A major challenge for Venezuelan conservation scientists is to provide support to policy makers engaged in the conservation and sustainable use of the country's rich biological diversity, with comparably limited human and financial resources to do so. This challenge includes documenting the distribution and abundance of genes, species and ecosystems; integrating data from traditional knowledge and biological inventories; systematizing, analysing and socializing this information with the active involvement of key stakeholders; and facilitating open access through information and communication technologies.
A primary goal of the Biological Diversity Unit of the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Investigation (IVIC) is to help by implementing a programme for building technical capacity in field sampling and data gathering techniques, and management of biological collections and information at the national scale, within the framework of the National Strategy for the Conservation of Biodiversity 2010–2020 and National Action Plan, with the vision of scaling it up regionally, as additional funds are secured.
Building on the facilities and infrastructure provided by IVIC, the Biological Diversity Unit has piloted a series of inter-institutional courses to develop the human resources required, focusing on skills that are relevant to providing inputs to Venezuela's reporting commitments to international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, CITES and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Courses on niche models and species distributions were offered during 2012–2015, georeferencing in 2014, and the legal and biological framework for biological diversity research in 2015, coordinated by the Biological Diversity Unit in collaboration with other institutions, and an introductory course on taxonomy, ecology and biogeography of amphibians was offered in 2015. Modest fellowships were offered to those willing to go further and obtain certification for IUCN Red List assessments (http://www.iucnredlist.org/technical-documents/red-list-training/online-training).
With the support of IVIC, Universidad Centroccidental Lisandro Alvarado, Universidad Nacional Experimental de los Llanos Occidentales Ezequiel Zamora, City University of New York, Fundación La Salle de Ciencias Naturales, Universidad Central de Venezuela, Ministerio del Poder Popular para Ecosocialismo y Aguas, Instituto Socialista de la Pesca y Acuicultura (Insopesca), Provita and the IUCN Species Survival Commission Freshwater Fish Specialist Group, the Biological Diversity Unit offered a course on biogeography, ecology, integrity and conservation of freshwater fishes during 27 April–5 May 2016. Twenty-seven students and professionals combined lectures at IVIC with field trips to a montane watershed on the coast of Aragua, and to the Orinoco river floodplain at Hato Santa Luisa, in Apure, where the owners were generous with their support to the course.
These courses have provided training to more than 200 students, professionals, technicians and governmental agency officials involved in the management of biological diversity. The skills and techniques taught are not part of the traditional curricula of Venezuelan universities, although they are essential for maintaining and strengthening national capacities for management of natural heritage.
Improvement of scientific knowledge is, however, only the initial step in informing conservation policies. Data must be synthesized, and socialized with the public. In January 2016 the Biological Diversity Unit offered a course on writing popular scientific articles in conservation biology, exposing participants to the experience of science journalists, linguists and scientists, and to appropriate media outlets. For 3 weeks, 1 day of lectures per week was combined with writing assignments, leading to short pieces on a topic of choice by each of the 41 participants. The course organizers contacted media outlets to place the articles, and a number have been published or accepted for publication (e.g. http://bit.ly/2a9ZXwS, http://bit.ly/2aa0n64, http://bit.ly/2avQt2L).
During the second semester of 2016 we will continue with courses on georeferencing, species distribution modelling and the legal and biological framework for biological diversity research. We are also exploring the expansion of the courses on natural history and field techniques, and further training in Red List assessments.
Ultimately, our training programme supports conservation policies by helping establish a new cohort of conservation professionals and feeding information into the Venezuelan Information System on Biological Diversity (http://diversidadbiologica.minamb.gob.ve/), WikiEVA (Threatened Venezuelan Species, http://wikieva.org.ve/), the recent update of the Red List of Venezuelan Fauna (http://animalesamenazados.provita.org.ve/) and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (http://www.iucnredlist.org/). Securing financial support to replicate and scale-up this programme at the regional level is the next step.