Saving our ‘Beloved Beasts’: Q&A with environmental journalist Michelle Nijhuis

By April 27, 2021Interview

A whooping Crane in Osceola County, Florida. Image: Wikimedia Commons

John C. Cannon, Mongabay | April 22, 2021

Read the original story here.

For more than 50 years, Earth Day has been a celebration of protecting the planet and the array of life, including us, that it supports. Though that common goal seems straightforward enough, the details are anything but. Ensuring the survival of species that populate the Earth turns out to be as complicated as the life-forms themselves, and the path humans have taken toward conservation turns out to be as full of missteps and U-turns as it is with conservation heroes and species pulled back from the brink.

Environmental and science journalist Michelle Nijhuis wrestles with the winding and sometimes problematic history of conservation in her new book, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction. As the title suggests, charismatic “beasts” such as eagles, rhinos and bison all make cameos in the book. She explores the troublesome backstory of turning points like the creation of protected areas in the U.S. and abroad. National parks and the like are cornerstones of conservation policy but are also reminders of past — and present — colonialist and racist approaches to dealing with the impact humans have on the environment. (For more on the current reckoning with such issues, read Nijhuis’s recent essay in The Atlantic, “Don’t Cancel John Muir. But don’t excuse him either.”)

The focus of the book is on the lives of the people who have grappled with that impact we have had on the rest of life on Earth and our attempts to save it. Nijhuis’s lively characters leap from the page in her deeply researched prose, revealing their flaws, quirks and influences, as well as the mark each left on conservation today.

Alongside chronicles of the “heroic efforts” to save species on the cusp of vanishing forever, Nijhuis builds the case for a more holistic conservation movement. “The time to protect a species is while it is still common,” according to Willard Van Name, a zoologist who tried to correct the course of the conservation movement in the first half of the 20th century. That idea filtered through the movement’s history, impacting key figures like Aldo Leopold, and today, it provides a sense of purpose and inclusion to conservation that reminds us about the importance of all life on Earth.

Nijhuis spoke with Mongabay in early April 2021.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: What led you to write this book, and what did you hope to accomplish?

Michelle Nijhuis: What directly motivated me to write a book about conservation history and to feel that it was useful was reading some recent studies that have tried to quantify how much certain species have benefited from conservation and tried to look at the counterfactuals and say, where would they be without these measures? Would they be on the slide toward extinction? And I thought, maybe there’s a place for a qualitative study as well. Maybe it would be useful to tell the story of where we’ve been, and how these arguments have developed over the past century or so with the idea of looking at both the successes of the conservation movement, which I think conservationists don’t often have time to look at.

Mongabay: We are in the midst of dealing with issues like material, gender and racial privilege, especially in the United States, and the book confronts those issues throughout the history of the conservation movement. I’m curious: How much did that influence your research and writing?

Michelle Nijhuis: I went into it thinking I wanted to tell as full a history as possible of conservation. There are histories out there that tend to be kind of celebratory, or they tend to be about a single person or a list of heroes of conservation. I think the full story is much more complicated. I knew I wanted to include those darker threads, but I think I went into it assuming that those would be things that I acknowledged, not things that were so central to the story.

To be clear, there’s nothing racist about the practice of conservation. It’s something we all need to do for survival, but there is a recurring theme of [racism]. Certainly, not all conservationists should or could be accused of racism. But in every generation, there are people who pick up these exclusionary ideas. I really became curious about that and wanted to examine why that keeps happening in conservation. It’s certainly the influences of surrounding society, but that’s not the whole story of why conservation so often falls into the trap of racism and colonialism.

As I discovered these recurrent themes in conservation history, it did become clear how relevant they were today, especially given the backdrop of the reckoning that we’re going through in the U.S. over race and the sad reverberations around the world. So I felt like bringing that to the forefront and wrestling with it a bit could provide an opportunity for the conservation movement to look at that history, and look at how it’s playing out in the present in ways that conservationists themselves may not be entirely conscious of. This history plays out when people start talking about new parks and reserves in developing countries there. They may be unintentionally echoing a whole history of displacement and deprivation that they’re not even aware of, but they shouldn’t be.

Mongabay: These problems for conservationists range from the eugenics movement of the early 20th century to concerns about the number of people on the planet, such as books like The Population Bomb published in the 1960s.

Michelle Nijhuis: I wouldn’t put The Population Bomb on the same level of shortsightedness as I would the eugenics reference, but I think its blind spots were similar in that it took an overly biological view of humanity. We didn’t have the same sensitivity to the complexity of humans as we did to the complexity of the rest of life on Earth. Population numbers are not the root cause of environmental destruction; they’re a symptom of deeper inequities. I think that a more much more productive way for the conservation movement to talk about population is to talk about how we deal with those inequities — for instance, in women’s health care and in education for girls, both of which are proven ways of reducing family size around the world.

Mongabay: Later in the book, you talk about the debate over sustainable development, and there are obviously still issues with achieving both conservation aims and protecting human rights and livelihoods. What do you see as ideas that are working to address those issues in tandem?

Michelle Nijhuis: Speaking extremely broadly, I think that the lesson of the drive for sustainable development was that there really are no win-win solutions in the short term. The conservation movement needs to acknowledge that conservation almost always does cost something in the short term. The challenge is to reduce those costs enough that people are willing to shoulder them for the sake of the long-term future of the species that they live with. The goal should be to both reduce those costs and perhaps return some benefits of conservation to the people who live alongside the species. I think experiments with community-led conservation in Africa and elsewhere have shown that when those short-term costs are reduced, people are quite concerned about the long-term future of the species they live next to. They don’t particularly want their species that they are familiar with to go extinct. They may be annoyed by elephants that are trampling their crops, or they may be afraid of rogue animals that occasionally do cause people harm. But if those costs and vulnerabilities can be reduced, people generally are interested in getting on board, not only because it benefits them, but because they care about the species.

