Dr. Carlos Drews
Carlos is a nature conservation champion, and a PATER.
He is an accomplished, passionate and visionary environmental leader and people manager in academia as well as the non-profit sector.
His advocacy and communications outreach includes heads of state, government level conferences, royal families, presidents, numerous ministers, media and donors worldwide.
A Colombian native, Carlos has a Ph.D. in zoology from Cambridge University and carried out research in Africa and Latin America, including a study that earned him The John Napier Medal of the Primate Society of Great Britain. Carlos acted as academic staff and interim director of the Institute for Wildlife Conservation and Management in Costa Rica. He co-authored Costa Rica’s annual report on human sustainable development and its climate change strategy.
In 2003 he joined WWF to head its marine and species work in Latin America until 2009, then moved to Switzerland for his global assignment with WWF, and joined the Jane Goodall Institute in the US in 2017 as executive director.
Since November 2019 he has led the global ocean conservation program at Ocean wise in Vancouver.
P&F: A warm welcome and thank you very much for the interview! Can you tell me a bit more about you, about what drives you and what has inspired you to become an advocate for nature conservation?
Carlos: Since I was a child I had a tremendous fascination for animals and their behaviour, particularly wondering how they think. The animal mind is no longer so mysterious and I ended up studying animal behaviour and the life of baboons in Africa, in particular, and I had to conclude that we are very much like baboons, and baboons very much like people, in a sense. So the divide between animals and humans is definitely no longer such. There really is a grey zone in terms of their cognitive abilities, and that I find extremely fascinating. When I was a child, about 8 years old, we had all these animal books and journals at home, and I saw this picture of a guy sitting on the bonnet of a Land Rover staring into the savannah where there were giraffes in the background and I asked my father, „Who is he?“ and he said, „He is a naturalist“, and I said, „Well, that is what I want to be“. That dream became true later on, living in Africa and all of that, but the man who inspired my interests and really nourished all this fascination for wildlife was Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente, a Spanish naturalist who brought the mysteries of wildlife to the Spanish speaking world in the 60s.
And then I had a groundbreaking moment later during my studies of primates when I visited Jane Goodall’s site in Gombe National Park in Tanzania. That was in 1993 when I met Frodo. Frodo was this tremendous male chimpanzee, a teenager at the time but already quite powerful, and he attacked me! Because that’s what he loved to do, he loved to beat up tourists or scientists, so I saw all of a sudden this chimpanzee charging at me when I was taking photographs on my last day in the park, I realised this must be Frodo, this is my Frodo moment! I was told you have to hang on to a tree and wait for it to be over. Frodo jumped at me and pushed me down with his legs and started jumping on me, almost breaking my ribs. I was just lying still there and could hear his breathing right against my ear, and I thought, well, my life is now totally in Frodo’s hands. I had read in Jane Goodall’s books how chimpanzees have warfare and they fight and kill each other sometimes with a bite in the skull. But then Frodo started knocking gently on my head and eventually grooming me! This was really a gesture of remorse, of regret, a gesture of apology like „come on, I didn’t mean to, this is not too bad Carlos, come on!“ And then he walked away. And that really changed my life. Because this moment of compassion at the end of this whole turmoil really brought home my determination to work on behalf of wild animals and protect them and their habitats, as my act of compassion in return to Frodo’s.
Because these creatures have no voice in deciding what people do with their habitats, how people overexploit wildlife and natural resources, and that moment was a milestone in my life when I decided to become a conservationist.
Anyone who has a dog would never question whether animals have feelings, and yet, the scientific body has been very sceptical and hesitant in admitting that. But that has changed over the last 20 or 30 years or so, better studies have been done on the feelings of animals, on the way they read each other’s minds, on the way they manipulate each other, their incredible sympathetic and empathetic properties, and you can document all that with extraordinary anecdotes! When you listen to these anecdotes, you may think that I am interpreting things or projecting feelings onto the animals, but when you get 70 or 150 such anecdotes and you compile them into studies, then it becomes pretty obvious that we can observe serious patterns here that show how incredibly sophisticated animal minds can be.
P&F: Would you translate this into marine wildlife as well? Or is it something that’s typical to terrestrial mammals?
