Live and don't let die: Why do conservationists want to save everything?

KF- Writer and Editor

What's black and white and really wants to go extinct? 

Pandas have been conserved fairly successfully, with the population seeing a 17% increase over the last decade. However, this is only due to an incredible amount of work done by the poor humans dedicated to pulling these fluffy imbeciles back from the precipice of extinction they are so determined to flop over. In this instance, it can be easy to question whether or not it’s actually worth conserving a species which seems so hellbent on deleting itself from the fossil record. So why do we conservationists choose to keep things alive when it seems to cause nothing but debt and trouble? Broadly speaking, rationales for conservation can be split into two main schools:

1. Utilitarian 

For some people it’s the cold hard cash. The utilitarian style of thinking tries to quantify the value of biodiversity to humans. This is one reason rich people choose to fund conservation on game reserves, because there is huge profit to be made from allowing game hunting. Keeping a successful stock of animals alive means you can charge people exorbitant rates to pretend it takes any skill whatsoever to hunt an unconscious lion with an AR15 from the back of a Land Rover. The flip side of this is that ecotourism often provides a way out of poverty and crimes of desperation such as poaching. Conservation can prop up the economies of large regions through employment on safari parks, scuba diving experiences, as tour guides and at eco lodges to name a tiny handful. The livelihoods of local fishermen are tied up in preserving enough fish to maintain the population. For many people around the world, conserving a particular species or ecosystem is directly tied to how they make their living.

In an indirect sense, the usefulness of an animal to its ecosystem might not make anyone top dollar, however its role in the ecosystem (its ecosystem function) might lead to the big money further down the line. As every friendship group has roles that particular people fill: the one who does the driving, the one who’s great at resolving arguments… ecosystems work in much the same way. If you think of the pupils in a class as individual species: Annie is a bird, Joe is a giraffe etc… The whole class together with all the species is known as a community, the way that the living community interacts with the living (the classroom plants, germs and other pupils) and non-living (the furniture, temperature and light) parts of their environment form the whole ecosystem

Some species in an ecosystem play much more important roles than others, these are mostly things like pollinators or apex predators which regulate the whole food chain by eating just the right number of pupils that they don’t multiply too much. These are our class prefects, they keep the system in check, and in ecology terms we call them keystone species. If we don’t conserve these species then the whole ecosystem could collapse. 

An example of the interconnectedness of humans and wildlife is agriculture. If we allowed the foxes in an area to go extinct, then the bird population may skyrocket as they are not being eaten by the foxes. All these extra birds decimate the insect population and the pollinators like bees and butterflies are reduced so much that they can’t pollinate the crops adequately and there aren’t enough detritivores (worms) to break down the dead things in the soil so nutrients aren't recycled and the soil becomes sandy and generally rubbish. So, by not protecting the foxes… the crops have failed and the farmers have lost out on their cold, hard cash. The ways that ecosystem directly provide for our needs such as food, medicine and resources are known as provisioning services.

Similarly, protecting whole habitats rather than particular species can be just as important. Forests provide vital services by regulating microclimates, waterflow systems and purifying the air we breathe. Wetland habitats act as flood prevention zones which would otherwise cost millions to protect with hard engineering solutions. These jobs are known as regulating and supporting services and without them we would be forced to manually engineer costly solutions to problems that nature has solved for free. 

This utilitarian approach can lead to some species or habitats being classed as ‘not useful’ or ‘economically non beneficial’ and therefore not worth conserving. 

2. Moral Reasoning

You fall under this category if you doesn’t really know why we should conserve animals, you just sort of think we should. Something in you suggests that it’s the right thing to do morally, or you just enjoy the aesthetic value of the weird, wonderful and downright ludicrous variety of animals our planet has to offer. 

Some people believe that all animals have a right to life and that humans have a responsibility to protect them. Many religions place a value on nature and the role of humans as environmental stewards, and numerous studies link time spent in nature with improved mental health. Nature inspires creativity in people, the Romanticism and Naturalism art movements were greatly inspired by the relationship between people and the natural world. Certain natural places hold cultural value for societies, like the Amazon rainforest to its indigenous people. Yes, they could just move to a city and integrate with modern society but their spiritual identity, their mythology, deities and culture are tied up with the rainforest… it is uniquely intertwined with their very essence. To remove them from the rainforest would be to erase their identities. 

It can also be argued that we are currently undergoing the sixth mass extinction event in known history. Normally this is due to an ice age or a fat meteor slapping down on Earth, but this time it is almost solely accredited to humans and our need to dig things up and burn them. Therefore, there is something to be said for the argument that we have a responsibility to save the animals we have put in danger in the first place. 

Whichever of these rationales you choose to follow, neither makes you less of a conservationist by definition. I believe it’s important to have a mixture of these ideas in the world of conservation. We need the pragmatic realism, the cost benefit analyses that prove to big industries that conserving nature is far cheaper in the long run than destroying it, but we also need those people who embody the sense of wonder and beauty in the world. If people didn’t appreciate the delightful chaos of pandas going about their day then they wouldn’t generate the eco-tourism revenues required to make them beneficial. Sometimes we need wide eyed wonder and bean counting pragmatism working hand in hand to pull animals back from the brink. 



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