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-- home -- conservation
Conservation is akin to problem solving, hence the emphasis on the art
of solving problems on this web site, and the critical-analytical approach
toward understanding the underlying issues. Conserving nature is thus related
to solving problems arising from human interference. It thus combines the
complexity of nature with the human dimension, which is complicated to
say the least. Hence the multitude of dimensions, confusion of ideas and
the widespread involvement in all facets of daily life.
From the human dimension, conservation has the following aspects:
preventing problems: the cheapest and most effective way is to prevent
problems from occurring, by applying foresight. However, this method gains
little support, because the need for this type of action cannot be demonstrated.
People become motivated only when a threat can be seen, particularly when
it affects them already.
knowing the laws: conservation is against unplanned development
that breaks ecological as well as human laws. Problems can be predicted
by knowing the laws of ecology and how a project breaks such laws. This
is still a form of prevention, but difficult to win in court, since ecological
laws are not part of human laws.
finding solutions: once problems have arisen, solutions must be
found. As shown in the article on resource management, solutions have several
dimensions, leading all the way back to human need. Finding lasting and
efficient solutions requires smart thinking. This aspect finds support
easily, but requires high expenses and guarantees only limited success.
adjusting demand: adjusting demand below the natural replenishment
cycles or finding alternative sources and substitutions. This complex issue
is particularly relevant to fishing. Ironically, the availability of a
substitute resource (another fish species), often leads to the complete
depletion of the first species.
setting aside for now: concessions can often be won easily as part
of a new development. Keen on going ahead with the profitable venture,
developers often conceed easily to conservation demands to set aside samples
of undisturbed natural communities, areas for recreation, and so on.
setting aside for tomorrow: setting aside for our children should
find easy support because everyone has children and has altruistic behaviour
towards them, in order to survive as a species. However, support for someone
else's children, is not easily forthcoming. We should set aside for the
future: use, enjoyment, scientific discovery (archaeological sites), even
oil fields for purposes as yet unknown.
Approaching problems with solutions from
all angles An important ecological concept is that stresses on organisms (and
humans) add up. In the case of humans, we know for instance, that psychological
stresses accumulate. Thus one may be perfectly able to cope with the stresses
of work, and with the loss of a loved one, but the two combined may lead
to a complete mental breakdown. Stresses on natural organisms work in a
similar way. The extinction of a species is usually caused by a combination
of factors, such as some habitat loss, some predation, a disease outbreak
and some collecting for zoos. Suddenly the species is no more.
Likewise, conservation, the weapon against the decline of life, must
attack from all possible angles. Take for instance the example just mentioned.
Note that the causes (habitat loss + predation + disease + collection)
are all independent factors, which means that none is influenced by any
of the others. An improvement of 20% to each would lead to 1.2 x 1.2 x
1.2 x 1.2 = 2.07, or a 107% improvement! Quite high a success for such
a moderate effort. Thus identifying all causal factors is important
in solving environmental problems.
Conservationists should be warned for people's knee-jerk reaction, wanting
to throw the baby out with the bath water. The present solutions are discredited
entirely, and something new and unproven is put in its place. Always analyse
what is good of the present situation or solution and what is not. Then
maximise the good things while minimising the bad ones. How far we wish
to go, depends on our vision of what we wish to achieve: free plunder or
From pillage to paradise Conservation can be practised on a scale from plunder (take all) to
paradise (leave all). It has consequences for the environment, different
ways to go about it, and it has different levels of public support. The
idea is discussed here relating to the sea, because this a large resource
is exploiteded almost exlusively by extraction.
plunder: free and unlimited access leads to rapid depletion. As
fish stocks disappear, new fish stocks are found. It is the classical way
of fishing an open-access commons. It requires no regulation, finds enthusiastic
support from fishermen, but after collapse of the fishery, fishermen may
need to be compensated or subsidised.
sustainable exploitation: the fishery is managed to be sustainable.
It requires intensive regulation, a bureaucracy to maintain and police
it, subsidies from Government or the fishing industry. It finds lukewarm
support from the fishing industry, which finds ways to go around the rules.
