Cultivating Conservation - A Conference Report from Hobart, Australia
Volume 2 Number 4 - December 1994
The first national conference of the Australian Network for Plant Conservation (ANPC), held in Hobart in December 1993 was an excellent opportunity for members and other delegates to get together to discuss progress since the "Protective Custody?" conference in early 1991, at which the formation of the ANPC was first mooted. Perhaps more importantly, it was an opportunity to discuss goals and directions for the Network's future.
The 1993 conference was held in Hobart as part of the celebrations marking the 175th anniversary of the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens. This connection ensured a strong Tasmanian theme to conference proceedings. Highlights included Professor Jamie Kirkpatrick's keynote address outlining plant conservation issues in Tasmania, a tour of the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens hosted by the Friends of the RTBG, the excellent conference dinner of Tasmanian seafood at Mures Restaurant and the field excursions on the final day to Port Arthur, Freycinet National Park and Mt Field National Park.
The conference consisted of three days of sessions, followed by a day of field trips. Sessions were organized in half-day blocks addressing particular themes. Apart from the first morning, which consisted of six papers developing the conference theme, each session included several short introductory papers followed by a workshop in which issues raised in the papers were discussed at length. For the workshops, the conference broke into small groups (of up to about 15 delegates), in which discussion facilitated by a group leader, was focussed on a set of questions provided in the conference papers. At the end of each workshop, the conference re-convened for a short report-back session. Workshop themes included: databasing, genebanking, species recovery, re-introduction, future directions and the broader view of plant conservation in Australia. At the end of day three, all of the workshop discussions were brought together in a plenary session in which resolutions formulated by the workshop leaders were put to the meeting, discussed, modified where necessary and carried. The conference resolutions represent the message that the delegates wish to deliver to the wider community (see below).
If attendance of delegates and participations in discussions indicate an organization's strength and energy, then the ANPC is vital and healthy. Despite some of the best weather that Hobart has ever produced, all sessions were crowded and discussion lively. Small groups continued the discussions at every opportunity outside the sessions. More than 100 delegates from all states and territories in Australia and a few from overseas attended the meeting. A wide range of organizations interested in plant conservation was represented. Many of those who attended came as interested individuals and many non-ANPC members were present. This attendance ensured that a broad range of views was expressed during discussion.
The conference title: "Cultivating Conservation", describes the aims of the meeting on two levels. On one level, the conference program reaffirmed the ANPC's emphasis on plant conservation through cultivation. At a broader level, the title also indicates an educative approach to plant conservation - through raising awareness of the plight of rare or threatened species, habitat loss and threatening processes, and encouraging conservation activities by its members and the wider community. Both approaches were addressed in the conference program and were supported by the delegates.
Throughout the conference a strong emphasis was placed by organizers and speakers on applying an "integrated" approach to plant conservation. This is a theme which was expounded strongly at the 1991 meeting by Don Falk then of the Center for Plant Conservation, USA, who has written extensively on networking and integrated conservation. Essentially, what is proposed is that conservation work should entail in situ and ex situ activities, should involve people from all parts of the community, and that conservation includes much more than just saving endangered species. This concept has been adopted by ANPC as its fundamental approach to plant conservation in Australia. Readers are encouraged to explore the literature on integrated conservation, perhaps starting with Don Falk's paper in the proceedings of the "Protective Custody?" conference of 1991 (Falk, D.A. "Steps to the Formation of a National Plant Conservation Network" in Butler et al., Conservation of Rare or Threatened Plants in Australasia, Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, Canberra, 1992.)
A wide range of issues relevant to the network was addressed in the three days of papers and workshops at the meeting. These issues were addressed mainly from the point of view that the network's emphasis is one preventing the extinction of endangered species primarily by ex situ means such as cultivation and reintroduction. The issues can be summarized as relating to four fundamental questions:
Much of the conference's time was spent addressing the last three of these questions. Conference outcomes will be described in turn.
The identity of the ANPC and its membership, and its history to date were set out by Mark Richardson on the first morning, providing a context in which to consider the broader questions of directions and issues.
The role - both current and potential - of the ANPC, was addressed by speakers and was also a frequent topic of conversation away from the formal sessions. There was a strong sense that the emphasis is to date on conservation of endangered species through cultivation in botanic gardens needs to be broadened and extended. In conjunction with extending the network's role, there was a strong call from the meeting to extend the size and breadth of membership. In particular, it was felt that more attention should be paid to the place of private industry, local community groups and a broader range of local and state government departments in the network.
