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  • Transcriber: Joseph Geni Reviewer: Camille Martínez

  • OK, I would like to introduce all of you beautiful, curious-minded people

  • to my favorite animal in the world.

  • This is the Peter Pan of the amphibian world.

  • It's an axolotl.

  • It's a type of salamander,

  • but it never fully grows up and climbs out of the water

  • like other salamanders do.

  • And this little guy has X-Man-style powers, right?

  • So if it loses any limb,

  • it can just completely regenerate.

  • It's amazing.

  • And, I mean, look at it -- it's got a face with a permanent smile.

  • (Laughter)

  • It's framed by feathery gills.

  • It's just ... how could you not love that?

  • This particular type of axolotl, a very close relative,

  • is known as an achoque.

  • It is equally as cute,

  • and it lives in just one place in a lake in the north of Mexico.

  • It's called Laketzcuaro,

  • and as you can see,

  • it is stunningly beautiful.

  • But unfortunately, it's been so overfished and so badly polluted

  • that the achoque is dying out altogether.

  • And this is something that's a scenario that's playing out all over the world.

  • We're living through an extinction crisis,

  • and species are particularly vulnerable when they're evolutionarily tailored

  • to just one little niche or maybe one lake.

  • But this is TED, right?

  • So this is where I give you the big idea, the big solution.

  • So how do you save one special weird species from going extinct?

  • Well, the answer, at least my answer,

  • isn't a grand technological intervention.

  • It's actually really simple.

  • It's that you find people who know all about this animal

  • and you ask them and you listen to them

  • and you work with them, if they're up for that.

  • So I want to tell you about how I've seen that in science,

  • and in conservation in particular,

  • if scientists don't team up with local people

  • who have really valuable knowledge

  • but a practical wisdom that's not going to be published in any academic journal,

  • they can really miss the point.

  • Scientists and science as an enterprise can fall at the first hurdle

  • if it rushes in knowing that it's the experts that know best.

  • But when scientists shake off those academic constraints

  • and really look to people who have a totally different

  • but really important perspective on what they're trying to do,

  • it can genuinely save the world,

  • one wonderfully weird amphibian at a time.

  • So, in the case of the achoque,

  • these are the people you need on your team.

  • (Laughter)

  • These are the Sisters of the Immaculate Health.

  • They are nuns who have a convent intzcuaro, they live intzcuaro,

  • and they have a shared history with the achoque.

  • And it is so mind-bogglingly wonderful

  • that it drew me all the way there to make an audio documentary about them,

  • and I even have the unflattering selfie

  • to prove it.

  • There is a room at the center of their convent, though,

  • that looks like this.

  • It's very strange.

  • It's lined with all these tanks full of fresh water

  • and hundreds of achoques.

  • And that's because this creature, because of its regenerative abilities,

  • it's believed has healing powers if you consume it.

  • So the sisters actually make and sell a medicine using achoques.

  • I bought a bottle of it.

  • So this is it.

  • It tastes a bit like honey,

  • but the sisters reckon it is good

  • for all kinds of particularly respiratory ailments.

  • So I just want you to have a listen, if you will, to a clip of Sister Ofelia.

  • (Audio) Sister Ofelia: (speaks in Spanish)

  • (Audio) (Interpreter voice-over) Our convent was founded by Dominican nuns

  • here intzcuaro in 1747.

  • Sometime after that,

  • our sisters started to make the achoque syrup.

  • We didn't discover the properties of the achoque.

  • That was the original people from around here, since ancient times.

  • But we then started to make the syrup, too.

  • The locals knew that,

  • and they came to offer us the animals.

  • (Audio) Victoria Gill: I see.

  • So the achoques are part of making that syrup.

  • What does the syrup treat, and what is it for?

  • (Audio) SO: (speaks in Spanish)

  • (Audio) (Interpreter voice-over) It's good for coughs, asthma,

  • bronchitis, the lungs and back pain.

  • (Audio) VG: And so you've harnessed that power

  • in a syrup, in a medicine.

  • Can you tell me how it's made?

  • You're shaking your head and smiling. (Laughter)

  • VG: Yeah, they're not up for sharing the centuries-old secret recipe.

  • (Laughter)

  • But the decline in the achoque

  • actually nearly put a halt to that medicine production altogether,

  • which is why the sisters started this.

  • It's the world's first achoque farm.

  • All they wanted was a healthy, sustainable population

  • so that they could continue to make that medicine,

  • but what they created at the same time

  • was a captive breeding program for a critically endangered species.

  • And fast forward a few years,

  • and these scientists that you can see in this picture

  • from Chester Zoo all the way over the in UK,

  • not far from where I live,

  • and from Michoacana University in Morelia in Mexico

  • have persuaded the sisters -- it took years of careful diplomacy --

  • to join them in a research partnership.

  • So the nuns show the biologists

  • how you rear perfectly healthy, very robusttzcuaro achoques,

  • and the scientists have put some of their funding

  • into tanks, filters and pumps

  • in this strange, incongruous but amazing room.

  • This is the kind of partnership that can save a species.

  • But I don't think I see enough of this sort of thing,

  • and I have been ludicrously lucky in my job.

  • I've traveled to loads of places and just basically followed around

  • brilliant people who are trying to use science to answer big questions

  • and solve problems.