Carlos: The problem with us is that we are primates. We walk on two legs. So we don’t relate easily with marine life. Until you get to see for example ‚My Octopus Teacher’ (Netflix). And then you realise, wow! I mean these animals, in the sea, an octopus for that matter, can be extremely intelligent and probably extremely empathetic as well. I have absolutely no doubt that the same logic applies across the spectrum of marine life. The most obvious examples are of course the dolphins and whales because we know them for their extraordinary skills – several have been kept in captivity, which I absolutely disagree with, but what we have seen in terms of what you can train them to do really pushed our understanding of what they are mentally capable of. Tragically, some fell victims of all these totally outdated research studies, as these animals do not belong in pools. But now, we know a lot about their abilities, and we are now starting to see great intelligence in fish and invertebrates as well! They can solve problems! You get that across the board once you do the right experiments, so yes, that also applies to marine life.
I had a very fascinating encounter with a humpback whale many years ago in Costa Rica, with my then young children Antar and Liana – they were probably 4 and 6 back then. From my kayak, I saw this humpback whale basically on the surface of the ocean, so I paddled back to collect my children and, as we were approaching, I could see something bigger on top of the whale. I couldn’t figure out what it was. We were paddling with great excitement and all of a sudden we are in front of this female whale with her baby on her head essentially, sunbathing the baby! And we were so close to her – probably within a vehicle’s length away. The whale then gently moved on, and it was obvious that unfortunately, I had disturbed her quiet moment with her baby, but she was not aggressive in any way. In that moment, I started crying. When I saw this magnificent, colossal animal in such an emotionally gentle situation I was moved to tears. My children just turned around and saw their crying father and they didn’t know what to do with that! But I think that was also a big moment for them. Children, when they get exposed to extraordinary moments with wildlife, marine or terrestrial alike, that’s when they start connecting. And then there has to be an element of understanding what you see, of understanding their challenges, their need for space, for social contact! We are now in the COVID era, realising how important social contact is for us: imagine how important that must be for animals that are social, for all these creatures that have very complex relationships and rely on their relationships for their wellbeing.
P&F: How would you describe the changes in the oceans since you first began your career as a scientist and explorer? Is our ocean in trouble?
Carlos: Nadia, the oceans are in serious trouble. I saw it myself. I did my diver’s certificate on the San Andres Island in the 80s. San Andres is a Colombian island in the Caribbean. It was extraordinary diving around coral reefs, seeing these stunning colors, fish, invertebrates, and everything. And 30 years later there was a conference on marine conservation, incidentally in San Andres, and I went again on a diving tour, and it was devastating! Because the whole reef was totally destroyed, you could clearly see that this was because of dynamite fishing, which is a very destructive fishing technique, that destroys the reef entirely. It had to do with overfishing, essentially. There was nothing left there. There were no fish! There was just broken coral – kilometers and kilometers of dead coral as far as my eyes could see. It was a very sad experience. And that is just one little spot of the oceans. The oceans cover 70% of our planet. The areas that we can see when snorkeling are minute compared to what is happening out there in the oceans. I witnessed just some of the many worrisome changes of these last 30 years.
The problem with the oceans is that we have what we call a shifting baseline syndrome. So my baseline for the health of the oceans was established by the oceans of the 80s. Jacques Cousteau was diving in the 50s and the 60s. That was his baseline. And when you look at his documentaries and the number of fish – big fish, sharks around coral reefs – they were extraordinary! In places where, today, you don’t see that anymore. So for us as human beings, it is difficult to know whether the oceans are doing well or not just by looking, because what you see is your baseline unless you had a chance to look at it over a 20, 30, 40 years span. It’s very difficult to see, it’s underwater, we are primates, we are terrestrial, so we look at the oceans and we don’t see that they are seriously sick.
But we know for a fact that at least one-third of fishing stocks are terribly overfished, meaning they are unable to recover, to replenish what we have taken. And another 60% of fish stocks are on the border of being overfished. They are what we call fully fished, fully exploited, which is a difficult balance again because you need far more abundance and a far greater diversity of fish for the oceans to really be healthy.
However, there is good news here. It seems like this overfishing has happened over the last 50-60 years, and now we are gradually moving out of it, so there is a tide of change coming our way, which I find fascinating. It seems like many fish stocks in the different oceans of the world are starting to recover. The world’s population of human beings is growing, so it may seem illogical, but wisdom and economics are kicking in. We can do a lot as consumers, the power of consumers is incredible! The more we demand sustainable fish in our grocery stores, the better it is. Of course, we are far from being a collective global constituency that requests sustainable fish, but the movement is growing gradually. It is also a question of economics. If you overexploit your resource, then your business is doomed to die as well. So you need to make sure that it is at least as sustainable as it can be. So I think on that front we have seen good science, good awareness on the consumer end and the fishing companies realising (at least some of them) that overfishing is just bad for business.
