Conservation principles 3

by Dr J Floor Anthoni (2001)
protecting a species To protect a species, a high degree of knowledge is required. Special species.
protecting a spot A unique spot is worth conserving because there are very few like it. A unique spot may have been caused by a coincidence of chance. Good spots are worth saving. Bad spots much less so. 
protecting a habitat Within a habitat live many species in a working relationship. By saving a habitat, a working unit containing many species is saved. Such units are more resilient than species alone. 
spiritual dimension Doing something for the environment is not only very necessary but also immensely satisfying, because you know that it is not easy, and that it is for someone else, perhaps your own children. Conservation lives only in the mind.
conservation practice The main things to do are: setting aside what is unused; preventing and removing threats; mitigating and fixing problems.
various countries The situation in various countries illustrates their differences and difficulties. Afghanistan, America, Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand.
for further study
sitemap: our site map gives you immediate access to all articles on this site. (11p)
biodiversity: what is biodiversity? How to understand biodiversity and what is not biodiversity. (32p)
resource management: all conservation begins by understanding resource management first. (28p)
marine conservation: the sea is so different from the land that it requires special understanding. (34p)
marine degradation: whatever we do wrong on the land, threatens the sea. (30p)
soil: our most important renewable resource we are losing fastest. What can we do? (large)
disappearing beaches: we are losing our beaches but few know why, as we do the wrong things. (53p)
science, technology and human nature: if you think we can save ourselves, think again. (35p)
global threats to people and environment: a summary of the threats to ourselves and others. Ouch! (20p)
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Protecting a species

When a known species suddenly declines, people are confronted with the decision to let extinction follow, or to attempt to save the species. Resources are needed to do so, and these must come from the public purse. Thus public awareness and political support are needed. A cute species in a rich country thus stands a much better chance than a harmful species in a poor country.
Thelwell cartoon: protected speciesThere is no system in place for detecting when a species needs extra care. It is usually detected by accident, and appropriate action may not follow until years later. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) keeps a record of threatened species, based on their known numbers (See Red Data Book for NZ, which also shows the classification of endangeredness). Some niche species have always been present in low numbers, which should not necessarily be alarming. An alarm should be triggered when species decline, however, most native species are in decline due to loss of habitat or predation (see the article on biodiversity).

When attempting to salvage a single species in the presence of the conditions that caused their decline, a large number of questions must be answered in detail:

Once these questions have been answerred satisfactorily, which takes a considerable amount of research, appropriate measures can be put in place (see conservation tools above)

Conservationists recognise a number of species by their role in conservation:

f004933: Sea cucumber cleaning sponges
f004933: A sea cucumber (Stichopus mollis) cleaning an orange finger sponge. With ten sticky mops in its mouth, it cleans sediment from the bottom and from encrusting animals like these sponges. Thus it helps to keep the sponges clean, enabling them to survive in a degrading habitat. One can clearly see where the sea cucumber has been. It is of critical importance to this habitat.
f000832: Parore cleaning featherweed
f000832: A parore (Girella tricuspidata) grazing the fine green algae off the coarser featherweed (Carpophyllum plumosum). In doing so, it prevents the seaweed from being covered all over with algae, which would shade it out. Unable to grow, the featherweed then dies. The parore provides a cleaning service to coastal reefs. Where it is caught in gillnets for baiting crayfish pots, the environment degrades.


Protecting a unique spot

We can recognise a special place intuitively, without knowing exactly why, and many places have been reserved for various different reasons, such as for their view, scenic, recreational values and so on. If one were placed before the choice of reserving for one's children the best, the worst, or the average, what would one choose? Most people would opt for the best, and so it should be. Those places are also rarest.
Nofziger cartoon: protecting a unique spot
On land, the best spots have been used first for farming (cropland), then for living on (cities). They have disappeared, but in the sea, we still have that choice (see the article on marine conservation). Places with high species diversity are called hot spots. They have high value for nature. When such places are close to where people live, they have a high value for people as well.
In order to propose a special place for protection, one must know a few things such as: Examples of special places are:


Protecting a habitat

By protecting a habitat, all species within it, are protected too, as a functional unit. By preserving a representative sample of all habitats in all regions, one can offer some protection to a large number of species, without even knowing that they exist. Habitat protection in this way, requires the least amount of information.

cartoon: is feeding in parks beneficial?On land, one is left with very few choices, since most valuable habitat has already been used by people. Conservation then consists of using wisely, what has been left for nature. However, in the sea, many habitats have not been changed to such extent. The problem here is that everything under water is hidden from view, and that our knowledge of the sea is far from complete. One could question therefore, whether people would be better able to choose a representative sample habitat than one chosen at random, by the throwing of dice, so to speak. However, as has been illustrated above, what we know of ecosystems, habitats, communities and populations, can be used to improve the quality of any (marine) reserve.

