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1.2: The Role of Conservation Biologists

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  • While there are a few extinctions that have only one cause, more generally, extinctions occur because several factors acted simultaneously and/or sequentially. Blaming a certain industry or specific group of people for an extinction (or other biodiversity loss) is thus simplistic, ineffective, and often counter-productive. Though challenging, a better approach would be to better understand how local, national, and international links led to those losses, and to find viable alternatives to prevent it from happening again. To succeed in this challenge, conservation biologists should strongly consider taking on one or more of several roles:

    • Conservation biologists should be curious. The world around us is full of natural wonders waiting to be discovered. These discoveries underpin conservation action, by allowing us to define all the different components of biodiversity, enabling us to better understand the needs of different species, and providing us with opportunities to celebrate our conservation successes.
    • Conservation biologists must be good listeners. Sometimes, the only difference between attracting a new ally and making an enemy, or between developing a landscape and saving a species from extinction, is the way we communicate. Conservationists must be careful and respectful listeners, especially to opposing perspectives. Careful listening is particularly important in rural areas, where villagers often have practical concerns related to their daily contact with wildlife, such as staying safe and preventing crop damage and livestock loss. Quite often, those villagers may also have unique insights into wildlife ecology that could prove valuable in local conservation measures.
    • Conservation biologists must be law-abiding citizens. Activities that involve wildlife and ecosystems are regulated by laws and regulations. These laws are important because ethical boundaries differ from person to person—activities acceptable to one group of people may be considered harmful by another. As conservation biologists, abiding by environmental laws is especially important if we want others to take those laws seriously.

      Laws are important because ethical boundaries differ from person to person—activities acceptable to one person may be immensely harmful to another.

    • Conservation biologists should become effective communicators. They should be able to discuss the problems facing biodiversity in depth, as well as the consequences of losing biodiversity, to as broad a range of people as possible. Groups like hunters, community leaders and organisers, and church leaders may be interested in participating in conservation efforts once they recognize that their activities, health, and emotional well-being depend on conservation action.
    • Conservation biologists could become politically active leaders, so that they can influence public opinion and policy. As a starting point, those interested in this role can join a conservation organization to learn more about broader issues. They could also use their personal networks to form alliances with lawyers, citizen groups, and politicians.
    • Conservation biologists could become pro-active land managers. Those taking on this task must be willing to walk on the land and go out on the water to find out what is really happening. They should also talk with local people to communicate their knowledge to others in ways that are clear and easily understood.
    • Above all, a conservation biologist must be honest. To encourage effective action, both from the public and through policy, conservationists must present arguments backed by reliable evidence. To do otherwise, conservation biologists could lose credibility, which would very likely delay or even compromise conservation efforts.

    It is worth taking a moment to distinguish between two important pillars of conservation action, namely conservation advocacy and conservation science. Conservation advocacy describes the roles that conservation biologists adopt to guide social, political, and economical systems towards a personally-preferred outcome—adopting environmentally-friendly practices; incorporating these activities makes conservation biology a normative discipline. Conservation science, in contrast, describes activities that conservation biologists undertake to generate knowledge, like objectively describing biodiversity and measuring biodiversity’s response to stressors and safeguards. While conservation advocacy and conservation science often support and inform each other as to the next steps required for “doing conservation”, it is important to distinguish between these two pillars to ensure that policy makers and other stakeholders in the environment understand when we advocate for personal preferences and when we offer objective findings (Rykiel, 2001; Lackey, 2007; Nelson and Vucetich, 2009). The next section will further expand on the importance of science in conservation biology.

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