It is still based on the management of single species. Old fish disappear,
and so do predator species.
balanced exploitation: the sea is fished in a balanced way, with
fishing quotas aimed at retaining a functional balance in the environment.
This has not been done yet. It may not be practical because even sustainable
exploitation leaves stock levels too low to be functional. The method of
leaving large areas fallow for many years, to be fished out in a short
time, may work, but it has not been done yet. Note that area closures happened
by default in World War II, and fish stocks rebounded.
conservation but take some: many marine parks allow for extractive
practices, but attempt to control these. It is a half-way solution towards
protection, but it does not afford complete protection.
no-take conservation: marine reserves are set aside with the strict
rule that nothing can be taken. It allows areas to recover to (hopefully)
original levels of life and diversity. Such areas can then serve to compare
other areas with. They also allow for undisturbed scientific research,
and they give enjoyment to those who wish to enjoy the natural environment
passively. Any form of extraction is in conflict with these uses, and cannot
be allowed. Such reserved areas are cheap to create and to maintain.
paradise: the highest level of restoration is in attempting to create
pristine wilderness areas in the sea (or on land). Such areas are large,
and don't allow extraction of any kind, not even for scientific research.
All threats to such paradises are addressed, such as mud from rivers, pollution
from industry, noise pollution, threats from boats and so on. People gain
access only after having done an environmental course to adapt their behaviour.
Such places require proactive conservation, cost money, but will in the
end be the best we can do for our children. People rise to the challenge.
What we can afford to achieve, depends on the benefits obtained, discussed
Benefits of conservation Since people can no longer take from (marine)
reserves the way they could, their benefits have obviously disappeared,
and they want to know what good this is. If it is supposedly good for their
children, then also why? The following benefits were proclaimed (note that
these were all based on acceptable assumptions):
insurance: an insurance against stupidity and poor (fisheries) management
because no matter how much the areas outside the reserve are depleted,
the area inside will continue on as if nothing had happened, producing
the larvae necessary to reestablish life on depleted grounds.
refuge: a refuge for all kinds of organisms, large and small.
nursing ground: inside the reserve, fish can reproduce at their
leisure, and their young spill over to areas around, where they can be
natural area: because people do not meddle in the fish's affairs,
species will develop into a balanced community, rich in functionality and
recreation: as long as people do not disturb the life there, they
are welcome for eco-tourism, recreation, diving, fish watching, photography
and so on.
research: research benefits because the scientific experiments are
not disturbed. The whole area can serve as a baseline to compare other
places with, in order to measure the effects of human intervention. The
reserve will stabilise at maximum biodiversity and maximum biomass, which
in itself is interesting, while serving as a baseline too. Scientists can
study a truly natural environment.
genetic refuge: the diversity of species embodies undiscovered genetic
qualities such as medical compounds, biocides and more.
education: people from all walks of life, and particularly school
children can visit the reserve to observe wildlife and to become inspired
by the conservation concept. Whereas elsewhere the environment has deteriorated,
one can at least find natural life inside protected aeas.
In the case study of the Goat Island Marine Reserve, we will see that many
of the above assumptions have not materialised.
Conservation would have been much easier had humans not been affected.
The humand dimension is indeed large and unwilling.
The human dimension To do conservation for the benefit of nature
is difficult enough, but because humans are involved in every step, the
matter becomes very much more complicated. In fact, this aspect can become
quite time-consuming and energy-sapping, often obscuring what the whole
purpose of conservation is all about.
Human society has become more complicated over time, and will continue
to do so. People have occupied every bit of land, and have also been allowed
to own it. By having an interest in an area planned for conservation, or
an extractable species, human lives are affected and conflicts arise. People
who have a claim to be considered, call themselves stakeholders. Don't
be surprised that a stakeholder can live hundreds of kilometres away from
the place of conflict. Here are the human interests that need to be considered
along every step:
economic: people's incomes are affected. Countries with a Bill Of
Rights (USA fifth amendment), require such people to be compensated financially.
It increases the cost of conservation. However, often new opportunities
present themselves, and people can get better jobs through re-training.
