About 3 years ago, fellow WCS colleague and now President-elect of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) James Watson asked me to “throw my name in the hat” to get on the SCB Oceania Board.
Having no idea what this entailed, I penned a quick biography, shot it over to James, and thought nothing more about it until a few months later when he sent me a congratulatory note saying “You’ve been elected!”
His next words were, “We should have a conference in Fiji.”
Uh oh, I sighed. Here we go.
I have some experience running conferences. WCS Fiji ran two very successful Fiji Conservation Science Forums in 2009 and 2011. But those were easy and local.
For the SCB Conference, we had the challenge of developing a website and portal to accept registration, developing scientific content and associated workshops, inviting interesting plenary speakers, fundraising to support attendance by young Pacific Islanders, and ensuring there was enough money in the coffers to pay for all of the conference goodies (e.g. water bottles, bags, name badges, food, and evening entertainment – a must!).
The first thing to do was round up some help. I begged and arm-twisted a very capable team to form a local organizing committee, including the generous Gilianne Brodie and ebullient Randy Thaman of the University of the South Pacific (USP). The incredibly organized Tamara Osborne arranged for a team of 50 USP student volunteers to handle all of those nitpicky logistical issues and deal with the inevitable barrage of questions from confused participants during the event. Our dedicated student committee members, Moana Waqa and Aman Narayan, planned a fantastic student evening networking event. Our own Sangeeta Mangubhai went through round after round of refining the scientific program to ensure that we had well-matched content in sessions. Swee Kok knocked on doors all over town to wrangle up items for our silent auction to support local NGO NatureFiji-MareqetiViti in their work to develop a national park on Taveuni. Meanwhile, our two jacks-of-all-trade, Dwain Qalovaki and Mata St. John stayed up late into the evenings hoping, wishing, praying that everything would go to plan when the first event of the Society for Conservation Biology 2014 Fiji conference opened on July 7.
Having lost nearly all of my weekends and evenings since February to conference planning, I was at the end of a very thin rope by the time the first workshops began. I spent most of Sunday night awake after dreaming of lecture theatres getting flooded by tsunamis – clearly a projection of my internalized fear that utter disaster would befall us.
But the floods didn’t come. The projectors all worked (for the most part). People showed up who were registered. We had over 200 participants in total, coming from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India, USA, Samoa, Kiribati, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Tonga and . . . of course, Fiji!
The most exciting part of all was seeing our Pacific students and young conservationists shine during the event. Their presentations ranged from shark biology, to conservation of bats and herpetofauna in Solomon Islands, to understanding home ranges of cuscus in Papua New Guinea, to cetacean songs in Fiji and Tonga, to distributions of coral disease, and much, much more.
So was all of the pain worth it? I can truly say that seeing the future of Pacific Island conservation made me forget about all of those dark hours fiddling with font size on the conference program. During the week I was able to develop new networks, showcase our good work from WCS Fiji, and show off what makes Fiji so special.
Vinaka vakalevu to all that were involved in organizing this truly successful event. We look forward to the next SCB Oceania conference in Brisbane in 2016 (just please don’t put us on the organizing committee!).