Scientists have made the following distinction in the quality of a habitat for a given species:

This distinction again underlines the importance of high quality living conditions for juveniles. The first year from egg to larva to recruit (1 year old) is the most vulnerable period for marine species. The first year is also the most vulnerable for most other terrestrial species, including plants.

Ideally, one would like to be able to measure the value of living biota to arrive at some objective conservation value. Areas with high conservation value then have high priority for being preserved. The following formula has been suggested:

High Conservation Value  HCV= biota value x vulnerability
As one can see, it consists of two factors which are not only difficult to measure, but are also open to interpretation.
Conservation areas could also be chosen according to nature's own criteria for resilience, and thus their chance of success. Nature achieves resilience by growth + reproduction (overcapacity), variety and connectedness (functioning). For a species this would translate to fecundity, genetic variety and interacting individuals or groups. For an area it would translate to size, variety of habitats and being connected or networked.

Land reserves benefit most from being large and interconnected so that animals can meet for mating. Plants benefit from having a large area for the propagation of their seeds (seeds in cultivated lands are not successful). On the land, genes can travel only physically with the individuals or carried as seeds by animals. In the sea, this is somewhat different, because nearly all marine plants and animals produce larvae which take part in the plankton for a few days to months of their lives. In the process, they become dispersed far afield by ocean currents, carrying their genetic diversity with them (the thistledown effect).

Note! Be suspicious of the word Network. It is being overused, and often out of context. Check whether connection is present and the interchange of genetic information.


The spiritual dimension

People are both the cause of our problems and our hope for solving them. Either way, they also affect the lives of other people. So the human dimension of conservation is large. People are not just motivated by balancing prices and costs, benefits and liabilities, profits and losses. They are also motivated by values that cannot be measured - spiritual values. 
cartoon: how people behave in natureThese values shed an entirely different light on the act of conservation, making use of the most noble character traits by which people wish to be distinguished from animals.
Conservation lives only in our minds
Conservation is an abstract concept aimed at changing people's behaviour or the side effects of their behaviour. The animals and plants in question are unaware of it. It stands to reason therefore, to say that conservation lives only in our minds.
Take a marine reserve, for instance. We must first agree to have one, and where, and how large, and what rules apply inside. It is then created and marked in the sea and on charts, which are then published. Signs are erected to inform people of the fact. It constitutes a long line of action.

Now a fisherman arrives at the reserve. For the reserve to work, he must become aware by reading a sign (he must be told), then he must understand what not to do. Then he must agree and finally, he must actually do it. As one can see, a very long chain of most unlikely events. It makes a conservation area very sensitive to failure, particularly when a few can spoil it for so many. It takes just one fisherman, one day, to wipe out a substantial stock of old fish. As reserves do become successful, their stocks increase, and so does the temptation for poaching.
In my lectures to children, I liken the reserve concept to a bank note, asking why this piece of paper is worth five dollar. Children (and parents) come up with acceptable answers, like its special form and paper, but nobody guesses that it is our belief that makes it worth five dollar. I show that it is paper by sequentially ripping bits from the bank note. Paper tears. Paper also burns, and half the bank note goes up in flames. What do I have now? Everybody is in turmoil for burning the note (a belief has been challenged or shattered) and in confusion about the question, but nobody is keen to give me $2.50 for half the note. Eventually we agree that half a note is worth nothing. But this does not make sense, logically speaking. Eventually the reality of our belief sinks in. We do not believe that a half-burnt banknote retains half its value or its whole value. Our belief has been shattered.
A (marine) protected area works likewise. Half a reserve is no reserve. We can't have half the people going there to fish, whereas the other half wants to observe the fish and be friendly to them. It takes only one disbeliever to damage the reserve considerably. It shows how fragile a conservation area really is.
But the good news is that like the banknote, its value lives in our minds, and as long as we all believe in it, it will be real. The reserve lives only in our minds, and since it lives inside each and everyone of us, it has become portable. We are walking around with the fertile conservation concept in our minds, able to apply it to every situation that may arise, anywhere, anytime. How powerful!

(Invariably, children then ask me whether I always burn banknotes, and why. Then I tell them that it is worth every cent to me, that is $5 divided by the number of children and parents, if they remember the lesson.) 

