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The role of people in conservation science – Charlie Hopkins

The role of “people” in conservation science
Charlie Hopkins

People are the leading cause and the solution for conservation. People are also a threat to conservation, the driving force behind conservation, victims of conservation efforts but also benefactors of conservation (Robertson & Hull, 2001). Although this initially seems paradoxical, the concept of “people” is vital in conservation science. Land-owners, indigenous people, developers, public and government all have diverse and significant roles to perform in every conservation project (Chan et al., 2007). Conservation is an active process, where actions must be to taken to change the dynamics of a given population; passive efforts seldom work in ecological restoration projects. Successful conservation strategies often involve a change to current human activity or removal of the population from the immediate area, because of the dichotomy between human industrialisation and ‘pristine wilderness’. Dualism might explain why conservation is in high current demand; positive public perception of these pristine reservations that are outside of their own daily environment drives increased conservation efforts. The tragedy of shifting baselines is a slippery slope in which future generations may not recognise significant declines in biodiversity due to the absence of exposure to such experiences. Conservation is a priority of modern people, preservation of nature being more of an issue now than previously, and it would be in our best interest to preserve our current ecosystems. The worst future venture for conservation science is the loss of public opinion; the conflict between economic development and environmental conservation needs to stop.

Environmental resources, such as interactive biodiversity or urban green spaces, are accessible through ‘top-down’ large organisations or governing bodies that have the financial and temporal investments available. Although top-down, reservation style conservation is achievable, and is possibly easier for the governing body without the community involvement, there are numerous socio-political advantages of having a biophilic population (Ban et al., 2013) including footprint awareness and respect when dealing with environmental implications of economic development.

Modern industrial populations that imprint a human foot print on the environment produce a demand for conservation. Essential primary industries such as agriculture are employed to feed populations, however often leave heavy footprints on water environments through practices such as water extraction, NPK fertiliser use, and pesticide use. Carbon based fuel extraction and consumption, which is primarily used for transport and electricity production, has implications on atmospheric integrity. Deforestation for timber, and accessibility to farmland, draining of wetlands and confinement of rivers have been the leading cause of terrestrial degradation while over harvesting of fish and other wildlife are the leading causes of ecological decline in marine settings. These activities produce vast economies across the globe, and conserving the species that these markets influence, is not as simple as reducing intensity. Virtually limitless complexity is involved in the social, cultural, economic and ecological characteristics of current conservation actions.

People also plan, initiate and execute conservation projects, although these projects are often biased toward human benefit through direct ecosystem services, cultural significance or logistical feasibility. Projects such as Genesis Energy Whio Recovery Program or Dulux New Zealand Kea Conservation Trust favour popular, well recognised species. Conservation efforts may become inclined toward species with a direct effect to a population or ecosystem service, when indirect services, such as soil organisms involved in decomposition, can be equally and vitally important (Berkes, 2004).

Conservation and biosecurity are dominant processes in New Zealand’s environmental management strategy. The extended period of isolation since New Zealand’s splitting from Gondwana has resulted in an advanced degree of biological differentiation and uniqueness, many of the native species are endemic and ‘living-fossils’. Species such as the Moa (Ratite), weta (Orthoptera) and Tuatara (Sphenodon spp.), along with many distinctive birds such as the Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), Kaka (Nestor meridionalis) and Rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris) are exclusive to New Zealand biota. The evolution of such species in the absence of mammalian predators has led to the recent destruction of such fragile ecosystems over the last 700 years with the introduction of Ship rat (Rattus rattus), Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus), Kiore (Rattus exulans) and the house mouse (Mus musculus), Mustelidae, cats (Felis catus), possums (Trichosurus vulpecula),  among other pests.

New Zealand, like its biota, has a vast array of physical environments, densely compacted onto a small mainland causing steep environmental clines and niche partitions. The many partitions of native species distributions on off-shore islands has resulted in New Zealand’s conservation forces, primarily Department of Conservation and regional councils, to become world leaders in clearing islands of pest and weed species to create near pre-human environments for conservation efforts. The methods developed for pest control and native species conservation is starting to spill-over into mainland island projects such as Wainuiomata Mainland Island (GWRC) or Boundary Stream Mainland Island (DOC). Based on the current state of environment, the two largest aspects  of conservation practice in New Zealand are to improve pest and weed control methods while  arresting the decline of native species and also improving and maintaining public perception and education in regard to the environment (Logan, 2001).

