Zoo Director Testifies Before Congress on Biodiversity

On June 4, 2019, Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute Director Steve Montfort testified before the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Below is a copy of his testimony.


Thank you Chairwoman Johnson, Ranking Member Lucas, and distinguished members of the Committee for the opportunity to provide testimony to you today. My name is Steve Monfort and I am the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Today, I am also honored to represent my Smithsonian colleagues from our Environmental Research Center, our Tropical Research Institute, the National Museum of Natural History, and others united under the umbrella of the Smithsonian’s Conservation Commons, an institution-wide effort designed to unite our cumulative expertise to tackle complex conservation problems on a global scale.

At the National Zoo we care for some of the rarest species on earth, and along with that comes a moral and ethical responsibility to connect the work we do with individual animals in our care to saving their counterparts in nature. But lesser known is that the Smithsonian has been studying biodiversity for more than 170 years, and today hundreds of Smithsonian scientists and scholars work across the spectrum of biodiversity and conservation science: from genomes to individuals and populations; to forests, watersheds and fisheries; to understanding the impacts of infrastructure development, pandemic diseases and human-animal conflict — work that is focused on understanding and sustaining biodiversity.

As evidenced by our incredible new Fossil Hall, our collections represent the best planetary record that humanity possesses — they document long-term baselines, trends, and changes about the planet, biodiversity, and human cultures. What we know is that it took 200,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion people, and only 200 more to reach nearly 8 billion. The result today is that human impacts have resulted in profound planetary changes, and unfortunately, the threats of ecological collapse and biodiversity loss are real. And while overall public awareness of the dangers presented by climate change has increased, the same cannot be said for biodiversity losses related to the adverse human impacts on ecosystem function. The IPBES report essentially reconfirms what we have long known: humans have made things very tough for nature.

When we speak of “biodiversity,” we are referring to the very fabric of what we know as "nature" and its vital contributions to people and all life on earth. Quite simply: humans are inextricably linked and dependent upon biodiversity because every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, and every bite of food we consume is in one way or another dependent on biodiversity and healthy, functioning ecosystems. Over the next decade trillions of dollars will be invested in new infrastructure worldwide, supporting livelihoods of a growing human population. Without proper planning, the unseen cost will be a continuation of animal mortalities, habitat fragmentation, species invasions, and the spread of pathogens responsible for global pandemic disease threats.

The public is constantly bombarded with messages about the ongoing and real threats to biodiversity, too often absent any focus on solutions, which risks fostering a sense of helplessness in our citizenry who may conclude that nothing they do can make a difference. To counter this, the Smithsonian launched Earth Optimism, a worldwide forum for sharing and curating stories of conservation success. Our next Summit aims to reach a billion people around the world on the anniversary of Earth Day, 2020. And I’d like to take this opportunity to invite all of the Members of the Committee to take part in this conversation.

In my own experience, greater collaboration yields greater results, and I’d like to share two examples that demonstrate how the value of science, when paired with proper resources, know-how and collaboration, can lead to tangible conservation solutions.

The scimitar-horned oryx is a large, magnificent desert-adapted antelope that once numbered nearly one million animals distributed across the Sahelian grasslands of North Africa — from Senegal to Sudan. The species was declared “extinct in the wild” in the late 1980s due to over-hunting. Fortunately, large populations of this species were maintained in zoos and private collections worldwide, including at the Smithsonian. In 2010 the Smithsonian helped to establish a global network of stakeholders interested in reintroducing oryx back into the wild in Chad. Key to our success was a unique partnership that included leadership from the governments of Abu Dhabi, which managed large captive herds of oryx, and Chad, which was interested in restoring this species to their historic rangelands. In 2016, I had the amazing experience of personally witnessing the first group of oryx touch Chadian soil in more than 30 years. Restoring oryx to the wild will have a huge and positive impact on the conservation and management of the entire Sahelian grasslands ecosystem, including for the people who depend upon these ecosystems for their livelihoods.

Another great example comes from our Tropical Research Institute. The Panama Canal is a massive lifeline of global commerce.  Large commercial ships were routinely colliding with humpback whales, which was catastrophic for the animals, but also had the potential for disrupting global trade. Our scientists tracked whales using GPS-enabled tracking devices to understand their movements, and by collaborating with the Canal Authority, these data were used to establish new shipping lanes, which resulted in a 93% reduction in ship-whale collisions.

Real win-win solutions require adopting core environmental principles and increased standards of practice that recognize that integrating conservation into development practice is good for business, good for our families, and good for every global citizen because we all have a stake in, and will benefit from sustaining a biodiverse planet. We must find common ground and ensure that nature has a place at the decision-making table: not as an interloper, but as an existential partner if it is to fulfill its role in providing its incredible benefits to current and future human societies.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on these critical conservation issues.  I look forward to answering any questions you may have.