This month we welcomed Mike Appleton to the GWC team as GWC’s director of protected area management. Mike focuses on applied, area-based conservation, building on scientific findings to achieve conservation results on the ground. This includes helping governments identify and establish protected areas, creating legal frameworks and systems of governance, developing management strategies and plans, and building the capacity of staff and organizations to meet the complex challenge of being guardians of the world’s growing protected area management.
We had a chance to catch up with Mike about his past experience and his vision moving forward.
Q. How did you develop your passion for conservation?
A. Like so many conservationists, I caught the bug at an early age through a combination of family camping holidays in various wild corners of the UK and some inspirational school teachers who nurtured an early interest in birdwatching. My school adopted a local nature reserve as an alternative for those who didn’t want to join the military cadets, so I had a very early start in protected area management!
Q. Why are protected areas critical to conservation?
A. If species are the currency of conservation, then protected areas are the banks, safeguarding species, their habitats, ecosystems and natural processes. They now cover around 25 percent of the world’s land surface and 10 percent of its oceans and are one of the world’s great conservation success stories.
Q. Once a protected area is established, what does it take to manage it?
A. Too many protected areas are still just “paper parks.” This situation can be avoided even before establishment, by working with all those affected to build a shared vision for the future of new protected areas, rather than just drawing lines on maps. Any new protected area needs investment in infrastructure and equipment, and more importantly resources to cover the recurrent costs of management. In the end though, parks need great people to look after them. Managing a modern protected area is a complex job; at various times the staff have to be biologists, police officers, economists, development specialists, conflict resolution experts, fundraisers, entrepreneurs…. the list is almost endless. The best protected areas that I encounter have competent confident, empowered, versatile and well-supported teams, with great leadership.
Q. What do you envision for the future of protected areas? What’s the big visionary goal?
A. In terms of area, the global 2020 target for protected areas is 17 percent terrestrial and 10 percent marine, and it looks like we can reach that. The World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in 2016 set a new target of 30 percent, a figure that many scientists regard as the minimum to safeguard the world’s species and ecosystems. I think we can get there too.
But protected areas are more than lines on maps. My vision is that they are widely accepted by decision-makers and wider society as essential repositories of nature and as our planets life-support systems. Then perhaps they and the people who manage and protect them will get the support they deserve.
Q. What is your favorite part of working in conservation?
A. Conservation successes are normally hard-won, taking time and perseverance. Sometimes breakthroughs come gradually, sometimes quickly and unexpectedly but when they do happen, the feeling of immense satisfaction makes all the effort worthwhile.
Q. What is your favorite part of working in the field?
A. A lot of my work is done in the offices of governments, projects and NGOs and in training rooms. So the chance of a trip to the field is always very welcome, and essential for keeping me motivated and in touch with the fundamental reason for my work. I’ve been lucky enough to visit some remarkable places and always relish the thrill of seeing extraordinary creatures and landscapes; these experiences keep me going through the tough times.
Q. Do you have a particular favorite moment from the field? What did that moment feel like for you?
A. Many of my favorite moments have come with a feeling of being in true wilderness, far away from signs of our impact on nature. Where has that feeling come? Among other places, the forests of the Cardamom mountains of Cambodia, the vast horizon-to-horizon steppes of Central Asia and the remote Tian Shan Mountains on the borders of Kyrgyzstan and China. Other memorable moments have been very funny, like being chased by very small but extremely angry baby sun bear in Cambodia, or having to be dug out by laughing rangers from a huge snow drift in Siberia, after some wayward snowmobile driving.
Q. What is your favorite wildlife species or taxa? Why?
A. Seeing new and rare creatures and wildlife spectaculars is always a thrill. It’s hard to pick one favorite, so here are two. First, the Javan Rhino because it is an extraordinary and very rare animal and because it is responsible for bringing me and my wife together (we even had a Javan Rhino on our wedding cake). Second is the humble swallow, which migrates 6,000 miles (10,000 km) twice each year between its wintering grounds in southern Africa and its nest in our garden shed in England. I’m always delighted and amazed when they return each spring, having crossed the forests of central Africa, the Sahara Desert, the Mediterranean basin and industrialized northern Europe to get here. If they can make it, there is still plenty of hope for the planet!