New Zealand is rather lucky that ecological reconciliation projects can involve community groups, schools, or local companies “mucking-in”. In New Zealand, people are not so much harmed, but just restricted, by limitations imposed on economic quotas.  This is important in the New Zealand economy as the people are very biophilic, and the two largest industries, tourism and agriculture, heavily rely on environmental quality. These primary industries entrench a pride in the environment which is reflected in many local restoration projects such as Tiritiri Matangi Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Here, approximately 300,000 trees have been planted since the island became mammal pest free in 1993, and has since seen the reintroduction of North Island Robin, Takahe and Tuatara through the hard work of Department of Conservation & Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi Incorporated, including school and volunteer groups (Michel, Dickinson, Barratt, & Jamieson, 2010).  Despite these types of conservation ventures, conservation is often perceived to limit economic ventures such as logging, fishing, mining, and agriculture in New Zealand. Arresting New Zealand’s biodiversity decline would require economic change however this would, although perhaps not financially, return a gain on investment (McShane et al., 2011). Investment into the construction of mainland island projects such as Zealandia, which allow spill over or community visitation, would produce similar social and cultural benefits to near-shore island restorations such as Tiritiri Matangi or Kapiti Island.

Conservation in a global context is rather different to that in New Zealand, given that conservation is viewed by some as a luxury item. “Win-win” or “trade-off” approaches are described in conservation efforts in developing nations where wildlife is relied on for food or trade (McShane et al., 2011).  Ironically, the distribution of human poverty overlays areas of biological wealth (McShane et al., 2011) so  conservation efforts would  displace traditional hunting and conventional utilisation of biological material.  However, conservation can be done delicately with the establishment of non-traditional, reconciliation projects to compensate indigenous people, such as wildlife tour guides or scientific research assistants. Although this is sound in theory, the real world application of such a model may be limited as many funds from wildlife managers are dispersed through organisations before trickling down to the poorest groups that rely on, and have sacrificed, the resource. These indigenous groups are less removed from nature, and therefore are often victims of economic schemes of conservation projects.

Possibly the most important demand for conservation of biodiversity is the role of ecosystem services. We require more change because of the potential benefits of biodiversity, and human interaction with a healthy environment (Keniger, Gaston, Irvine, & Fuller, 2013). Ecosystem services such as climate regulation, crop pollination, toxin mediation, water and air purification are essential to a functional population (Balmford et al., 2002) which is achievable through reducing dualism and increasing environmental education and awareness. An example of biodiversity contributing to human benefit is the dissipation of tsunami waves on December 26, 2004 on beaches in the Indian Ocean that contained mangrove plantations were less damaged and recovered quicker than areas without (Danielsen et al., 2005).

Conservation for biodiversity can focus on two separate aspects: species diversity and functional diversity (Daily et al., 2000). Species diversity focuses on the variety of taxa found within an environment while functional biodiversity classes the utility of the community, such as colonising plants or top spatial predators. Biodiversity provides insurance for ecosystem services, through maintaining the benefit of knowledge and retaining genetic variation. Biodiversity also offers adaptability to environmental change and long term climate change. The value of ecosystem services is the amount that it saves the economy (Daily et al., 2000) however the value of biodiversity is much greater as  it includes social, cultural and ecological values. A diverse community will also lead to a broader, more intense demand for resources which makes it harder for exotic species to invade.

Modern development and industrialisation has led to a shift from a reliance on nature for subsistence hunting and gathering to a social and recreational approach (Keniger et al., 2013), although this has also led to a removal from nature and the development of a dualism between modern human populations and nature. Recently, post-war, it has become more recognised that direct interactions with nature have prominent advantages on human wellbeing and health. The primary influence of nature on human populations is no longer a resource for survival, rather an improved quality of life. Regular interactions with nature, such as recreating in green spaces, gardening or community-led conservation projects, can lead to increased cognitive function, physiological well-being, social participation and attitude and increased motivation or spiritual awareness (Keniger et al., 2013). Of course these are not only the direct effects on an individual; spill-over effects on a population could include decreased crime rates and anti-social behaviour, health benefits, growth in education rates and also increased economic productivity and an increased concern and awareness of nature.

It is in our best interest to conserve and interact with nature, rather than perceive the environment as an exploitable resource. Whether the intentions of conservation are focused on the benefits toward modern human populations or genuinely for preservation of biodiversity, community involvement in government supported projects will lead to healthier community and construct a sustainable future as a foundation for a better world.

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” – Greek proverb


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