Azzedine Downes Interview

April, 2019


Balancing Animal Welfare & Wildlife Conservation

As President and CEO of IFAW (The International Fund for Animal Welfare), Azzedine Downes is responsible for the strategic vision that will guide IFAW’s contribution to a standard for conservation and animal welfare worldwide.

Azzedine has been a leader on conservation issues over the past sixteen years. In his previous role as IFAW’s Executive Vice President, Azzedine oversaw both the Programmes Team and International Operations.  His coordination of these key areas led to an increased global impact on animal issues and led to the expansion of IFAW’s work to the more than forty countries in which IFAW is found today.

Under Azzedine’s leadership, IFAW opened its first office in the Middle East and expanded its work on global animal conservation and welfare issues. He was responsible for designing and launching IFAW’s Prevention of Wildlife Trafficking (Wildlife Law Enforcement) programme, which provides ongoing training and support for law enforcement and customs officials faced with growing illegal trade issues. His leadership on international illicit trade in wildlife has resulted in the development of IFAW’s Wildlife Crime and Consumer Awareness programme.

In 2015, Azzedine was named to Fast Company’s “The 100 Most Creative People in Business,” and he was invited to join the Global Tiger Forum Advisory Council and US Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committee.  In 2016, The NonProfit Times recognized Azzedine as one of 16 new honorees on their Top 50 Power and Influence list.

Fluent in English, French and Arabic, Azzedine is an accomplished public speaker and regularly presents IFAW’s work to the media in those three languages.

Most organizations work in either wildlife conservation or animal welfare and protection. The fact that you are active in both sectors make you almost unique. There are only a few other organizations that do that. How did IFAW evolve into this position?

IFAW’s 1969 founding campaign of ending the commercial seal hunt on the east coast of Canada was based on the welfare of wild animals. At that time, the seal population was not considered endangered, but IFAW argued that the cruelty involved in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of seals every year made the hunt unacceptable on moral grounds.  We have argued the same case with the farming of wild animals such as bears and tigers for their parts and the slaughter of elephants for their ivory. All of these activities cause immense suffering to animals and, by feeding into and stimulating insatiable markets, have resulted in conservation concerns.  Early in the history of conservation, there were still far more animals living in the wild than there are today.  It is evident that individual animals matter more in conservation at this moment than they ever have before.

Most people who are concerned about animals share the same desire to protect them, whether it be through conservation or by insuring their welfare. Why is there such an antagonism between the two approaches?

I don’t necessarily believe there is a true antagonism between the two approaches—what differs primarily is their ‘methodology’ and perhaps a different philosophical worldview, but at the end of the day, the goal is the same—the overall protection of animals. IFAW deals with the entire spectrum of conservation and animal welfare—-from immediate rescue situations (e.g. our Marine Mammal Research & Rescue team) and disaster response efforts, to longer-term approaches in coordination with local communities and governments (e.g. leasing of land for wildlife-friendly corridors that provide safe passage). Both approaches ensure animal welfare in ways that are distinctive. It is important to cover the spectrum of both immediate solutions while, at the same time, providing the framework for long-term change and the creation of results that have a lasting impact. There has been a belief amongst conservationists that conservation is based on objective science and animal welfare is an emotional response that cannot be substantiated.  Animal welfare science has evolved as we learn more about animal behavior.

How do the areas of wildlife conservation and animal welfare overlap (at the levels of common threats, impacts/consequences, but also solutions)?

Threats to wildlife conservation manifest themselves in the welfare of individual animals. Habitat destruction that leaves animals exposed; pollution which results in a degradation of the environment in terms of food and water; the noise caused by ship’s engines harming marine life; and the all-encompassing impact of climate change can result in forest fires and floods, causing fear, anxiety, injury, pain, and death.  These threats to the environment affect each individual animal as well as the ability of species to adapt to changing environmental circumstances, thus threatening their overall survival. The ability of individual animals to adapt to the new reality of loss of habitat and human encroachment is not uniform.  We have seen certain elephant groups adapt to natural phenomena such as floods or droughts far better than others, while those elephant families led by a matriarch unable to perceive danger do not ultimately fare as well as those led by one with better adaptation skills.

The solutions lie with all of us, from consumers to policy makers. IFAW urges consumers to find out as much as possible about the source of the products that they purchase and we provide briefings for policy makers to guide them in their decision-making.  In order to be effective, IFAW focuses on our priority issues and upon those species where we can secure significant protection; by working to protect these iconic animals and their habitats, we are supporting the welfare of each individual which ultimately supports the wellbeing of the species as a whole. As a result, individuals from a range of species will benefit both directly and indirectly.

Can you cite some concrete examples of cooperation between practitioners in the two fields?

The world’s most endangered species are under threat from a poaching crisis. Mounting evidence shows that traffickers are switching from physical marketplaces to virtual ones, as more and more use the internet as a platform to market poached and live protected species to the public. IFAW’s recent research into wildlife cybercrime highlights the vast quantity of live animals and their body parts available for sale online. Over just six weeks in four countries, IFAW identified advertisements for approximately 11,770 endangered and threatened specimens worth more than £3M. IFAW research has uncovered thousands of wildlife products and live animals for sale, ranging from ivory tusks and rhino horn products to live big cats, orangutans and gorillas, available through the simple tapping of a smartphone.

