Emotions in Biodiversity Conservation

The physicist Charles Snow postulated in his lecture The Two Cultures of the year 1959 that the intellectual world was divided into two spheres, the field of science on the one hand, and the world of arts and humanities on the other. The first was inhabited by scientist that developed their theories in a complex language only understandable by themselves, while the second studied the highest manifestations of the human spirit, such as art, philosophy and morality, but did not seek points of contact with the other culture.

Nowadays this division is still present, and the scientists (except for some outstanding exceptions) are not able to transmit the results of their investigations to the rest of the population. This is not a minor issue, considering the empowerment that the ordinary citizen has experienced in recent years, thanks to the ability to pressure their authorities through social networks and massive public demonstrations, especially in developing countries.

There is a consensus in the scientific world that biodiversity is suffering a serious crisis, and the idea that we are experiencing a massive extinction of species is gaining strength. Scientists have tried to spread this message through pessimistic predictions, descriptions of threats and many numbers, indices and graphs that have not motivated the population to do something about it.

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Conservation biologists have the mission of attracting the attention of the public in a supersaturated society of information, where people no longer have the time or the patience to read long scientific reports. A clear symptom of this, is the success of Twitter, a social network that has become the official platform for heated political and environmental debates, where the arguments are limited to an extension of 140 characters, making impossible a deeper understanding of each position. We must be able to understand this new context, adapting the way we communicate our message.

The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana argues that emotions are often more important than reasons in influencing our points of view, priorities and decisions in life. There is no doubt that feelings, such as affection and admiration for nature, are some of the deepest motivations for people involved in biodiversity conservation.

Many of the professionals who work in our field do so because in their childhood they lived a transformative experience in nature or because they have developed during their life an emotional relationship with animals and plants. I am not saying that reasons and logical arguments are not necessary. I only think that if emotions are so important in our personal relationship with nature, we should not ignore this human dimension when transmitting our messages to the population.

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Nature photography, for example, has a tremendous potential here. This discipline has undergone a digital revolution, which has allowed photographers to capture images never seen before. When people see a great photograph of wildlife, they can easily identify with the animal’s expressions, since they recognize traits that seem familiar to them. Although Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published over 150 years ago, many people seem to have not internalized that animals are nothing less than our distant relatives, or as Aldo Leopold suggested, our fellow travellers in the odyssey of the evolution.

Leopold himself is an example of how emotion can change the way we think. As detailed in his essay Thinking Like a Mountain of 1949, witnessing a “fierce green fire dying” from the eyes of a wolf mother, made him realize the intrinsic value of the animal. Years later he could understand in a rational way the importance of the wolves to the ecosystems, something that he had intuited much before through emotion.

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This experience perhaps motivated Leopold to move away from the utilitarian and pragmatic school of Gifford Pinchot and to postulate a new Land Ethic, occupying poetic forms to communicate his ideas and reflections. Artistic expressions such as photography, poetry and even music (such as Hans Zimmer’s incredible work for the Planet Earth II television series) can help us understand that our relationship with nature goes far beyond utilitarian value.

I think the conservationist strategy should appeal to the best of us, our ability to help others without expecting anything in return. The latest developments in world politics may make us think that campaigns that appeal to fear and self-interest are currently the most successful. I hope our movement can avoid focusing on the things we fear, and dare to communicate a novel and attractive message, appealing to our emotions and the things we really love and care about.

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So what are you studying?

Freshers Week rolls in and the inevitable barrage of questions – the most common of which is, “What are you studying?”

At first I dutifully replied, “Masters in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management”, however after having said that a dozen times I just shortened it to “conservation”: with intriguing results.

It was often (and I mean you wouldn’t believe how often!) followed by a pause and then; “of furniture?”, “of paintings?”, “of antiques?”

To which I would reply (at least in my head), “Of course! I have traveled halfway across the world to the University of Oxford to follow my true passion of restoring pre-loved tables and chairs.

