‘The preservation, protection, or restoration of the natural environment and of wildlife.’
The definition above, from the Oxford English Dictionary, seems simple, but:
- What needs to be conserved and why?
- How should conservation be done and who should do it?
- Which approaches to conservation are most effective and how do we know?
How can we make conservation effective?
Funding that lasts for just 3-5 years (which is what many donors give) is generally out of line with what actually happens in nature. Conservation is usually about changing human behaviour to more ecologically-friendly patterns, and changes in social systems take time; the same is true in ecological systems (for example, bringing about the recovery of a species’ population takes several reproductive cycles, which can be a long time for slow-breeding species such as apes, elephants, sharks, and trees). It usually takes a decade, sometimes much longer, to bring about lasting change, and conservation needs to take place on time-scales that match the natural rhythms of social and ecological systems.
We cannot achieve lasting conservation if we impose our ideas on people from the outside. If at all possible, local communities must drive conservation forward and be the champions for the threatened species and habitats they live with. We need to search for win-win solutions where local communities also derive benefits themselves from conservation programmes.
Some places are much more important than others for conservation. There is a particular need to ensure that effective conservation includes these most important places, often called Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). If we effectively conserve a KBA, we can often save many threatened species that live there. It is an efficient way to do conservation.
Many species face very specific threats, and these need to be addressed. But even where the focus of conservation activities is on a single species, we should try to implement our programmes in as holistic a way as possible so we bring benefits to all the parts of nature that exist in the same places.
When this is the case, we need to make use of the best available science. As mentioned earlier, it is not really possible to separate practical conservation from the research that must underpin it. We are facing many new threats to nature (such as ocean acidification, novel diseases, and new pollutants) and we will not be able to devise solutions to these without top quality applied research. We also need to understand much better the cumulative impacts of multiple threats happening in the same place at the same time.
Because the time is not always available to find solutions to conservation problems, there is often a tendency to leave captive breeding until it’s too late, and if this happens, there can then be too few animals or plants left to be captured for captive management. It is preferable to start ex-situ conservation much earlier while we still have some level of flexibility.
Experience has shown us that some of the most powerful conservation achievements have only happened with strong support from the public, particularly around conservation policies. Staying informed about and discussing conservation issues, making life choices that consider the planet, and taking a stand together against harmful practices are all powerful conservation actions that anyone can do.
Conservation does work, but we do not do anywhere close to enough of it.
If we really care about nature, then surely conservation has to be practical; it needs to work. Everything we hear on the news seems to say the opposite: nature continues to go down the tube; extinction rates are increasing; new threats like climate change are emerging; and beautiful places are being destroyed before our eyes. All this is true; and yet, paradoxically, there is increasing evidence that conservation is working. How so?
The threats to nature are certainly growing and this means that we have to spend more on conservation just to stand still. On the other hand, if some of the commitments made by the world’s governments are actually acted upon, such as the 2010 Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, then the amount of resources to be allocated to conservation is set to increase. Let’s hope that this will indeed be the case. In practice, to achieve the level of success that we need, governments will need to do much more, but so will all of us, including commercial corporations.