Single poppy in wheat field

The complexity of species conservation

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by David ScheelLeave a Comment

The global conservation movement has radically altered its thinking in recent years. It has become more organised, more sophisticated, and scientifically more rigorous. It has also become more over-arching, realising that the big picture, namely the preservation of all of planet Earth’s diverse biosystems, is vastly more important than the rescuing of one or other individual species.

Yet it was just this small-scale activity which kick-started the movement in the first place, so while it’s essential – and correct – to concentrate on saving our forests, marsh and wetlands, lakes, rivers and so on – in other words, our habitats – we should not lose sight of the fact that we need individual species to live in those habitats, either in situ as they do at present, or as re-introductions, if those habitats have been degraded, and then restored.

Therefore the preservation of endangered plant and animal species is still a very high priority. The question is: how do we do it? In the first instance, captive breeding is the best way to ensure a species’ survival if it has gone – or is threatening to go – extinct in the wild. The Wollemi pine is an excellent example. This ‘dinosaur tree’ was discovered in a small area of forest not far from where I live in the Blue Mountains. The Wollemi population is small, though at present stable, and its habitat is protected. However, because of the small area to which it is restricted, it is vulnerable. As a safety measure, scientists took plant samples to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, U.K., and a large number of specimens have now been bred; sufficiently large to ensure that the pine will never be consigned to history, even if – for whatever reason – the Blue Mountains Wollemis die out.

The same is true of animals. Many people find the very idea of zoos abhorrent, and certainly their original purpose was very far removed from conservation. Early zoos, whether in 19th century Paris or London, or even ancient Rome, were sideshows, a divertissement for a bored but curious public.

Zoos are now recognised as pivotal institutions for captive breeding, and increasingly they are being designed to be more ‘animal friendly’, cramped cages being replaced by open areas constructed to mimic the natural environmental as closely as possible. Examples are legion, but I will cite two. Dr John Walmsley’s Earth Sanctuary at Warrawong in the Adelaide Hills is not even a zoo at all. There are a few cages (such as one for the rare bush stone curlew) but very few. For the most part the property, though surrounded by an electrified perimeter fence (to ward off foxes and feral cats), is completely open range. Dr Walmsley has had spectacular successes in breeding platypuses, a variety of endangered bettongs (a.k.a. rat kangaroos) and potteroos (this last being a creature that was classified as extinct until a small colony was discovered some 30 years ago). All these creatures may still be endangered in the wild, but Dr Walmsley has ensured that, once their original habitats have been re-invigorated (and protected), there will be viable populations of animals to stock them.

Another zoological ‘role model’ is the late Gerald Durrell’s Wildlife Preservation Trust at Les Augres on the Channel Island of Jersey. Here again, there are some cages, for creatures that could escape, such as the critically endangered Mayer’s pink pigeon, and another columbiforme, Rodriguez’s Fody. But again, the ‘Jersey Zoo’, as it is commonly called by islanders, is very open range, and many severely threatened species are mounting a comeback. To name just a few: brown lemurs, gentle lemurs, the aye-aye (all from Madagascar), the Indonesian binturong (a large animal resembling a warthog) and less spectacular creatures such as the Jamaican hutia (a dull brown rodent) and Round Island skink.

This last-mentioned species is of special interest because its rescue pretty well encapsulates what species conservation is all about. Round Island is a tiny (150 hectare) volcanic remnant, some 20 kilometres north of Mauritius. It is home to some 15 species listed in the Red Data Book (the environmentalist’s domesday book of threatened species), including the skink. Once covered in scrub forest, it was rapidly denuded following the introduction of goats and rabbits. The goats were eradicated in 1979, and the rabbits seven years later. With substantial re-growth now taking place, animals such as the skink can be safely returned.

However, it is much easier to restore a tiny island than a vast tract of heavily populated mainland. Nor are islands necessarily the best refuges, except for those species endemic to them.

Let us take the case of the heath hen, a bird that numbered in the millions in the 19th century. Widespread across the USA, it became a favoured game bird, so much so that it was virtually shot out of extinction. With only a handful of breeding pairs remaining, a reserve was established in 1908 on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Nantucket Sound. The birds began to recover, but an outbreak of bird flu, and then a forest fire, tolled their death-knell, and the last heath hen died in 1935.

