Liz Bennett on Endangered Species

liz_bennett_small03 July 2014 | Interview by Craig Kasnoff

Elizabeth (Liz) Bennett is the Vice President for Species Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Born in the UK, she went to Nottingham University to read zoology, and then to Cambridge University where she gained her PhD for research on the ecology of primates.

She moved to Sarawak, Malaysia in 1984, and worked there for the next 18 years. She started there by conducting the first ever detailed field study of the proboscis monkey, followed by studies of the effects of hunting and logging on wildlife. Her time in Sarawak culminated in her leading a team, with WCS and Sarawak Government staff, to write a comprehensive wildlife policy for the State, and subsequently to head a unit within the Government to oversee its implementation. This included providing technical input for new wildlife laws, overseeing their implementation through education and enforcement programs, and assisting in planning Sarawak’s protected area system.

After that, Liz became Director, Hunting and Wildlife Trade Program at WCS. This included working with WCS field staff to develop policies on bushmeat trade in Central Africa and a strategy to address illegal wildlife trade in China, and providing technical support to WCS field staff working on hunting and wildlife trade worldwide. Her current role involves overseeing WCS’s species conservation programs across the institution.

Liz has trained wildlife practitioners at many levels, from post-graduate students to government wildlife staff in Sarawak, Sabah, Myanmar, Taiwan and mainland China. She has published widely, with more than 120 scientific and popular publications, including seminal publications on hunting in tropical forests and illegal wildlife trade.

Her services to conservation have been recognized by her being awarded the “Golden Ark” award by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands in 1994, the “Pegawai Bintang Sarawak” (PBS) by the Sarawak State Government in 2003, “Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” (MBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2005, and D.Sc. (honoris causa) by Nottingham University, UK in 2008.

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The endangered Red-crowned Crane…photo Craig Kasnoff

EEJ: How do you see the ‘big’ picture of endangered species? Is it getting worse? Is it under control? Out of control? How do you see it?

LIZ BENNETT: Overall, it’s definitely getting worse. For some species with intensive conservation programs, we’re having some significant local successes. But overall, ever-more species are suffering from serious population declines and they’re found in fewer and fewer areas as local populations wink out.

EEJ: Can / should all species be saved from extinction? If not, which ones ‘must’ be saved?

LIZ BENNETT: Different species are entirely inter-connected in highly complex webs of relationships: pollinators, dispersers, predators, prey, and many more. So if some species disappear, that has knock-on effects on other species.

So we should be focusing on saving whole ecosystems, with all of their natural processes. Not only does that save all of the species, but also all of the ecological functions of those ecosystems which are so important to a healthy planet, and to people.

So key species for the focus of conservation attention should be those “umbrella” species – if we save them, then we save most other species in the system. These tend to be top predators and other species that need a lot of space. For example, if we save tigers and elephants in the wild, we will also be saving countless other species that occur in the same places.

EEJ: What do you see as the ‘leading’ cause of species extinction. Is there one?

LIZ BENNETT: The three classic causes of extinctions are habitat loss, over-exploitation, and introduced alien invasive species (which includes pathogens causing diseases). On top of that, we now have climate change which is already impacting many species, and when it’s added onto the other stresses, the impact on many species could be huge.

EEJ: What do you think is the most promising ‘solution’ to saving species from extinction?

LIZ BENNETT: Conserving large swathes of intact habitat, and ensuring that, within that, encroachment is minimal, and exploitation levels of all the different species is negligible, or at least sustainable.

Given the pressures on species and wild lands, that involves strong enforcement programs, and education and outreach at all levels, from local communities to senior decision makers, as well as monitoring to ensure that the habitat and animals are indeed being protected. At the end of the day, species will only be conserved if enough people care about them.

EEJ: What is your organization doing to help save endangered species from extinction?

LIZ BENNETT: WCS is doing a huge amount to help save endangered species. We have 500 field conservation projects in 60 countries. I would invite readers to visit the WCS website to learn more: www.wcs.org

EEJ: How / why did you (personally) become involved working on the endangered species issue?

LIZ BENNETT: I always enjoyed wildlife, so studied zoology as an undergraduate student in UK. It was then that I realized how so many species that I cared about were becoming threatened, so felt that I just had to try to do something about it; so I never even considered doing any other job except working in the field of conserving wildlife.

EEJ: What do you think the ‘everyday’ person can do to help endangered species?

LIZ BENNETT: There are lots of ways, and doing any or all of them is extremely good. First, try never to buy a species that might have been taken from the wild – trade in endangered species is one of the key drivers of extinction.

Second, respect protected areas, and try not to disturb the wildlife within them. Third, become involved in a local conservation group, through your local nature reserves and parks or some other program. And finally, support conservation organizations who have good programs to conserve wildlife and wild places.

EEJ: Are you hopeful or concerned for the future of species facing extinction?

LIZ BENNETT:It’s a complex question.

To work in wildlife conservation, you have to be somewhat optimistic or you would give up! I’m relatively hopeful that, for many species, we can conserve them in at least some well-protected local areas.

But what we have to do is expand that out to conserve species across much larger parts of the landscape, really scaling efforts up if we’re not going to lose massive numbers of species. I’m less optimistic about that, but it’s a goal for which we have to strive.

EEJ wishes to thank Elizabeth (Liz) Bennett and WCS for generoulsy taking time to respond to these questions.For more information about the Wildlife Conservation Society go to www.wcs.org


Find organizations saving endangered species at Saving Endangered Species.


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