Jennifer Linton

Blog: Conservation, Crises and COPs - strong leadership in challenging times

Posted: 12th November, 2021

Jon Taylor, Director of Save the Rhino, writes for BIAZA reflecting on the leadership of conservationists in the most challenging of the times... 

As sensible conservationists, fond of our own sanity, we usually focus our attention on some specific aspect of the wonderful biodiversity of this beautiful world – hip-hop influences in the mating dances of African pachyderms, for instance, is a personal favourite. Some of us may even go on to become experts in our chosen field, particularly if, as with my example above, it seems to be strangely overlooked by everyone else.

There are times, however, when we are dragged beyond the boundaries of our favourite corners of the biological world by seismic events further afield, and we are forced to take a good look at what is going on in the wider world. The trouble with staring for too long at the whole planetary ecosystem is not only that it is overwhelmingly vast and complex, but, of course, that it is generally in one heck of a mess!

The task of trying to truly understand the extent of that mess is dwarfed only by the task of trying to comprehend the scope, scale and speed of the changes needed to clear it up. I have just written a piece for our own Save the Rhino website, trying to explain why rhino conservationists, more normally associated with stopping poaching and habitat loss, might have such an unhealthy interest in the outcomes of COP15 (Biodiversity) and COP26 (Climate Change).

For those who spend less time buried in global environmental policy documents (I understand the term is ‘having a life’) I can share a couple of edits from recent key reports that might help to convey the scale of the challenge ahead:

  • The first comes from the IPCC’s 2018 report on limiting climate change to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels – “limiting global warming to 1.5°C […] would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems […that…] are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed […]”.


  • The second comes from the recent IPBES Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Climate Change – “a sustainable global future for people and nature is still achievable, but it requires transformative change with rapid and far-reaching actions of a type never before attempted, […and] will entail a profound collective shift of individual and shared values concerning nature […]”.


In other words, if we are to limit climate change and reverse catastrophic biodiversity loss, thereby protecting our favourite species and/or ecosystem, we must not only mitigate local threats but also radically change the way we live and completely reset our relationship with our natural world – in the next 10 years! If we don’t, Bad Things will happen.

It may be unsurprising that people who read these reports end up thinking a lot about change. Human beings are not wired for change on this scale. Most human learning is generational – we acquire a great deal of our knowledge of the world in the first 10 years of our lives; significant readjustments normally need to wait for the next generation to truly embrace them. Constant unlearning and relearning throughout life is, for most of us, unnatural and unwelcome.

As conservationists, our vocation is to hold back the tide, to protect that which we view as precious and beautiful against the predations of a rapidly changing world. It is no coincidence that ‘conservation’ and ‘conservativism’ share the same root. Yet the contradiction of conservation today is that in order to conserve, to be ‘conservative’ in its truest sense, we must be amongst the most progressive people on the planet. We must comprehend the challenges ahead better than any others, and move more swiftly to counter them.

Zoos have regularly embraced change. As a kid who was crazy about wildlife, growing up in North London in the 1970s, I spent my childhood running around London Zoo. In my twenties I worked as a keeper there and in the 21st century I arrived back as a conservation manager. Over that time the zoo itself completely transformed, from exhibiting animals in myriad enclosures to engaging the public on increasingly complex subjects, such as human/wildlife conflict, palm oil, and climate change.

Over the decades, taxonomy and entertainment have given way to appreciation, education and conservation across the zoo sector.

Amidst all the transformations and disruptions of the past 50 years, one thing has remained constant – there are many people who, for a wide variety of different reasons, care passionately about wildlife and wild habitats. It is these people, ultimately, who will fund conservation, who will inspire their families and friends to care about wildlife, and who will lobby and campaign for their governments to both fund and enact conservation

Zoos, alongside conservation NGOs and a few others, have both the responsibility and, I argue, the privilege of being the interface between these ‘people who care’ and the conservation world. We must fundraise, as ever, but, most importantly at this critical time, we must inform as we have never done before. We must strive to understand fully the magnitude of the challenges we face and of the great and urgent changes needed to meet them. And we must convey those messages to people who cannot yet see the consequences of the impending crisis, and yet who must act to make profound changes before those consequences become clear.

These wonderful people, who share our love of nature, need, deserve, clear messages, great inspiration and strong leadership in these most challenging and critical of times. Who will provide it, if not all of us?

Save the Rhino International has worked closely with some amazing zoos for over 20 years, and today partners with more than 40 BIAZA and EAZA zoos, working for a world in which wild rhinos and other wildlife thrive in wild landscapes. To those zoos who are already working with us – Thank You! To those who aren’t yet, and who have an interest in rhino conservation, I’m Jon Taylor, Managing Director at Save the Rhino – please get in touch at [email protected] and come talk to us.

By Jon Taylor, Managing Director of conservation charity, Save the Rhino

All blogs reflect the views of their author and are not a reflection of BIAZA's positions.