To Study is to Learn...   To Learn is to Understand... To Understand is to Appreciate...  To Appreciate is to Value... To Value is to Save


Conservation practice

The preceding chapters have sounded the full gamut of conservation, in all its complexity and confusion, which may leave one to wonder what conservation is really all about. From its literal meaning 'to keep as is', one would think that setting aside unused parts of the planet, would suffice. But in the meantime we have learnt that by setting aside 5%, we will most likely lose 25% of our biodiversity.
What is worse, in the places set aside, our introduced pests will roam around, creating further havoc. The changing climate brings another aspect of uncontrolled change. So, just standing back may not be good enough. We need to be proactive too.

Others remind us that we are living in a changing world. Why would we want to preserve its previous state? Why would we wish to live in the past? We can't go back, because everything has changed, and even going back would change it further. Why not move on and incur some losses along the way? People are not only talking about natural and human habitat conservation & restoration, but also about the conservation & restoration of culture and language. When is conservation just obstruction of progress, and when is it not? What is conservation and what is it not? What deserves conservation and what not? Fortunately, concerned people have recognised the changes that are neither beneficial to us nor to the natural world around us. They have recognised the threats, as these manifested themselves one by one, and these conservationists have done something practical that helped. Apparently, conservation can be done with common sense. The following ways of conserving may help us identify practical approaches:

Conservation =
  • setting aside what is unused: even before problems arise, one can set aside a part which is still unused. Future generations may then be able to decide wisely what to do next. This kind of conservation requires vision, but has the highest chance of success because it works preventatively.
  • taking threats away: problems have occurred, and are recognised as such. Human activity (proactive conservation) is needed to take the threats away in the designated conservation areas. Reserves are meant to save species. If threats remain, reserves are ineffective, regardless of size. A wilderness area may be set aside to save it from logging and burning (habitat loss). But hunting, collecting and poaching must also be stopped. Introduced pests must be exterminated too. Local communities must be engaged to play a role. This level of conservation has a good chance of succeeding, as long as the protected areas are large enough, and sufficient resources available.
  • reducing damage and fixing problems: nothing is set aside, but human actions are modified to reduce damage. The idea is that nature can absorb and repair some damage. As long as humans do not exceed the limits, business can continue as usual. However, both human activity and human population are still increasing, requiring the fixes to become more and more effective. These fixes have a low chance of success, but should be attempted anyway.
  • It is interesting to note at this point that there exists a great deal of difference between terrestrial and marine conservation. Terrestrial conservation is characterised by extensive human intervention, requiring a wide range of skills: Marine conservation is quite different  in that most marine habitat has not been altered substantially, so that there is a vast choice of possible protected areas. These have a fair chance of recovering. Fencing and boundary control are impossible. The sea being very connected by currents, makes interference with natural populations and fighting pests impractical. One would thus think that the method of 'leaving alone' would suffice, but this is not true for many coastal areas. See the next chapter on marine conservation.

    Dik Browne Cartoon: where conservation fails


    A look at different countries

    Nature differs considerably from place to place across the world. Nations differ in their level of development, and by how much of their natural habitat has been cultivated. Populations differ enormously in relationship to the carrying capacity of their lands. As a result, the approach to conservation differs from country to country.

    By the 1990s there were about 1500 national parks in the world, protecting about 3.9 million km2 in over 120 countries, amounting to 2.6% of the terrestrial world (149 million km2). The United Nations World Network of Biosphere Reserves now consists of 411 sites in 94 countries. The emphasis of the network is on maximizing the harmony and concord between conserving unique natural environments and human populations.

    Afghanistan:  652,090km2, population (1998) 23,731,000, grew with 9 million in 20 years; density 36 people per km2. It is a country of great mountains, scorching deserts, fertile valleys, and rolling plains. Afghanistan is one of the world's least developed countries (80% rural) but most overpopulated. The fundamental Sunni muslim religion prohibits education, and most are illiterate. The country has rich mineral resources which have not been developed. Located between tall mountain ranges, the area receives 50-350mm of rain annually. Droughts of recent years have caused 5 million people to depend on foreign help for food. 3-4 million people have fled the country for neighbouring Pakistan, for reasons of famine and war. Located far away from the sea, the rain over Afghanistan depends on the moisture evaporated by the cultivated lands of Iran and Pakistan. As a result, it suffers from increasing droughts. As its population increases at maximal rates (religion prohibits birth control), the nation has outgrown its carrying capacity, facing a grim future. Soils and natural vegetation are vanishing rapidly. There are no resources and intentions for conservation.

