Why I think broad-sense conservation is the future

This got retweeted onto my twitter timeline, and as I am supposed to be writing the presentation I have to deliver on Thursday, it of course sparked off a series of thoughts and ideas in my head which I just had to write down.

I have to say I agree with Stephen. I have a degree in Conservation Biology and Ecology. That makes me sound like I am pure conservationist, one of those ‘save the animals and screw humanity’ types. I am not. As I see it, broad-sense conservation is the way forward. That is, conservation which factors in biodiversity, the environment, and quality of life, and which understands that all these are affected by governance and policy, change, and conflict.

It is pretty clear, or it should be by now, that to undertake the amount of conservation work that needs to be done cannot be done alone. Conservationists and scientists cannot do it alone – they lack the power of the governments and policy-makers and the manpower of people. Governments and policy-makers cannot do it alone – they lack the evidence of the conservationists and scientists and the resources of people. People cannot do it alone – they too lack the evidence of the conservationists and scientists, and except in rare cases where sufficient numbers can be grouped together to achieve all that needs to be done, they lack the power of the governments. It is only by collaborating, by having these three groups come together, that the incentives, the motivation, the desire to conserve can be cultivated.

If you go to a poor family living in rural Africa, with little access to water, in a village with next to no infrastructure, and tell them to stop persecuting the wild animals that threaten them, or to give up some of their scant water resource for conservation, they will probably tell you, by some means, to go away. It is very easy for relatively rich Westerners to stand around with their degrees and their scientific papers telling people they need to conserve their wildlife. It is not easy for the people on the ground who struggle to survive as it is. If it is a battle to get enough food on the table to feed your family every day, your interest in conservation is likely to be a big, fat zero.

Conservationists often seem to forget that conservation is a human issue. They seem to ignore the impacts on the people living alongside whatever it is they are trying to conserve. And that is a fundamental flaw in the way we go about conservation. Social science must be considered alongside the animals. We have to get people on board, willing, motivated, incentivised, if we are to make any difference.

And yes, it could easily be argued that if you pay people not to kill lions, for example, then where does it end? Paying people not to build towns, paying people not to burn fossil fuels – it could go out of control. But place yourself in the shoes of the people living in these places. Place yourself in the shoes of someone who has to walk several kilometres to get water, or who has to worry every night about how many of his cattle might be killed by lions.

Similarly, policy has a big important part to play. It is one thing to tell people to conserve wildlife or habitats. You can stand there advising them on how they should behave and shouting at them until you’re blue in the face. You can motivate individuals with small-scale incentives – a flashing light to keep lions out of their boma, for example. Big companies, corporations, are not so easily won over, and this is where governments come in.

It may not be easy to achieve but eradicating corruption as far as possible should be a target of the global community. We need governments who take advice from the people with the evidence, the people who know what they’re talking about, and who use that advice to form policies and laws which will actually do something to benefit their wildlife and habitats. We need the interplay of policy and science to regulate business and industry and protect habitats and species from exploitation.

It is only by stepping back to broad-sense conservation that we stand a chance of winning any of the battles we are currently fighting, never mind the war. I passionately believe that, and look forward to a day when such practices are adopted by the global community.


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