Only conservation of the wilderness in its entirety will save wild (and human) species

Jul 8, 2020 | Commentary

By Dr Adam Cruise – Stellenbosch University, South Africa

The successful conservation of wild species, as well as providing global human well-being, comes down to just a single notion: we need to re-create and expand the space on this planet for natural biodiversity to thrive.

We are in desperate need of a political commitment toward the protection of rapidly dwindling natural systems, which include all living beings (plants, wild animals and humans) as well as non-living entities (water, soil and air). This is a conservation approach that needs to abandon our prevailing systems based on the commercial merit of some high-value individual wild species.

The problem of species preservation over biodiversity

Conservation based on strictly commercial approaches, such as those underpinned by the UN-based conservation treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and, consequently, most national governments, shows there is little regard for the fact that wildlife is an integral and interconnected combination of vital aspects in a broader ecological system.

As is the case in South Africa, the successful preservation of commercially valued wild species, especially in private game spaces, is achieved at the expense of the overall natural environment in that only financially viable animals (buffalo, rhino, elephant, giraffe, zebra, eland, impala, springbok, roan and sable antelope, crocodiles, lions and ostriches) are bred and stocked on ranches that are more akin to domestic livestock farms. Here animals are manipulated, fenced-in, caged, inbred and slaughtered to achieve financial gains for a small number of human benefactors and, as such, have little to zero overall conservation value in terms of both wildlife and biodiversity preservation.

This farming of wild animals does not serve as a legitimate conservation approach to wildlife ultimately because the ‘wild’ has been taken away from the ‘life’.

Wilderness first

If we are to truly conserve wild species, we need to conserve the wild spaces they inhabit. It is the wilderness that is crucial to their survival – and our own. Policy-makers need to recognise that the loss of the natural environment will not only threaten the survival of wild species, but, as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it causes human social, economic and cultural collapses as well. The number of ‘zoonotic’ epidemics in general is rising, from Ebola to SARS to West Nile virus and Rift Valley fever. According to a UN report, the root cause of all zoonoses is the destruction of nature by humans and the growing demand for meat.

The future of humanity, therefore, depends on the future health of the natural environment. Such practical strategies are to expand the space for biodiversity to thrive, not by removing humans entirely, but by rewilding land over-exploited through agriculture. Cutting down on space that feeds livestock like cattle (soybean farming in the Amazon basin) and thinking of better ways to feed humanity by eating less meat and avoiding biodiversity-harmful products like palm oil is some such strategies.

More importantly, we need to preserve, and possibly expand, wild spaces for wild species to thrive. Wild elephants and rhinos in Africa and Asia, and tapirs in Brazil are natural foresters, maintaining and extending their habitats, as they swallow seeds of trees and spread them across many miles in their dung. White rhinos and buffalo are adept at preventing runaway fires in African savannahs since their grazing prevents dry grass build-up and predators like lions and wolves would stop as much carbon being released every year as 30 to 70 million cars, simply by doing what they do best, namely controlling herbivore populations.

All species count

This is not to mention all the importance of multitudes of little creatures, like dung beetles that aid in seed germination from elephant dung, or predatory crabs and fish in salt marshes and estuaries controlling herbivorous snails and crabs from wiping out all the plants that keep the system together. By allowing all wild animals to function as they should, the wild environment is enhanced and global warming (mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass beds absorb carbon forty times faster than rain forests) and zoonotic outbreaks are reduced.

Allowing nature to expand and restore itself is a no-brainer – not only is this a simple solution but it is also cost effective. Conservation of wildlife, therefore, cannot exist without expanding the natural environment in which wild and human life flourishes.

Of course, it is not just animals that preserve biodiversity but indigenous humans too, sometimes in surprising ways. The 2018 IPBES report highlights the fact that indigenous people and local communities have created a successful diversity of polyculture and agroforestry systems, which, in turn, have increased biodiversity and shaped landscapes.

However, the decoupling of lifestyles from their local environments and landscapes due to urbanisation and commercial agriculture expansion has eroded, for many, their sense of place, language and indigenous local knowledge.

Language of the land

It is interesting to discover that languages decline as biodiversity decreases. This is according to researchers from the Zoological Society of London and George Wright Society who have established a correlation between the extinction of species and the disappearance of languages spoken by communities who had inhabited the wild environment along with those species. One in four of the world’s 7,000 languages are now threatened with extinction, and linguistic diversity is declining as fast as biodiversity – about 30% since 1970.

Along with the languages, the traditional knowledge of these cultures is being forgotten. The names, uses, and preparation of medicines, the methods of farming, fishing and hunting are disappearing, not to mention the vast array of spiritual and religious beliefs and practices, often rooted in the land, which are as diverse and numerous as the languages themselves.

The researchers maintain that if the world wants to save nature it may be vital to conserve cultures too. “The vast store of knowledge that has evolved and accumulated over tens of thousands of years could be lost in the next 100 years,” says one of the report’s researchers, David Harmon. “While linguists have made efforts to archive as many of the endangered languages as possible, and ethnobiologists have attempted to record the traditional use of plants, the most important conservation takes place on the ground as part of a living culture”.

The report found that both biodiversity and linguistic diversity are diminishing as a result of human population growth, increasing consumption and economic globalization, which are eroding the differences between one part of the world and another. The link between human culture and biodiversity is clear, because it is the indigenous peoples of the world who have mostly conserved nature through intimate knowledge of local biospheres.

We humans, therefore, need to recognise that all living beings are not stand-alone entities to be taken individually (as commercially valuable), but together as a great interconnected web of life that depend on each other for their existence. Ultimately, if humans are successfully to conserve species in the era of the Anthropocene, we need to preserve the house that keeps us all alive – the wilderness.

Adam Cruise has a PhD in philosophy specialising in environmental and animal ethics.