After a while, I changed my tactic. Instead I replied, “Biodiversity conservation.” This worked well until I had some other people ask me; “Does that mean the environment?”

This has really gotten me thinking.

Continue reading So what are you studying?

What is a cat? Reconciling the cute with the killer

In his book, “Faith in Conservation: New Approaches to Religions and the Environment,” Mark Palmer asks his readers a simple question: what is a fox?

“To some people, it is simply a reddish-coloured mammal; to others it is a classic example of urban adaptation by wild animals; to yet others it is something to chase on horseback. To some animal lovers, the fox is a symbol of the survival of nature against urbanization and the cruelty of hunters… to the chicken farmer, the fox is a predator who can wipe out a livelihood…

So let’s ask the question again. What is a fox? Our answer has to be: “It depends on what you believe.”

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I will offer my viewpoint as a conservationist on a very contentious topic: the impact of outdoor cats on native wildlife. To begin, I pose a parallel question to Palmer’s: “What is a cat?”

  1. To many Americans, it is a beloved household pet. For the most obvious evidence of our love of cats, you need not look farther than the millions of adorable cat videos plastered over the internet. 
  2. To others, it is an important means of controlling rodent populations in barns. 
  3. To still others, it is a risk to human health. Cats carry several diseases that can be transmitted to humans, for example Toxoplasma gondii and rabies.
  4. To birdwatchers, it is something to drive away from your yard before it kills the birds at your feeder.
  5. To many cat owners, it is simply a part of natureSome cat owners do not see their cats’ behavior as problematic; they are “simply acting as a predator should.” (And technically this is true – they are predators, but they are certainly not natural ones. What makes a cat in the USA different from a red-tailed hawk, or a coyote? Red-tailed hawks and coyotes evolved here & are part of the natural ecosystem).
  6. To conservationists, it is an invasive species. Cats kill billions of animals per year in the United States alone; they have brought as many as 33 species to extinction globally; they have been listed among the 100 worst non-native invasive species in the world.

Cats are many things, depending on what you believe. This is why the topic of managing outdoor cat populations is so polarizing, as evidenced by the Amazon reviews for Peter Marra and Chris Santella’s new book, “Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer.” The ratings are almost exclusively either 1 or 5 stars, with no middle ground. 

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Let us begin by admitting that cats are both adorable household pets and invasive predators. These are not mutually exclusive. We have reconciled similar extremes with plenty of other animals which have proven detrimental to humans or the ecosystem. What makes cats different?

Let’s consider what it would look like if we treated cats the way we treat other animals.

Treating cats as we treat other invasive species would mean deliberate attempts to eradicate all stray and feral cats from the ecosystem. We do this when the situation is dire, even when the invasive species can be considered a pet  – just look at the Python Challenge in Florida or Project Isabella in the Galapagos. Would the public support this if it meant saving vulnerable ecosystems from feral cats? If not, why are the lives of native animals – many of which are endangered – worth trading for cats, but not for pythons?

What if we were to treat cats as we treat dogs? Dogs and cats are both beloved family pets, but with one major difference: the general public has become responsible for their dogs. Perhaps it is time to extend leash laws to cats, so they must be kept indoors or be adequately supervised outdoors (i.e., on a leash or in a “catio“). Many owners have already brought their cats inside, since indoor cats are less likely to be hit by cars, be injured in fights, be preyed upon by coyotes or other animals, accidentally ingest poison, or catch diseases (cats are four times more likely than dogs to carry rabies, mainly because they come in close contact with wildlife like raccoons and bats). 

young-cat-1373902_960_720Taking it a step further, what if feral cats were treated as feral dogs? When a feral dog is found, animal control is called, the dog is removed from the area to be adopted, put into a sanctuary, or – as a last resort – euthanized.  These measures are commonplace for one type of beloved pet, but cause an uproar when discussed in the context of another.

