Stories about the illegal hunting of Cecil the lion and the last remaining black rhino have put the topic of wildlife conservation back into public consciousness. Though Africa has been the location for some of the world’s greatest battles for species like elephants, rhinos and gorillas, other battles are still being fought practically everywhere else on Earth.
After a summer of notable setbacks, what grade should humanity get in 2015 for saving the world’s other creatures great and small?
Well.org chatted with Travis Huxman, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and director of the Center for Environmental Biology at the University of California, Irvine. Huxman says we’re not failing in our efforts, but there is a lot more work to be done.
Well.org: What effect do the Cecil the lion and the last black rhino stories have? Are they only a reminder of how we our failing in our efforts or is there a history of them changing things for the better? And if positive, how long is that window?
Huxman: Exposing such events to a wide audience has a number of effects that aid conservation efforts.
We know that society struggles with the idea of conservation because preserving biological diversity requires contemporary action to prevent a future loss that is difficult to quantify, often a fairly long-time off in the future, and comes with trade-offs that seem steep in terms of costs.
They highlight the immediacy of the issue and the idea that the trade-off – what society is giving up – isn’t always of value to everyone, like trophy hunting. The downside is that these stories “sell” as well or better than any positive efforts. It’s hard to get the public’s interest with a [positive] story. True recovery efforts, where species are really at risk of loss are well covered, but even those seem to fade quickly from the public’s memory.
I would say these events have reminded people of what they hold as important, which will hopefully help with the barriers.
Well.org: What grade would you give – if that’s the simplest way to look at it – for our current conservation efforts? And how does the U.S. compare at wildlife and wild land conservation to other countries or regions?
Huxman: I can only speak to this as a casual scientist working in the area. To be honest, I don’t know that this has been well evaluated, in part because there are problems with conservation approaches everywhere.
But here’s a shot – I would treat this as a progress report rather than a final grade, saying, if the U.S. were to be assigned a grade covering the efforts to date, it would receive a passing, but nothing special C-.
I would point out though this means mostly the U.S. is doing what’s expected. There is a balancing of truly super efforts in some locations with a lack of response in others. But I would highlight that this is a progress report. The same could be said of many locations on the globe.
I would highlight that the final grade is yet to be assigned and the final exam counts for most of the score in the conservation effort. That is, the final score is to be judged on the issue of how close can we get to managing landscapes to return to historical patterns of extinction rather than the current trajectory. This will require us to evolve from the “emergency” responses that result in some charismatic species being saved, to comprehensive strategies that have lasting potential for the way human and natural systems interact.
If the conservation effort nationally were a student in one of my classes, I would counsel him/her that they have done the hard work of learning, experimenting and growing in this first part of the class, but now comes the hard part where they have to apply what they have learned to jump to the next level of performance.
Well.org: What’s the biggest successes humans have had with saving endangered species or wilderness? What’s the biggest failure?
Huxman: It would be crazy to not identify the delisting of the bald eagle as an important success story.
In part this shows how effective society can be at conservation given the motivation. But I think this success story also highlights the failure, which is that the real extinction issue cannot be solved in a species-by-species framework. Thus, the failure rests in an inability to effectively move beyond that framework (in the public’s eye).
There are exceptional examples where whole-system conservation and restoration are having a real effect. I would point to the Habitat Conservation Planning Area/Natural Communities Conservation Area of the Nature Reserve of Orange County as one example of many plans nationally that has resulted in the protection of ecosystem elements in the face of rapid development and significant pressures from humans, climate variability and other disturbances. But such a coordinated approach is slow to implement at sufficiently large scales to really move the issue forward.
Well.org: Where do you see the future of conservation going?
Huxman: What do we value in ecosystems? Is it the biological diversity itself? Yes – in part. Is it the resources that are associated with ecosystems, like food, fiber, water, etc.? Yes – in part. Is it the aesthetic that has public health benefits? Yes – in part. Or is it some aspect of the system itself that has intrinsic value? Yes – in part. I think reconciling these many ways of valuing ecosystems and the biological diversity within is the big issue with which science will grapple in the next decade.
The good news is that conservation is really analogous to health science as a discipline. The connection between scientists, practitioners and policy makers has never been tighter. You could argue that conservation right now is already carrying out the kind of science-for-action that “personalized medicine” is promising. The fact that these networks of professionals are all focused on these common issues is most promising and keeps me positive on the future outcome.