Jackson Wild, CITES & UNDP – Raising the Profile of Wildlife in Peril

Mother and baby lion-tailed macaque. Image: Nagaraj Papanna 2017

A mother lion-tailed macaque cradles her baby against her, undisturbed by the camera crew in close proximity. Polar bears trudge across sludgy ice floes to find ringed seals in winter. A herd of pronghorn antelope bounds across the screen and condors fly high over herds of guanaco.

These are just a few of the many stunning scenes I’ve seen as I spend time as a judge for Jackson Wild’s 2022 World Wildlife Day Film Showcase. I’m honored to have been invited to contribute to this partnership between Jackson Wild, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The Showcase, the seventh of its kind, highlights films that explore threats to endangered flora and fauna and these species’ importance to habitats and ecosystems. The films also paint portraits of the communities who live near them and celebrate initiatives aimed at conserving these threatened species.

Films entered will be used to help illustrate this year’s theme: “Recovering key species for ecosystem restoration”. They will raise global awareness of the status of vulnerable animals and plants around the world and emphasize the power of conservation efforts to reverse the tide. In the face of the catastrophic biodiversity crisis, these stories couldn’t be more important. Find out more about the Showcase and the organizations putting it together at this link.

A polar bear walks through a wet, broken ice field. Image: Margo Tanenbaum 2018

I was asked to be a judge for the category “Species in Crisis,” which is awarded to: the film that most effectively explores current challenges and communicates solutions to the environmental, social-economic and sustainability issues facing threatened species of wild fauna and flora, their habitats and ecosystems.

It is engrossing watching these exquisitely beautiful films, each within a different context and each featuring people doing what they can to slow the stream of global biodiversity as it slips through our fingers. It gave me pause to think about the commonalities among these initiatives, described with such loving intimacy by the filmmakers. The films’ subject matter ranges across the globe, but it doesn’t matter whether we’re seeing stories from the Artic or the Equator, oceans, deserts or rainforests, bears or butterflies, the underlying narrative is always the same:

Species that don’t reap a benefit by associating with us, have it rough. As humans expand into their native habitat, they are either physically displaced, outcompeted for limited resources, or their habitat is altered in a way that makes it unlivable. The animals and plants are forced into more dangerous marginal habitats where nutrition is poor and opportunities to reproduce are decreased. On a global scale, this spells disaster for the planet’s biodiversity. The World Counts website suggests that in the two or so hours it has taken me to write this blog post, as many as 24 species (roughly 1 every 5 minutes) have gone extinct. Most of these are insects with highly localized populations – perhaps restricted to a single giant tree in the Amazon rainforest. Occasionally, however, it’s an iconic species, like the northern white rhino. As Robert Cowie, Philippe Bouchet and Benoît Fontaine wrote in their sobering 2022 article in Biological Reviews “The prognosis for the survival of a large proportion of extant species is not good.”

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed. Image: Alayna Wilkening 2020

Of course, in terms of these documentaries, the grim side is only half the story. While humans are responsible for this Sixth Extinction, other humans are working diligently to save biodiversity. Preserving habitat is the most critical part of this endeavor. Species and the environments in which they evolved are inextricably connected. An organism divorced from its habitat might as well be tissue in a vial in cold storage. Even modern zoos focus on providing captive animals a degree of choice, enclosures that replicate their natural environments and species-appropriate groupings.

The people explored in this set of documentaries work diligently, even at great personal cost, to create conditions in which animals and plants can coexist with humans. Their work takes many forms, from monitoring individuals, to raising awareness about poaching, to simply allowing them to cross a road in safety. The most effective of the programs are those which bring people together and for which local communities derive a benefit. The most affecting films, for me at least, are those that cause the viewer to care both about the animals and the people involved. In the Age of the Anthropocene, there is no species whose context can be considered in isolation from humanity. This is the heart of this year’s Showcase theme connecting ecosystem restoration with species recovery.

A humpback whale off the Maui coastline. Image: Lee Sommers 2020

To keep going in our fight to halt the decline, it’s essential that we maintain hope. If we are beyond that emotion, we will give up. And we mustn’t give up. It is only through our tireless actions that at least some of the Earth’s pre-human biodiversity can be maintained in the long term. Initiatives like World Wildlife Day and the Film Showcase serve to inspire and to keep these issues top of mind.

One thought on “Jackson Wild, CITES & UNDP – Raising the Profile of Wildlife in Peril

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  1. Good morning Eric,

    I loved this piece. Art and I have known Philippe Bouchet and Rob Cowie for years. If you are interested in talking to them for one of your podcasts, I am sure Art would gladly make introductions for you. Have a great day.

    Cindy Bogan

    P.S. I am loving retirement.

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