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1.0: Prelude to What is Conservation Biology?

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  • Popular interest in protecting biological diversity—which describes the amazing range of species, genetic diversity within each species, and the multitude of Earth’s complex biological communities with their associated ecosystem processes—has intensified during the past few decades. During this time, scientists and the public have recognized that biological diversity (often shortened to biodiversity) is being lost at increasing rates. Across the world, human activities are destroying ecological communities that have developed over millions of years. Over the next several decades, thousands of species and millions of populations will likely go extinct.

    East Africa’s great migration is one of the most famous wildlife spectacles on Earth. Each year, tens of thousands of tourists from around the world flock to the region to see the 1.7 million common wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus, LC) and hundreds of thousands of other plains mammals make their way from Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area, through the Serengeti Plains, to Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. Photograph by Daniel Rosengren,,_Tanzania.jpg, CC BY 4.0.

    The fundamental driver of all the biodiversity losses we are currently witnessing is a rapidly expanding human population coupled with increased consumptive needs. In 1850, after roughly 300,000 years of Homo sapiens on the planet, there were around 1 billion people on Earth. By 1987, not even 140 years later, the world’s human population had surpassed 5 billion. By 2017, there were 7.5 billion humans globally, of which over 1 billion lived in Sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank, 2019). With this many people, the human population grows by tens of millions of people each year, even with modest population growth (Figure 1.1). To make matters worse, Sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest population growth rate in the world, with a projected human population estimate of over 4 billion people by the year 2100—a number that is well beyond the ecological capacity of the region to support.

    Figure 1.1 Sub-Saharan Africa’s human population crossed the 1 billion mark in 2015. At the current annual population growth rate of 2.7%, more than 28 million people will be added to the region in 2019. This number will escalate each subsequent year as increases are compounded. Sources: Biraben, 2003; World Bank, 2019, CC BY 4.0.

    To survive and prosper, people use natural resources. They harvest and use oil, water, and wildlife products, and convert natural ecosystems for agriculture, cities, roads, and industrial activities. This consumption, which reduces natural habitat and the associated wildlife populations, is intensifying because of the demands of a rapidly increasing human population. Consumption of resources also increases as countries develop and industrialize: the average citizen of the USA uses five times more resources than the average global citizen, 11 times more than the average Chinese citizen, and 32 times more than the average Kenyan citizen (Worldwatch Institute, 2015). This growth in the number of humans, together with their ever-more-intensive use of natural resources, is the fundamental driver behind most current species extinctions.

    For conservation biologists and other nature lovers, the widespread extinction of species and destruction of natural ecosystems are incredibly discouraging.

    For conservation biologists and other nature lovers, the widespread extinctions of species and destruction of natural ecosystems are incredibly discouraging. Perhaps nowhere in the world is this issue as dramatic as in Africa with its rich and spectacular wildlife, but also its significant socio-economic challenges, such as a rapidly increasing human population, persistent poverty, weak governance structures, and many people’s near-obligate dependence on natural resources. Many Africans are also confused by the importance and need for conservation actions, pointing to the romanticised but inaccurate notion that humans have been living in relative harmony with nature since humans first made an appearance on Earth (see Box 8.1). But it is possible, and indeed necessary, to find ways to ensure the persistence of biodiversity. Actions taken, or not taken, during the next few decades will determine how many species and natural areas will continue to survive. Someday, people will likely look back and say that this time—the first half of the 21st century—was an important and exciting time when people worked together, and acted locally and globally, to prevent the extinction of many species and ecosystems. Examples of successful conservation efforts are described throughout this textbook.

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