This need not have been so, had the conservationists thought to establish not one sanctuary, but a couple more, on the mainland, so that there would be more than one breeding pool.

And even on the mainland there are problems, and these can easily lead to conflicts between conservationists and those with vested interests, be they farmers, corporate entities or even governments.

The principal reason for this is that humans regard the entire planet as their preserve. If, for example, a new body of copper, gold, coal or oil is discovered, our first move is to exploit it, irrespective of whether it is in an ecologically sensitive area or not. In this sense, we – especially in the west – are nomadic. George W. Bush ‘migrates’ to Alaska to find oil, the Japanese similarly ‘migrate’ to those Australian waters which are just out of our jurisdiction in order to capture minke and humpback whales.

What we conveniently forget – or choose to forget – is that those whales are themselves nomadic. So, too, are the caribou in Alaska. Of course, the vast majority of our creatures is intensely territorial, but then they are mostly insects and micro-organisms. Higher species, such as birds and mammals, are frequently migratory.

Therefore the question of where to protect them answers itself: if we establish a protected reserve, for, say, the African elephant, we have to establish other reserves to accommodate its annual wanderings – always along the same route – from one feeding ground to another. And if some Zimbabwean farmer wishes to cultivate crops on that well-travelled road, he should be aware that the elephants will trample it, as they do. Far easier, I think, for our enterprises to relocate to less sensitive areas, for we have the technology and resources to do so. The elephant only knows how to do what it does best, and that is to follow that ancient self-made road, as it has done for millions of years.

The same is true of the big cats, almost all of which are endangered. The North American puma (mountain lion) and the leopard are still numerous, but the roll-call of the others is scary. On that list, we have (among others): clouded leopard, Bengal tiger (7500 estimated in the wild), Sumatran tiger, Siberian tiger (the Balinese and Javanese sub-species have already gone extinct), North American lynx, Andean puma and Spanish lynx (critical in Portugal, almost vanished in Spain – this animal will almost certainly disappear in the wild within 10 years, and the captive breeding pool in zoos is so small that I fear for this noble creature’s survival.)

To this list I shall add the lion. What? The king of beasts? It seems he is being de-throned. As recently as 10 years ago the African lion population was thought to be about 100,000. Whilst the big cats can still be seen in abundance is such sub-Saharan reserves as Selous and Kruger National Park, outside these ‘safe havens’ a combination of habitat destruction in order to establish cattle ranches, and hunting (to prevent the lions from attacking the cattle on those ranches) has seen lion numbers reduced to just 23,000.

But the poacher can turn game-keeper, and a number of farmers are now realising that the lion may be their greatest asset. Personally, I have no time for hunting as a past-time; I find the very thought of killing for sport repulsive. But human nature being what it is, the trophy hunters are still around, and if they are prepared to pay out as much as US$80,000 for a lion’s scalp (which is the going rate!) then it makes economic sense to establish breeding colonies of lions on farms, for that price tag far outweighs any capital loss incurred by the occasional cattle-kill.

This is just one example of how the ‘asset value’ of an animal, or plant, can ensure its long-term survival.

However, I still believe that the greatest positive step we can take in wildlife conservation management is the establishment of more national parks, each linked to the others by equally protected migration corridors. This way the animals can freely move from one to another according to seasonal breeding and/or feeding requirements.

It is therefore pleasing to report that the Indian government is planning to do just this in an attempt to preserve its wild tigers and leopards. This will be beneficial to other animals, such as the Nilgai (or blue bull) and Ratel (Indian badger), both of which are prey species for the big cats. The downside is that India, though a burgeoning economy, is still a country with enormous social and infrastructure problems, including massive poverty, and its economic priorities are predicated on these dilemmas. This means that while the migration corridors have been mapped out and work is commencing, the project may not be complete until 2050.

Let us take heart that a commonsense approach to wildlife conservation is now being adopted, and let us hope that India’s tigers – and all the world’s other endangered species – survive to see this approach brought to fruition.


David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental and conservation issues.

Share this post

Leave a Comment