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Commentary: Where Are the Indonesian Conservation Experts?


Indonesia is the second-most important country in the world for conservation. It has more species than pretty much anywhere else in the world, but threats are high. Compared to many other countries things are still pretty good here. In fact, and despite the many depressing conservation stories, Indonesia remains the crown jewel of Southeast Asian conservation. Still, Indonesia is short on local biodiversity experts, which makes it so much harder to effectively deal with biodiversity conservation challenges.

Colourful coral reef, Raja Ampat Islands, Indonesia. Photo: IUCN Photo Library/Jason Suwandy

Last week, we attended the IUCN Leaders meeting in Abu Dhabi. The International Union for Conservation of Nature represents the largest conservation network of volunteers. These people coordinate species specialist groups or topical task forces, and provide the scientific backing needed for effective conservation and environmental management.

Among the approximately 400 IUCN leaders gathered in Abu Dhabi, two represented Indonesia. Mirza is a member of the IUCN Steering Committee and Erik chairs the Wild Pig Specialist Group, and helps out in other groups for primates, birds and also oil palm. Two out of 400 is 0.5 percent, and only one of us two is properly Indonesian.

Half a percent is pretty dismal considering how important Indonesia is globally. Based on the importance of the country for global conservation, some 10 percent or 15 percent of the global experts should really be Indonesian, not 0.5.

The above figures are for senior managers in the IUCN, but how do the numbers stack up for ordinary IUCN members? In 2013, the total number of IUCN Species Survival Commission members around the world was 8,050, with the highest number originating from the United States (1,633), followed by the United Kingdom (630), Australia (328) and India (327).

Of the two top mega-diverse countries in the world, the membership counts are 240 for Brazil and 109 for Indonesia. 109 out of a total 8,050 is just over 1 percent, reflecting the representation of Indonesian conservation leaders in Abu Dhabi.

Why is Indonesia so marginally represented? The relatively low quality of local conservation science is one factor, ability to speak and write English another one. But still there are a great number of Indonesians with considerable knowledge of the country’s wildlife and a major commitment to saving it. Why are these people not joining international organizations to share their knowledge and insights? Surely, a local expert from Papua will know much better how to save an endemic Papuan frog than someone based in an American or UK institution.

There are a few ways for increasing Indonesian participation in international conservation planning and science. Besides improving in-country education and strengthening local science, which requires long-term investment, Indonesian experts could be more pro-active in trying to join species specialist groups and task forces.

For example, the Wild Pig Specialist Group that Erik chairs has six Indonesia-based members (from a total of 68), but five are of non-Indonesian nationality. There are eight different wild pig species in Indonesia and the group is in desperate need for more local expertise, especially from Sulawesi, Maluku and Java. Anyone with an interest in these species and willingness to contribute to their conservation could join and help us in our work. This can significantly increase your chances to attract some funding for conservation work.

There are many other specialist groups and task forces and if you are interested, experienced, and willing to contribute voluntary time, contact the groups’ chairs and offer your expertise. It is a great way to work with international experts and learn from them. More importantly, it will strengthen Indonesia’s ability to address its many conservation problems.

There are presently 135 specialist groups and task forces, but Indonesians are only active in 28 of them, mostly in fauna groups. Indonesian scientists might argue that their expertise does not fit any of the specialist group’s requirements. But they can, in fact, propose to develop their own regional specialist group, as long as the leadership is clear, like local experts have done for the Madagascar Plant Specialist Group, Brazil Plant Red List Authority, and Asian Elephant Specialist Group.

Why not create the Indonesian Plant Specialist Group? There are about 28,000 species of flowering plants in Indonesia, and it seems daft not to have a group that deals with the conservation of these.

At the moment, Indonesia is in the top three of the global list of the most threatened species. Its lands and seas contain more than 1,300 species that require immediate conservation intervention to prevent their extinction. It would be fair to say that for each of these species at least one local expert is needed who can push for effective action to maintain viable populations.

We call on Indonesian experts to join the IUCN specialist groups or task forces. Note that because the number of people who want to become members can be high, especially in some popular specialist groups, selection criteria apply.

Once you are in, a range of training opportunities exist, such as the online IUCN Red list Training. Having more Indonesian experts who understand extinction processes and can translate that into meaningful conservation management guidance, would strengthen the voice of local conservation science. This would ultimately affect conservation decision-making and policy by the authorities.

Positive conservation outcomes in Indonesia are possible. This year, the IUCN awarded the Sir Peter Scott Award, their highest award, to Widodo Ramono for his life-long dedication to Indonesian conservation and the conservation of Javan and Sumatran rhinoceros in particular. If it hadn't been for Widodo the Javan rhino would likely no longer exist.

So, come on, you Indonesian conservation experts. Who dares to follow the footsteps of Widodo and become the next Indonesian conservation leader?

This contributed article appeared in the 24 September 2015 edition of Jakarta Globe.

Erik Meijaard and Mirza Kusrini are affiliated with Borneo Futures and the Bogor Agricultural University (IPB), respectively.