The negative impact that human beings have on wildlife grows day by day, but so, too, does the impact of conservation. Across the world, organizations big and small are engaged in a concerted effort to protect nature in its original state, or to ensure that we use it in a sustainable way.
It is a huge task, and one that raises some difficult practical and philosophical questions. Which is the best way of safeguarding species? How do you go about saving an animal that is on the verge of extinction? And, if resources are limited, are some animals more “important” than others? Experts do not always agree on the answers, but there is no doubt that conservation is an urgent priority if today’s threatened species are to survive.
By far the most effective way of safeguarding animals is to protect their natural habitats. An animal’s habitat provides everything necessary for its survival, and in its natural state it can continue to do this indefinitely as food and energy is passed from one species to another. This is the thinking behind national parks and wildlife reserves. Even small parks can be effective — particularly when they protect breeding grounds – but, in general, the larger the area that is protected, the more species benefit and the greater are the chances that the habitat is truly self-sustaining.
For example, Manu National Park — one of the largest in Peru — includes an extraordinary range of habitats from high – altitude Andean grassland to lowland Amazonian rain-forest. It is home to more than 200 species of mammals. Over 1,000 species of birds, and even more species of butterflies, making it one of the richest tropical reserves in the world. Its success is partly due to its remote location, which has restricted human settlement. Unlike many parts of the Amazon further east.
TECHNIQUES AND TECHNOLOGY
When a species is in immediate danger of extinction, captive breeding can be a highly effective way of bringing it back from the brink. In 1982, this was the situation with the California condor, when only about 24 birds were left in the wild. During the 1980s, a breeding program was initiated, and all the remaining birds were caught – a drastic measure that caused considerable controversy at the time. Three decades later, the intervention has been vindicated: the total population has reached over 430, with more than half this number flying free.
In recent years, new technology has played an increasing part in this kind of conservation work. Released animals can be tracked by satellite, helping to show where they feed and where they breed. Using DNA technology, there is even a possibility that recently extinct species could be “brought back to life”. However, most conservationists believe that these techniques — on their own are not long- term routes to survival. This is partly because they require a large commitment of time, money, and space. But a more significant problem lies in their outcome if a species’ natural habitat is disappearing, captive animals will have no home to go to if they are released.
In isolated parts of the world, introduced, or “alien”, species make life extremely difficult for native animals. Cats, foxes, and rats head the list of these problematic incomers, although plant- eating mammals can also cause immense damage. In some of the worst-affected regions, such as Australia and New Zealand, conservation programmes are now under way to reduce this threat.
In an island as vast as Australia, eradicating feral cats or foxes is not a feasible goal. But in some parts of the country, large areas have been fenced off to protect bandicoots, biibies, and other vulnerable marsupials, in these giant enclosures, alien species are either trapped or controlled by poison bait. The poisons are substances from native plants, which affect alien species, but leave native ones unharmed.
Killing for conservation is a difficult and divisive issue, particularly when the victims are cats that have run wild. However, there is no doubt — as far as Australian marsupials are concerned – that it is a highly effective measure. Introduced species are even more of a problem on offshore islands, where they can devastate land animals and colonies of nesting birds.
Many of the worlds remotest islands, such as Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean, have been overrun by rats, which arrived aboard ships several centuries ago. Rats can be extremely difficult to control and on Kerguelen at least, eradication programmes have not succeeded. However, on several Islands off the coast of New Zealand, rats have been eradicated to create safe havens tor tuataras — among the most endangered reptiles in the world. The small size of these Islands makes them ideal “arks”, because they are relatively easy to keep alien- free.
A host of national laws and international agreements serve to protect wildlife and reduce the risk of species being driven towards extinction. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) came into force in 1975, in order to curb trade of living plants and animals or their products.
It protects 35,000 species, assigning each to one of three lists (the so – called Appendices), depending upon the level of threat and degree of protection needed. Other international bodies have more specific concerns. The lnternational Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up in 1946 to oversee “sustainable harvesting” of whales, but in the face of plummeting numbers – introduced a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.
Countries that are party to international agreements, such as CITES, have domestic legislation to regulate at a national level. At the same time national legislation is used to help enforce conservation in protected areas, such as national parks. Nearly 15 per cent of land and just over 1 per cent of ocean areas are protected by restricting hunting and habitat clearing.
Illegal activity, nevertheless, continues to frustrate efforts to conserve some habitats or species. Some wildlife — or their products – are very valuable on the black market, fuelling poaching and illicit trade. Since 1960, a 90 per cent shop drop in numbers of black rhinoceroses is almost entirely due to poaching – making it critically endangered.
Few people would condone the sale of rhino horn or tiger bones, but some conservationists do believe that — where possible – wild animals should be made to “pay their way”. According to this viewpoint, animals are best conserved if they generate income, as this provides an incentive for protecting them.
There are 2 main ways by which this can happen; wildlife tourism can be encouraged, with some of the revenue being used for conservation work: alternatively, animals themselves can be managed as a resource. Wildlife tourism is a booming business, although it has undeniable drawbacks, such as increasing habitat disturbance. But wildlife experts are often sharply divided about the use of animals as a resource.
In recent years, the African elephant has been a case in point, with different conservation bodies to odds about the exploitation of ivory. In this debate, one side believes that the legal sale of ivory is bound to have a damaging effect on elephant numbers. The other side believes that if it is carefully controlled, the sale of ivory could actually safeguard the species by generating money to protect it.
At present no one knows whether commerce has a real place in wildlife conservation. If it does one factor is certain: the income generated by wild animals will have to benefit local people, as they are the ones who can make conservation work.