There are many different ways of helping to save a Critically Endangered bird species, and in the fifth post of our series on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper I’m presenting an interview with Pieter Wessels of WildSounds. Why, you might ask, am I giving publicity to a retailer? Because while WildSounds has an enviable reputation for customer service, what may be less well-known is Pieter and partner Duncan Macdonald’s commitment to conservation. Since its inception in July 2004 ‘the WildSounds Commission for Conservation program has raised over £4,300 for conservation charities around the world’ and most importantly – in terms of this series anyway – WildSounds became Species Champion (SC) for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper in 2008.
Becoming a Species Champion at this level is financially demanding and requires a serious commitment to the ‘Preventing Extinctions Programme‘ (PEP). Put another way, you don’t join a programme like the PEP because you’d like to sell more books and raise your profile a little, you join because you passionately care about birds and you believe very strongly in the conservation of threatened bird species.
Which of course means that blogs and bloggers who believe in the same thing inevitably want to talk with you! Despite this being the busiest time of the year for WildSounds [this interview was originally written in mid-August, and July and August in the UK is all about the British Birdwatching Fair for retailers of course], Pieter offered to put some time aside to support our Spoon-billed Sandpiper series and answer a few questions (as he put it in a good-natured but rather weary way in one of his emails, “What am I doing between 3 and 4 in the morning anyway?”).
Set up by Duncan Macdonald and run by Duncan, Pieter and Sue Fleming, WildSounds has (as noted on its website) “been supplying birders since 1989″, a veritable lifetime in the difficult, low margin world of retailing books and audio guides to such a narrow band of consumers (though it has to be acknowledged as consumers go we are a pretty fanatical bunch…).
A leading international supplier of supplier of wildlife books, audio & multimedia guides and Field Recording Equipment, WildSounds is committed to its environmental policy and to the concept of human rights, and will not knowingly sell or distribute any product that could cause extreme damage to the environment, or which was manufactured using child labour.
WildSounds donates a significant proportion of its profits to bird conservation organisations and is a corporate sponsor of the African Bird Club (ABC), BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme, BirdLife Malta, the British Birdwatching Fair, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and a company member of many other active wildlife conservation organisations. WildSounds is the ABC’s Official Bookseller.
Pieter Wessels at the British Birdwatching Fair, August 2009
Charlie: Pieter, many thanks for talking to me for this series of posts on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. I know how incredibly busy you are at the moment so let’s get right down to some questions. Firstly if I could ask you about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper itself: you told me in an email that you’ve been to Thailand and seen the species there…
- PW: We went to Thailand in 2007 to find Duncan two species to celebrate his 50th birthday: Gurney’s Pitta and Spoon-billed Sandpiper. I am glad to say that we saw both species – finding the Sandpiper was a hard slog, but there is nothing like finding your own birds. We found four.
Charlie: Four? Quite a birthday present – excellent! And now you’re the Species Champion for this charismatic little shorebird. There are plenty of threatened species worldwide – and I know you’ve travelled a great deal and must have seen a fair number of them – so what is it about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper in particular that made you decide to commit so much of your own money to its conservation?
- PW: Spoon-billed Sandpiper is not a unique “island trapped” flycatcher that evolution would probably have removed one way or another – how’s that for a controversial statement, by the way? – the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is on our doorstep. It’s a migratory bird and the problems it faces cross international boundaries. They are the same problems that hundreds of other species, avian and other, are facing: we need to find a way to feed and clothe the people of our planet while at the same time respecting and protecting its biodiversity – irrespective of national self-interests. Extensive agriculture in Asia has wiped out the wintering grounds of the Sandpiper, Salmon fisheries in eastern Russia have damaged its summer breeding grounds. Do I wish we could save more bird species – you bet ya. Do I believe we’re going to save every bird species – no. Do I think the Spoon-billed Sandpiper stands a chance – I can’t say, but how we tackle this problem will give us a good base for tackling conservation issues for other species.
Charlie: I’m assuming that as its Species Champion you take more than a passing interest in the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. What do you understand to be the greatest threats to its future survival, and are you optimistic that those threats can be faced and overcome?
- PW: The number one threat is apathy. I understand that scientists working at one of the sites in far east Russia have a problem recruiting help because the inhabitants work in a military owned lighthouse and are therefore not permitted to collaborate with NGOs. From their reports however, this is an isolated case and more and more people in local communities are getting involved in monitoring and protecting the birds. What it illustrates though is that the apathy extends upwards to the highest level.
Charlie: Where it’s hardest to affect of course…
- PW: Yes, but but to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper what we need to do is to engage with politicians and bureaucrats at all levels and across international borders. This is unique in conservation history. In the past there has been considerable effort trying to convince local people or provincial leaders or perhaps a single nation at a time that a habitat needs to be conserved. What is happening here is an engaging, multi-national approach at many different levels, tackling ignorance and apathy.
Charlie: Does it matter, Pieter, that there may or may not still be Spoon-billed Sandpipers on Planet Earth in, say, thirty years time?
- PW: The survival of an individual species – how important is that? I believe that we are facing some very serious problems with our planet. I don’t necessarily believe our planet is facing serious problems with us though. Planet Earth will probably be here for several billion years. But as long as we have the attitude that the survival of one species is unimportant, we are making our own survival on this planet “unimportant”. If mankind wants to continue to exist on Earth as we know it, then we need to realise that the survival of any single species is as important as the survival of mankind because this planet is a finely tuned machine. If we bend the eco-system here – it buckles there.
