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VicBioCon in a virtual world

How do you run a large conference in the era of COVID-19? This was the question the VicBioCon Organising Committee grappled with midway through last year. Melbourne was in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, and things weren’t looking good for the future of face-to-face conferences. The Committee was determined, however, to run the Victorian Biodiversity Conference as planned in February 2021. Originally, Deakin University in Burwood had committed to hosting the event, but as the weeks passed, this was looking less and less likely. So, the decision was made for VicBioCon to enter the world of virtual conferences.


After many months of planning and experimenting with technology, the fifth annual Victorian Biodiversity Conference was successfully held online from Thursday 11th to Friday 12th February 2021. Lecture theatres were traded for living rooms as attendees logged on to watch and take part in the two-day virtual conference. Despite the downsides of online events, VicBioCon 2021 attracted over 300 registered attendees from academic institutions, local councils, government bodies, not-for-profit organisations, and ecological consultancy firms. For the first time, attendees could catch up on missed content by watching session recordings, which were available for up to one month after the conference finished.


The 2021 conference took place entirely online, using a virtual conference platform named SCOOCS (formerly iChair).


In keeping with previous years, the conference program included four plenary talks, two panel discussions and eight themed symposia composed of 61 short presentations, mostly delivered by postgraduate students. The conference opened with a passionate plenary talk by Associate Professor Euan Ritchie from the Centre for Integrative Ecology at Deakin University. Euan talked about what drove him to work in nature conservation, and what continues to give him hope in a time of climatic uncertainty. He stressed that collecting more data wasn’t the answer to conserving biodiversity. Rather, we need to consider how to best use our science and share our findings with those in management roles and positions of power.


Associate Professor Euan Ritchie notes that working in conservation evokes a range of emotions (such as frustration, excitement and despair), often all in the same day!


Our second plenary speaker, Minda Murray, from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, shared her personal story of being a ‘Little Bush Kid’. Minda was inspired by her father, who worked as an Aboriginal ranger on Yorta Yorta Country in Barmah Forest. She detailed the struggle of Indigenous Peoples to have their ecological knowledge and cultural existence recognised. Minda concluded by encouraging attendees to collaborate and build relationships with relevant Indigenous organisations to heal and manage Country together.


On Day 2 of the conference, attendees heard from Chris McCormack, co-founder and managing director of Australia’s first nature connection charity, Remember The Wild. Chris gave a very entertaining plenary talk on storytelling and the future of human-nature relationships. He detailed two story arcs that western society might use to view our relationship with nature; a Rags to Riches tale, where humanity broke free and liberated ourselves from the forces of nature, and a Riches to Rags tale, where we have progressively lost touch with nature. Chris encouraged attendees to tell their conservation stories and build empathy for nature through passionate storytelling.


The conference concluded with a moving plenary from Dr Lindy Lumsden from the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research. Lindy spoke about her long career researching mammals, focusing particularly on the ecology and conservation of bats. She explained that when she joined the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria in the 1970s, she was thrilled to encounter native mammals in the wild, but soon realised that no one was working on bats. There weren’t even any field guides available. She detailed her involvement with the Christmas Island Pipistrelle and how she was present on the day the species went extinct. Losing this species affected her deeply, and she hoped others would learn from this tragic story.


Dr Lindy Lumsden answers a question she has been asked hundreds of times: “Why bats?”. She remarks “How could you resist an amazing, cheesy grin like that?!”.


A highlight from this year’s event were the two panel discussions, the first of which investigated the controversial and timely question ‘Are Australia's current laws working to protect threatened biodiversity?’. The four panellists, Matt Shanks (Taungurung Land and Waters Council), Rachel Walmsley (Environmental Defenders Office), James Todd (DELWP) and Dr Carly Cook (Monash University), moderated by Dr Jenny Martin (University of Melbourne), shared their thoughts on whether our current laws are fit for present times. Rachel Walmsley argued that our national law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, is outdated as it doesn’t address any aspect of climate change. She mentioned that a lot of the current focus is on approving and processing project applications, rather than on protecting and restoring native biodiversity. Carly Cook added that the implementation and resourcing of environmental law is also an issue; whilst our laws might look good on paper, they need to be funded, resourced, and properly implemented to be successful.


The second panel discussion featured Professor Sarah Bekessy (RMIT University), Dr Kerryn Herman (BirdLife Australia), Martin Hartigan (City West Water) and Kirstine Wallis (Indigenous Advisory Group, CAUL Hub), and aimed to answer the question ‘How can we create sustainable, liveable cities for people and wildlife?’. The panel moderator, Associate Professor Joe Hurley (RMIT University), kicked off the discussion by acknowledging the challenges Melbournians faced during COVID-19 lockdowns, and the importance of patches of urban nature for both people and wildlife. Sarah Bekessy and Martin Hartigan added that when we were in lockdown, some people had healthy neighbourhoods with open green space within their 5km radius, but many others did not. Martin continued by arguing that biodiversity, liveability, and human health are all intrinsically connected in our city and need to be managed together. To introduce another point of view, Dr Kerryn Herman raised the idea that if humans have constant access to open green space (such as golf courses or urban parks), how does that impact resident wildlife? She drew attention to potential areas of conflict between people and wildlife and demonstrated the different perspectives in this space.


Overall, the Victorian Biodiversity Conference 2021 was a resounding success. The online format did limit personal interactions between attendees, but feedback to date has been overwhelmingly positive, with many indicating that they would like to see the virtual aspect of the conference maintained in future years. We are now considering moving to a hybrid model to allow both face-to-face interactions and session recordings which could be watched online at a later date.


The VicBioCon Organising Committee were thrilled that the annual conference could still go ahead, despite the challenges of running an event during the COVID-19 pandemic.


This year’s conference would not have been possible without the financial support of a large group of sponsors, including the Centre for Integrative Ecology, Deakin University, the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Zoos Victoria, ICON Science at RMIT University, Victoria University, Biosis Pty Ltd., the Victorian Volcanic Plain Biosphere, CSIRO Publishing, and of course, the Ecological Consultants Association of Victoria.


If you would like to join the mailing list, be part of the organising committee, or your organisation would like to host or sponsor the 2022 conference, please visit vicbiocon.com/contact-us or email vicbiocon@gmail.com.


Written by Jacinta Humphrey, on behalf of the Victorian Biodiversity Conference Organising Committee. This article was initially published in the Ecological Consultants Association of Victoria (ECAV) quarterly newsletter, and then reposted here with their permission.

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