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Q&A with GWC’S new Director of Key Biodiversity Areas and Species Assessment

Last year GWC became one of 11 organizations to join the Key Biodiversity Area Partnership aimed at identifying, mapping, monitoring and conserving the most important sites for species and ecosystems on earth. That’s why we were especially excited to bring on board this year our new director of key biodiversity areas and species assessment, Dr. Penny Langhammer. Penny will be leading GWC’s efforts to identify and promote the conservation of KBAs and will oversee the work within GWC to assess species for the IUCN Red List. Penny has a strong interest in amphibian conservation and also serves as director of Key Biodiversity Areas for the Amphibian Survival Alliance.

We talked to Penny about her goals for the KBA partnership, how she developed her commitment to conservation and what she enjoys most about being in the field when she has the opportunity to get out. Here’s what she had to say:

Penny swabs a Coqui Frog for the deadly pathogen chytrid as part of her Ph.D. research. (Photo courtesy of Penny Langhammer)

Q. How did you develop your passion for conservation?
I grew up in the high desert of northern Arizona and spent most of my free time outside building forts, looking for wildlife, hiking through juniper or pine forest, and swimming in canyon creeks. I developed a love of nature by being immersed in it. As a young person I took for granted, or perhaps didn’t realize, that these beautiful places were being conserved or managed for both wildlife and people. I went to college to become a psychiatrist, but in my third year at Arizona State University I had the great fortune of taking Dr. Andrew Smith’s conservation biology course as an elective. His unbridled, infectious enthusiasm for nature conservation opened my eyes to the possibility of having a career in the field.

I went on to get a masters degree in environmental management from Duke University and then worked at Conservation International for nearly a decade, where my passion for conservation really flourished. Years later I returned to ASU to earn a Ph.D. in biology, studying the role of emerging infectious diseases in the decline and extinction of amphibian species.

Collecting frogs for chytrid research: a garbage bag full of bags of live frogs. (Photo courtesy of Penny Langhammer)

Q. Why are Key Biodiversity Areas critical to conservation?
A. The identification of important sites to guide conservation action has been underway for decades, starting with BirdLife International’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas. The success of IBAs led to similar initiatives for other taxonomic groups and subsets of biodiversity, including Important Plant Areas, Prime Butterfly Areas and Alliance for Zero Extinction sites. The need for a unifying framework for identifying important sites, which builds on these approaches and considers biodiversity comprehensively, prompted IUCN to lead a multi-year consultation process to consolidate the scientific criteria for identifying Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs).

KBAs are sites that contribute significantly to the global persistence of biodiversity, including vital habitat for globally threatened species. The quantitative, threshold-based criteria can be applied to both species and ecosystems in terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments. Global Wildlife Conservation is one of 11 leading conservation organizations to recently form a Key Biodiversity Areas Partnership, which aims to map, monitor and conserve the most important places for biodiversity on earth.

Q. What do you envision for the future of KBAs? What’s the big visionary goal?
A. The vision of the KBA Partnership is a comprehensive global network of KBAs that is “appropriately identified, correctly documented, effectively managed, sufficiently resourced and adequately safeguarded.” I think this means widespread recognition by governments, conservation organizations, financial and development institutions, private companies, donors, and local and indigenous communities of the importance of safeguarding these sites for both sustainable development and biodiversity conservation, in turn prompting significantly increased conservation action and improved decision-making.

Q. What is your favorite part of working in conservation?
A. My favorite part of working in conservation is being able to interact on a daily basis with people who share an unwavering passion and commitment to conserving earth’s biodiversity.

In Fiji as part of a Conservation International trip. (Photo courtesy of Penny Langhammer)

Q. What is your favorite part of working in the field?
A. Being in the field provides perspective and brings what is really important into focus. Since most of my work does not take place in the field, having the opportunity to experience and connect with what I’m working to achieve is extremely important for keeping motivation and spirits high.

Q. Do you have a particular favorite moment from the field? What did that moment feel like for you?
A. In 2004, after a long week of working in Manila, my colleagues from CI-Philippines took me scuba diving for the first time. We traveled many hours through an extremely degraded landscape. Judging from the surroundings, I expected to see a reef reduced to rubble from destructive fishing and devoid of life. When I fell back into the water, I was astonished to see the reef teeming with fish and healthy coral everywhere. I have never seen such a diversity of species in one place. The highlight was watching a banded sea snake, with its brilliant blue and black stripes and paddle-like tail, swimming just five feet away. The experience gave me hope in nature’s resilience.

A Coqui Frog froglet. (Photo by Penny Langhammer)

Q. What is your favorite wildlife species or taxa? Why?
A. The most difficult question! Although the species I would most like to see in the wild is a blue whale, I am a herpetologist at heart. I love amphibians and reptiles of all kinds but I am particularly fond of the harlequin toads (Atelopus) because of their brilliant colors, the rain frogs (Eleutherodactylus) because of their interesting reproductive biology, and chameleons of all kinds because everything about them is fascinating–independently mobile eyes, long extrudable tongues, prehensile tails, ability to change colors and hilarious swaying gait.

(Top photo courtesy of Penny Langhammer: Penny spending time off the coast of Oregon)

About the Author

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay is the associate director of communications for Global Wildlife Conservation and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.

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