World’s Largest Conservation Conference Celebrates Big Wins

Underscores Big Challenges Ahead for Planet at a Crossroads

Earlier last month, for the first time in its 60-year history, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) held its World Conservation Congress in the United States in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. The selection highlighted Hawai‘i , known as “the endangered species capital of the world” for its collapsing native wildlife populations, which is a microcosm for climate impacts and the destruction wrought by invasive species to native species and ecosystems.

The National Wildlife Federation’s International Wildlife Conservation team, Senior Climate Scientist, and Associate Director for the Pacific joined with our Hawai‘i state affiliate, Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, in representing the Federation at this global event, the largest IUCN Congress to date.

The Congress, with 10,140 registered delegates from 192 countries was the largest conservation conference in U.S. history and the largest of IUCN’s World Conservation Congresses. The Congress meets every four years to set a global conservation agenda and define a roadmap for achieving its historic agreements. Over 80 motions (equivalent to the policy resolutions approved at NWF’s annual meetings) were approved, some with amendments.

Here are some of the major conservation priorities coming out of this year’s Congress:

Expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

Map courtesy of PEW Charitable Trust
Map courtesy of PEW Charitable Trust

On the eve of the Congress, President Obama used his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to expand the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The marine boundaries of the remote monument, first designated by President George W. Bush in 2006, were expanded from the existing 50 to 200 nautical miles, expanding the area that protects over 7,000 species of fish, birds and other marine life, including key apex predators such as sharks and endangered species such as the Hawaiian monk seal. Obama’s expansion makes Papahānaumokuākea the world’s largest protected area, encompassing an area four times the size of California.

The expansion was proposed by the Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, led by Hawaiian scholar Scott Kekuewa Kikiloi, former state Department of Land and Natural Resources Director William Aila, and others and formally proposed by Hawai‘i Senator Brian Schatz. The supporting coalition campaign included Native Hawaiian practitioners, fishers, marine scientists, businesses, youth and conservationists.  NWF’s Hawai‘i state affiliate Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, led by Executive Director Marjorie Ziegler worked tirelessly to build statewide support, and we are so proud to see these efforts result in such an impactful win for wildlife and wild places.

Protection of 30% of the World’s Oceans

While about 15 percent of the world’s terrestrial regions is currently under some form of protection, only approximately three percent of the ocean is protected, leaving it vulnerable to overfishing, mining, pollution and exploitation. The IUCN is often the cradle for innovative conservation treaties such as CITES (the Convention for International Trade In Endangered Species), and delegates at this year’s Congress voted to set a goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. In her speech at the opening ceremony, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stated, “We’re proud that with Papahānaumokuākea we have the largest Marine Protected Area on the planet for now. But in many ways this is a start of an arms race for protected areas and we hope that this record will not stand for long”.

Two of the Most Endangered Species on the Planet

Unsustainable fisheries were the focus of a decision to draw attention to the imminent extinction of the critically endangered vaquita in Mexico. IUCN’s government and NGO Members called for a permanent ban to gillnet fishing throughout the entire vaquita range in the Pacific Ocean.

Members also urged tighter restrictions on the trade in threatened pangolin species as defined by Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Despite current partial protection measures at the global and local levels, the species’ survival is at risk due to overexploitation, illegal trade and degradation of its habitat.

Global Ban on Elephant Ivory Markets

Qumquat the elephant
An elephant named “Qumquat” led her family across the border of Kenya into Tanzania, where poachers waited to slaughter her and her two older daughters. The smallest calf, Quanza, was found huddled near the carnage, traumatized. This beautiful photo of Qumquat and her family, taken just a day before the killings, has become an iconic symbol of global opposition to the brutal ivory trade. Photo by Nick Brandt, Big Life Foundation.

International ivory trading is banned, but domestic trade within countries is legal nearly everywhere. After much discussion, members approved a motion calling for the closure of domestic elephant ivory markets globally as a matter of urgency. Each country is now asked to enact laws individually, but IUCN’s policy experts will help countries craft the appropriate laws. “While the resolutions are not international law, in many cases, they are the genesis of international agreements,” said Enrique Lahmann, global director of the IUCN.

