Wild Revelations 2: Simple Solutions

What does a true wildlife conservation rockstar think will make a difference in our quest to save the world? Hint: It’s simpler than you might think.

Stuart Strahl poses with a seal! He may have the coolest job ever... (Brookfield Zoo/CZS)
Stuart Strahl poses with a seal! He may have the coolest job ever… (Brookfield Zoo/CZS)

I had the amazing opportunity to find out how/why at the 2015 International Wildlife Conservation Expo, when I sat down with Stuart Strahl, PhD, president and CEO of Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo.

With more than 30 years of national and international conservation experience, this conservation crusader has established partnerships between the U.S. and Latin America that have led to the preservation of millions of acres of land and billions in conservation funding. As a veteran in the field of conservation and community engagement, he has witnessed sea changes in public opinion over the years.

Basically…if anyone could tell me about the relationship between people and wildlife conservation, I knew it would be him. Though I was a tad nervous, I had to seize the chance to ask this eco-celeb the million-dollar question: Why does wildlife conservation matter, and what can we do to help?

The Short, Million-Dollar Answer

“The problems are vast but the solutions are fundamentally simple.” ~ Stuart Strahl, PhD

The way Strahl sees it, there are a myriad of issues at play here. The big, explicit issue on his mind is human intervention and disturbance of habitat. Large land mammals, for example, require lots of space. But with a rapidly growing world population, undisturbed space for these animals is shrinking.

The second major issue is a bit more implicit: Climate change. Climate change is impacting animals and their habitats in various and profound ways. The results are serious and affect living creatures everywhere. There’s no getting around that these problems do seem…well…vast.

Okay, So Now What?

I know what you’re thinking. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by these larger-than-life problems and to feel a little disconnected from, say, lion conservation when you are living in the suburbs of Chicago. But just like the big man himself says, what’s at the heart of the solutions is simple: it’s all about connecting the dots between humans and nature.

CZS uses animal ambassadors, like Divot, to help people make personal connections with wildlife. (B. Kosson)

We are all practically born with a passion for animals and nature, begins Strahl. You can see the joy and excitement fill a child when they see an animal. Sometimes adults need to be reminded of our connection to nature, but it never really leaves us, he adds. For organizations looking to foster public support for wildlife conservation, inspiring others to transfer their own positive reactions into positive actions is “not that big of a jump if you do it right.”

And the Chicago Zoological society is doing it right! CZS alone has 2.3 million visitors each year, each of whom Strahl is trying to personally empower with education programs, hands-on encounters with wildlife, and engaging exhibits that help bring to life the link between people and animals.

Across the country, other wildlife-oriented organizations are also championing this age-old relationship—which adds up big time for conservation momentum, when you consider that more people go to U.S. zoos and aquariums each year than NFL games. Think about it, if each one of our zoos or aquariums could inspire a small change in even just half of these visitors’ lives, it would amount to 90 million people taking action for a better world.

Talk about a simple solution we can all enjoy! Just by visiting institutions like the CZS/Brookfield Zoo, we are taking one small, easy step towards empowering these organizations to further inspire countless others to care about animals.

The Big Takeaway

Wildlife conservation isn’t just about saving any given number animal species—it’s also about engaging people, concludes Strahl. Once people are able to really internalize the value of wildlife and natural resources and embrace responsibility to protect that value, they can make some pretty dramatic changes. Animals are the symbol, the guiding compass, as Gary Wolfe put it in our conversation about grizzlies. But inspiring people is the real focus of many wildlife conservation efforts.

Whether it’s working with individuals to change their perception of co-habitation with grizzlies, or engaging millions to make small changes in their everyday lives, successful wildlife conservation changes the hearts and minds of people.

Animals are beautiful, bizarre, majestic, and interesting—and in addition to all that, they are also able bring people together to work for a better planet.

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