If you ever watched Jack Hanna, Crikey! It’s the Irwins, or any other kind of wildlife program, then maybe you’ve heard the word “conservation” thrown around. While nature shows often strive to have a positive impact on conservation, the sad truth is that wildlife TV shows don’t do much to actively help conservation. But what does “conservation” actually entail?
Conservation means taking action toward the long-term preservation of nature for future generations. As humans continue to consume (and therefore, deplete) natural resources, many organisms reap the repercussions and head into threatened status and worse, extinction.
The definition of conservation has long been discussed and at times, even debated. While the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as “protection of plants and animals, natural areas,” one of the earliest definitions — published in World Conservation Strategy by IUCN in 1980 — offered three main tenets of what could be considered conservation. These include 1) maintaining essential ecological processes and life support systems, 2) preserving genetic diversity, and 3) ensuring the sustainable utilization of species and ecosystems.
And while watching Nature and Life on Netflix or other streaming services won’t cause any real actionable benefits for the sake of conservation, there’s a lot to be said about educating yourself about conservation and learning what you can do to help.
What are the main issues of conservation?
As mentioned earlier, many naturalists and scientists debate over what issues are included in conservation. The good news is: We all seem to agree on six main categories: animal welfare, captive breeding, ecological restoration, sustainable development, sustainable use, and research. Each of these six issues seem to be the current focus of conservation — here's a look into them all.
Protecting certain species is one part of animal welfare, but it might come as a shock that death is also crucial to practical conservation. What does that mean? Conservation means taking into consideration invasive species that affect threatened species, controlling wildlife diseases, managing overpopulation of some species, and even predator control.
Of course, without these animal welfare practices, many species would go extinct, which makes animal welfare such an integral part of practical conservation.
Captivity is not an ideal solution, but right now it is one of the only ones we have to saving certain wild species. Captive breeding means capturing certain animals and breeding them in captivity — whether it’s a zoo, aquarium, or animal sanctuary.
It often goes by the name ex situ conservation and can be controversial. No matter your stance, though, the goal of captive breeding is to save threatened species that would otherwise go instinct in the wild. Captivity is meant to buy time while we figure out a longer-term solution to whatever threat the species (disease, predator overpopulation, etc.) may face in the wild.
The goal of ecological restoration is to reintroduce species and habitats to what they once were (called reintroduction and rewilding). Ecological restoration seeks to restore the habitat’s natural ecosystem. (Think of what Simba did for Pride Rock at the end of The Lion King; all the birds came back, there was food for the lionesses to hunt, the grass regrew, etc.)
One of the main reasons ecological restoration has become necessary is the human impact on the planet. There is no doubt that humans have played a detrimental role in the preservation of landscapes, ecosystems, and habitats; ecological restoration seeks to undo that harm and rebuild what humans destroyed.
There is no denying that development will continue; however, the idea of sustainable development suggests that we can move forward, meeting the needs of the present, “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In short, sustainable development is all about the demands of the present and the future coexisting.
Sustainable development seeks to develop in a way that isn’t harmful to nature and won’t affect it negatively in the long run. The main argument for sustainable development — because the issue itself is a bit controversial — is that conservation is directly affected by the social and economic climate. Conservation cannot take place outside of social and economic lines; they have to coexist, and therefore, figuring out a way to develop sustainable is important to conservation.
Sustainable use takes a look at how humans “use” nature and animals and asks the question: Can we “use” a species in the long term without negatively affecting it? Think of "sustainable" fishing or hunting. The question would be, even if we are executing somewhat sustainable practices in fisheries or during hunting season, do these behaviors still cause species to disappear, become extinct, or see a rapid decline?
When considering sustainable use, it’s important to know there are two main kinds of species: fast-breeding and slow-breeding ones. In the context of sustainable use, it is generally a more beneficial to all to “use” fast-breeding species (because they replenish themselves quicker and therefore, can keep up with the rate they’re being used).
The need for research seems to be the most obvious one. After all, the more we know about conservation, about species, wildlife, and ecosystems, the more we can contribute to conservation in effective and meaningful ways.
Research might include learning about new conservation techniques, understanding the inner workings of an ecosystem (including its positives and its negatives), and so much more. Research is essential to the act of conservation because most of conservation is based around the information that research generates.
What does a lack of conservation cause?
When humans — for lack of a better expression — run amok, flying through natural resources, and consuming at rates that are impossible to keep up with, our planet takes a hit. That’s why conservation is so important because at its core, the point of conservation is mostly to undo human mistakes and our species’ overall negative impact on the planet.
Since the 1990s, the world has lost 3 percent of its total forests. Nearly 70 percent of those deforested areas in the 90s were converted into agricultural land. That is, these forests were gutted to make room for more agricultural space — purely for human consumption.
Deforestation is the mass clearing of trees. It happens in the name of agriculture, logging, harvesting of timber, wood for fuel, and natural disasters like wildfires. Deforestation causes more exhaust than a year’s worth of exhaust from planes, trains, cars, trucks, and ships combined. Because there are fewer trees to clean the air, anyone who breathes suffers the negative impact of deforestation, too — not just animals.
As of 2019, half of the world’s original forests have disappeared. This is a big deal, not only because of the aforementioned exhaust we’re all breathing in, but because forests are some of the largest natural habitats the world has to offer. Tropical forests contain at least half of the Earth’s species. Clear out the forests and you’re clearing out half of our animals and plants. This leads to habitat loss and more endangered species.
An endangered species refers to a species that has been categorized as very likely to become extinct sometime in the near future. Species receive this categorization when their recorded numbers see a rapid decline, a decline that their ability to repopulate can’t keep up with.
As of 2023, there are 150,300 species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. Species on this list include both animals and plants that are on track to becoming extinct.
A massive part of conservation is undoing the large number of species who have earned endangered or threatened status. Because human consumption is the reason these animals and plants have been driven into endangerment or worse, extinction, we have to work hard in the name of conservation to undo as much of this as we can as preserve as much as nature as possible.
How can we do this? As mentioned above in the tenets of conservation, captive breeding is important to maintaining the existence of certain threatened and endangered species. Ecological restoration is also huge for endangered species because rebuilding their habitats ensures that these declining species have a home.
Loss of habitat is one of the most pressing issues animals in the wild face. In fact, habitat loss is listed as a main threat to many of the species on the IUCN Red List — species that are officially classified as “threatened” and “endangered.”
But what causes habitat loss in the first place? Deforestation is one such factor, as the more the forest degrades, the less habitat the animals who would live there naturally have to explore and live on. The decline of our coastal and marine areas is also crucial to contributing to habitat loss. As the human population grows, our coastal and marine areas see the negative effects of urbanization, industrialization, and tourism. Many of our ecosystems live close to, nearby, on the coast, or in the waters. If our coastal and marine areas are degraded by human factors like consumption, land-use patterns, and poverty, then we start to see a drastic decline in the species that live in these habitats.
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