Charlie: Duncan is quoted on the BirdLife International website saying that “Conservation is our social responsibility”. I’ll take it as read that you agree with him, but could you elaborate on that a little: i.e. do you think that conservation is the social responsibility of the individual, of business, of society as a whole – or all three?
- PW: I believe responsibility always comes down to the individual. You buy a hamburger from a popular food-chain – you help build a multi-national brand. You vote for a politician – you help determine national and international policy. You ignore your neighbour – you help break down social cohesion. I’ve never understood the concept of “collective responsibility” whether the collective is a business, a government or society in general.
Can I as an individual affect conservation? Of course I can – it’s what I am doing right now. If, because I am channelling some of that effort through the coffers of my company, that makes it a “business responsibility” – well so be it.
There is a far more interesting question from a philosophical point of view for me. If I “act responsibly” and support the conservation efforts of a species – do I accept the same degree of responsibility in being part of the problem in the first place? Can paying some money to a good cause really extricate myself from my personal responsibility or guilt?
Charlie: In terms of Spoon-billed Sandpipers, Pieter, I think you and Duncan can justifiably say you’ve done far more than most! I’m talking here of course about WildSounds’ role in BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme (PEP) as Species Champions for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. I know you donate to many other charities as well, but joining the PEP is a sizeable financial commitment. You could have donated the total amount of money to a whole range of charities and activists working to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper: what was it about the PEP that you liked in particular?
- PW: Yes, we do indeed donate to a large number of conservation charities and causes already, but why the PEP in particular? The opportunity coincided with a period of growth at WildSounds and we thought we could sustainably afford it – that was really the only consideration. Strange – the fact that we would help was never a question for us – it was always a question of “how much could we afford to give”.
As I understand it, the basic approach of the PEP is very different to previous conservation initiatives. A Species Champion supporting a Species Guardian is a novel way to raise funds, but what the program does beyond that is really to look at the bigger picture – to build an international platform with a single focus and a single goal, through the leadership of a small group of highly respected individuals. In our case the guardians are Evgeny Syroechovskiy, Tony Htin Hla and Christoph Zockler [whom we interviewed for this series] and they are working, not only at a grassroots level, but also at a much higher level to bring their message across.
Charlie: Would you recommend the PEP to like-minded donors who may be reading this?
- PW: Absolutely. Being closely involved with the Species Guardian is the next best thing to being there and doing it yourself. I know Duncan would really love the opportunity to get out there, knock a few heads and get things going. Knowing that he is helping this to happen through the PEP, is – well – it’s almost a relief in a way. A relief that something is being done.
Charlie: That’s a great image! Knowing Duncan even slightly I can imagine exactly what you mean. Could the PEP be improved in any way, Pieter – I’m thinking from a donor’s point of view?
- PW: If I could do one thing to improve our participation in the PEP it would be to develop a closer relationship with the Guardians.
Charlie: At the end of your term as Species Champions for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (whenever that might be) what would you like WildSound’s support to have achieved?
- PW: I would like to see a successful, international framework which other projects could emulate. But above all, I would like to give the Spoon-billed Sandpiper a new lease of life.
Charlie: This blog is largely visited by birders and bird-bloggers of course. We’re always looking for good advice – so if we were to ask you for just one course of action that we could take to help save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (or any threatened bird for that matter) what would your answer be?
- PW: Talk about it. Take personal responsibility for it.
Charlie: By donating to our Appeal perhaps…It’s ‘blatant plug time’, Pieter: apart from outstanding customer service, a huge range of titles, and your commitment to conservation is there any other reason we should all be buying our bird books etc from WildSounds?
- PW: It comes down to personal responsibility again. Duncan, Sue and I, and therefore WildSounds, have taken personal responsibility – we have placed conservation very high on our list of priorities.
When someone phones me up and spends half an hour asking for my advice on books for their next holiday – that feels great, because they are acknowledging my experience and effort. But when they say “thanks, but no thanks – I’ll get it from Amazon – they’re 50p cheaper” – that is a disappointment. I’m not upset that they did not buy the book from us, it is after all an open market and we offer good prices to attract our customers just like everyone else. But, in choosing to support a company that has no interest in conservation and who is intent on becoming a multi-national monopoly, the customer is showing a considerable lack of self-interest and personal responsibility. Who are you going to phone when Amazon and Tescos are the only places you can buy books from? Where are you going to go on a birdwatching holiday when there are no Spoon-billed Sandpipers left?
That lack of personal commitment and personal responsibility is why we’re having to try and save the little chap in the first place – and that is really the saddest thing of all.
Charlie: Pieter, many thanks again for talking to us, and many thanks indeed for stepping up to the plate and doing so much to help the charismatic, beautiful, and utterly unique Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
- PW: Thank you Charlie for giving me the opportunity to answer these questions. A forum like this is as valuable a part of the conservation effort as any money we might raise.
This series of posts on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper has been written with Birds Korea to promote wetland conservation and as part of our commitment to Birdlife International’s ‘Preventing Extinctions Programme‘.
Species Champions are ”a growing community of Companies, Institutions and Individuals who share our concerns and demonstrate their commitment to protecting the planet’s natural heritage by funding the work undertaken by our Species Guardians”.
- For a full list of Species Champions please go to BirdLife Species Champions ‘Roll of Honour’.