Dr. Teresa Telecky Talks About Protecting Endangered Species
Meet Teresa Telecky, who has a Ph.D. in Zoology, recently taught Global Animal Issues for Humane Society University (HSU) and is currently the Director of the Wildlife Department for Humane Society International (HSI). Dr. Telecky is an expert on the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES is an international agreement between governments established in 1973 to protect certain species of wild animals and plants against over-exploitation and provides three levels of protection (Appendices) for species in international trade. Currently CITES consists of 178 member-countries. Dr. Telecky served as the Director of the Polar Bear Coalition during the recent 16th CITES conference in March 2013 in Bangkok.
My Journey into Wildlife Protection
I got my love for animals from watching wildlife while growing up in California and Nevada and from my father who was also very interested in wildlife. I received my Bachelors, Masters and received a Ph.D. in Zoology. I spent the first part of my career in the academic world, so there was a huge learning curve when I joined The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in 1990 and began working in the Wildlife department. In academia, I had studied the behavioral ecology of animals and taught University courses but I had no experience with advocacy or animal protection. When I attended my first CITES meeting in 1992, I had very little understanding on how to advocate for wildlife protection within a United Nations treaty. Fortunately, my scientific background and my teaching experience were extremely useful. Recently, I attended my 7th CITES meeting in March 2013, leading the Humane Society’s delegation in our efforts to protect polar bears, sharks and rays, the African manatee, elephant , rhinos, and freshwater turtles and tortoises.
CITES and Polar Bear Survival
At the 2013 CITES meeting a U.S. proposal to stop the international commercial trade in polar bear parts, such as skins which are used to make rugs, was considered but ultimately rejected. Because global warming is causing their habitat to literally melt out from under them, polar bears are facing greater challenges to their survival than ever before. At the same time they continue to be targeted by hunters in Canada. If the habitat loss trends continue the U.S. Geological Survey, predicts that two-thirds of the world's polar bears will be gone by 2050. While the Russian Federation supported the U.S. proposal, Canada did not; about 400 polar bears are killed in Canada, every year and put into international trade. Although the proposal failed to gain the necessary support to pass, it raised awareness among the CITES delegates and the general public about the plight of the polar bear.
A New Day for Wildlife: Success at CITES
The loss of the polar bear proposal was the only bad news from the 2013 CITES meeting. The 178 member countries did agree to new or increased protection for the African manatee, nine species of green geckos from New Zealand, the Mangshan pit viper of China, more than 40 species of freshwater turtle and tortoise, the oceanic whitetip shark, the scalloped hammerhead shark, the great hammerhead shark, the smooth hammerhead shark, the porbeagle shark, the freshwater sawfish, and two species of manta rays.
BEING AN ANIMAL PROTECTION PROFESSIONAL
Making a Difference on the Ground at CITES
Of the CITES conferences I’ve attended, the 2013 meeting was the best yet for animal protection. Over the years we’ve gotten better at communicating our information and views to member countries, keeping in touch with the delegates between CITES meetings—which happen only every three years—and helping them do their jobs better within CITES - we have positioned ourselves as helpers. HSI collaborated with other non-governmental organizations within the Species Survival Network to produce a CITES digest that translated in three working languages, used colorful photographs and formatted significant facts into simple bulleted points. In the past, delegates were given piles of paper and weren’t using their five senses to experience and understand the animals whose lives depend on their votes for protection. We effectively put a face on all of the species that were the subjects of proposals. It was rewarding to walk around the meeting hall and see the CITES digest laying open on tables and being read by delegates. We have worked hard to professionalize the animal protection movement - we are considered to be an essential part of the CITES community because of the scientific and legal expertise that we contribute. We are not only recognized as biologists and lawyers but as professionals and advocates. There has been a definitive shift from a pro-use mentality by the 178 countries within CITES to a conservationist point of view and a movement towards open-ness and transparency. I think The HSUS and HSI can take credit for this.
A Wildlife Journey Continues: Science and Advocacy in Action
I see myself as an animal protection professional. It would certainly be valuable for someone to have as much advocacy experience alongside their specific expertise – whether it is scientific, legal or otherwise. A lot of scientists become activists through pursuing their scientific studies. I had no experience in advocacy, when I first started at The HSUS. I had to learn how to be an advocate at CITES. As a scientist you’re not an advocate; you just report what happened. On the other hand, I could never be an advocate without the science. For example, I prepare technical arguments that are used to undermine those that want to trade in wildlife. I assess Canadian studies and management programs that promote polar bear trade. A scientist is trained to be objective and can take a step back and understand the point of view of the opposition. Facts about animals can be used to support or oppose animal protection. This is frustrating to the opposition that is against animal protection and a powerful tool that can be used for the good of animals.
CITES in the Classroom
I taught Global Animal Issues for HSU using the CITES conference as a model. We talked about the life of a proposal to include how to: collect information provided by scientific and trade publications, analyze trade data and use these to prepare a proposal, we discussed how a proposal moves from a draft, through the political arena, and then to the CITES floor. In the HSU course, I explained how I took all the steps in this process using the polar bear issue as the example. What I enjoyed about teaching the HSU course is that I could bring students into the highs and lows I experience in my work. For example, I was able to provide information about what steps we were taking in real time to advance the polar bear proposal, and what the responses of the various countries were to our efforts. Although comprehensive polar bear protection wasn’t accomplished at CITES, it did provide a good platform for learning.