Hawaiian Bird Conservation

On behalf of more than a dozen national and international wildlife organizations, our affiliate, Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, introduced a late motion supporting increased conservation effort for Hawai‘i’s threatened birds. The motion was based on new information on the precipitous decline of Hawaiian forest birds released just days before the IUCN vote to adopt the motion. The motion past with strong international support.

Reconnecting People with Nature

The IUCN was joined by National Geographic, Google Earth Outreach, and Vulcan Productions to build a new global conservation movement. Called #NatureForAll, this movement is founded on the idea that the more people experience, connect with, and share their love for the natural world, the more support there will be for its conservation in the future.

More than 110 organizational partners, including NWF, have already agreed to join forces to share best practices and tools to connect people with nature. Many of NWF’s education innovations are already a part of this program and huge opportunities exist for collaboration both in the U.S. and internationally.

Members of IUCN also defined “nature-based solutions” as actions that protect and manage ecosystems, while effectively addressing societal challenges, such as food and water security, climate change, disaster risk reduction, human health and economic well-being. The concept of nature-based solutions is particularly relevant to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals that were jointly proposed by the United Nations and the World Bank, (launched in 2015 for achievement by 2030).

Supporting Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, Sacred Lands and Cultures

IUCN’s Members’ Assembly voted to create a new category of membership for indigenous peoples’ organizations. The new membership category opens the opportunity to strengthen the presence and role of indigenous people across the globe in IUCN. “Today’s decision to create a specific place for indigenous peoples in the decision-making process of IUCN marks a major step towards achieving the equitable and sustainable use of natural resources,” said IUCN Director General Inger Andersen. “Indigenous peoples are key stewards of the world’s biodiversity. By giving them this crucial opportunity to be heard on the international stage, we have made our union stronger, more inclusive and more democratic.”

Global Climate Action

New IUCN were approved to provide the conservation community with vital tools to support efforts to help species adapt to climate change. The guidelines are the work of more than 30 leading scientists and conservation professionals from around the world, who responded to the urgent need for a sound, wise way forward in this new and challenging field. As well as providing step-by-step guidance and information on freely available resources, the guidelines also include case studies of assessments carried out for species ranging from corals to butterflies and polar bears.

NWF Leads Conference Sessions

NWF team
From L to R, first row: Senior Climate Scientist Bruce Stein, Tropical Forest and Ag Manager Simon Hall, Associate Director for the Pacific Les Welsh, Tropical Forest and Ag Manager David Burns, VP for International Wildlife Conservation Barbara Bramble
Second row: Marjorie Ziegler, Executive Director, and Jonee Peters, Administrator, Conservation Council for Hawai’i

NWF’s International Wildlife Conservation Program, led by Vice President Barbara Bramble, co-presented a panel session on the current status of private sector commitments to eliminate deforestation from agriculture commodity supply chains. Expansion of agricultural production of major commodities has been the key driver of tropical deforestation for the last couple of decades. As more retail chains and manufacturers demand only “zero deforestation” products, the message is getting through to suppliers in the Brazilian Amazon, Indonesia and other tropical countries. As of 2016, over 360 major corporations have pledged to meet zero deforestation goals for the “big four” commodities, which are cattle, soy, palm oil and wood/paper.

Led by senior climate scientist Bruce Stein, NWF also held a half-day training session as part of the Congress’s Conservation Campus, which focused on providing participants with an introduction to climate adaptation. The training was based on NWF’s highly regarded publication “Climate-Smart Conservation: Putting Adaptation Principles into Practice” and was delivered in collaboration with the U.S. National Park Service and Wildlife Conservation Society. Fifty participants from more than 30 countries learned how climate change is affecting species, ecosystems and human communities, and how climate impacts are transforming the practice of conservation. The workshop focused on helping participants understand how to manage for inevitable changes, and how to link strategies and actions to climate impacts and vulnerabilities.


The Congress was a long and exhausting once-in-a-lifetime event for everyone involved. But it was also exhilarating. When so many people come together, of all ages and from every corner of the world to address the most pressing conservation challenges of our time, great solutions are shared and hope rises. We surely have work to do to ensure our planet and the life support it provides continues to survive. Working together on a global scale, we may just have a chance.

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