It’s not all about beauty

30 September 2010 | News story

Coral reefs are often referred to as ‘tropical rainforests of the oceans’. Although they only cover 0.2% of the ocean’s floor, they contain 25% of its species, offering a spectacular overview of our oceans’ biodiversity. Corals are not only beautiful; they are also a vital source of income to many people throughout the tropical world. But at the same time, they are among the most vulnerable ecosystems, particularly threatened by climate change. So what is it like to work on protecting this precious realm of life?

A research scientist working for the Japan Wildlife Research Center, Kohei Hibino, is involved in conserving coral reefs and knows the ins and outs of this complex task. He is also the Regional Coordinator for the marine thematic team of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas, in the Northwest Pacific region.

Since my childhood, a ‘clean water environment’ was my greatest passion and I was interested in both freshwater and saltwater biodiversity. Following this passion, I went on to study coral reefs at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, which for me was an obvious and natural choice.

But although coral reefs are probably the most colourful and diverse working environment that one can imagine, in reality conserving them involves tasks that are much less colourful.

Most of my work these days focuses on coordinating governmental projects on environment policies, conservation and management. The biggest challenge is the difficulty of coordinating and finding common areas between policy makers, scientists and NGOs who often have different needs and perspectives. I do sometimes get frustrated, but I also tend to enjoy being engaged with various people. I see myself more as a coordinator rather than a scientist.

But because coral reefs are such an important source of income for so many communities around the world, conserving them creates very complex challenges, where the balance between nature conservation and the economic development of the area is not always easy to achieve.

I used to work for a private environmental consulting company, managing a small marine laboratory. It was in an economically-depressed small fishery village in a rural area and I faced numerous challenges related to conflicts between development and nature conservation. It was very interesting as it allowed me to get hands-on experience of a highly complicated and delicate situation. This lesson has taught me that the environment is not just about beautiful landscapes and animals – it’s more about complicated social reality. I find this absolutely fascinating.

Kohei Hibino is one of the focal points of the International Coral Reef Initiative for Japan, a partnership among governments, international organizations and non-government organizations, of which IUCN is a major member. The initiative strives to preserve coral reefs and related ecosystems. In relation to the initiative, Kohei has coordinated various projects including regional strategy development and the development of a database of Marine Protected Areas.