Where fishing is stopped, boat owners and skippers can learn to earn a
living from eco-tourism. Park rangers are required, and those displaced
from the area make good rangers due to their local knowledge.
rights: over time, people have given themselves all kinds of rights.
Their present predicament is seen as a right obtained through custom, and
any change to it is seen as an infringement of such rights.
tradition: people have been doing what they do for many generations,
often passed down in families from father to son. Villages have a tradition,
and so do areas. A conservation effort may upset such traditions.
culture: every ethnic group has a different culture. Within a culture,
specific rights and beliefs are held dearly. Conservation may infringe
on such cultural values.
spiritual: persons and groups may have spiritual values, arising
from beliefs and superstitions.
emotional value: people often value a place or a species emotionally.
Such values cannot be measured but are real to the beholders. A large range
of emotional values can be held.
race: racial matters may dominate conservation efforts. Original
People like the Maori in New Zealand, the Aborigines in Australia and the
Indians in America and Canada, have lived in the area for a long time,
and have cultural and spiritual ties with an area. However, often the race
issue is used to gain power and income.
stakeholder= an independent party with whom each
of those who make a wager, deposits the money. A person holding an interest.
stake= a sum of money wagered on an event. An
interest or concern, especially financial.
at stake= at hazard, at risk, at issue, concerned.
Whereas land ownership is the main issue in land conservation, marine conservation
faces all the issues listed above, because nobody owns the sea. People
who use the sea, claim their rights based on the above arguments. Often
false arguments are used in order to further their claims.
Sectors of society affected The multitude of environmental threats do not just threaten the environment
with loss of biodiversity and functionality, but also the economy (growth,
efficiency, stability, capital) and people (wealth, health, wellbeing,
human capial). No surprise then that not just ecologists have an interest
Ecology: study of the management of a household’s physical resources.
Economics: study of the management of a household’s financial resources.
Ecumenism: study of the management of a household’s moral, ethical,
and spiritual resources amidst a plurality of values. An ecumenical person
is one who seeks common ground as a synthesizer among various perspectives
and traditions. (Philosophical Sciences)
To illustrate the complexity of (marine) conservation, consider the
number of Government departments involved in conservation issues. Note
that only their functions relating to conservation have been mentioned,
and that government departments may have been arranged differently in different
Environment: the main regulatory body for industry, handling of
dangerous goods, environmental protection, biodiversity. Contaminated sites.
State of the environment reporting. soil conservation and rivers control.
Introduced organisms. Resource management.
Conservation: the caretaker of the conservation estate: parks, reserves,
national parks, marine reserves, scenic reserves, river margins and more.
It provides access, tracks, huts, etc. It may charge for access, use of
facilities and franchises for commercial operations. It is the executive
arm of Environment, and has expertise in handling emergencies, and
enforcing law. Saving endangered species. Eradicating invasive exotic species.
Parks and Reserves: the caretaker of parks and reserves, could be
part of Conservation but is in some countries a separate department.
Fisheries: the main player in conserving the marine environment.
It controls exploitation by a number of methods (See marine
conservation). Quota management.
Forestry: oversees or controls logging of exotic and native forests.
Formulates policies for planting and assistance. May be involved in the
forests of the conservation estate.
Agriculture: assists farmers towards economic success with least
side effects on the environment. Erosion control, fertiliser rationalisation.
Biosecurity. Sustainable resource use. Organic farming.
Arts and Cultural Heritage: manages historical places and cultural
heritage. Protects sites of importance.
Customs: to prevent illegal trade (CITES), unwanted introduction
of diseases and pests (biosecurity). Manages quarantine facilities.
Land and Survey: measures the land, produces maps & charts,
which include protected aeas. Land titles. Crown land.
Transport: shipping, civil aviation, railways, road transport and
roading. A very important future player in conservation due to the fragmenting
effects of transport infrastructure. Also manages response facilities for
oil spills. Maritime safety. Road safety.
Energy and Minerals: parks and reserves may contain extractable
resources, and these should remain accessible.
Foreign Afairs: international relations, treaties, conferences,
agreements, United Nations, trade agreements. Developing national advantage.
