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There is a sense of increasing urgency with each new report and academic paper published. Species loss, biodiversity collapse, climate change, environmental destruction. But why are we not being proactive and taking this seriously? The major challenge we have, I believe, is that the wrong people are reading these reports. Simply put, it is a minuscule percentage of conservationists, biologists and ecologists, and a handful of others, that even glance at these documents. In fact, the editors and reviewers are probably the ones that have read them more intensively than anyone else. And the problem is, conservationists are reading something they already know. This information is only reaching the politicians and corporates in fragmented pieces. To them, it’s like viewing a half- constructed jigsaw puzzle so they’re only getting half the message, but the urgency and extent of the problem is not being appreciated or adequately addressed.  

Against the backdrop of information overload, I believe the average working person out there simply does not have the time nor energy, or inclination, to take time out of their schedules, to really delve deep and think about the problem. At best, most people will get snippets through Discovery or Nat Geo Wild, or perhaps some other televised programme. But the problem is, very, very few people are appreciating the magnitude of the problem. And of course, it’s a fine line between being an alarmist and a pragmatic realist. 

The longer someone has been in conservation, the more acutely aware they are of the challenges our natural world is facing. It’s no surprise that renowned conservation celebrity Sir David Attenborough has made a passionate plea for people to sit up and take note. The problem, however, is that people are naturally attracted towards positive and upbeat news or events rather than facing uncomfortable truths. Take a marketing company, for example, that invests an equal amount of time and effort into marketing two side by side events – one a music concert with top artists, and the other a show on environmental destruction. The music concert will be sold out and the environmental show will attract perhaps a dozen pensioners or so. No one wants to hear about doom and gloom. So how do we go about creating awareness on such a disheartening subject, yet do it in a positive, creative, and upbeat manner? And I’m not convinced our celebrity artists can achieve this either. In 1981 Boney M released their song “Don’t kill the world” as an impassioned plea for environmental awareness, but 40 years later, that’s exactly what we’re doing…killing the natural world. 

there is a glimmer of hope…

I have recently read some thought provoking papers and these make worthwhile reading. They address some of the problems I’ve highlighted above, and some give us some hope that the effort behind conservation is not completely in vain. 

In a paper published in the journal Sustainability, Michael Gavin and colleagues make the point that effective biodiversity conservation requires dynamic, pluralistic and partnership-based approaches. In the paper they made a disconcerting claim: “Global-scale policy initiatives, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, have failed to curb the loss of biodiversity.” This is disheartening but when measured against the challenges of a growing human population, poverty, conflict and the overwhelming need for resources and land, this comes as no surprise. In this paper they discuss the principles of Champions of New Conservation Science (NCS) and Half Earth (HE) conservation approaches, but suggest a broader, integrative approach with a strong focus on indigenous communities. I have always been uncomfortable in assigning a specific category or approach to biodiversity conservation. Nature is dynamic and complicated; therefore a one-shoe fits all approach will never work. We need an adaptable, evidence-based, community-driven and integrated approach to conservation with a strong focus on education. Not enough is being done to teach communities living near threatened species about ecosystem services and the importance of those species within the environment. 

Another important paper is one published in Bioscience by William Ripple and Christopher Wolf (affiliated with the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University) with 11 258 scientist signatories and titled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency.” 

In this paper, a number of graphs are presented showing the rates of human consumption and reliance on fossil fuels and the associated negative environmental impacts. The rapid downward trajectories in many of these illustrative examples are truly alarming. 

On a slightly upbeat note, Friederike Bolam and colleagues, in the journal Conservation Letters, gives a review on how many bird and mammal extinctions have, through recent conservation action, been prevented. The results show that at least 28-48 bird and mammal extinctions were prevented between 1993 to 2020. Despite an estimated 15 confirmed or strongly suspected extinctions, this figure would have been much higher without active conservation management of these threatened species. Unfortunately, this paper never addressed amphibian and reptile species, which are declining at alarming rates and whose extinctions are more difficult to gauge. 

There is much to be done and we need a massive, collaborative effort to preserve the legacy of 4 billion years of evolution so that our children and their children and the generations that follow, can still appreciate a frog at the pond or a caterpillar emerging from its cocoon as a beautiful butterfly. 

And on conclusion, and in a positive light, read what Dr Jeanne Tarrant and the Endangered Wildlife Trust are doing for our threatened amphibians. The stories on the Pickersgill’s Reed Frog and Amathole Toad highlight some of the conservation success stories. 

Article and photos by: Warren Schmid

Warren holds a Master of Science degree in Ecological Sciences awarded by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He has three decades of experience in ecology, conservation science, invasion biology and herpetology. He has worked as a journalist, magazine editor, and lecturer, and has presented talks, seminars, and lectures.

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