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1.2: Conservation Biology is Still Evolving

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    As a distinct scientific field, conservation biology is an integrated, multidisciplinary subject that developed in response to the challenge of preserving populations, species, ecosystems, and biological interactions. The main aim of conservation biology is to ensure the long-term preservation of biodiversity. To achieve its aim, conservation biology has set three goals:

    • To document Earth’s biological diversity.
    • To investigate how humans influence species, evolution, and ecosystem processes.
    • To investigate practical approaches to protect and restore biological communities, maintain genetic diversity, and prevent the extinction of species.

    The first two goals describe typical scientific research investigating objective facts. The third goal, however, is a part of what makes conservation biology a normative discipline; that is, conservation biology incorporates human values, not just facts, to understand and achieve its value-laden goals (Lindenmayer and Hunter, 2010). In this sense, conservation biology is related to environmentalism, in which people aim to protect the natural environment for its own sake. However, conservation biology is at its core a scientific discipline; it is founded on scientific principles. This is not to say you must be a scientist to practice conservation biology; there are many people who are not scientists who apply the principles of conservation biology in their professional and personal lives.

    The emergence of conservation biology as a distinct scientific field in the 1970s has given rise to the formation of various formal societies representing the field in a united voice. Most notable among these is the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB, Figure 1.2.1), which is a non-profit international professional organization with a mission to advance “the science and practice of conserving the Earth’s biological diversity”. To facilitate opportunities where like-minded people can share ideas locally, the SCB has regional branches which host regular conferences. In addition to the SCB, a great number of other local, national, and regional conservation organizations also exist and act as mouthpieces for grassroots movements and as custodians of nature. Many of these groups focus on specific animals or local protected areas. Others organically adapt their missions and visions in response to a specific need or threat.

    Figure 1.2.1 The logo of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) has several layers of symbolism. Enclosed in the circle of life are ocean waves, representing change. The bird symbolizes beauty, and the leaves (the bird’s wings) remind us of nature’s productivity. Image courtesy of SCB, all rights reserved.

    Conservation biology also has a history of adapting to new challenges. The very first conservation activities were geared towards securing the rights to valuable natural resources for people in powerful positions, such as kings and tribal chiefs, enforced through a strictly adherence to cultural norms and customary laws. But as a growing human population expanded its influence on the environment, and wildlife started to decline, earliest conservation models gradually shifted towards fortress conservation approaches (Wilshusen et al., 2002) which aimed to shield wildlife from people by setting aside protected areas where human activities were strictly controlled.

    Today, however, as human populations are exploding, and consumption is increasing, even protected areas are increasingly unable to withstand the multitude of threats to biodiversity that ignore property boundaries and political borders. In response, fortress conservation approaches are beginning to make way for large-scale integrated activities that highlight the social and economic benefits of biodiversity conservation. To do this, new alliances are being formed and new agendas are being established, such as those that directly link human health with environmental health (Box 1.2.1). These integrated conservation philosophies that pursue strategies that benefit both humans and biodiversity show much promise because they focus on fundamental extinction drivers, and advocate for more inclusive sustainable development. In this way, the practice of conservation has evolved from just a plan to save the environment to a vision that accomplishes its goals through sustainable development and social justice.

    Yet, as we consider how to best invest limited conservation resources, some difficult questions arise. With seemingly more work to be done than can be accomplished, should we let some species go extinct (Bottrill et al., 2008)? Which species? Who decides? How can we even dare to think that we can play god? Such questions predictably bring about strongly opinionated and emotional debate (Soulé, 2013 vs. Marvier, 2014; Tallis and Lubchenco, 2014). Given the successful track record of fortress conservation initiatives in preventing extinctions despite limited budgets (Young et al., 2014), as well as the promising progress of more complex people-centerd initiatives (Pooley et al., 2014), it seems clear that conservation relies on some balance between these two conservation philosophies (Sodhi et al., 2011). Conservation biologists of tomorrow will be able to fine-tune the balance between these strategies by closely inspecting the successes and failures of our actions today.

    Box 1.2.1 Conservation Through Public Health: A Case Study

    Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

    Conservation Through Public Health, Kampala, Uganda.

    Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) is a grassroots non-governmental organization (NGO) and non-profit that promotes biodiversity conservation by enabling people, wildlife, and livestock to coexist. The organization was founded in 2003 after fatal scabies skin disease outbreaks in mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei, EN) were traced to people living around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, who had limited access to basic health services (Kalema-Zikusoka et al., 2002). Since then, CTPH has contributed to conservation and sustainable development in Africa by improving human and animal health and welfare in and around protected areas.

    One of the main goals of CTPH is to reduce disease transfer between humans and gorillas. We accomplish this through an integrated population, health, and environment (PHE) program that was established in 2007 with funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID). As a first step, piloted around Bwindi, CTPH held consultative meetings with local leaders, during which at least one Village Health and Conservation Team (VHCT) volunteer was selected from each village and two from each parish (consisting of 11 villages) to oversee distribution of family planning supplies. This initiative rapidly expanded into a sustainable social service delivery network that promotes family planning, hygiene, and sanitation. The network resulted in a 20% to 60% (national average is 30%) increase in new users to modern family planning, and a 10% to 60% increase in adoption of hand washing facilities at homes visited by VHCTs. VHCT volunteers also refer people suffering from infectious diseases and malnutrition to local health centres and promote more sustainable alternative livelihoods. Another group of community volunteers, the “Human and Gorilla Conflict Resolution” (HUGO) team, in turn collect gorilla faecal samples left on communal land to monitor their health (Figure 1.2.2), and visually monitor gorillas for clinical signs of disease inside and outside protected areas (Gaffikin and Kalema-Zikusoka, 2010). In the process, we have seen reduced disease incidences in the gorillas, reduced conflict between people and gorillas, and improved attitudes toward conservation. One unintended outcome has been increased gender equality: men are now more involved in family planning, and women are more involved in natural resource management.

    Figure 1.2.2 A park ranger from the Uganda Wildlife Authority teaching HUGO community volunteers how to collect faecal samples from gorilla night nests during a CTPH training workshop. Photograph by CTPH, CC BY 4.0.

    This page titled 1.2: Conservation Biology is Still Evolving is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.