But the challenge is still immense. There are other issues, like plastic trash, and we know that 90% of sea birds have plastic trash either in their guts or in their nests. I saw it in the Galapagos Islands in 1984. I was a research assistant looking at fur seals on Fernandina Island, also the home of the flightless cormorant. This cormorant is a beautiful bird unique to the Galapagos which has very tiny wings and cannot fly but swims very well. They build their nests from algae that they collect, and marine debris that they find. I started to see bottle caps in their nests, and little bits of plastic. At the time I thought, „wow! How interesting!“ They seem to really get excited by colors and shapes, and the more ornaments you bring to the nest the more beautiful it looks for the prospective male, so they court females through the beauty of their nest, and perhaps they see the colourful pieces of plastic as beautiful. What I didn’t know was how pervasive plastic was in the oceans already at the time. Everyone has seen the pictures of plastic bags in the ocean and entangled turtles, the plastic 6-pack rings around the necks of seabirds, of marine life in general. These images have been so powerful and most people have seen the problems that plastic causes.
What people don’t see are the microfibers and perhaps this is a good moment to talk about that. Microfibers are any plastic particles less than 5 mm in size, and they are everywhere in our oceans. Ocean Wise just released a study early this year of the Arctic. We sampled about 71 sites all across the Arctic and everywhere you would find microfibers, including a deep sample from over a thousand meters under the sea ice. Microfibers come from other places, not from the Arctic for sure, but that is exactly the problem! People, even in landlocked cities, are generating an ocean footprint. With the choices that you make, the waters are connecting whatever you do in the city upstream with the oceans downstream. The trash will travel into the oceans and eventually become a problem for marine life. Microfibers come from the shedding of fleece and synthetic textiles, among other sources. It is not the only source but that’s one important source. Once we recognise them and once we do the studies with the little planktonic animals that live in the water column, we realise how microfibers can get stuck in digestive systems, and that this problem is not cosmetic, but has really a profound, deadly ecological impact on marine life.
P&F: So would you say the greatest danger to our oceans are humans?
Carlos: We are certainly the culprits, and the actual biggest threat to our oceans is climate change. Climate change is caused by humans, and climate change is going to be the one that tips the oceans over the threshold of no recovery, unless we do what we must do, which is really to reduce emissions significantly, to move into an economy that is genuinely blue and no longer relying on fossil fuels. We really have to get our act together on climate change. And we need the oceans in order to solve the problem of climate change because the oceans are not just a victim of but also a solution to climate change. They are the buffers of our climate, they accumulate heat from the atmosphere and CO2, and that is what has buffered the catastrophic effects that we would see on land today if the oceans were not there. The temperatures would have gone up much higher and faster without oceans. However, there is only so much that the oceans can absorb, and with increased CO2 dissolved in water you get more acidification, and this means that the water is starting to dissolve the shells of the larvae of shellfish, of the animals that we cherish for seafood, for example, and that is a huge problem. The acidic waters are also dissolving coral reefs. Anything that uses carbonate to produce either a shell or a structure to live on is suffering from ocean acidification. We, as much as the oceans, are in a critical place of being both the solution and the victims of climate change.
And then you have the whales. Whales are extraordinary creatures. They are the largest animals on earth, and they were abundant in the oceans before. I told you about the baseline syndrome, for instance. There used to be very many whales: every time you would go out to sea, you would see whales. That is no longer the case. However, we know that if we stop commercial whaling, as we did in the 70s across the globe, whales can rebound. And the great news is that this is how marine life responds to us just letting them be! Humpback whales are no longer on the list of endangered species. They have increased in number all over the world and continue to be a great source of revenue for coastal communities from tourism. So whales have a key role to play in the tourism sector because that’s how coastal communities that have been relying on overfished fish can find an alternative livelihood.
But whales are much more than that. The bodies of whales are composed of carbon as well. We are carbon-based life forms and whales are no exception to that. When a whale dies, their corpses sink to the ocean’s floor and can potentially get trapped really deep where they hardly decompose, where the temperature is just 4 degrees Celsius. Eventually, the sediment covers their bodies, and that traps the CO2 forever. That is what we call carbon drawdown, carbon sequestration. The more whales there are in the oceans, the more carbon is trapped in their tissue and gets eventually sequestered and removed from the greenhouse gas load of the atmosphere.
And there is another fantastic thing about whales, which is their role as a nutrient pump. They dive and feed in the midwater column or deep water column where they can stay for over 45 minutes. Then, when they resurface to breathe, they do their digestion as well. So you get whale poop up on the surface, and this is nutrition that the algae need to reproduce, and we know that algae are the biggest factory of oxygen for the planet. A huge 70% of the oxygen that we breathe comes from the oceans. Every second breath we take comes from the ocean, whether you live by the ocean or whether you live in a landlocked location, in remote Siberia, in the center of the Congo Basin or wherever you may be.
