Species vs Habitat Conservation

We have a slightly antagonistic attitude to conservation at times. “Species A needs to be saved, therefore we must get rid of Species B”. This makes no sense ecologically, or ethically.

The threats made to buzzards, magpies, or badgers in the name of conservation are a symptom of this. Why does one species take precedence? Why should a species survive?

As a geologist, I learned to think about life over a near-four-billion year timescale. So the idea of focusing on one species, one ecological snapshot in time, is illogical. Instead of preserving species, we should ensure space is kept wild. After that, we shouldn’t interfere. If that means a predator wipes a prey species out, that’s unfortunate. But it’s just nature.

99.9% of all species that have ever existed are extinct. We think of extinction as a dramatic, sudden thing. We all know “mass extinction”, brought on by asteroids, climate change, and volcanic activity. But there have been just six mass extinctions; most extinction is normal, everyday, background stuff.

A prime example of out attitude to conservation would be the panda. The Chinese spend an enormous amount of time and money getting pandas to breed. Millions and millions of pounds. This produces lovely cute photos of baby pandas playing in a lab, in drawers, in little panda cribs. They circulate the internet, and everybody goes “awwww”. But nobody questions the existence of those pandas, because we accept that more pandas are A Good Thing.

But here’s the reality. These bears will remain in captivity for the rest of their lives. They’re not going back out into the wild, forming viable breeding populations. A pair of pandas needs around 30 square km of bamboo forest at a specific altitude range, and there’s only about 30,000 square km of such habitat left. There are around 1000 pandas in the wild, in other words, exactly as many pandas as the wild habitat can support. 30 years ago, there was more than twice as much. Despite a theoretical ban on logging there, that habitat continues to shrink.

Now in my view, this makes panda breeding programmes utterly pointless. If they have no possibility of returning to the wild, then what are they for? Why preserve them? There is merit to using iconic species like the panda to drive fundraising. But if there’s no improvement in the wild population, then it’s not really working. The only way to help the panda is to stabilise, then expand, the wild habitat.

A lot of conservation focuses on specific species in this way. It can work in some cases, if the habitat is there and the animal has been eliminated in some other way (e.g. Birds of Prey and Corvids that were persecuted by landowners to protect commercial shoots, farms etc). But ultimately, the natural world doesn’t have some ideal, static form that should be preserved. Extinction is a natural part of life on Earth. So is a changing climate and changing environments. Animals either adapt and evolve, or they die out. We shouldn’t try and stop that happening. But by preserving wild spaces, and letting those areas exist in a natural way, unmanaged by us, we allow nature to take it’s own course.

That, in my opinion, is the future of conservation. Big, linked spaces. Protected, but not ‘managed’. That’s the only way we can ever really preserve the natural world. If we focus on species, and on idealised habitat models, then we may as well give in and put every single animal into zoos and wildlife parks. Because that’s all we’ll have left.

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3 Responses to Species vs Habitat Conservation

  1. Will Watts says:

    Hi David

    Ok a few lunch time thoughts on this prompted by your tweet!

    First and foremost I am not an expert and not sure I am a conservationist. But I have a few questions and thoughts to prompt a discussion…..!

    I think overall I agree with you, I know I should agree with you, what with my background etc. So…

    1. What about the use of species as headline grabbers that then garner support that benefit the wider habitat? Panada not a good example here I appreciate, prehaps the iconic RSPB logo would be better?

    2. What about speices that have the ability to modify/change a habitat, beavers being an obvious thought?

    3. And finally, is protecting one species better than nothing at all? If actually the public won’t suppport landscape scale habitat protection schemes then are we better trying to protect one iconic species or should we just let the whole thing go?

    As I said they are only my ‘devils advocate’ questions but had fun writing them!!

    Good blog by the way


    • David says:

      Cheers for the comment.

      1. I think ‘mascotism’ is a fine approach, as long as the money is then well-used. The RSPB are a pretty good example here, they tend to talk about specific species but their actual projects are far more habitat focused. When they do run breeding programmes, it’s always with a view to suitable reintroduction.

      2. And speaking of reintroduction… I think that’s worthy of a blogpost on its own. I’m not opposed to reintroduction, I think the pilot study of beavers is an excellent idea as there’s some data to suggest they actually benefit the overall ecosystem. The concern would be the lack of natural predators, so maybe it’s time to bring wolves back too…

      3. I’m not convinced it is better than nothing. As I said in the post, you may as well just live in a world of zoos and wildlife parks. I don’t see the value in rpeserving a species if it cannot then live wild. Of course, there’s an intellectual and philosophical argument over whether or not there really is such a thing as ‘wild’ anymore, especially in a country like the UK.

  2. Pingback: Pandas up, Gorillas down, but what’s the real lesson? | Why watch wildlife?

I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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