Justice and Law: most conservation actions require support by law,
but the trend is towards softer solutions with community cooperation and
management. Making law. Administering justice. Policy advice.
Police: Policing services. Safer communities. Law enforcement.
Science and Technology: scientific research supporting the environment
and conservation. Science funding. Consulting to Government. Coordinating
science and technology.
Education: education policy. School Curriculum. Professional training.
Unit standards. Financing.
Tourism: promoting the nation. Marketing, advertising. Ecotourism.
Original People: Crown's relationship. Treaty compliance. Law reform.
Partnership. Traditional use. Culture.
Local, District and Regional Government: the executive arms of government
and its many departments.
Parliamentary Commissioners: scrutinising the effectiveness of government
departments and reporting on their findings. Suggesting new ways.
The typical set of other interested organisations:
Commercial Fishing Industry: commercial fishermen are affected by
marine reserves. They may consist of several groups and local fisheries.
Seafood Processing Industry: are usually consulted although they
do not have a direct interest in marine reserves.
Amateur Fishing Associations: cooperation is needed from all amateur
fishermen for marine reserves to be successful.
Acclimatisation Societies: these people have introduced often noxious
species for the purpose of hunting. They also have a stake in rivers and
lakes for trout fishing, and are interested in good water quality.
Environmental and Conservation Organisations: these are often the
driving forces behind conservation and certainly were before the United
Nations became active, and national governments followed. Now that government
departments are better organised and financed, with full-time officers,
voluntary conservation organisations are languishing.
Educational Institutes and Universities: many scientists work here
and they are very knowledgeable in their specific fields. From this resource,
often consultative committees are formed for policy advice.
Research Laboratories: these do not only have specific knowledge,
but also the means to do high level research to come up with answers to
environmental problems. They are also often involved in policy advice.
Original People: the local original people are usually organised
by tribes and have strong local, regional and national interests. They
are being consulted extensively.
It is clear that the human dimension complicates conservation considerably.
In the end, through the longevity of the consultation process, the many
opinions and the many compromises accumulated on the way, one may end up
with a result that nobody really wants. Note also how many people are involved,
who know very little about conservation or nature. When it comes to marine
reserves, most decisionmakers are armchair-conservationists, not ever having
observed the marine environment or having informed themselves about it.
Objections When confronted with the establishment of a protected
area, people have many reservations and objections. It is human nature
to be afraid of change and uncertainty. It is even more human for not wanting
to do with less or to give up certain things.
These are the typical objections people have:
cultural tradition: It is a tradition of hundreds of years, laid
down in our culture. We can't give that up.
we've never had restrictions: We are reponsible people. We don't
need restrictions. Let us sort this out. The sea is free.
nothing has changed: The situation is not worse than last year or
the year before. Why worry?
there's plenty still: Fishing has its ups and downs. The good years
make up for the losses. Next year will be better. The fish have only become
smarter. We need bigger gear and faster boats.
it is our living: Why take our living away? What are we to do next?
why here?: There are plenty of alternatives. Why here? Not in my
it is someone else's fault: Why should we get penalised here for
the problems elsewhere?
When expressed in a public meeting, such arguments are hard to allay. However
the situation changes completely when posing the objectors in front of
their daughter's question: "Dad, why did you leave the sea in such a
mess for us?". The objectors would answer according to their valid
We've always done it this way.
I didn't like rules. When the fishing is good, you have to take all you
I didn't notice. I was too optimistic.
I didn't heed the clear warning signs.
We needed the money.
I wanted to fish close to home.
It was the Government's fault. They should have done something a
long time ago.
It is amazing to see how the perspective of objections changes, in the
light of our childrens' future.
(In class, I often let children (10-16 years old) decide
on this, and it is amazing to see how unanimously condemning they are of
Ten dilemmas Scientists Elliott and Lawrence, looked at conservation
in a critical way, questioning the presumed validity of conservation practices
and values. These are mentioned here to illustrate some scientists' misgivings,
and they are annotated by Floor Anthoni:
Should conservation focus on quality (structure and functioning of the
environment) or quantity? Very relevant. Biodiversity is part of quality,
and when it is found to be high, one may assume (!) higher structure and
functioning as well. However, quantity is easier to measure. One mistake
made with marine reserves is that the quantities of some exploited species
are measured, then used as an argument that reserves work. However, the
decline of dozens to hundreds of other species is neither noted, nor measured.
