Our experts in action: Leo Niskanen

24 June 2012 | Article

Not many of us get to turn a childhood passion into a career but IUCN’s Leo Niskanen is doing just that—in the heart of East Africa, one of the world’s last great bastions of wildlife.

Leo is based in IUCN’s office for Eastern and Southern Africa (ESARO) and travels all over this vast region, helping to conserve its many World Heritage sites—among them household names like Serengeti National Park, the Selous Game Reserve and Kilimanjaro National Park.

Leo is Technical Coordinator of ESARO’s Conservation Areas and Species Diversity Programme. One of his main objectives is to help ensure that the ‘outstanding universal values’ which the region’s World Heritage sites were inscribed for remain intact.

This means working closely with a wide range of stakeholders including IUCN Members, UNESCO colleagues, the private sector and protected area staff to improve the way these sites are managed and to alleviate existing and emerging threats. Many World Heritage sites lack the funding, staffing and expertise needed to safeguard their natural and cultural values.

IUCN leads the way in developing the tools and knowledge needed to make sure that protected areas are effectively managed. Leo makes use of these resources to strengthen capacity for protected area management and tries to increase financial and technical support to World Heritage sites from the wider world.

“Africa’s World Heritage sites face a number of threats and pressures,” says Leo. The proliferation of development activity, particularly for mining and oil and gas exploitation, road and dam building and other infrastructure, is taking its toll.”

But the conservation community needs to be realistic, he adds.

“African countries need to develop their economies and using natural resources is inevitable. The challenge is to ensure that the values of World Heritage sites are not sacrificed in the rush for development. Finding a balance between development and conservation is a tricky equation.”
These days, managers of World Heritage sites and protected areas in general have to be extremely savvy, says Leo. They often have to deal with very limited human and financial resources. They need to work on a wide range of issues and with a wide variety of interest groups—donors, biologists, tourism operators, politicians, local communities and so on. It’s not easy. Few people have the full range of skills that protected areas managers require and the training is not readily available.

"There are many issues facing World Heritage sites and the strategies needed to address these issues are equally diverse. These include improving political and financial support to protected areas, working more effectively with local communities, governments and private sector companies, and developing and applying more effective legislation or policies. These are some of the many challenges we need to get to grips with in this region. Otherwise we will always be reactive. We need to be much more proactive in tackling threats before they emerge, not when they have fully taken hold.”
Leo, who is Finnish but grew up in the Middle East and Africa, feels privileged to be working in a region that he’s passionate about and interacting with the people on the frontline of conservation.

Even though some of the sites are extremely remote, technology is transforming the way conservation knowledge is spread in Eastern and Southern Africa, says Leo. Improvements in internet access and mobile phone communications are helping to disseminate important information to the people who need it.

“We’re also learning valuable lessons from colleagues in other parts of the world and continually sharing solutions to the challenges we face.”
And even when he’s not travelling to World Heritage sites, Leo is surrounded by wildlife. IUCN’s office is located in a beautiful area outside Nairobi where warthogs, baboons and monkeys are regular visitors to the garden.

Leo can be contacted at leo.niskanen@iucn.org