P&F: What are some of the solutions that need to be implemented quickly to stop some of the devastation?
Carlos: The most important solution is really to stop climate change. We need to stop greenhouse gas emissions, to use only non-fossil fuels in our economy because that will slow down the greenhouse gas effect and stop the oceans from overheating. We are seeing a great mortality of coral reefs across the world: coral bleaching from warm water events. We are seeing that fish are moving deeper and farther out when the water surface is warming. I experienced that in the Galapagos Islands in 1984 during a warm-water event called El Niño, and the problem is that the animals that rely on the fish and the people who rely on the fish can no longer reach it. For two years after one of these warming events, when the fish went deeper and farther out, the juvenile fur seals in the Galapagos were unable to dive deep enough to reach the fish, and they all died. So we had hundreds and hundreds of dead fur seals on the Fernandina shore, which really showed us how climate change can affect marine life. That, of course, is an episodic event, but with climate change, these kinds of mass events will become the rule rather than the exception.
So, if you ask me, it is all about stopping climate change today. Of course, we have to continue to move towards more sustainable seafood sourcing, sustainable fisheries, avoiding the flow of plastics and other pollutants into the oceans, reducing underwater noise of increased shipping traffic that disrupts the communication of marine life, and so on. But most importantly, we must stop climate change.
One of my favourite solutions to our environmental problems that I am working on is „seaforestation“: the care, restoration and responsible expansion of underwater forests of kelp. Kelps are giant algae that grow in the cold waters of the North and the South and create amazingly rich habitats for sea otters, seals, fish, sea stars, urchins, you name it. These marine forests became quite well known globally by the movie „My Octopus Teacher“, off the Namibia coast. And guess what: they are a prime solution to climate change because they grow 30 times faster than terrestrial forests and in doing so they capture massive amounts of CO2, effectively removing it from the atmosphere, trapping it in kelp tissue and eventually for good in the ocean sediment. Plus, kelp is an essential breeding ground for many coastal fisheries, and it attenuates the impact of wave action during extreme weather events. Kelp products include biopolymers that are helping replace single-use plastic with biodegradable alternatives. And adding kelp to livestock feed vastly reduces the digestion-related methane burps of livestock – a stronger contributor to greenhouse gases than the whole transport sector globally. I want to see kelp restored and grown over thousands of hectares in the coming decade to turn the tide for our oceans and climate.
P&F: Could you give some background information regarding Ocean Wise? How did the organisation get started?
Carlos: Ocean Wise is a Vancouver based organisation. The Aquarium of Vancouver, which has been around for just over 60 years, created Ocean Wise as its umbrella organisation and in 2017 the board decided to declare Ocean Wise as an ocean conservation organisation with an aquarium, and with projects of global significance. I arrived to Ocean Wise one year ago and created their first conservation strategy, that really looks at everything we do at Ocean Wise through the lens of climate change, whether it happens here in British Columbia, in the Arctic or in other areas of Canada. The oceans need us everywhere, so we must export conservation solutions everywhere and learn from each other´s lessons.
So, what does Ocean Wise do? We do two things. We work at the front line with decision-makers, for example in the Arctic, protecting Arctic communities through their own organisations from the impacts of shipping. Shipping is increasing tremendously in the Arctic, because of sea ice loss, and shipping has terrible impacts on narwal, balugas, or seals, because the underwater noise is unbearable for animals that communicate underwater with their sounds. So, the ships are really barriers to marine communication. Calves get separated from their mothers and can die, so they move away from areas where shipping happens and from areas where they can be hunted by the local indigenous communities.
Another example of work at the front line is our focus on whales and a collaboration with the Port of Vancouver on how to prevent whales from getting injured by ship strikes. This is a truly wonderful program – thousands of volunteer whale observers, on their private boats or from the shore, report their whale sightings in apps on their phones and captains on the big freighters receive real-time alerts about the presence of whales so that they can then either slow down or move around altogether, which they do.
The second pillar of what we do is our awareness-raising and youth activation program called Ocean and Climate Literacy. We are hoping to reach at least 2,5 million youth here in Canada and many more globally in the coming five years. In our digital era, the national boundaries are no longer boundaries, really. This is a program to really create a well-informed ocean and climate literate constituency that can hold governments and industries accountable for their pledges for the oceans. These are people who are also ready to adopt lifestyle changes to the benefit of the oceans – we offer ocean-friendly options in our programs. I believe that one of the great solutions to the plight of the oceans is to introduce those lifestyle changes at scale, whereby you, in your home, reduce your plastic footprint, your carbon footprint, and you make sustainable seafood choices when you go to your grocery stores. That, I think, is a powerful instrument for conservation.