Which species should be protected and why? Conservation is usually
pushed for either economic reasons or feel-good reasons. Thus commercially
important species and cute animals have priority. Ignorance about all others
condemns them. However, all species deserve protection.
Ecology and evolution are dynamic, and extinctions part of it. If
evolution means the total dominance of Earth by Man, then the Man-made
extinctions are part of it, and so is the consequential fall of civilisation
and decline of Man as a species. However, if Man is considered an intelligent
caretaker, aiming for sustainable existence and co-existence with nature,
and for his own survival, then extinctions must be prevented. Since Man
has the power to destroy, it has become a matter of how he views the world.
How to assess a species' or habitat's conservation value? The only
values we know are human values. Our ignorance of ecology prevents us from
being able to assess and assign natural values. Because of this, conservation
may be doomed to remain a hit-and-miss affair. But the factors contributing
to nature's resilience, as explained in biodiversity,
may guide us.
Should we use flagship species to protect others? (otter versus seaweed
habitat) Should we do the right thing for the wrong reasons? Should
we deceive the public, or spend more on education in order to gain political
support? However, as conservation becomes more and more a political football,
politicians will use any means to justify the ends.
Is our aim to protect the current status quo, or allow it to fluctuate
over time? Very important question. Is the current status a depleted,
degraded environment? Why protect it? We expect a (marine) nature park
to improve over time, but will it do so? If the causes for its degradation
are not taken away, then why protect it? Design nature reserves such that
they have a good chance of improving over time, otherwise don't have them
and don't mislead the public about them.
What changes are we prepared to accept? Natural changes are neither
good, nor bad. They fluctuate, and nature has adjusted to cope with these.
However, human-induced changes are mostly bad, and getting worse, and nature
has not evolved to cope. Nature parks are precious concessions by society,
and they are scarce. So we have to make sure they work, and that changes
are only making them better.
Marine areas are more resistant to change, but depend on areas outside,
often in other countries. True and false. Marine areas are very susceptible
to human influence, being located at the bottom of society. The reason
that we know so little about them must not be interpreted as if they are
more resistant to change. Pollution by mud, nutrients and chemicals causes
very serious degradation. Currents transport problems far away, and as
these cling to the land, pollution is exported to a large coastal area
downstream, possibly in other countries.
Do we have enough knowledge of the systems to manage them any better?
Bad management is worse than no management at all. Management by belief,
or based on assumptions, is bad management. We have the means to measure
quantity and quality. By monitoring progress and basing management dicisions
on observed facts, good management can make a positive difference. A farmer
does not need to know about veterinary medicine to manage his cows. Good
management can be based on observations and common sense.
Do we have the confidence to allow systems to change if changes are
not adverse? A silly question. If changes are not adverse, they must
be good. Would we really like to disallow these? What do we want to achieve
in the first place? Mention one human-induced change which has been good
M Elliott, A J Lawrence: The protection of species
versus habitats - dilemmas for marine scientist. Marine Poll Bull 36/3
Conservation biology is the knowledge of natural
life in relation to conservation, and thus survival. A new branch of science
has sprouted from the need to fix environmental problems, and which owes
its existence entirely to human activity. It studies how species, communities
and populations benefit from conservation efforts and how they suffer from
human practices. The studies have shown that minor concessions can result
in large benefits to the natural environment, and they have also shown
us better ways to go about our business. Conservation biology is a potent
weapon in the concept of sustainable development, which means doing more
with fewer side effects.
The basis of conservation biology is founded in four related scientific
ecology: the knowledge of ecosystems, communities and populations,
and how these work.
biology: the knowledge of individual species, their needs and life
taxonomy: the identification and classification of species, necessary
to identify species and to measure biodiversity.
conservation: the practice and theory of conservation.