    America:  Area 9,363,563 km2; population (1998) 270 million (25% rural). Population density 29 people per km2. The USA is the most deveopled nation in the world, and one of the largest as well. It spans many climate zones. The USA has a Wilderness Preservation System, comprising 643 areas, or 106 million acres, which amounts to less than 5% of all US land. If the remaining 95% is allowed to be changed for human use, it could give rise to a loss of 20% of all living species. Biological hotspots like Hawaii have suffered a disproportionately high species decline due to introduced species and habitat destruction.
    Erosion of land is very high in the USA, resulting in severe threat to coastal ecosystems. South of the Mississippi River, very large Dead Zones now exist. The quality of the seawater along most beaches is so poor that they need to be closed frequently. The tropical reefs of the Florida Keys are under severe threat.

    Australia:  Area 7,713,364 km2, including 67,800 km2 for Tasmania. Popuation (1998) 18,758,000 (15% rural). Population density 2 people per km2. Australia is the only country that is also a continent. It is a dry, thinly populated land with a huge central desert, surrounded by semidesert zone. Australia's wildlife includes many species of pouched animals called marsupials. It is one of the few nations left, with a lot of unclaimed habitat. Its terrestrial conservation policy is to reserve a minimum of 5% of the land for plant and animal life, including areas containing every kind of plant variety found in Australia.  The Australian National Park and Wildlife Service, set up in 1975, helps to maintain the areas controlled by the federal government and to select key Australian landscapes and ecosystems to be conserved.
    Australia pursues an active policy on marine conservation with many proposed Marine Protected Areas. However, the great Barrier Reef, for a long time held as a World Heritage Park because of its uniqueness, is now under severe threat from land erosion. As rains have become heavier in recent years, the mud plumes from rivers now extend their deposits to the outer edges of the reef. The low water quality along most of Australia's coast is threatening marine life.

    The Netherlands:  Area 41,447 km2. Population (1998) 15,760,000 (39% rural! Over 70% employed in service industries!). Population density 464 people per km2. Holland is a very densely populated, small, flat land with beautifully kept dwellings, public buildings, gardens and parks. In order to gain more land, the Dutch have reclaimed lakes and margins from the sea (polders). Nearly half the land lies below sea level. Holland enjoys a moist sea climate with rain in all seasons, amounting to 630-750mm per year. The Dutch are an advanced and tolerating society, well educated and enjoying a high standard of living. The Dutch have always been a seafaring nation, with overseas colonies, and active participation in whaling and fishing, which brought them welfare. Since the discovery of large natural gas reserves, Holland has made the transition to a welfare society with a knowledge economy, which may not be sustainable in the future. Although highly industrialised with clean industries, Holland is not self-sufficient in food and products, and imports these from countries with pollluting industries and agriculture with degrading soils. Holland has in this manner been spared from those kinds of pollution. However, environmental problems are experienced from dairy farming and piggeries, while intensive horticulture has taken its share. The parks and reserves in Holland are well kept and traversed with tracks for eco-friendly bicycles. However, they are no longer naturally pristine. Holland spends a fortune on making cities livable, and nature parks and wetlands effective. It has no nature parks of world stature.

    New Zealand: Area  270,534 km2 (North Island 115,777 km2; South Island 151,215 km2). Population 3,683,000 (15% rural). Population density 14 people per km2. New Zealand is a beautiful country of snow-capped mountains, green lowlands, beaches, and many lakes and waterfalls.  No place is more than 130 kilometres from the coast, and in few places are mountains or hills out of view. Rain falls in each season at 400-1200mm, and in Fiordland up to 6000mm annually.
    New Zealand's 10 national parks, which cover nearly 8 per cent of the country, come under a National Parks Authority, set up in 1952.  New Zealand also has nearly a thousand areas reserved for their qualities of scenic interest.
    New Zealand has a very large area of Exclusive Economic Zone (), which makes it fourth largest in the world. New Zealand's marine conservation strategy is to create a network of marine reserves representing all habitats in all regions. It aims to cover 10% of its seas. After 25 years of active marine conservation, less than 1% of its territorial seas (out to 13km) have been set aside. No areas in its EEZ have so far been set aside.

    Note that most nations are prepared to lose 95% of their natural habitats, which may eventually lead to over 20% of species to go extinct.

    What is the purpose of conservation when others in our country are breeding like rabbits while our Government lets in streams of immigrants?
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