As I reflect again on Marra and Santella’s Amazon book reviews, I notice that several of the 1-star critiques pose a similar question: many things kill native wildlife, so why pick on cats? In response, I ask: in the struggle to conserve species and ecosystems against an immeasurable number of challenges, why are cats alone sacrosanct?

Ask yourself again: what is a cat? Our native animals and ecosystems may depend on the answer.

Emily is an MSc student in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Management. She is interested in human-wildlife conflict, tropical forest conservation, non-native species, and trophic cascades. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @emilyneil15

Ecotourism: can tourism pay for conservation and development?

With the Christmas holidays ahead, it is tempting for many of us to start to think about new holiday destinations. With the recent popularity of green living and sustainable lifestyles, more and more people opt for ecotourism destinations. A few images that directly come to mind when thinking about ecotourism are of unspoiled natural landscapes, ecosystems devoid of human impact and encounters with local communities. The term ‘ecotourism’ gained popularity around 25 years ago and now makes up a substantial part of the international tourism industry. Although ecotourism is now relatively commonplace, there are a number of uncertainties and criticisms around the subject.

What is ecotourism?

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education’. From this definition, ecotourism seems to be a win-win situation: tourists can enjoy natural and cultural environments, whilst contributing to nature conservation and the development of local communities. Sounds great right?

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The TIES Principles of Ecotourism

Is ecotourism too good to be true?

Despite the popularity of the term, ecotourism is not as straightforward as it seems and has been subjected to fierce critiques. One source of problems is the fact that ecotourism is a typical example of a ‘fuzzy concept’, meaning that the exact application of the term can vary significantly in different contexts. Ecotourism is often interpreted differently by different stakeholders, including tour operators, travel agents, businesses, governments and tourists themselves. The  TIES and UNEP have developed principles and guidelines for ecotourism businesses, but in practice there is no way to enforce them. This means that businesses can advertise themselves under the label of ‘ecotourism’ whilst actually contributing little towards the cause of ecotourism. This is a process also referred to as ‘greenwashing’.

Greenwashing by larger tourism businesses can lead ecotourism away from the ideal of small scale and ecologically friendly tourism towards a form of tourism also referred to as ‘mass-ecotourism’ or ‘eco mass tourism’.  I vividly remember going on a hike last summer in one of Slowakia’s green tourism destinations. Instead of enjoying the surroundings by walking the trail in a comfortable pace, it rather felt like I was in line in a theme park. The path was packed with fellow tourists that not only moved extremely slowly but also left a trail of rubbish behind in the once unspoiled forest.

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In line in one of Slowakia’s national parks – author’s image

Many more examples show that there are many contemporary tourists who do have an interest in green travel, but also want to use the benefits of the mass tourism infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, if this form of tourism is not well-implemented, it can lead to considerable environmental impacts ranging from environmental degradation as a result of tourism infrastructure to disturbance of flora and fauna and pollution of the environment.

If not well-implemented, ecotourism can also have negative economic and socio-cultural impacts on local communities. Ecotourism has in most cases failed to achieve the promised empowerment of local communities due to a combination of factors. These mostly relate to a lack of a mechanism to ensure equitable distribution of income between local communities and other stakeholders. It can also lead to land insecurity of local communities and is sometimes associated with compulsory displacement. The ecotourism business can also have an effect on local culture.  It may be  altered as a result of ecotourism by bringingin foreign influences or by a commodification of traditional cultural symbols.

Then there is also a set of critiques focusing on the character of tourism itself. Ecotourism has been described by many as an oxymoron, implyiing it is impossible to be an environmentally friendly tourist because tourism in any form will alter the environment. A critique in the same spirit is that the people who are drawn to ecotourism are often also people who have to travel long distances to get to their exotic destinations, often by plane. Greenhouse gases emitted during long distance travel will offset the positive environmental impacts of ecotourism.

