Changing perceptions in conservation

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With growing pressures on biodiversity, conservation is too often seen as a crisis discipline. Mike Hoffmann, Head of Global Conservation Programmes at ZSL, argues that we need to shift the dial on this view. Despite the doom and gloom, there's much to be upbeat about and ZSL is celebrating positive thinking in conservation with the Conservation Optimism Summit

Conservation Optimism

In 2010, world leaders committed to achieving 20 biodiversity-related “Aichi Targets” within a decade. Sadly, in 2014 at roughly the half-way mark, a rather sobering, and familiar, picture was already evident. Yes, there were some signs of things heading in the right direction, but unfortunately there were also signs of growing pressures on biodiversity. In other words, despite an increase in conservation interventions, all indications point to the overall state of biodiversity steadily deteriorating. 

This narrative seems to play itself out in the news on a daily basis, whether it be woeful stories about the plight of giraffes or cheetahs, or news about companies or governments going back on their pledges. Let’s be clear: in most cases, this is an accurate portrayal of the reality that we as a society are faced with, and we do not stand to gain from making light of it. However, the concern is that the conservation community has done such a good job at creating an impression of all-impending doom that maybe civil society now wonders what, if anything, they or anyone can do about it. 

Herd of giraffes in Kenya
The giraffe has been assessed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

This month, a global effort aims to try and shift the dial on this world view. Rallying behind a banner of Earth Optimism, a series of events around the world culminating in Earth Day on 22nd April aims to celebrate success in conservation and to impart a message of hope that the situation is not irreversible. As part of these efforts, ZSL, together with the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science (ICCS) at the University of Oxford and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, is co-hosting the Conservation Optimism Summit to celebrate positive thinking. 

And there is much to be positive about. The world population of several species of Asian vultures, for example, have declined, in some cases by more than 90%. Grim stuff. But conservationists quickly figured out the cause of the declines – a veterinary anti-inflammatory drug administered to cows, which caused rapid kidney failure in birds feeding on drug-contaminated carcases. A ban on the use of the drug was instituted, and captive breeding centres and vulture restaurants established. Populations now seem to be slowly recovering, but let’s imagine for a second that none of these interventions had been put in place? It’s not impossible that vultures could now be all but extinct from across most of Asia. 

Populations of Asian vultures seem to be slowly recovering

Estimating the true impact of our actions requires understanding what the situation would look like if there had been no conservation efforts at all, and, usually, the situation would be a lot, lot worse.

Just how much worse is the big question. Some years ago, BirdLife International undertook a pioneering study to try and understand how many Critically Endangered bird species would have gone extinct over a 10-year period if conservation actions that had been put in place for them had been removed. They determined that 16 bird species, including major conservation success stories like the iconic California Condor and Crested Ibis, would have gone extinct; a further four would be extinct in the wild and survive only in captivity. The same holds true for many other species.

Of course, conservation works not only to avoid extinctions, but to avoid declines in general – it helps keep common species common. Crucially, it works to drive recoveries, even when species are at perilously low numbers. Mauritius Kestrel, for example, numbered only four birds in the mid-1970s, but then staged a dramatic recovery to a population of several hundred individuals today, thanks to dedicated conservation efforts. Similarly, the entire population of more than 1,500 free-ranging European Bison surviving today are descended from only 12 founder individuals, a remarkable conservation success story owing to captive breeding, reintroductions and intensive management.

A defining feature of these success stories is longevity. Even then, there can usually be no room for complacency as many populations remain conservation dependent. One of the most successful population recoveries of all time, the Southern White Rhinoceros, saw an increase from perhaps fewer than 200 individuals around the turn of the last century to ~20,000 today. More than a century on, immense pressures on populations remain, especially due to the high demand for rhino horn, and any cessation in conservation activities would surely precipitate a steep decline in numbers. 

So, yes, the overall message is that biodiversity is in decline worldwide, but without the efforts of conservation activities, these trends very likely would be considerably worse, perhaps by as much as an order of magnitude! So why aren’t we succeeding in reversing current trends? First, conservation action needs to be scaled up – dramatically. By one estimate, for example, an annual investment of roughly US$80 billion is needed to safeguard nature adequately and meet those aforementioned internationally agreed targets. But we also need to look at how to harness new technologies, ideas and innovative approaches to help us be more efficient and effective and to drive new investment in conservation efforts. 

Conservationists can be reluctant to champion success, sometimes worrying that donors might see success as an excuse to allocate valuable funding to crisis situations elsewhere. We need to do more to embrace our victories and use these to incentivize others. In 2012, members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, including ZSL, agreed to establish “Green List” categories and criteria to assess the positive impact of conservation actions. Envisioned as part of the IUCN Red List, the idea is to begin showcasing recoveries and avoided losses. 

Two oryx, one who has left enclosure, one who hasn't yet
A ground-breaking initiative has reintroduced the scimitar-horned oryx to its historical range in Chad

As conservationists mount a last-ditch effort to save the vaquita in the Gulf of Mexico, as scimitar-horned oryx make their way back to Chad, as New Zealand’s Kakapo and Takahe both enjoy outstanding breeding success, and as promising trials in Tasmania suggest we may, possibly, have a means of combatting the effects of Devil Facial Tumour Disease in Tasmanian Devils, there is much to be optimistic about. There’s no room for complacency, mind you, but let’s savour hard-fought victories and start telling the world that we can make a difference.

Find out more about the Conservation Optimism Summit 

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