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ABQ BioPark has lead role in species conservation

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

With the recent addition of two Red List assessors, the ABQ BioPark is now at the leading edge of conservation research worldwide.

The Red List, a growing database that assesses the extinction threat faced by plants, animals and fungi around the world, is compiled and published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Tim Lyons, a Red List assessor for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, is working with fresh water fish at the ABQ BioPark Aquarium. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

And Albuquerque’s BioPark is now the first such facility in the United States to become a hub for the IUCN – and the first facility anywhere in the world to have two Red List assessors.

One of the assessors, Clayton Meredith, is studying medicinal plants from around the world, starting with North American species, many of which are in the collection of the BioPark Botanic Garden.

Meredith said the first plant he is examining is the Venus flytrap, which can be found in subtropical wetland areas in North and South Carolina.

“Because of its carnivorous nature, it has a lot of unique properties that are found in no other plant,” Meredith said.

“It’s also a priority species because its previous listing on the IUCN Red List is considerably out of date. We’re trying to determine what its status is at the moment.”

Clay Meredith, one of two Red List assessors for the IUCN at the ABQ BioPark, is cataloging and evaluating medicinal plants. Here he is looking at an Ephedraceae plant in the Botanic Garden. The plant has pharmacological properties as an expectorant, diuretic and anti-inflammatory. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The IUCN is the global authority on nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, and it’s the only conservation organization with permanent, official observer status at the United Nations.

It relies on a network of 15,000 nature experts and researchers worldwide working through a global hub of assessors who compile and analyze data.

“Each one of these assessments is classified like a scientific, peer-reviewed journal article, which in the world of academia is currency,” said Kira Mileham, director of strategic partnerships for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“It will mean that the BioPark will very quickly become a credible scientific organization with high science paper outputs.”

A fennel plant at ABQ BioPark’s Botanic Garden is among the plants with medicinal properties being analyzed by an on-site IUCN Red List assessor. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

As part of his assessment, Meredith will look at reviews of the Venus flytrap done by other people, reports on harvest rates and export numbers and will try to locate as yet unpublished data, if available, he said.

Tim Lyons, the other local Red List officer, is assessing fresh water fish, particularly fish from the southern United States and Mexico. He is looking at cichlids, a group containing about 120 species.

“These are small-bodied fish, though some of the larger ones, like tilapia, are used in subsistence fisheries, and others are common in the aquarium trade,” Lyons said. “I’m looking at anything and everything related to their biology and ecology. What do they do in their environment, what kind of habitats do we find them in?”

More importantly, he said, is data on cichlid populations and population rates.

“Are they in decline, and if so, what is the cause?” he asked.

Global conservation

Conservation efforts globally have, up to now, been done in a piecemeal sort of way, said ABQ BioPark director Baird Fleming.

Baird Fleming, ABQ BioPark director, handles a 4-month-old jaguar named Sumo during a visit to a nature park in Honduras. (Courtesy of Baird Fleming)

“This partnership will push entire collaborative conservation efforts on a global level so that we’re synergizing more entities across multiple platforms, and not just one entity thumping their chest and saying look at what we’re doing and how we’re going to save this species. It’s getting everybody on the same page and working for a singular focus.”

According to Mileham, the assessment model begins with “assessing the species most in need of help, then pulling together the different stakeholders to figure out what action is needed to save them, and then connecting with all the organizations and donors to make sure that action happens.”

Often, well-meaning people and institutions wanting to do conservation “jump in and try to save a species without doing the assessment or planning,” she said. “That’s just poor management.”

What’s far more important, she said, is “making sure the data connects to saving the right species in the right way and most efficiently.”

Doing that is no small task, considering that IUCN’s goal is to have 160,000 species from all classes of life on earth and all around the world assessed for the Red List by the end of 2020. Thus far, 96,000 species have been assessed, and more than 23,000 of them are threatened with extinction, Mileham said.

Kira Mileham, director of strategic partnerships for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, visits with a quokka, a marsupial native to Australia, at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. (Courtesy of ABQ BioPark)

The IUCN has comprehensively assessed the world’s mammals and most of its vertebrates. It still needs to assess many of the world’s plants, fungi and invertebrates, she said.

Depending on the species, the biggest threats include habitat destruction, climate change, over-harvesting (including over-fishing and deforestation), introduction of invasive species, and species poaching.

“That’s why the Red List is so important. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. For amphibians, it’s climate change and disease; for big mammals it’s about habitat loss and poaching,” Mileham said.

“We desperately need help with fresh water fish, and we know that fresh water ecosystems are crashing faster than any other ecosystem on earth, faster than we know what species are in them,” she said.

The global conservation community is also “terrified” about pollinators.

“We haven’t even assessed the extinction threat faced by pollinators, and we know from case study research that they are plummeting,” Mileham said.

Large scale loss of pollinators could cause agriculture worldwide to collapse, she noted, and could affect the propagation of plants that have medicinal properties and possible pharmaceutical and human health benefits.

In addition to the BioPark being a IUCN hub, the intention is for Meredith and Lyons to also become trainers, teaching others how to do assessments, said Mileham. Then those newly trained people can, in turn, train others, exponentially increasing the number of assessors over the next 10 to 12 years.

“Our target is to have 10 world-leading institutions by the end of 2018 becoming Red List hubs, and we want to have 40 more zoos and aquariums being trained by these hubs in 2019,” Mileham said.

About 10 of those hubs will be in the United States, she said.

BioPark’s funding key

Fleming said the partnership between the IUCN and the ABQ BioPark is partly attributable to the zoo’s good financial standing.

In October 2015, voters in the city approved a gross receipts tax specifically for the BioPark that is expected to generate $14 million to $17 million yearly for capital improvements.

Prior to then, much of the funding for capital improvement projects at the BioPark was raised by the New Mexico BioPark Society, the nonprofit support organization for the Zoo, Botanic Garden, Aquarium and Tingley Beach.

With the addition of the steady flow of tax money available for the BioPark, the BioPark Society can now focus its attention and funding on “higher endeavors,” such as education, research and conservation, Fleming said.

Toward that end, the society is picking up the $150,000 annual cost of paying the salaries of the two BioPark assessors, some of their equipment and training and related expenses, said BioPark Society executive director Julie Miller Rugg.

“If this all goes the way we think it will go, we hope to add a third IUCN assessor for the zoo,” she said.

“For Albuquerque to be part of a global organization that is making a difference in the world was an excellent opportunity. The BioPark is not just about holding animals, plants and fish; we also need to be about making a difference in the world and having a conservation impact. It’s pretty exciting to be a leader,” Rugg Miller said.

“So instead of riding the wave, we’re making the wave.”

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