Are the prospects for ecotourism really that bleak?

From the above it may be clear that ecotourism is not the panacea that many had hoped it to be. But I don’t believe that that means that ecotourism will go away: in today’s society it becomes more and more popular to have so-called ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ lifestyles. An example is the increased number of people with vegan or vegetarian diets, often motivated by celebrities or social media stars. Amongst businesses it is also increasingly necessary to work according to green practices as more and more consumers demand ‘green’ products. There is no denying it: the popularity of a sustainable lifestyle isn’t going away. It is therefore possible that this movement can play a role in improving ecotourism.

To achieve successful ecotourism, it is important that the label ‘ecotourism’ is used correctly and not as a marketing method. The International Ecotourism Society has already set a number of standards ecotourism destinations should adhere to and has done important work in identifying legit ecotourism providers. Ecotourism providers that work according to the standards can obtain ecotourism certification.

But how to pick your new holiday destination? Here are a few things you as a tourist can do when choosing to find out if your holiday destination is as eco as it presents itself to be.

  1. Make sure you understand the principles of ecotourism
  2. Look for destinations with eco certification, such as that of TIES
  3. Ask the destination clear information on how their activities contribute to sustainable development and nature conservation
  4. Ask how the money you spend on your holiday is used towards these activities
  5. Stay away if the destination has a strong focus on entertainment – avoid direct interaction with protected species
  6. Look at the scale of your tourism destinations – try to stay away from mass activities

Happy holidays!

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Designing the reefs for the future

Of the world’s ecosystems, coral reefs are expected to be the first to experience the repercussions of a changing climate. As images show, coral reefs are already under severe stress by a swiftly heating planet. Corals only thrive in very specific environmental conditions, and when temperature rises by just a little, the coral expels its symbiotic algae partner who provide its nourishment – a process called bleaching. Without its symbiotic algae, the coral turns white and simply starves. Worldwide, mass-bleaching events have been increasingly destructive over the years, hitting an all-time high in the current year, in which high water temperatures killed 67% of corals of the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. As climate change continues, oceanic waters across the globe are expected to further warm, suggesting a bleak (and bleach) future for coral reefs.

As a response, a group of coral reef scientists from Hawaii and Australia came up with a controversial plan to save coral reefs from their foredoomed destiny. They aim to create heat-resistant corals that can thrive in warmer water. By steering their evolutionary pathway into a desired direction, these scientists effectively prepare corals for climate change.

Continue reading Designing the reefs for the future

Plenty of Fish in the Sea?

Worldwide, countless people depend on fishing for food, culture, and economic well-being.  From local subsistence fishermen in small coastal communities to large industrial-sized operations, oceans contribute to societies and economies at all scales.  To keep pace with demand, fishing rates have greatly accelerated, to the extent that over 77 billion kilograms of seafood are harvested each year.

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Fisheries around the world capture large harvests of fish to sell at markets.

At such high rates, many fish populations cannot reproduce quickly enough to replenish their depleted numbers, thereby classifying them as overfished.  Currently, 90 percent of fisheries around the world are burdened with or on the brink of over-exploitation beyond sustainable yields. Continue reading Plenty of Fish in the Sea?

Was Jaws Really the Villain?

Habitat destruction. Pollution. Over exploitation. All terms that have been echoed through the vast literature over and over again, and which are being institutionalized in our understanding of the world around us. Once again, my friends, we must apply the deleterious effects of these atrocious activities to yet another beautiful group of creatures, those belonging to the super order Selachimorpha under the subclass Elasmobranchii (for simplicity sake, we’ll call them sharks). It has been shown that population levels of sharks have been experiencing precipitous declines for many decades.

While all activities that impact the shark populations are of importance, the largest driver (and possibly most important) is that of over exploitation. Over harvesting sharks, especially for their fins, has decimated species abundances, resulting in losses anywhere from fifty percent to complete collapse. Continue reading Was Jaws Really the Villain?