Conservation biology attempts to answer the following
questions, both before a change is made and after the event:
vulnerability: of species, communities and populations. Although
vulnerability (or resilience) is difficult to predict in advance, much
can be learnt from similar situations which have happened already. (see
also conservation value below)
viable populations: populations must be able to maintain their numbers.
Individuals must find breeding partners, and mating must result in offspring
and stable numbers, without human intervention. The genetic variety of
the population must be adequate to cope with adaptation. Since global changes
are happening rather fast, populations must be able to adapt faster than
they used to, and thus their genetic base must have ample variety. The
size of a reserve is very important for this.
inbreeding: small populations may lead to inbreeding, resulting
in unsustainably poor genetic variability. These matters are particularly
relevant for zoos and their role in species restoration (see reintroduction
conservation value: politicians like to work with simple figures
for conservation value. Nature's resilience is made up of several factors,
of which three are most important, and they can be combined into a single
conservation value: diversity (quality) x density (repetition)
x functionality (connectedness). However, measuring these factors
objectively is a problem.
sizing nature reserves: the size of a nature reserve is critical
to its success, relating to both the number of species saved, and their
viability. However, the larger reserves are less likely to happen because
such amounts of undisturbed habitat are rare and people pose limits to
their generosity. (see also connecting corridors)
reducing fragmentation: fragmentation reduces the effectiveness
of a natural area considerably. Often due to ignorance, infrastructure
is allowed to cross through contiguous natural areas, causing disproportionally
large side effects. Roading, pipelines, canals, railways have all brought
about serious fragmentation of contiguous habitat. Fragmentation can be
reduced by allowing for passageways for wildlife, and by better planning.
reducing boundary effects: wherever a habitat change is made, a
boundary effect is created, making the change felt deep into the natural
area, and upsetting the natural balance. Sometimes boundaries bring a succession
of species (plant and animal) which enhances biodiversity, but at the expense
of the original communities. The boundary effect can be reduced by reducing
fragmentation, and by aiming for large, contiguous areas. Note in this
respect that true islands, surrounded by water or sea (and oases surrounded
by desert), have minimal boundary effects. Species from outside do not
wander in, and species from inside do not wander out. When it comes to
marine island reserves, the boundary effect is even positive - species
from far afield seeking refuge, and the island acting as an oasis.
connecting corridors: some conservationists believe that having
many small reserves, equals that of a single large one, but they are mistaken
in this, due to a large boundary effect, low viability and resilience.
By interconnecting such reserves with corridors of similar habitat, species
could be allowed to roam from reserve to reserve. However, the boundary
effects of corridors is very large (outside predators intercepting the
traffic), resulting in a continual drain of life from the interconnected
shelter & refuges: in any habitat, shelters and refuges are
very important against predation and adverse conditions. They are critical
for niche species which are easily predated upon. For instance, nest boxes,
although strictly unnatural, can make an enormous difference to the quantity
and quality of populations.
re-introduction: critically endangered species can be saved by ex-situ
(out of place) breeding (see below), and then releasing into island enclaves
where adverse effects such as predation have been eliminated. Successes
have been recorded for species threatened by predation and habitat destruction.
of habitats: many conservationists believe that habitats can be restored.
However, they may be wrong in this. A habitat is a complex web of communities
on many trophic levels, which over time (1000 years), have changed their
own environment, including soil and microclimate, to suit themselves. With
the limited knowledge we have, it is impossible to achieve the same, and
in a short time. Wherever habitats have been restored by replanting native
plant species, the result has never been proved viable. From own observations,
human-planted habitats end up as disasters in 10-30 years time, losing
out to those areas which have been left to recover by themselves through
natural successions of species. Conservationists are active in restoring
wetlands with moderate success (they are the easiest ones, with simple
soils and low canopies), and dunes with disastrous results (see disappearing
conservation: some species are in such critical state that they need
to be reared outside their environment in nurseries and zoos. This kind
of conservation won't allow species to change in their roles within their
natural habitats, and when put back into the environment, are bound to
fail. It is also very costly and requires human intervention, perhaps forever.