  • I've hung out with scientists who have solved the mystery

  • of the origin of the menopause by tracking killer whales

  • off the north Pacific coast.

  • And I've followed around scientists

  • who've planted cameras in Antarctic penguin colonies,

  • because they were looking to capture the impacts of climate change

  • as it happens.

  • But it's this team that really stuck with me,

  • that really showed me the impact

  • that these delicate but really important relationships can have.

  • And I think the reason that it stuck with me as well

  • is because it's not common.

  • And one of the reasons it's not common

  • is because our traditional approach

  • of the hierarchical system of academic achievement

  • doesn't exactly encourage the type of humility

  • where scientists will look to nonscientists

  • and really ask for their input.

  • In fact, I think we have a bit of a tradition,

  • especially in the West,

  • of a kind of academically blinkered hubris

  • that has kept science historically an enterprise for the elite.

  • And I think although that's moved on,

  • it continues to be its downfall on occasion.

  • So here's my example from history

  • and my takedown of a scientific hero.

  • Sir Ernest Shackleton

  • and his Trans-Antarctic Expedition more than a century ago,

  • the celebrated ill-fated adventure.

  • On his way there,

  • Shackleton just didn't listen to the whalers in South Georgia.

  • They knew that region, and they told him you won't get through the ice this year.

  • It's too widespread, it's too far north, it's too dangerous.

  • And look what happened.

  • I mean, granted, that great adventure,

  • that story of heroic leadership that we still tell,

  • where he saved every single one of his men,

  • we wouldn't be telling that story if he'd just hightailed it for home

  • and taken their advice.

  • But it cost him his ship,

  • I would imagine quite a lot of cold injuries among the team,

  • a good few cases of PTSD

  • and Mrs. Chippy, the ship's cat, had to be shot

  • because the team couldn't afford any extra food as they fought to survive.

  • Now, that was all a very long time ago,

  • but as I've prepared for this talk,

  • I've revisited some of the stories that I have covered,

  • where these really unusual collaborations made a real positive difference.

  • So I spoke to former poachers

  • whose knowledge of where they used to hunt illegally

  • is now really important in conservation projects

  • in those same places.

  • And I spoke to an amazing artist

  • whose own experience of mental health struggles

  • has actually paved the way for him to take a role in designing and creating

  • a new, really innovative and beautiful mental health ward in a hospital.

  • Most recently, I worked here, in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone,

  • with a team of scientists that have been working there for decades.

  • One of their experiments growing crops in that area

  • has now turned into this.

  • It's Chernobyl's first vodka.

  • (Laughter)

  • It's pretty good, too! I've tasted it.

  • And this is actually, although it looks like a niche product,

  • it's set to be the first consumer product to come out of the exclusion zone

  • since the nuclear accident.

  • And that's actually the result of years of conversation

  • with local communities who still live on the periphery of that abandoned land

  • and want to know when they can -- and if they can -- safely grow food

  • and build businesses and rebuild their communities and their lives.

  • This was a product of humility,

  • of listening,

  • and I saw that in spades when I visitedtzcuaro.

  • So I watched as a decades-experienced conservation biologist

  • called Gerardo Garcia

  • listened and watched super carefully

  • as a nun in a full habit and wimple and latex gloves

  • showed him how, if you tap an achoque on the head really gently,

  • it'll open its mouth so you can quickly get a DNA swab with a Q-tip.

  • (Laughter)

  • When scientists team up with, look to and defer to people

  • who have a really valuable perspective on what they're trying to do

  • but a totally different outlook,

  • something really special can happen.

  • Now, there is a truly global and a very, very ambitious example of this

  • called the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

  • Now, that is not a snappy title, but stick with me.

  • This organization includes more than 130 countries,

  • and it's aiming to do nothing less than assess the state of the natural world

  • across our entire planet.

  • So it recently published this global assessment

  • on the state of nature,

  • and that could be the foundation for an international agreement

  • where all of those nations could sign up to finally take action

  • to tackle the biodiversity crisis that's happening on planet Earth

  • right now.

  • Now, I know from trying to communicate, trying to report on reports like this,

  • on assessments like this for a broad audience,

  • that these big international groups can seem so high-level

  • as to be kind of out of reach and nebulous,

  • but there's a group of human beings at the center of them,

  • the report's authors,

  • who have this formidable task of bringing together

  • all of that biological and ecological information

  • that paints a clear and accurate picture

  • of the state of the natural world.

  • And 10 years before this panel even set out to do that,

  • to put that assessment together,

  • they created what's called a "cultural concept framework."

  • This is essentially a cultural concept translation dictionary

  • for all of the different ways that we talk about the natural world.

  • So it formally recognizes, for example,

  • that "Mother Earth" and "nature" means the same thing.

  • And what that means is that Indigenous and local knowledge

  • can be brought into the same document

  • and given the weight and merit that it deserves

  • in that assessment of what state our natural environment is in.

  • And that is absolutely critical,

  • because an Inuit hunter might never publish in an academic journal,

  • but I'll bet you she knows more about the changes to her home Arctic community

  • because of climate change

  • than a scientist who spent many years going to and from that region

  • taking measurements.

  • And collectively, Indigenous people are the caretakers

  • of an estimated 25 percent of the entire global land surface,

  • including some of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

  • So imagine how much we're missing

  • if we don't cross those cultural boundaries,

  • or at least try to,

  • when we're trying to figure out how the world works