Can One Bad Apple Rot Canada’s Sustainable Forest Management Reputation?

Canada is known for having some of the most rigorous sustainable forestry regulation and enforcement in the world. Holding 10% of the world’s forests including 552 million hectares or nearly 30% of the world’s Boreal forests and as a leader in the forestry industry, Canada’s sustainable forestry management has global implications, setting standards both environmentally and economically.

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75% of Canada’s forests are Boreal. 3.7 million people live within the area including 70% of Canada’s Aboriginal People. This area is also a major carbon sink, a source of freshwater storage and home to high levels of biodiversity.

Complementing the management process are three voluntary third party sustainability certifications that “provide a stamp of approval that shows consumers they are buying products from forests managed to comprehensive environmental, social and economic standards”. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a global NGO initiated non-state market mechanism, and is considered the “gold standard for well managed forests”. The other third-party certification schemes, Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and Canadian Standards Association (CSA), are both industry-initiated under the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) international umbrella organization.

Resolute Forest Products, a global forestry force based in Montreal Canada holding logging rights on 22 million ha of mostly public land, has 100% sustainable timberland certification by third-party Forest Management Standards and is a signed member of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. Resolute company values include be accountable, ensure sustainability and work together.

Corporate responsibility is clearly fundamental to Resolute, their management, brand value and reputation, so what is the problem?

It seems they will go to any lengths, including violating sustainable certification principles, disregarding indigenous rights, suing governments and suppressing environmental organization freedom of speech to assume this farce.

From an ecological standpoint, Resolute’s “sustainable”, “eco” and “recycled products” have in fact come from clear cutting three endangered forest areas; Ontario’s Caribou Forest and Quebec’s Montagnes Blaches and Broadback Valley. These areas are home to 150 birds, the highest densities of threatened woodland caribou and many Cree First Nations communities. Woodland caribou are considered an “indicator species”; sensitive to disturbance, and an “umbrella species”; their protection could ensure the survival of other species in the same habitat. The Grand Council of the Cree have challenged Resolute’s logging practices stating they are detrimental to their trapping lifestyle and the ecosystem balance throughout the area.

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Woodland Caribou have already been pushed north of their historic range. Unfortunately logging industries are also being pushed north and since protected areas don’t sufficiently cover their habitat meaning the caribou must rely on sustainable forest management for security. (Info-Map from Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society)

In what way can they continue to state claims of sustainability and certification?

Many major US and global brands have moved away from SFI citing “the logging industry-run program misleads consumers and allows massive clear cuts, other destructive logging and human rights abuse”. Resolute instead is moving towards them. Their FSC certified lands have dropped by 50% since 2010 because of non-compliance and non-renewal. By switching to SFI, Resolute improved their sustainability certification cover to 100% without environment practice or management changes

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forest Initiative offer competing sustainability certifications. While all non-state market driven certification schemes have implementation, management and accountability issues to contend with, FSC is considered more non-discretionary and broad based in their policy. 

But how is Resolute getting away with this?

Resolute, aware that its reputation is at stake, has used its corporate weight and legal prowess to squash critics and competitors with SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation).

Following a failed audit in 2014 for “not complying with good environmental standards”, Resolute sued Rainforest Alliance, the FSC certified auditor. Bypassing the normal FSC dispute resolution, the case was settled and the report sealed. In 2015 Resolute filed a $70+million suit against the Canadian Government because the Nova Scotia Provincial government provided a subsidy to their local mill creating competition, which Resolute says caused their Quebec mill to go under. Resolute is in court with Greenpeace over a $7 million defamation suit for a report Greenpeace published in 2013, which critiqued the logging companies environmental and social conduct. While this case is still in progress, the Ontario Superior Court has dismissed broadening the case stating Resolute’s allegations of Greenpeace are “irrelevant”, “scandalous and vexatious”. They have now brought the case against Greenpeace to the US under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) with goals to silence Greenpeace’s freedom of speech.