This kind of conservation has been practised for less than 30 years, and
it is too early to say whether it will succeed in the long term. However,
all attempts to release juvenile marine species back into the wild have
failed so far.
monitoring: monitoring the environment is an important but expensive
and sometimes boring aspect of conservation biology. It is essential because
it provides the feedback necessary to judge the results of actions. Just
imagine having to somehow measure the numbers of individuals of some hundreds
of species, along transects and inside plots (samples) in many places.
No surprise then, that scientists are looking for shortcuts, such as indicator
species (see below) and physical samples of water, air and soil.
indicator species: ideally, an indicator species is an organism
which is sensitive to one and only one threat (one kind of chemical or
biocide or other stress), and which is not harvested by humans. The search
is on for the holy grail of indicator species. However, success is unlikely
because the idea is not in accordance with the way species have evolved
naturally. If one species disappears, then a number of other species will
also be affected. In the end, what do we learn from indicator species that
would have changed our actions?
I have observed that the juveniles of most (marine) species are good
indicators of stress. Established individuals appear to survive better
than those who wish to establish themselves. The ratio of young to old
individuals I have found to correspond quite well with the amount of degradation
observed. Another good indicator is the number and quantity of species
who do not belong in the habitat. They are usually the opportunistic, fast-growing
species (like weeds), occupying vacant territory left behind by the death
Conservation biology is a new branch of science, bound to develop rapidly
with the knowledge gained from an escalating succession of new environmental
problems. The question remains, whether knowing more detail, will equip
us better for facing the large problems looming over the horizon.
Biotechnology Biotechnology, the advantages created by manipulating
life (=biotechnology), has given us the green revolution of improved crop
productivity and disease resistance. Above all, it has made the production
of food more predictable and less subject to the vagaries of climate and
disease. The question is whether biotechnology would be able to help with
the conservation of natural species, by either reducing the side effects
of our actions or by helping in other ways.
One argument justifying biotechnology is that, since
the world has already become artificial, with very little natural habitat
left, we might as well go a step further. Biotechnology covers the following
artificial breeding: crop plants and livestock have for centuries
been bred under closely supervised conditions. Improvements were made by
(unnatural) selection, resulting in incredible advances in productivity.
Fertilisers and biocides have been tested in similar ways, resulting in
very finely detailed knowledge about crop management and animal husbandry.
Artificial insemination has spread the genes of a few male animals far
across the world. The world of today would have been unimaginable without
this. However, the availability of more food has helped human populations
to grow to the threat they pose today. The genetic basis of our important
crops has become very narrow, rendering seeds unsuitable for propagation.
Many commercial crops have been rendered infertile to protect intellectual
property rights, preventing local farmers from using their seeds for the
freezing: genetic material such as sperm can be stored almost indefinitely,
giving scientists access to a large source of genetic information. It can
be transported easily and used to fertilise many receptors.
seed banks: the seeds of cultivated and indigenous plant species
have been collected worldwide, and stored in seed banks. It gives scientists
access to a large base of genetic information. These seed banks also store
the seeds of plant varieties no longer used for commercial production (old
varieties of fruits, and so on). However, seed banks are no substitute
for living species, and they may be risky due to the absence of replication.
Plants stored in seeds can no longer adapt to a changing environment.
genetic engineering: the techniques of genetic engineering (GE)
have given scientists a formidable tool for improving crops. Remember that
the path of evolution requires a viable parent before viable offspring
can be produced. Improvement can be obtained only from the genes already
present in the parents. Nature's way of trial and error has been erratic
rather than purposeful, but given enough tries, it has come up with amazing
results (and a lot of unused genetic garbage in each species' genome).
