Wildlife conservation: a culture of denial?

river_dolphin.jpgOnce again it’s that somber time of year when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) issues its “Red List” of threatened and endangered species.  The report has never been an occasion for celebration, and this year is no exception.  More than 16,000 species are listed as threatened with extinction (out of >40,000 assessed), with human alteration and degradation of habitat fingered as the single most important driver of extinction risk.

mauritius_parakeet.jpgOne in three amphibians, one in four mammals, one in eight birds and fully 70% of plants that have been assessed are now considered at risk of extinction.  Even scavengers are facing extinction, for cryin’ out loud — not even the iconic vultures gliding ominously overhead will be left to see many of these species give up the ghost. 

In contrast, one single species has been moved up (from critically endangered to “merely” endangered).  That one is the Mauritius echo parakeet (see photo), whose population was down to around ten birds in the 1970s through the mid-1980s, but has increased steadily through intensive management and discovery of new breeding birds. The population is now estimated at over 100 individuals. Good news of a sort, but not exactly numbers you’d want to bet on.  Perhaps we can at least take some comfort in the finding that North American reptiles are doing better than expected.

One new and bittersweet development this year is that the IUCN has begun paying attention to the wildlife inhabiting the three quarters of earth’s surface covered by oceans.  The picture, predictably, is not encouraging. As reported by the BBC:

“This is the first time we’ve assessed corals, and it’s a bit worrying because some of them moved straight from being not assessed to being possibly extinct,” said Jean-Christophe Vie, deputy head of IUCN’s species programme. “We know that some species were there in years gone by, but now when we do the assessment they are not there. And corals are like the trees in the forest; they build the ecosystem for fish and other animals.”

The data in this report provide a detailed picture of what the human footprint looks like. We often hear nowadays about how many tons of carbon we release, or how much water or land or coal is devoted to keeping the average American going.  Sobering as they are, those are pretty abstract statistics.  The dwindling status of our fellow sentient organisms puts a real face — literally, thousands of faces — on what that land and water formerly supported. But the plight of earth’s other inhabitants may also stem in part from the human fault of only being able to focus on one problem at a time (can you say “War on Terror”?).  Again, from the BBC:

“Many in the environmental movement argue that too much money and attention has gone on climate change, with other issues such as biodiversity, clean water and desertification ignored at the political level. IUCN’s assessment is that climate change is important for many Red List species; but it is not the only threat, and not the most important threat. There are conflicts between addressing the various issues, with biofuels perhaps being the obvious example. Useful they may turn out to be in reducing greenhouse gas emissions; but many conservationists are seriously concerned that the vast swathes of monoculture they will bring spell dire consequences for creatures such as the orangutan.”

salamanders.jpgAlthough the details of this year’s Red List are new and important, the story is of course depressingly familar. It is another in the series of punches to the gut that those of concerned with environmental conservation and sustainability have come to expect as a regular part of the job.  How does one keep moving forward with this sort of news coming on every front? There are philosophical and practical issues that need addressing, and they are intertwined. Some biologists have challenged us to wake up and admit that saving most of these species is impossible, and that scarce resources should be allocated more strategically. Professor Tim Halladay of the Open University, UK, has put it starkly:

“It is clear that the mainstay of conservation, the protection of habitat, is no longer sufficient to ensure the survival of many species. There is a widespread culture of denial about this situation, not least among conservationists, who must take a lead in alerting humanity to the current extinction crisis . . . Even if they had plenty of time and money, conservationists can only hope to protect a few of the many species that face imminent extinction. It is the responsibility of biologists, I suggest, to admit that the conventional view of conservation – that we can and should preserve at-risk organisms – is simply untenable. What we can and must do is document the decline and disappearance of species that cannot be saved, so that at least some kind of record of them will be preserved.”

This is a sobering argument and a hard pill to swallow.  But with so many species in decline and no credible possibility of slowing the train of human population growth and resource use, it is hard to make a strong case against it.  Triage appears to be in order.

A brave new world is ahead of us.  There will be many opportunities in addition to the threats we hear about with such pounding frequency.  I’m confident that our grandhcildren will still find peace and beauty in their world, and we should never underestimate the resilience and healing power of Nature, who undoubtedly still has a few tricks (good and bad) up her sleeve.  But, as the new Red List makes clear, there can be little question that the future world will be much poorer in the diversity of life that makes it unique in the known universe.  Our greatest challenge will be to redesign civilization on the fly so that it preserves as much of that biological diversity as possible.  In the meantime, to combat hopelessness, there are concrete measures each person can take to reduce individual and societal impacts:

1) Eat less meat, preferably none.  This may seem arbitrary but there is almost no single step an individual can take that produces a bigger reduction in environmental impact with less personal inconvenience.

2) Exercise your right and responsibility as a member of a democratic society.  Read and understand what legislation is in the works and how it affects the environment. Then get on the phone or word processor to your congressperson!  This is not difficult, you will find it surprisingly satisfying, and it may even make a difference.  

3) Help kids get to know the outdoors so that there will be a constituency for Nature in the future.


About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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