The 9th World Congress of Herpetology in New Zealand concluded with a pledge to tackle climate change to protect the world’s amphibians and reptiles and conserve biodiversity for future generations.
We had many delegates saying it was the best conference they’d ever been to. That made it really worthwhile.
Professor Phil Bishop, University of Otago
Some 874 scientists from 57 countries involved in the study of reptiles and amphibians converged on the University of Otago for the successful event, which included 594 oral presentations and 140 poster presentations.
The conference chair, Professor Phil Bishop from the University of Otago’s Department of Zoology, says 60% of the world’s amphibian species are threatened, and many reptiles also faced a grim future.
“One of the things we noticed in the conference content was an emphasis on conservation and climate change. We had delegates saying they had seen declines in the local population of amphibians because of climate change.
“We met as a committee and decided to make an Aotearoa Declaration on Climate Change, with the congress participants calling upon the international community, including all national governments, to acknowledge the accumulated evidence for global climate change and to take immediate action to mitigate the future impacts of such change,” he says.
Bishop said the declaration also incorporated a pledge to make improvements to the congress itself, with the eventual goal of being a 100% carbon-neutral Congress. Suggested changes included mitigating the carbon from conference-related air travel, investigating on-site renewable energy and materials alternatives, and using local food (including limited meat and dairy).
“New Zealand is way ahead of many countries in terms of taking on these issues and it really helped raise awareness,” Bishop says.
New Zealand’s iconic wildlife proved a major hit at the event, according to Bishop, as field trips to Orokonui Ecosanctuary, Taieri Ridge and Macraes, and an Otago Peninsula coastal walk filled up almost immediately.
Some of New Zealand’s unique endemic fauna – tuatara, jewelled gecko, skinks, and two species of native frogs – were put on display in captive conditions at the University, with around six tours of 12 people making time to visit every day of the conference. “The tuatara is iconic and can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Everyone wanted to see one,” Bishop says.
“Dunedin has a reputation as a wildlife capital, and it was a big drawcard.”
Another highlight of the week was the gala dinner for 400 guests, held at the stunning Dunedin Town Hall. “It was absolutely amazing. Local band Tahu and the Takahēs played; Tahu is an educator at Orokonui Ecosanctuary, so connected well with the crowd,” Bishop says. “Dunedin is a really good conference host, with one of the best universities in the country. The city is well prepared for a large influx of people and it is compact and very easy to get around.”
Putting Dunedin on the map
Beyond the expected economic impact of $2million for the city’s economy, the event brought other benefits beyond its conservation legacy.
“From a scientific point of view, it put the University of Otago, Dunedin and New Zealand on the map as a centre of excellence in herpetology.”
Bishop adds: “One of the things I tried to do was to consider the future of herpetology. We attracted 242 students – the next generation. When we chose plenary speakers, we aimed for diversity of gender, age, country and a range of specialities.
“Also, this was the first time the congress had been held in New Zealand and we had about 100 New Zealand herpetologists attend, which was great for the field here.”
From a personal perspective, Bishop was elected as the Secretary General Elect of the World Congress of Herpetology.
He adds: “We had many delegates saying it was the best conference they’d ever been to. That made it really worthwhile.”
Bishop says the decision to bid for the congress came when Tourism New Zealand hosted a lunch at the university outlining the support available for bringing large conferences to New Zealand.
“The support I received from Tourism New Zealand and Enterprise Dunedin, both financially and logistically, was great. Together we produced an amazing bid document and presentation that was instrumental in winning the event. Tourism New Zealand’s Conference Assistance Programme covered both my airfare and accommodation to travel to deliver the bid at the 8th World Congress in Tonglu, China.
“Tourism New Zealand also helped me to attend conferences in the US and South America to help promote the event. That support is extremely helpful in today’s economic climate where funds for conference participation are limited.”
Bishop says the event was smoothly and effectively managed on the ground by the professional conference organiser Conference Innovators. Enterprise Dunedin also set up a booth at the conference to help delegates with local information and booking tours. “Everyone pulled together and the result was fantastic.”