By contrast, genetic engineering brings purpose in the evolutionary process,
while speeding it up considerably. It can make offspring with genes not
originating from its parents, but the offspring must still be viable. The
promises of GE are almost unlimited, and here are some:
productivity: further advances are expected in productivity, by
using less water, less fertiliser, while producing less woody substances,
growing faster and producing heavier fruits and seeds. Advantages are obvious.
disease resitance: disease resistance from other plants can now
be transferred to important crops, resulting in less use of biochemicals,
which is of considerable benefit to the environment.
herbicide resistance: resistance to certain chemical weed killers
allows farmers to do away with ploughing and discing for weed control,
resulting in considerable benefit to the quality of the soil.
self-fertilising: successful crops have symbiontic bacteria in their
roots, which produce nitrogen fertiliser from air. Such properties are
transferable by GE, resulting in reduced use of fertilisers, and thus reduced
nutrient runoff, and reduced costs, while also improving soil quality.
shorter season: crops can be made to flower and to seed sooner,
shortening the required season of warm, moist weather. It allows farmers
to have more predictable harvests, and would make more regions suitable
salt resistance: plants do not need salt, but suffer from an excess
of it. Repeated irrigation in dry lands, has resulted in the soil becoming
too salty for ordinary crops. But GE can make crops more tolerant, such
that abandoned lands may become productive again. However, in the end the
salt continues to accumulate.
local temperature: crops can be adapted to the temperatures of a
given region, so that nations can become more selfsufficient, while also
reducing transport costs.
cloning: once an organism with all the desired characteristic has
been produced, it can be cloned exactly as it is to produce an unlimited
number of offspring, thereby eliminating the vagaries of sexual reproduction.
integrated pest management (IPM): not yet a branch of GE, it nonetheless
uses advances made in agritechnology. The idea of IPM is to attack pests
by various means, all at the same time. Some of it is chemical, but most
biological (infertile males, pheromone baits, parasitic wasps, outbreak
monitoring, perfect timing, etc.).
and so on.
The promising advantages of GE are enormous, but so may be its risks. Genetic
material may leak to other species, GE crops may go rampant, etc. It is
not difficult to imagine a doom scenario for each of the advantages listed
above, reason why humanity should proceed with utmost care, and perhaps
refrain from the most risky techniques, at least until their consequences
are better understood. Once the genes of a GE species have mixed with a
natural population, there exists no way of undoing it.
(a separate chapter will be devoted to Genetic Engineering
on this web site)
The boundary effect The size of a reserve is not only important for its biodiversity, sustainability
and resilience. It is also important to minimise the boundary effect, caused
by the transition from one environment into another.
diagram illustrates some aspects of the boundary effect. The green area
is the reserve, surrounded by alien habitat in white. The boundary effect
is shown in light green. It is caused by native species moving out or being
predated upon by exotic species living in the alien habitat, or near its
boundary. At the same time, exotic species move into the reserve to take
up nesting space and so on. Through competition, the characteristics of
the boundary will be different from those within, the pristine core.
As can be seen, the smaller the area, the more of the reserve is occupied
by boundary. Thus large reserves have relatively less boundary area (B).
The worst shape is that of a strip or ribbon (C), yet many reserves, especially
marine reserves following coastlines, are shaped this way. Note that because
the boundary runs along the outside, along the largest diameter, it will
always be a large area.
It is commonly thought that two adjacent reserves can be joined to
become one big one, by means of a wildlife corridor. However, if such a
corridor is a narrow strip, it will be dominated by the boundary effect,
resulting in a possible drain to both reserves. Wildlife will stray into
the corridor, where predators will wait for it.
boundary effect, particularly relevant to marine reserves, is that of fish
spilling over to the unprotected, outside area. Fishing will always occur
at the boundaries of such reserves, because of it. The classical approach
is that of creating a ribbon reserve around a highly diverse habitat such
as a rocky shore (A). By placing the reserve boundary across the protected
habitat, fish will spill out and get caught. The reason for this happening
is that fish are continually competing for territories. Fish caught in
the unprotected part of the rock habitat, leave empty territories behind.
Fish from the protected habitat will move into these, because they do not
know about reserve boundaries. Fish deeper into the reserve find adjacent
territories unoccupied, and they move closer to the reserve's boundary,
and so on. The result is an unexpectedly large drain from the protected
By contrast, if the boundary is placed across a different habitat (B),
fish of the rocky habitat will be restrained naturally. They won't move
into the sandy habitat, but they may forage there. As a result, the spilling
over is reduced quite considerably. It follows that the placement of reserve
boundaries is critical to a reserve's success, and should be chosen with
care. Political compromises can do great harm.