The VSG Visits Arabia


Arabia's Wildlife Centre

In these hard economic times, many
of the “house-hold name” conservation organizations have changed their
marketing approach and, often times, their approach to conservation. Many
organizations are shifting their focus from species and landscapes to
socio-economic topics such as ecosystem services, food security, and poverty.
While I realize that people are an incredibly important part of the
conservation equation — and indeed our programs do focus on people and their
relationship with species — I respect institutions that have maintained their
core focus on the species, landscapes, and processes that are the ultimate
targets of our work. A group of such species conservation champions met last
week in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to discuss global strategies for
species conservation.

The International Union for the Conservation
of Nature Species Conservation Commission hosts a series of Species Specialist
Group for most of the animals, plants, and fungi in the world. In an effort to
build collaboration and synergies to promote species conservation they brought
together the chairs of these specialist groups in Abu Dhabi to discuss topics
ranging from fundraising to conservation challenges. I am chairman of the newly
formed Viper Specialist Group (VSG) and was eager to participate in the meeting
to improve our approach to Viper conservation as well as to visit a new part of
the world that holds a fascinating diversity of Vipers.

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Dr. Chris Jenkins confers with international
scientists of the Species Specialist Group.
From left to right: B.A. Daniel, Ricardo Pussey,
Christopher Jenkins, Pritpal “Mickey” Soorae,
Sanjay Molur, and Kim Yong‐Shik

In the meeting, I found myself working
closely with Elephant biologists and World Heritage Site experts; socializing
with biologists that work to save mushrooms; and going into the field with
botanists, mammalogists, and herpetologists. This may sound like a very broad
group of experts, but the relationships I built and the discussions I had are
helping us refine our approach to Viper conservation and maximize interaction
with other species conservation groups. Perhaps the most interesting session
for me was the meeting of the Herpetological Specialist Groups. We met with the
Crocodilian, Amphibian, Iguana, Anole, Boa and Python, Tortoise and Freshwater
Turtle, and Sea Turtle Specialist Groups; including some of the great
herpetological conservation biologists, such as Claude Gascon and Graham Webb.
Overall, I left the meeting with a wealth of new information and the
inspiration to move the agenda of the VSG forward to make a global difference
by saving endangered Vipers in the wild.

One of the best parts of the meeting was the
opportunity I had to visit a local wildlife conservation center and spend some
time in the field. First, I visited the Arabian Wildlife Center in Sharjah. A
large portion of the Center is open to the public where they display and
provide great educational resources on local species; including mammalian predators,
flamingos, and an incredible collection of reptiles and amphibians. After
visiting the parts of the Center open to the public, I had the opportunity to
go behind the scenes and see some of the breeding programs they have for large
mammalian carnivores such as Arabian Leopards, Cheetahs, and Wolves. But I
spent most of my time working with the Center’s herpetologist, Johannes Els, as
he showed the breeding programs they have in place for some of the regions
venomous snakes. The list of Vipers at the Center includes the Oman Carpet
Viper (Echis omanesis), Arabian Sand Viper (Cerastes gasperettii),
Blunt-nosed Viper (Macrovipera lebentina), Saw-scaled Viper (Echis
, and Puff Adder (Bitis arietans).

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Horned Viper

Finally, I had the opportunity to spend some time in the
field with fellow Viper Specialist Group members Pritpal “Mickey” Soorae, Sanjay
Molur, and VSG Program Officer, Heidi Hall. We visited one of Mickey’s long-term research sites close to Abu Dhabi. Mickey monitors reptile populations at
this site and many others in the Abu Dhabi area. The chance to visit such an
important conservation center and field site put the finishing touches on an
amazing trip to Arabia. I am looking forward to digging in, and achieving the
mission of the VSG to save Viper species in the wild. The VSG will hold our
first in-person meeting at the upcoming World Congress of Herpetology (WCH) in
Vancouver, British Columbia. I encourage everyone to come and take part. To
date, a small group has been working together as the core of the VSG, but at the
WCH we will be expanding the membership and taking the largest steps forward
yet for Viper conservation.