It's become commonplace to state that the world is in the midst of a mass extinction event. And there is no doubt about the cause. Unlike previous mass extinction events, like the cretaceous extinction event that saw most dinosaurs disappear, the current extinction event is not caused by a geological or astrological event. Rather, the current extinction event is caused by a single species, humans. Through habitat destruction, wildlife harvesting, pollution, and the introduction of pest species to other regions, the current extinction rate is 100 to 1000 times higher than it should normally be. We often think of human legacy in terms of art or architecture, but a permanent scar in the biological record of the Earth is our greatest legacy.
Of course many people and some governments are very concerned about our impact, and have committed to try to conserve elements of the remaining natural world. How best to do this is largely influenced by conservation biology, a field of research and applied management that includes biology, economics, and sociology, amongst others. There are many debates within conservation biology, and a big one is about how much to involve people, and their activities, in conservation areas versus attempting to completely exclude people from protected areas.
Two conservation conversations have explored this dichotomy in meaningful ways. First is a recent paper by Elena Bennett (Bennett 2017), who argues that strategies for environment and conservation protection needs to take a human-first approach and focus on human well-being. The second is a talk I saw from Daniel Janzen the other day. Janzen is a world-renowned ecologist and has dedicated his life to conservation in Costa Rica for the past 30 years. This debate was central to his talk about the conservation successes at the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG), where Janzen developed and implemented a conservation philosophy that included local people in the managing and research in the conservation area. Before Janzen, the Park relied on the traditional approach of excluding people to protect nature and it was failing. Janzen’s approach has been immensely successful, and the Park is now considered a conservation success story.
|People can be convinced to appreciate biodiversity around|
-if it provides a benefit. (photo by M. Cadotte)
The human-nature story is one that is about a continual 30,000 year retreat. All of our successes -our population growth, our art, our medicine, have all come at the expense of nature. Anywhere on Earth where there are humans, there are losses. Habitat alteration and destruction, and species extinctions are the defining feature of our presence. This legacy has permanently altered the biology of our planet.
Why is this important? Because we really don’t care. We don’t miss wholly mammoths in northern Europe. We don’t miss giant sloths in California. We don’t miss black bears in downtown Toronto. We don’t miss lions in Cape Town. The definition and acceptance of nature for most people is not influenced by what is not there, but rather the critters we are familiar with and are willing to accept. Big mammals simply have no place in human dominated landscapes and we don’t bemoan their absences.
|Can human-first conservation protect jaguars?|
(Photo from wikipedia)
Human-first conservation strategies work simply because we accept a less valuable system as acceptable and perhaps normal because of our shifting baselines. Would a human-first conservation strategy work in Costa Rica’s ACG if there was a huge jaguar population that was attacking livestock? Not likely.
The United States government spends billions on national parks to conserve nature (among other things), but if it was up to ranchers living near Yellowstone, for example, all the top predators will be exterminated. Hunters and ranchers in Germany are similarly up in arms (literally) over the re-appearance of wolves and lynx in restored forests within Germany’s borders. Some there consider the extermination of large predators a commendable feat of an advanced society.
The point is that we like the nature we know, and the nature that is not likely to kill us. People are most often invested, familiar, and willing to conserve nature around them, which already works for them.
Costa Rica’s ACG human-first conservation works in certain contexts. It gets people involved, it protects certain facets of nature, and it has a high likelihood of long-term success. If this is the model for a successful conservation philosophy, then we must accept that not all of nature can be protected. In all likelihood, many large mammals will go extinct in my childrens’ lifetime, regardless of how well we do conservation. So perhaps, moving forward with the human-first strategy is the best option, but a part of me hopes that there is a place for real nature in our world. The rest of me knows that there isn’t.
Bennett, E. M. 2017. Changing the agriculture and environment conversation. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1:0018.