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Interview of the Week: Azzedine Downes, ifaw | Our Daily Planet

Azzedine is the President and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, where he leads their efforts to help people and animals thrive together in more than 40 countries around the globe.

ODP:  IFAW just celebrated its 50th anniversary. What have been the organization’s greatest accomplishments?

AD:  From humble beginnings 50 years ago, IFAW focused on one problem affecting one species in one part of the world. This effort culminated fourteen years later, in 1983, with the ban on whitecoat Harp seal products, ultimately saving more than 1 million seal pups. Since then IFAW has taken on more problems threatening more species in over 40 countries across the globe. And the impact that IFAW has now is far bigger as well, with us rescuing more animals and securing more habitats than at any other point in time. As the reach and impact of our organization have increased, so has the breadth of our science as well as the reach and results of our collective efforts. This is met with the same transparency and spirit of collaboration that we have had since the beginning.

ODP:  Why has it had such staying power?  To what do you attribute all the successes?

AD: IFAW’s staying power stems largely from the ability to respect and recognize the perspectives of multiple individuals and organizations and identify opportunities for collaboration. Where others only work to save entire species, IFAW rescues, rehabilitates, and releases individual animals, one by one. Our programs are thus based in science, rooted in local communities, are globally-scalable, economically-viable, and always have a vision for the long-term. We are one of the few animal welfare and conservation organizations in existence today that is able to be in the field, balance that with our engagement within the local communities and bring these issues to the highest levels of government. This ability to engage at all levels and to understand all facets of an issue is what helps ifaw drive consistent credibility and trust. Without this trust, long-term success is unachievable, so it is thus a fundamental component of our ethos as an organization.

ODP:  Your organization is now working to decrease the perceived and actual conflicts — in both rural and urban areas — between humans and animals.  How will you do it?

 AD: In both rural and urban areas, IFAW, first and foremost, works to understand the nature and scope of threats and then develop strategies to address them that take both a short and long-term perspective. We know that conflicts are most often driven by the competition for resources, eventually manifesting in competition for space. With threats from climate change growing ever greater, it is also likely that humans will want to be inhabiting more and more of the same spaces with wildlife – wetter areas with access to resources. This will result in further competition for land and resources, increasing conflict over time.  Knowing this allows us to plan ahead and to come up with solutions that will benefit both animals and people. For example, we know that certain elephant populations in Africa are far more threatened by poaching for ivory, than habitat loss. Others may be more threatened by habitat loss and conflict.  Some potentially face both challenges. We have to really understand the threats and the drivers behind them before we develop strategies in order to have the impact we desire. 

ODP:  You are now laying the groundwork for the next 50 years of your organization.  Tell us about what you are doing to take IFAW forward.

AD:  To move ifaw forward into the next 50 years, we are engaging new audiences and taking steps to start a global movement. We are unveiling a new brand and website that is like us—bold, compelling and full of good stories. We know that awareness and action, from both experts and everyday people, is critical to saving animals.

ODP:  Are you optimistic about the future for wildlife given the latest news from the UN about the extinction crisis the world is facing?  

AD: 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. However, at ifaw, we know that every species and every habitat has the ability to bounce back, to survive and thrive. It all depends on what we do now. And, we know that we can’t do this alone. So, I invite your readers to be an active citizen. Remember that your consumption matters – choose a few ways you can reduce plastic usage, or add a few green actions to your regular routine. Pay attention to policy – vote people into power who care about animals, people and the planet. And most importantly, open dialogues – in your communities and in your homes about the planet and what is happening to animals.

ODP:  How much fun was it to meet with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2016 when they visited the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation in India to see IFAW’s work rehabilitating elephants there?

To welcome the Duke and Duchess in a traditional Indian welcome, we were to present them with a nice scarf and I was asked to place the scarf around William’s neck and greet him whilst my friend Vivek places the scarf around the Duchesses’ neck. Here’s the imagery, an Irish American in India welcoming the Prince, who is tall and had to sort of bow to let me put the scarf on his neck. He must have been wondering, what is happening here in India! They were both gracious and warm and it was nice to have a quiet chat and a walk with just the four of us and the baby elephants.

Thanks, Azzedine!  We know that this is a critical moment for species conservation and are glad ifaw is working so hard to decrease extinction risks on the ground and with policy-makers around the globe.

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