large protected areas conserve populations of the species .
On the other hand, the species which have a high value in trade, may not ever feel a release in pressure. For example, the Javan Rhinoceros had a huge range from Northeast India to Southeast Asia, but now has one remaining population in Java. We believe that the Java population is relatively stable, thanks to a lot of hunting prevention. That said, it is sat on a non-extinct volcano, so at any time seismic activity could cause the extinction of that population, which would now be the loss of a species.
There are a large number of threats that can come into play at different times during a species’ decline. But, right now, when looking at land-based vertebrates, illegal off-take for trade or domestic use, is a major threat. As are habitat factors. These two are probably head and shoulders above any other threat.
If you had to focus on saving one ASAP species, could you choose?
Will: Interesting question! It’s a question of how people relate to conservation. There’s a whole variety of skills and attitudes that come into play. Many people in conservation need to be doing general work that benefits the whole system. That said, many species are not going to survive without highly specific action.
There is a term ‘Species Champion’ that refers to people who become inspired by one species. They are driven to give that species the maximum chance to avoid extinction. I don’t think I am a Species Champion type person myself. But I would like to see that the increasing number of species champions out there receive the best support possible from generalists like myself.
What are the major opportunities for species conservation in Southeast Asia?
Will: There are some broad-scale trends which conservation is well-poised to use. The rapid development of education, literacy and communication means that there is much more of an opportunity for everybody to have the advantages that I had as a child. You now don’t need somebody living a few doors down to take you birdwatching. Someone with an interest can go to the internet and connect with a broad range of like-minded people. Young birders can now be stimulated in ways that were unimaginable when I was growing up.
The understanding that we need to look after the environment has never been greater, which is slowly being genuinely incorporated in policy. We also have the increasing concern that if you don’t look after your environment, it is not going to look after you.
Featured image Black-winged Myna Acridotheres melanopterus © Anaïs Tritto