Chris Martin once sang, “We live in a beautiful world.” He ended that line with, “Yeah we do.” This resonates in today’s conservation rhetoric. Indeed, perhaps never more so than today has this line held such significance to the battles facing the field. Whilst it is easy, however, to focus on the first part alone – we do indeed live in a beautiful world – it’s now important to look at the secondary lyrics: a lingering call for agreement. “Yeah, we do.”
It is this need to encourage, or maybe convince, so many people of the importance of natural beauty and biodiversity that takes on an almost sub-plot in modern conservation. For whilst it is a beautiful world, it is also ugly. Widespread war, widening inequality, polar opinions on strategies (yes, including hunting) – and this is not to mention cultural beliefs and priorities. How do we approach the difficulties these issues present? A modicum of civility and an ability to keep humble is paramount.
Here, I’d like to look at what modern conservation involves, as well as the main issues confronting us, with some recent examples.
What is modern conservation?
Too often, people attempting to work in and define conservation in today’s world shoehorn it into one particular method or strategy, when such an approach is counter-productive. It simply won’t work in a globalised world with competing priorities.
Rather, I would posit that conservation should be seen as the end product of numerous, often interlinked priorities in how individuals and the wider community act. This of course must culminate – or perhaps include – dedicated projects and long-term strategies revolving around specific cases, but it certainly shouldn’t discount innate actions of the many, or differing priorities (think tree planting versus poaching control).
Recently, a new drink was launched named Snow Leopard Vodka. Founder Stephen Sparrow, speaking to The Drinks Business, claimed that their aim was to raise funds for the big cat’s conservation projects. Their goal of US$1 million is already 20% achieved. In this we can see the economic drive behind some conservation work: positive outcomes for both the profit-makers and wildlife. This is but one of the ways in which traditional ideas about what the term conservation encompasses are changing, and leads us to a more volatile debate.
Hunting as conservation
Let us look at a topical, sometimes farcical, often YouTube comment-like discussion: trophy hunting as conservation. I mentioned above civility and humbleness – these are two characteristics missing from this debate.
On one hand, we have (as in all arguments) those blinded to reason and who, when faced with solid, factual arguments will choose ignorant opinions and tired excuses. This applies to both camps. On the other, we have people that share a love of the outdoors, an appreciation for nature, and an eagerness to avoid the extinction of countless species in dwindling ecosystems.
Let me be clear – I am not defending blanket trophy hunting. I struggle to understand what joy one could gain from a kill. However, I am arguing for dialogue. Until this happens, neither side will hit their target.
Ten years ago, the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya led a survey of 150 trophy hunters. Their findings may surprise you: 86% of respondents said they preferred hunting when a share of proceeds was fed into local communities (more on that below), whilst around half said that, should there be a ‘problem animal’ that needed to be killed anyway – even if it were a lesser trophy – they would pay an equivalent amount for the permit.
Now, this shouldn’t necessarily convince you that trophy hunting is conservation’s golden chalice, but perhaps it highlights that not all those partaking in the activity are out to fill the world with blood.
A 12-year-old girl from America (I won’t link to it here, I think she’s had her name plastered across the internet enough) made headlines in August when photos emerged of her standing next to animals she had just shot. Regardless of your opinion on the practice of killing animals for sport, the vitriol and death threats angled towards a child have been indefensible. On her Facebook page, a post was put up addressing the issue of hunting and conservation. In it, one paragraph read:
“Sport Hunting is a $744 million dollar business in South Africa. It employs 70000 people. (Allen, 2015) [sic] If the cries of those calling for it to be banned were listened to, the effects would be devastating not only for endangered species, but for those whose livelihood relies on this business.”
Again, there are arguments both ways – perhaps ecotourism could cover such economic losses – but these are not points that should be dismissed with anger and threats. There needs to be dialogue, because these are very real concerns for those on the ground. And so we come to the next point.
War and widening inequality
So, money feeding into poor communities in disadvantaged areas is a noteworthy part of conservation then, and this is becoming increasingly important in a world of widening inequality. Many countries face increased security issues like war and drought, and humans have always come first in our reckoning. That means that instability inevitably breeds a decreased focus on animal conservation.
There is not room here to dissect specific causes for these problems. It must be said though that in conservation projects there must be an appreciation for what is happening in local human communities, and how this affects views on wildlife care. The good news is, this is a philosophy that has seen a significant take up over the past couple of decades.
War and poverty add to stresses on ecosystems for a myriad of reasons, and those aiming to preserve wildlife ignore human security and socioeconomic issues to their own detriment. Which leads us to the next port of call.
Priorities and cultures
As well as insecurity, differing cultural and religious priorities play a telling part on conservation practices.
The Hindustan Times in India recently reported that the Government is considering legislative changes that bend to cultural ideas around when animal killing is an appropriate action. The proposal in question outlines allowing “traditional and cultural practices” of communities to override a current ban from the Supreme Court on animal sports. According to journalist Chetan Chauhan, “Experts also say the amendment would give legitimacy to practices like Nag Panchami (where snakes are believed to be killed by giving milk) and [the] killing of animals as offerings in religious places.”
This is revealing, but not unique. Across the globe there are innumerable cultural and religious ideas that impact on our ability to preserve wildlife – take China’s unquenchable thirst for animal parts to use in traditional medicine.
With all these competing factions, how do we reach not only a middle ground, but also an effective platform for conservation?
Approaching the divisions
This is no easy question to answer. Put one hundred people in a room and you’re unlikely to find successful compromise on debatable issues. Nevertheless, conservationists must strive to achieve the best possible outcome. There is a lot of promising work being undertaken both on the ground and in institutions everywhere, to meet the demands of wildlife, local communities, businesses and economies. This has been gradually developed over the years to see some feats of incredible resurrection.
Conjour aims to highlight some of the many species needing our help and promote the amazing jobs people are doing to help animals escape from IUCN’s red list.
At the very least, as we strive for these success stories, we should aim to keep dialogue frequent, minds open, and empathy at the forefront.