Four main areas of activity were identified as comprising the Network's primary mandate. These include: databasing and information exchange; developing priorities and protocols for conservation work; liaison with government organizations (especially the Endangered Species Unit) and; education, interpretation and extension of plant conservation into the community. A further important area of activity is in fund-raising, about which there was considerable debate. In the end, it was accepted that the ANPC does have a fund-raising role, but that its primary function in this area is to inform its members of funding prospects and to lobby governments for support of network activities.
The meeting identified measures that the ANPC can adopt to fulfil its mandate in each of the four areas of activity. The ANPC's newsletter, Danthonia, and a central database to be developed and operated from the Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra (ANBG), were seen as the primary tools of information exchange and databasing. Despite variation in opinion in relation to the details of database operation, it was agreed that a centralised database and information exchange would greatly benefit members, especially smaller groups who did not have access to large libraries or scientific expertise. The conference resolved to set up an ANPC working group to develop protocols and address the issues involved in database/information exchange set-up.
Much discussion focussed on the limited amount of funding available for endangered species work, and how what little there was could be better spent. It was concluded that limited funds could be more efficiently used by avoiding duplication of effort and more carefully directing work to higher priority taxa and projects. Better use of resources could also be made by ensuring that ex situ conservation efforts were as efficient and effective as possible. This applies particularly to genebanks which, it was recognised, have the capacity to conserve large amounts of the genetic resources of Australia's flora for relatively little outlay. The meeting resolved to establish a working group to develop collection priorities and a range of guidelines and protocols covering all aspects of ex situ conservation.
One full day of the meeting was spent in considering the issues of species recovery and reintroduction. Although the ANPC does not itself carry out activities in these areas, they lie at the heart of much of the work undertaken by ANPC members. The ANPC can play an important role by providing up-to-date information on techniques, available expertise, protocols, local contacts and so forth. The conference provided an appropriate forum for discussion of many of the issues important to successful species recovery and reintroduction. In particular, the illustrated case studies of projects presented by several of the speakers in this session served to draw out the major issues involved. Some of these issues include the role of different groups, problems of taxonomy and propagation, commercialisation as an aid to recovering species and ethical issues surrounding reintroduction.
The role of the Network in education and extension was considered in a similar way, with speakers presenting case studies of successful projects from which general principles could be drawn. The meeting strongly endorsed the education/extension role of the ANPC, perceiving this to be an area where much progress could be made. In pursuing this role, it is expected that the network will develop materials to be used in schools and by community groups and will publicise project work undertaken by members.
The meeting recognised that it is one thing to say that the network should do all these things, but another to provide sufficient resources for it to do so. Again, funding limitations are the most serious issues facing the ANPC. To date the co-ordinating office has been supported by the Australian Nature Conservation Agency (ANCA) through the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG), and it seems that, for the immediate future that arrangement will continue. It was clear from discussions on this issue that most delegates believed that it is appropriate that ANCA continues to support the work of the Network. This was supported for two main reasons; firstly because the Commonwealth Government has accepted a responsibility to conserve Australia's native flora and fauna by signing the Rio Convention, by developing its National Strategy for the Conservation of Biodiversity and by legislation through its Endangered Species Protection Act (1992). Secondly, it was argued strongly that support for the network is likely to produce cost-effective plant conservation on a species-by-species basis.
The conference recognised that Commonwealth funding was unlikely to be sufficient for the tasks at hand, nor reliable enough into the future, and resolutions were passed to actively seek short and long term funding support for the Network's activities from other sources, particularly private industry.
Apart from the issue of funding, which is likely to be a perennial problem, the meeting recognized information and membership as primary resources to be employed in achieving the goals it has set for itself. The meeting's resolutions call for a membership drive to improve the income and resource base available for its work.
In summary, the 1993 conference has resulted in a clear agenda for the next few years activities for the Network. Several problems have been identified, and efforts have been made to address them. The workload of the co-ordinating office is likely to increase a a result of the conference, and additional resources will be required if all that was set out is to be achieved.
The conference congratulated those involved on what has been achieved to date in the short life of the ANPC, and praised the sterling work of the conference organisers in staging what was judged a highly successful meeting.