The scale of the lucrative illegal wildlife trade is massive. It is a global problem which no single organization, on its own, can bring to an end. It is vital that we have strong working relationships with a range of partners, including colleagues in other conservation organizations, and have done so as recently as 2018 across a number of initiatives.

The Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, convened by WWF, TRAFFIC and IFAW, brought together e-commerce, technology and social media companies from across the world to reduce wildlife trafficking online. Launched in March 2018, the Coalition aims to reduce wildlife trafficking online by 80% by 2020. In addition, IFAW and INTERPOL co-hosted a ground-breaking two-day global workshop on cyber-enabled wildlife crime in June of that same year. At the workshop, IFAW and INTERPOL brought together leading wildlife cybercrime experts, including enforcers, online technology companies, policy makers, NGOs, academics and CITES representatives to identify and share best practices in tackling cyber-enabled wildlife crime.

Coming out of the Cyber-enabled Wildlife Crime Workshop, there was a deep commitment to improve coordination across the public and private sectors. Launched by IFAW and along with INTERPOL, the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent, TRAFFIC and WWF, the Action Plan maps out collective goals, outlines the steps that must be taken to achieve these, and provides a reporting mechanism for adaptive management of the plan.

What can people on both sides learn from each other – especially, in terms of dealing with policy-makers, interest groups, and local communities whose livelihoods depend upon or are affected by either wild animals or captive animals?

The critical thing to keep in mind is the absolute need to engage the community within the discussion and effort of conservation. When looking through conservation history, it is a glaring reality that those communities that most closely live with wildlife have traditionally not been involved in this meaningful dialogue. A fundamental practice—and a key guiding philosophy within IFAW—is that if we are successful at involving communities in the dialogue of conservation, then we will surely achieve a state that is safe—a state that is healthy—a state that is sound and inherently engaged in solving the most critical of environmental issues of our time.

What are the most pressing issues shared by both wildlife conservation and animal welfare at the moment?

The most pressing issues shared by both wildlife conservation and animal welfare are the escalating wildlife trade and the loss of habitat. Both of these issues are exacerbated by the growing human population which exceeded 7.7 billion in February 2019 and is projected to reach 10 billion by 2055. Rising levels of wealth in certain regions are creating a larger consumer base who use a wide range of products from wild animals. Alongside the legal trade in wildlife, low risks combined with high rewards have led to a flourishing illegal trade that is responsible for immense animal suffering as well biodiversity and species loss. Products from rare species are especially valued as status symbols, luxury items, and investment commodities.  From an animal welfare perspective, the live transport of animals in trade, both legal and illegal is a continuing and pressing problem. Meat, skins, bones and live animals, domesticated and wild, are all part of a global illegal wildlife trade, estimated to be worth $20 billion per annum (illicit market).

Extreme weather due to climate change is also a huge conservation and animal welfare concern.  For example, the impact it has on the populations of individual animals will change the migratory patterns of wild animals in many countries. And conservation efforts to provide water to wild animals can have implications for animal welfare, as herds remaining in one place for too long can have a negative impact on the very habitat upon which they rely for survival. Thus, removing the water source to encourage those animals to migrate more naturally may result in deaths, a key animal welfare concern.

What drew you to conservation, was there a moment of sudden awakening or did your interest and involvement in the field developed gradually?

I have spent much of my life in geographical locations with extreme landscapes in the Middle East.  It is much easier to see the impact that habitat destruction has on wildlife living in those areas.  Life is much more tenuous and wildlife must struggle on a daily basis for their survival.  It was when I was living in Jerusalem and spent time hiking in the mountains around the Dead Sea that I saw a little animal called the Rock Hyrax running around the rocks.  When I asked what it was, I was told by a hiker that it was the cousin of the elephant!  I thought to myself—that can’t be true, and whilst some scientists are still debating, but it is the closest relative of an elephant!  At the same time, I learned that the last leopard of the region had died.  It was then that I had to learn more and become involved in protecting the incredible diversity that surrounding me.

What personality traits are essential to able to work in wildlife conservation and animal welfare, and fight the daily fight?

The work is often highly personalized.  The negativity of the daily news can be overwhelming and you must find ways to remain hopeful that change can occur.  The greatest danger that I observe is that people working in the field often turn inwards.  Their focus becomes solely on animals.  Therein lies a problem – the vast majority of problems animals face are caused by humans, so to exclude humans from the dialogue about how best to protect animals is a recipe for failure.  Patience is needed because many of the problems are generational; elephants, for example, live for a long time and whatever you may hope for in the short term may not be achievable in your own lifetime.

Are you optimistic about the eventual outcome of the current struggles? What does an “ideal world” look like for you in terms of ensuring the care, protection, and conservation of all species?

I am optimistic. But I recognize that many are concerned because of the changes they see all around them—animals and habitats that disappear, natural disasters becoming more extreme every year. Though this is indeed concerning, at IFAW, we have 50 years’ worth of reasons to believe that we can turn this around. By doing what we continue to do every day—by rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing animals, one by one—by protecting their habitats, and helping them flourish—we can save other species and ensure that both people and animals continue to thriv