Managing the Human Project

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The largest conservation event in the world, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s ‘World Conservation Congress’ has kicked off in Hawaii with the 2016 theme “Planet at the Crossroads”.

As the Luc Hoffmann Institute’s Director, Dr Jon Hutton, joins the thousands of conservation leaders and decision makers to try to create solutions for the challenges we face in biodiversity and conservation he reflects on the role of science in conservation, crocodiles in the Nile, buffalos in Zimbabwe and the human ‘project’.

Six months in, what do you like most about being Director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute?

I find that I am having to re-skill significantly, strengthening my understanding of the social sciences in particular. It’s very rewarding and there is some beautiful scholarship in amongst the jargon-ridden prose!

The Institute is about bringing together the science and policy worlds to help achieve conservation, what inspired you to become involved in science and conservation?

I was heading for university to study medicine when, as an avid birdwatcher, I suddenly realised that what I really wanted to do was contribute to the conservation of our living world. Fortunately, I was able to switch to study natural sciences at Cambridge and I have never regretted that decision.

What do you think the conservation community's biggest challenges are in using science to help save the planet?

As the stresses and strains on our biosphere increase and become ever more evident we might have expected the world to look to science for some answers but if anything the opposite seems to be happening. Ironically, the impact of science might be strengthened if we change the way we design, implement and deliver our research. I think we have to become better at ‘co-creating’ knowledge with other stakeholders so that science more conspicuously sits alongside other values in the development of policy outcomes that are broadly acceptable to everyone.

How has conservation changed in the past 20 years and where do you think it needs to go in the next 20?

The delivery of new knowledge and the opening-up of our access to this has been unprecedented. As a sweeping generalization, we wouldn't need to know much more about nature to design and practice successful conservation – the real problem lies in understanding and managing the human 'project'!

How will The Luc Hoffmann Institute be a part of that?

I don't think that anyone is quite sure how best to influence the human project. But at least we are now asking the question…

What's your most memorable field experience?

There are so many, but perhaps the most profitable was wrestling a young research student from the path of a charging buffalo in Matusadona National Park in Zimbabwe. She had been visiting Zimbabwe to do some research for a few weeks, but we have now been married for 30 years and have three wonderful daughters!

Is there any one conservation science finding that really had an impact and stuck with you?

In 1982 we discovered that Nile crocodiles have temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD). The sex of their offspring depends on the temperate of incubation of their eggs and when it is cold they produce many more females. In truth, this hasn't contributed much to conservation action, but it probably helps explain why crocodiles have managed to stick it out for around 80 million years, despite the cataclysm that eradicated the dinosaurs and the worst that human beings have managed (so far!). [Hutton, J.M. 1987. Incubation temperatures, sex ratios and sex determination in a population of Nile crocodiles. Journal of Zoology (London). 211: 143-155.]

What's your message to young conservation scientists out there?

Studying animals and plants is hugely rewarding, but the future of nature depends on our understanding of the human animal, the species that already appropriates as much as 40% of net primary productivity…

Main image: Kauai. Credit: Michael Janke/Flickr

The Luc Hoffmann Institute is transitioning to become a new entity, a Geneva-based foundation, with a new brand and name, Unearthodox. You are warmly invited to continue the journey with us and are now being redirected to