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  • Antonia Leckie

What is Conservation



What is conservation? So many people have literally dedicated their lives towards this, so what does conservation actually mean?

The rather romantic definition from National Geographic is “the act of protecting Earth’s natural resources for current and future generations.”

I quite like this as natural resources includes everything that we use, however, it is not entirely clear to me exactly what we are protecting the earth from nor how on earth we should actually undertake conservation!

When and where did conservation start? This is a difficult one… people and wildlife co-evolved in what was a well -balanced co-existence So perhaps conservation is something we have been doing for longer than we realise.

But then there was a game-changer… we discovered fire and tools. These rudimentary technologies enabled us to harvest more natural resources and live longer; adapting the land for farming and staying in one place rather than passing on as nomad hunter-gatherers. The increase in the human population as a result of this safer existence and better nutrition gave us the chance to spread further around the globe (if you haven’t read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari please do). The agricultural and industrial revolutions in the western world accelerated the impact on our environment.

In 1890 The Conservation Movement was started in America by naturalists collecting specimens. These naturalists realised that species were decreasing and it was probably at this point that people began to realise the value of wild spaces. America led the conservation movement.

Why Conserve? Why bother?

This is an important question to reflect on. Here are some off the top of my head but I will focus on this question in a future post.

-Extinction rates

-Destruction of Biodiversity

-Responsibility: we broke it so we should fix it

-Animals rights to life

-Economic value/ natural capital

-We need to eat

-Prevention of catastrophic natural disasters

-human health


As a Conservation Biologist, I also want to address the crucial combination of research and conservation management to form Conservation Biology. When did we start researching what was happening on our planet and use that research to inform conservation? Well, the term ‘conservation biology’ was developed in California in 1978 at a conference led by the American biologist's Bruce A. Wilcox and Michael E. Soulé. More on this another time!

Conservation spread out from America through the colonial era of western civilisations who were busy drawing lines on dirt and randomly dividing nations and peoples. Conservation was inevitably implemented by colonials in way that was unsustainable, now described as in situ fortress conservation.

The creation of protected areas for terrestrial or marine wildlife by the coerced displacement or exclusion of the existing inhabitants. People may be evicted, their land may be seized, and customary rights to water, fishing, hunting, and resources may be curtailed” Oxford Dictionary Reference

This is completely unsustainable. As “protected areas” expanded by 80% between 1970 and 1985 more and more local communities were evicted from their homes. As people were removed and restricted from using natural resources their human rights were also stripped. This happened around the world but it is important to check out some examples here.

The violation of human rights was shocking gigantic and abhorrent ...but being a conservation biologist, not a human rights lawyer, I will stick with the conservation issues. If you exclude local people from conservation activities you also remove the local custodians of wildlife; you remove the connection to nature, isolate and vilify the local population, you remove peoples sustained incomes and finally and most damningly you assign a lower to the people who live with wildlife than you do to the wildlife itself.

For a more detailed example of how fortress conservation is a failed model check out this link as an example “In 2016, RFUK published a report, Protected Areas in the Congo Basin: Failing Both People and Biodiversity. Our research-based on a sample of 34 protected areas across the Congo Basin – reveals that biodiversity in the region continues to decline, conflicts and human rights abuses are widespread, and the livelihoods of many local people severely compromised.”

The world has developed, African nations are politically independent (at least on the surface) and local populations are being led by local people who have realised their worth. Africans are conservation biologists with voices. For example, Wangari Maathai the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner who described the need for education and ownership of African conservation by Africans has said

You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”

Sustainable conservation has to be based on a holistic approach encompassing the environment, society and economy. We can no longer exclude the environment from social and economic functions such as agriculture and industry. We have to enable these processes to coexist in a single space that protects both people AND biodiversity. As this approach spreads, so too does its support, measurement and research. If local populations remain connected to wildlife they will become invested in protecting biodiversity both financially and through resource allocation (Evidence here!).


So what do we need to do in order to know that Sustainable Conservation is working at a social level; I am a scientist at heart and so my answer is that we need to measure it! A group of social scientists (a growing field in conservation) set out the key social indicators that can be used to grasp how ecosystem management affects human life through well-being, values, agency and inequality. These can describe what exists while also helping us set sustainable goals.

We must shift towards a more sustainable form of conservation and take down the walls of fortress conservation worldwide. 80% of our planet’s remaining biodiversity is on indigenous lands where some of the poorest and most marginalised communities live. So let’s empower local communities to protect the land they live on and the wildlife they live with. Let’s promote Grassroot projects and Community-based Conservation.

Let’s reword the definition to “Conservation is the act of protecting Earth’s natural resources from exploitation through a sustainable approach for current and future generations.”


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