Bringing Conservation to Life

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"We could not take all the delegates at CITES on a dive with “mini mantas”, Virtual Reality allowed us to bring the mantas to the conference. "

I officially fell in love with  the ocean on December 31st, 2005. Fourteen years old with a fresh junior open water diver certification, I had my ticket to the underwater world. The ocean exponentially grew to become a bigger part of my life than I ever imagined, and it was a natural evolution to develop a desire to give back. With the support of the Rolex Scholarship, this interest recently took me to Johannesburg, South Africa. More than 2,000 kilometres away from the nearest coastline, I found myself in the deep end of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species 17th Conference of the Parties (CITES CoP17) – the most important conference for wildlife conservation in the world.

Every three years, delegate parties from voting nations come together to discuss and vote on regulations in the trade of wild flora and fauna. Despite the spotlight often placed on issues in terrestrial species such as the trade of elephant ivory and rhino horn, the importance of managing trade of marine species has gained increasing focus in recent years. In 2013, CITES made history by voting yes for international protection of manta rays and five species of sharks. This year, with more than 180 nations and over 3,500 people participating in the largest CoP yet, that momentum continued with proposals to list silky sharks, three species of thresher sharks, and nine species of mobula rays.

Targeted by fisheries to supply the shark fin and gill plate trades, these species have experienced population declines of over 70%, and therefore require global protections to ensure that international trade does not threaten their survival. For long-lived species with low reproductive output, such as the silkies, threshers and mobulas, this is especially critical. However, while CITES listing is an essential step in implementing protection for threatened species, the reality is that the fate of this vote lies in the hands of political delegates that are likely not scuba divers and may have never seen a mobula ray, let alone understand the threats they face. People will only protect what they care about, and they will only care about what they understand. So how do you encourage individuals to protect something they know very little about?

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Joining a team with non-profit charity, The Manta Trust, I had the privilege to be involved with a unique media campaign initiative focused on this exact goal. Taking an innovative approach, the team led by Danny Copeland, used 360 degree Virtual Reality technology to bring media to the frontline of wildlife conservation and educate delegates to vote to protect mobula rays. To create the film, we travelled to the archipelago of the Azores Islands, one of the only places in the world where Sicklefin Devil Rays (Mobula tarapacana) are known to reliably aggregate. While we could not take all the voting delegates of CITES on a dive with the “mini mantas” of the ocean, virtual reality allowed us to bring to the conference the next-best-thing.

Over two weeks of marathon discussion with individuals representing everyone from voting delegates, to media networks and local visitors, we were able to take people from over 50 different nations on a virtual dive with mobula rays in the Azores. By introducing them into a completely immersive experience, the virtual reality film was the perfect way to open the door for conversation to effectively educate the delegates more about what they were voting on, and the importance of their vote to protect these marine species. With recognition from nations ranging from those with large fisheries, to those where ecotourism is critical for the economy, it was truly inspiring to see the support for marine species at CoP17, as delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of listing all 13 species of sharks and rays on CITES Appendix II. This critical move means that governments around the world will now have to act to ensure that all continued trade in these species is legal and sustainable.

It was a privilege to attend CITES as part of an effort to increase awareness and support for protection of marine species. It was also very sobering to witness first-hand the realities of conservation politics. While the CITES framework is an important component in conservation, achieving this listing does not mean the job is done. Listing provides a mechanism to initiate and more strictly implement fisheries regulations to manage where and how wildlife products may be traded. More importantly, it buys valuable time to conduct necessary research on species for which we often lack fundamental life history and population data. Sound scientific research and understanding is critical in the development of effective management guidelines and conservation practices. The better we understand these elusive animals, the better we can develop sound management and affect much needed enforcement of regulations to ensure their populations thrive into the future.


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by Maya Santangelo : 2016 Australasian ROLEX Scholar, Our World Underwater Scholarship Society  ( OG 39)

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