Well, what are the implications of Resolute’s actions? It’s only one company right?

Public interest groups are worried over extrapolated implications of using the RICO lawsuit against freedom of the press/speech. The RICO law originated to combat the mafia, but it’s use “as a club to silence Greenpeace from using non-violent means to mobilize the public, raise awareness alongside the necessary funds to operate, and seek to bring about change in respect of environmental practices it opposes would chill the exercise of First Amendment rights not only by Greenpeace but by other groups, by Amici. It would endanger the ability of non profits to operate and set a dangerous precedent,” says the Sierra Club. Resolute’s lawsuits against NGO’s, governments and auditors can threaten not only the viability of non-state market drivers of forest governance, but traditional governance and advocacy roles.

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80  public interest organizations have come together to “condemn Resolute’s intimidation lawsuit and call on the company to respect the US Constitution – and our planet” via an advertisement in the New York Times earlier this month.(New York Times)

Sustainable forestry certifications are growing in supply and demand without a price premium attached or new markets opening up. Consumers aren’t willing to pay more yet they appear to expect these certifications as a minimum standard for forest products. Resolute feels their; “adherence to third party verified forest certification standards gives [them] an important competitive edge. It provides our customers with the assurance that our forests are managed responsibly according to rigorous standards”. With Resolute’s reputation benefiting from eco-certification where does that leave other logging companies particularly smaller ones. Forest managers must absorb the costs to gain and comply with certification schemes. Without significant product pricing benefits, where is the incentive to comply with stricter FSC protocol? This leaves the door open for industry-wide environmental degradation and unsustainable forestry practices.

Resolute has failed to adhere to not only it’s sustainable certifications, but it’s own corporate values of being accountable, ensuring sustainability and working together without any consequences. As indigenous groups are undermined, protected areas harvested and species threatened, Canadian Sustainable Forest Management practices are fundamentally destabilized. What does this mean for the legitimacy of Canadian Sustainable Forestry Management and third party sustainable forestry certification schemes? Can they continue to function as global environmental and social responsibility standards? How can the system be revised so the Boreal Forest, it’s residents both human and non human and it’s consumers aren’t left vulnerable to corporate greed?

The author will continue to look at these questions over the next month while writing a paper on Corporate Social Responsibility in Canada’s Forestry Industry. If you are interested in learning more or have insight, critiques or ideas please feel free to leave a comment or contact the author.

Natalie Knowles is an MSc student from Toronto, Canada. Her research interests include forest protected areas, ecosystem function and indigenous roles in conservation.

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Wilderness: A Documentary Illusion

The footage that reached our television screens last Sunday was no doubt familiar to us all: a sea of densely forested hills expanding for miles in every direction as the camera broke through the clouds. The trees were seemingly endless. Other episodes of this series of Planet Earth will show similarly dramatic landscapes: perhaps a savannah dotted with wildebeest; or a vast expanse of desert; or a towering mountain range. One thing is certain: they will all be landscapes without humans.

Wildlife documentaries, such as the BBC’s Planet Earth (and most recently Planet Earth II), are beloved by the public and conservationists alike. They offer us inspiration, an insight into the lives of the world’s most charismatic creatures – and an illusion of a global wilderness.

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Shots of undisturbed rainforest are common in wildlife films (Source: pexels.com)

The emphasis within wildlife documentaries on wild landscapes without people can be understood as a manifestation of the wilderness ideals embedded in the conservation and nature movements. The concept of wilderness as we understand it today grew up in America in the late 19th century as a product of Romanticism. It was rapidly exported worldwide, particularly to colonial governments in Africa, who saw the vast sparsely populated savannahs of eastern Africa as pristine regions, unchanged by humans. It was these areas, with their abundance of game, that were designated as some of the earliest protected areas and which formed the blueprint for conservation as it developed.

