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Q&A with GWC’s new Chief Conservation Officer

In November of 2017, world-renowned wildlife champion Russ Mittermeier joined GWC as Chief Conservation Officer, a leadership role that will help position GWC as an even more powerful force for the protection of endangered wildlife and wildlands. With more than 45 years of experience in conservation, Mittermeier has described 18 species new to science, has eight species named in his honor, has authored 37 books and more than 700 scientific and popular articles, and has contributed to the conservation of some of Earth’s most critically threatened places.

We had a chance to catch up with Russ about his extensive experience, his goals in this new role and the challenges facing conservationists in the years to come.

Q. What can you do in this new role at GWC that you weren’t able to do previously?
A. I am basically a species person and always have been. With the major shift by the environmental movement to climate issues and human well-being issues, species conservation has declined in priority among most of the larger conservation organizations. To me, this is a mistake, since biodiversity conservation in general and species-specific conservation in particular is the most basic underpinning of our planet’s life support systems. Given my strong conviction and belief in the fundamental importance of species conservation I have for several years been looking for a conservation organization that fit most closely with my interests for the remainder of my career.

Q. What about GWC’s mission drew you to the organization?
A. What drew me to GWC was the strong focus on species conservation, first and foremost. In addition, I was drawn to the leadership, especially Wes Sechrest and Don Church, whom I have known and greatly respected for a long time, and also the chairman of GWC’s Board Brian Sheth, who is emerging as a major conservation leader. What is more, I very much like GWC’s approach of hiring the best species experts, the true superstars, and giving them the freedom to do what they do best. This is critically important in our business because these amazing people have tremendous commitment and capacity. The combination of these factors made GWC very attractive to me, which is why I am very excited to now be the Chief Conservation Officer of the organization.

Q. What is your vision for what you’d like to accomplish in this role?
A. For my vision, I would like, first and foremost, to establish GWC as the global leader in species conservation, with the real superstars in the business either on as staff of the organization or supported by us. One of the best ways to do this is to provide major support for key specialist groups within the IUCN Species Survival Commission network.

I will definitely do this for primates, making GWC the global leader in primate conservation within my first year on staff. I have chaired the Primate Specialist Group of SSC since 1977 and have a very strong group, and a particularly strong executive committee. We are the Red List Authority for Primates, we do the action planning, we have four regional journal/newsletters, a global journal, and several websites, and we are also the de facto taxonomic authority for primates.

In addition, I would like to see GWC become the global leader in the conservation of tropical forests, especially primary forests and other intact forest landscapes. These forests are enormously important for biodiversity, being by far the richest terrestrial ecosystems, they are critically important watersheds, providing clean and sustainable water supplies to millions, they include some off the last homes of traditional indigenous peoples, and they hold the key to combatting climate change in the most cost effective way. In particular, I would like to have GWC focus on the Biodiversity Hotspots (e.g., Madagascar, the Atlantic forest region of Brazil, the tropical Andes, Mesoamerica, Indo-Burma, Sundaland, and many others), the richest and most threatened ecosystems, and the last remaining High Biodiversity Wilderness (e.g., Amazonia, the Congo forests of Central Africa, and the island of New Guinea).

Q. What do you envision are the biggest challenges for the conservation field in the years to come?
A. In terms of the greatest challenges, we need to re-establish biodiversity conservation and within it species conservation as the most fundamental conservation issue, demonstrating how it is basic to the provision of ecosystem services essential for long-term planetary survival and human survival. Biodiversity conservation has been greatly overshadowed by climate change over the past decade, but the two are closely linked and nature-based solutions are the most cost effective and the fastest way to tackle the climate issues.

Funding is also a great challenge and I hope to bring about at least an order of magnitude additional funding for species conservation by the end of the decade, and look at how this can be increased by another order of magnitude by 2025.

About the Author

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay is the associate director of communications for Global Wildlife Conservation and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.

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