Going the distance – longterm investments reach longterm goals

Final designBy Sheila Colla and Christina Davy

An athlete’s road to the Olympics is long and difficult. Success at the games follows years of hard work, collaborative effort and perseverance through numerous setbacks. This formula for success is relevant in the conservation world as well. Rarely, if ever, are we able to easily bring an animal or plant back from the brink of extinction quickly without a slew of support. But given the right resources, we can bring species back from the brink.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, rats were introduced to the Galapagos island of Pinzon. The rats preyed on the eggs and hatchlings of the Pinzon island tortoises, and over time the population became dominated by adults – there were no juveniles left. In the 1960s conservation biologists realized the tortoises weren’t surviving to adulthood and collected all the remaining individuals for captive breeding. The Galapagos Tortoises of Pinzon Island were listed as “extinct in the wild”, because no wild individuals remained on the island.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise

Galapagos tortoises wallow in a pool on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz – on nearby Pinzon, the tortoise population has not fared so well. Photo: Ryan M. Bolton. (click here to see more of photos of Galapagos and other wildlife)

Over the past few years, efforts have been focused on returning the island to its rat-free status to prepare it for re-introduction of tortoises. This is a huge task, but it was successful: and the tortoises were recently returned to their natural habitat, which is now rat-free. This successful project involved numerous biologists, park managers, and other supporters over five decades – and it worked. Examples like this one demonstrate that in some cases, long-term thinking and persistence are required for success. Species recovery involves huge challenges, but it can be done!

But here’s the catch: most grants for conservation work are only one to five years long. This makes the planning and execution of long-term projects extremely difficult, because even if your project is favoured by funding agencies, you never know when a change in the economy might cause your funding to run out. Long-term funding sources for conservation projects would go a long way towards creating effective conservation programs. Obviously, elected officials serve relatively short terms, and this makes it difficult for them to create long-term funding opportunities. But once again, the continuity of the Olympics show that long-term commitments are possible. It would be difficult to find a politician who doesn’t want to send Canadian teams to the next 40 Olympics. That’s 20 years of funding. Why can’t the same political dedication be focused on conservation?

In fact, we are currently seeing a trend in the other direction – the removal of long-term funding from research projects that have provided important outcomes for Canadian citizens. For example, research at Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) has taught us how pollution affects lakes, and improved our understanding of heavy metal accumulation in fish and the effects of acid rain. These are topics that directly affect the health of Canadians. But the federal funding that made the ELA possible was cut suddenly in May 2012. The ELA may open again this spring, thanks two years of hard work finding new funding solutions, but its future is incredibly uncertain. We need the same long-term commitment to conservation research from Canadian citizens and government that we give to other important endeavors, like the Olympics!

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