Leading a preemptive strike

28 October 2010 | News story

Many of us have seen heart-wrenching images of starving polar bears clinging to rapidly-melting ice sheets but how many of us realize that this iconic species is just one of thousands of animals and plants for which climate change could sound the death knell? One of the people alerting decision makers to the situation and spurring action to reverse it is Wendy Foden of IUCN’s Species Programme.

Based in Cambridge, UK, far from her native South Africa, Wendy has the job of coordinating the work of scientists who are devising a system to determine which species are most vulnerable to climate change and why. This knowledge is critical to set in train effective conservation policy and action. Creating connected networks of protected areas for example can help species adapt and move in response to a changing climate.


“With climate change set to become one of the major drivers of species extinctions this century, we need a way to predict which ones will be hardest hit so that we can take preemptive conservation action,” says Wendy. “But while obtaining the information quickly enough is challenging, persuading policy makers to act on it is another matter.”

“Climate change is affecting species right now. And conservation decision-makers and practitioners currently have few tools and little technical guidance on how to incorporate the impacts of climate change into their plans and actions,” she adds.

Wendy is driven to get the information out as quickly as possible so that there can be no excuse for inaction. She and her colleagues hit the media spotlight last year with the release of their report, Species and Climate Change. This landmark report focused on 10 species including the beluga whale, emperor penguin, quiver tree, ringed seal, salmon and staghorn corals which all highlight the way climate change is affecting marine, terrestrial and freshwater habitats.

With climate change, Wendy explains, conservationists are having to abandon many of their existing concepts of conservation and learn to play a new role as innovators who try to minimise species extinctions and maximise the capacity of landscapes to adapt and cope with climate change.

Prior to joining IUCN, Wendy was manager of the Threatened Species Programme at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), helping to conserve local plant, butterfly, arachnid and reptile species. Her career choice and ongoing passion for conservation is driven by a love of wild and remote places.


“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, and volunteered on a research project focusing on African blackwood trees in Tanzania’s remote southern miombo woodlands. I felt completely at peace there. I just loved being immersed in the landscapes and became really inspired by talking with local villagers about the medicinal, cultural and magical uses of these trees and how they coexist with them.
 
It became clear that my life would be worthwhile if I spent my energy and time in a way that could help protect such a place and such coexistence. I used a jumpy connection in a seedy Dar es Salaam Internet café to apply for the Conservation Biology MSc programme at the University of Cape Town and I haven’t looked back since.”

Wendy is one of those people who make you wonder what you’ve been doing with your time. As well as having a sharp scientific intellect and an enquiring mind, she has many physical talents. She has led several expeditions including a cycling trip through Malawi and northern Mozambique and several rafting trips including on the Orange river through the Richtersveld. And her interests are not all of the species or adventuring kind, she also spent time in India teaching English to Tibetan refugees.

Wendy is extremely eloquent in describing what motivates her professionally. “I believe that species conservation forms the essential skeleton of conservation. The cuteness, cuddliness, scariness, sadness, vulnerability, beauty or ugliness of our cohabiting creatures is something we’re all able to relate to, and so species play an important role in building a firm consciousness of biodiversity conservation around the world.”