People ask me, ‘Who really cares if we did lose the giant panda? So what?’ The so-called ‘charismatic megafauna’ I work on—giant pandas, Asian elephants, oryx, Przewalski’s horses—are umbrella species, meaning that if we maintain and restore them, we sustain their ecosystems and all their associated wildlife as well.
So, if we are protecting a large animal, which needs a large area to survive, we are protecting a large ecosystem, too. We are preserving biodiversity. In my view the underlying goal of conservation is to sustain ecosystems while ‘keeping all the pieces,’ as much as possible.
We cannot leave people out of the equation. Humans have been a part of nature for millions of years, and we are a part of natural systems. It’s not a realistic goal to just keep people out. We’ve got to understand how people are using these spaces. It’s a balancing act. When a species has gone extinct in the wild, there are a lot of factors that cause it—a change in the landscape, loss of habitat, and, in the case of the scimitar-horned oryx in Chad, the real kicker was pressure from the civil war.
The reserve where they were released in Chad is protected. It’s also the last place the oryx were in the wild. And, they’ve survived in zoos and large, enclosed ranches, which is why there’s a chance they can now go back to the wild and survive. We have to work with people to get their buy-in, so we don’t release 25 animals that are promptly shot. Strategically, we placed the oryx where there’s no well. They’re adapted and don’t need a lot of water. That isn’t true for livestock. So not a lot of livestock or people are coming through.
It takes a lot of money to return a species to the wild. This is a multimillion dollar operation. It’s probably the biggest project in terms of scale, number of animals released, having GPS collars on all of them and involving so many international organizations.
It’s an incredible opportunity to bring a range of science expertise together, partner with many stakeholders and develop conservation solutions that will make the place better for wildlife and people in a sustainable way.
Reintroducing the oryx required decades of work coordinated among the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, government of Chad government, Sahara Conservation Fund, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Zoological Society of London.