Wilderness ideas have remained central – and often pervasive – in the conservation movement. To this day, protected areas in many regions of the world are created with wilderness ideals in mind: activities within them, such as resource extraction and tourism, are strictly limited, often to the detriment of local people. ‘Fortress conservation’, as it is known, may involve the removal of indigenous groups from the landscape in order to create these wildernesses, as has been seen in Tanzania and India. It is this style of conservation that we see reflected in wildlife films. Nature is presented as something exotic, distant and entirely non-overlapping with the human world.

 

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The Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, where the Maasai people were threatened with eviction (Source: wikimedia.org)

 

But why does this (largely Western) cultural perception of wilderness matter, and what are the implications of a focus on wilderness ideals, both for conservationists and the general public?

Firstly, we need to recognise that, despite the emphasis on wild nature in documentaries, wilderness landscapes form a minority of land area globally: only around 23% of habitable land area remains as wilderness. In contrast, around 50% of habitable land area is now agricultural land. This means that across the majority of landscapes globally, humans are interacting with and influencing ecosystems. If we are to get a handle  on conservation and the natural world we need to be considering these non-wilderness landscapes too.

This is especially important when we consider the fact that even landscapes that are human-dominated may still have high biodiversity value. As an example, many habitat types across Europe developed as a result of centuries of agricultural production and extensive human-nature interactions. Importantly, this does not lessen their value for biodiversity: moorlands, heathlands, calcareous grasslands, cork oak forests and coppiced woodlands so familiar across Western Europe are actually reliant on traditional human management to maintain their unique structure and high biodiversity. However, if wildlife documentaries only feature landscapes devoid of humans as containing valuable or charismatic biodiversity, we may forget to connect with this biodiversity in landscapes closer to home.

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Cork oak forest in the Mediterranean: a human-managed, biodiverse ecosystem (Source: wikimedia.org)

 

Furthermore, even landscapes that are presented as pristine and untouched may well have a history of human interaction, and viewing them as wilderness only tells half the story. The Amazon rainforest is widely regarded as an ‘unexplored wilderness’, but prior to European colonisation, areas of the Amazon basin were densely settled. Paleo-ecological studies have shown that across these inhabited areas forests were impacted through burning and felling, creating areas of open forest, rather than the closed canopy forest we see today.

Secondly, consideration of humans as separate to nature erases the ways in which humans need nature. The concept of ecosystem services has become an increasingly popular framework for understanding the benefits that ecosystems provide. These benefits occur across a whole range of scales from large scale carbon sequestration by tropical forests all the way down to local opportunities for recreation in nature parks. Crucially, humans can generally only profit from the full range of services when they live in close proximity to an ecosystem: for example, the flood regulation provided by wetlands or mangroves is only appreciated when there is human infrastructure in the area benefiting from protection.

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Wetlands provide protection against flooding by absorbing and holding large quantities of water (Source: flickr.com)

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, human influence on ecosystems is growing. This pressure will only increase through the 21st century as the global population nears an estimated 10 billion. With the growing impact of climate change, even the most isolated areas of wilderness will soon be unable to escape human impacts. It is imperative that we recognise this fact and move to work with it, rather than against it. Increased impacts need not sound the death knell for biodiversity. Instead, with targeted research on the impacts of human activities it will be possible to properly manage ecosystems under environmental change. For example, recent research on the impacts of logging in tropical forests suggests that carefully managed low-intensity logging can have minimal impacts on species richness. If we only value pristine wilderness systems, we risk devaluing human-altered systems, and overlooking the myriad ways in which nature persists in these landscapes.

Though wildlife documentaries are valuable, for education, enjoyment and for inspiration to value the natural world, by omitting humans from the stories they tell they miss the nuance inherent in our relationship with the environment. The way we interact with wild places is complex and evolving, and only by considering these interactions can we hope to fully understand and conserve nature in all its forms.

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