Why I'm a conservation optimist

Protecting wildlife is not possible alone - togetherness and conservation optimism builds a better, solution-focused future for the ocean and the animals calling it home. That is the message behind ZSL's Dr. Heather Koldewey's first ever talk for TedX, a platform to showcase 'great, well informed' ideas.

A conservation scientist at the forefront of challenges facing the animal kingdom, she explains why we can all embrace ocean optimism.

Heather Koldewey with the plastic found washed up on a Chagos beach
Heather Koldewey with the plastic she found washed up on a Chagos beach

A few months ago I got a call out of the blue asking me to give a talk at the first TEDx event ever held in Cornwall.

I love the TED concept and have enjoyed many TED talks online so I readily accepted.

TED talks are personal; they share your beliefs and your dreams, they show who you are and what you believe in.

After I started and stopped thinking about it several times, the ideas finally flowed on a late night drive from London to Cornwall. I cranked up some loud tunes and as the miles went by I thought about my journey in marine conservation.

I’ve been with ZSL for 21 years, starting as a postdoctoral scientist in the Institute of Zoology, moving to become Curator of the Aquarium and Reptile House at ZSL London Zoo, and then joined the Conservation Programmes team ten years ago.

The experience of working for such a unique organisation in those very different roles, with the people, the animals, the projects and the places, has made me very optimistic.

I believe we all have the power to make a difference and have seen so many solutions to conservation problems.

The challenge is scaling up those solutions, developing new ones, and doing that fast.

Two years ago, with like-minded people, we came up with #OceanOptimism as a movement to shift the narrative from doom and gloom and use social media as a way of bringing together and sharing successes and solutions.

Blue oceans surrounding the chagos islands
#OceanOptimism aims to put solutions at the centre of conservation
The three key reasons why I am an ocean optimist has inspired my TEDx talk.

  1. The power of the individual. Twenty years ago, I co-founded Project Seahorse alongside Professor Amanda Vincent, with passion and dogged determination to make a difference. By focusing on this quirky fish, we have achieved everything from a citizen science programme to document seahorses worldwide to 35 community-managed marine protected areas in the Philippines and even global trade legislation.
  • The power of collaboration. We can’t save the planet individually, or even as single organisations and I embrace the growing transition of conservation organisations building strong collaborations to tackle the biggest issues like the illegal wildlife trade. It is certainly more productive than worrying about egos and logos! ZSL has always adopted a strong philosophy of collaboration, ranging from the exciting Great British Oceans campaign, to the unlikely partnership of ZSL with world’s leading carpet tile manufacturer, Interface Inc. to create Net-Works. Net-Works is collecting abandoned nets and recycling this damaging waste in to nylon yarn to make carpets, a social enterprise benefiting communities and the environment.
  • The ocean is amazing! I am fortunate to live by the sea in Cornwall as I am also privileged to also be an Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Exeter Cornwall campus. At home, I love kitesurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, exploring the coast and beach barbeques with my family and friends. At work, I’ve been lucky to dive in some of the most remarkable places on earth, such as the Chagos Archipelago, and stomped through the mud exploring stunning mangrove forests in the Philippines. The ocean is inspiring and continues to fill me with wonder and awe.

Abandoned nets collected by locals to turn in to carpet tiles
Abandoned nets collected by locals to turn in to carpet tiles
Most people have a strong connection with the ocean in some way, whether it’s childhood memories, romantic holidays, fishing, visiting an aquarium, or marvelling at an ocean wildlife documentary.

I’m now working as part of a Marine CoLABoration to explore how we can build a more ocean-friendly society based on these values. Our #OneLess initiative is one way we can show the power of our actions.

By the simple switch to using refillable bottles, we help stop the devastating flood of plastic entering the ocean, clean our beaches and seas and help wildlife.

We can all be ocean optimists.  

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