P&F: How can people feel connected to the ocean even if they don’t live by the coast?
Carlos: Ocean Wise actually has a mobile unit called the Aquavan that takes marine life and the knowledge of our oceans to the remotest of communities here in Canada, which are totally landlocked, for hands-on experience with the oceans. It’s about really understanding that every second breath comes from the oceans, no matter where you live. The climate that you are in, no matter where you are on the planet, is regulated and buffered by the ocean. Most waterways that we have access to, the little creeks and the rivers and the lakes, can be connected to the oceans, and that’s the journey of our trash, the journey of our footprint. Everything we do in our daily lives is connected. And that’s the bottom line message in the program that I just described.
But there is more to that. It’s not just about putting ocean knowledge into people’s heads and creating awareness, it’s about what people can actually do as responsible citizens if they want to leave a better place behind them for future generations. The daily choices you make are either part of the solution or part of the problem. You decide. This is about the steps people can take to reduce their plastic and carbon footprint and the choices you make as a consumer, not only with seafood but also with clothing. As we heard from the story of the microfibers, there is much more that you can still be doing in terms of ocean-friendly choices for how long you wear your clothes for before discarding or recycling them, how you wash them and the textiles you pick.
P&F: Now how is it with you, Carlos? Are you living a sustainable life? What kind of transitions did you make to less impactful and more self-sufficient ways of living? Is a green lifestyle something that you emphasize in your children’s education?
Carlos: It becomes a way of life once you have a gut feeling about this being the right thing to do, and then it’s easy. I believe that lifestyle changes have to be less cerebral and more heart-driven, and this is the way you run your life. For me, one example of the right thing to do is to wear my clothes until they fall apart, and that’s when I purchase new clothes. That, of course, reduces my footprint tremendously, but I am not always thinking about the footprint, I’m also just thinking that consumerism, in general, is bad, that the senseless waste of resources to produce products that will only last for a little and that are not needed is just fundamentally wrong. Consumerism is ethically wrong, you don’t need to understand the whole chain of how it eventually ends up in the ocean to get that.
I own a plug-in hybrid vehicle, which is a great solution in principle, but the building where I live in doesn’t have a charging option. I live in a building from the 60s and they refuse to give us a plug. I need to charge in the city and that does not happen every day. So, there is still way to go.
Some years ago, I decided to become a pescatarian. I stay totally away from beef, pork and chicken, among other things because of the methane emissions from livestock. Methane is a gas that gets produced in the digestive tracts of cows and is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Taken together, the volume of methane produced by livestock is greater than the greenhouse gases produced by the whole transport sector. So, eating less meat is a prime directive in my life as well. My children are part of this lifestyle. But it is not happening only here at home in the family. At schools, there is already great awareness about the environment in curricula, which I am very impressed by. If children are taught a little bit of well-contextualized biology and ecology, then they can understand that there are animals and other marine life and life in general and that their actions have consequences. They get it. Not really by dogma, but by understanding the consequences. That’s why biological literacy is so important in my eyes. And then eventually you can come to this point of ‘this is now a gut feeling’, this is where rightfulness tells me what to do as a consumer and what to avoid – what to do as a lawyer, as an architect, in any profession. To be a conservationist, you don’t have to be a biologist. It’s really the way you live your life and the way you make decisions that can either be part of the solution or part of the problem.
finishers Carlos and his son Antar
P&F: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
Carlos: I think I would like to emphasize what COVID has done to us. Aside from all the misery of people who have lost their relatives and their jobs and their livelihoods, which is a terrible tragedy in its own right, this is a moment to reflect. And I think that people have actually had a moment to stop and slow down the pace of things, to reflect about what is important to you, what is really the purpose that you want to give to your day. Giving is a very gratifying feeling, so, whom do I give to? My neighbour? My community? The environment? The ocean? The forest? The wildlife? People are deciding how to channel their giving. All giving is good and your daily choices are part of that: this is the time to make those profound decisions. The planet needs it. We need to live a planet-positive life. Everything we do should be geared toward leaving the planet in better shape than we found it. And I think this is a very simple principle to guide our every-day decisions.
P&F: Very well said, and I like the fact that PATER is taking such good care of FILIUS! Thank you so much for your time and for a very interesting interview indeed!