Mongabay: As you point out in the book, the costs of conservation are overwhelmingly shouldered by some of the world’s most impoverished communities.

Michelle Nijhuis: Yeah, and I think the conservation movement has become more alert to that. These costs should not be borne by the most vulnerable among us. We should do much more to rebalance the costs and benefits of conservation.

Mongabay: You write about a trip you took to Namibia in 2019 and a community conservation meeting there. Can you talk about that experience?

Michelle Nijhuis: I had the opportunity to go to northern Namibia, where a system of community-based conservancies has been in operation for almost 30 years now. Local communities get together at least once a year and make decisions as a community as far as what the local hunting quotas will be, whether troublesome animals will be managed and, if so, how. Then they work with the national conservation department, who in turn works with international conservation bodies, to make sure that what’s happening at the local level is beneficial to species as a whole over the long term.

The system has had a lot of successes. It’s brought the population of black rhinos in northern Namibia back from almost literally the brink of extinction by instituting a system of local game guards that has really slowed or even stopped poaching in many places. It’s recovered a lot of other local species that were suffering due to poaching or drought, or the combined effects of both.

That meeting, which, as I write about, was pretty messy. It started late. There was an argument on the sidelines. There were plenty of off-topic conversations. Because of that messiness, I was almost surprised to realize when I stood up from that meeting [and] got ready to go, I was just exhilarated. I thought, you know, despite what’s happening on the surface here, these are people who have really don’t have a lot of material resources, but have traveled great distances to come to this meeting and talk about the long-term future of the species they live with. They’ve come to argue about it and figure out what’s the right thing to do moving forward. It made me feel like there really is something to this model, that it returned responsibility and a sense of investment to the people who depend most directly on the species for a living and live this closely with them.

Mongabay: How else did that trip impact you?

Michelle Nijhuis: One thing that I thought about a lot after being in Namibia and that I think the conservation movement could communicate more strongly to people of all walks of life is that conservation should be happening everywhere. It should be happening with the species we live alongside, which in many cases are not quite as charismatic and physically large as the species that people live alongside in Namibia, but are still important and that should be protected and cared for well before they’re endangered. In fact, that would be a very good idea to protect species long before they’re anywhere close to endangered. It would be much cheaper. It would be more effective. It would have accomplished what I see as the real mission of conservation, which is to protect relationships among species and our relationship with other species, rather than protecting single species in isolation only after their numbers have dwindled to almost nothing.

Mongabay: That idea of protecting common species while they’re common — that really stuck with me, I think because it’s different from so many of the conservation issues we cover as journalists.

Michelle Nijhuis: It has stuck with me too, especially as a journalist, because I do feel like the conservation movement — again, speaking very generally — tends to default to endangered, iconic, photogenic species to get its arguments across. Then I think we in the media follow that lead. We’ll feature this one very endangered, really cute animal. I think all that is understandable, and, to some extent, has served conservation well. But I think there’s so much to be done in filling in the rest of the story once we have people’s attention. Conservation is really a gradual process that happens over a long time, and it should be involving all sorts of species, not just these charismatic species. I think once you dig below the surface, these are all stories about people fighting for survival, either their own survival or the survival of other species or of life on Earth in general. If we can find ways to tell those stories in ways that connect with readers, I think we’ll be telling the fuller story of conservation.

Mongabay: In Namibia and elsewhere, a part of the community conservation model is hunting, which still seems anathema to many members of the conservation community. But at the same time, it also seems like hunting is a big part of why this model seems to be working. Did you feel that way when you were there?

Michelle Nijhuis: Yeah, very much. Part of the income stream to these conservancies is commercial hunting. Often that means just simply people coming in to hunt very common species, more or less like people might hunt deer in North America. But every once in a while, that means someone paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to shoot a rhino or another member of a very charismatic species that’s been chosen by the national government, [perhaps because it] has become troublesome in some way. For instance, the most recent case I know was a male black rhino that was quite advanced in age and was blocking younger males’ access to females, so he was causing a problem for the population at large. An American trophy hunter paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to kill that animal. It’s, of course, a third rail to many in North America and Europe to talk about trophy hunting, even in this very limited sense, as a part of conservation.

Being in Namibia was a reminder to me that it’s very hard to talk in broad global categories. When it comes to conservation, it’s very easy from a great distance to say, I oppose all trophy hunting everywhere and anywhere. But when you get up close, and you are talking about individual animals and the survival of individual people and communities and the correction of historical injustices, I think it becomes clear that there really is no broad category called trophy hunting. There are different tools that people can use to advance the larger project of conservation. And in many cases, those have to be decided case by case and situation by situation.

It was very clear to me, even for my short time in Namibia, that it was important to local people to have a steady supply of meat and to be able to have a sense of security from dangerous animals. But what was, beyond those practical concerns, at least as important to them about the community conservation system is that they did have a sense of power, and they had a sense of influence and of being a part of the larger system of governance. That was extremely important to them.

Mongabay: You also probe this question of how much we are part of the natural world alongside our proven ability to alter it.

Michelle Nijhuis: I think that’s one of the deepest questions in conservation. The person that I turn to with those questions, more often than not, is Aldo Leopold because I feel that his vision was both a backward-looking vision in the sense that he had a long view of history and knew better than many conservationists of his time and ours that all places have human stories. But it was also prescient in the sense that he recognized that, yes, humans are doing incredible destruction to the rest of life. He was very conscious of that and despaired about it at certain points in his life. But he maintained a faith that humans, despite the very real damage they could do and despite the fact that, yes, there may be places that we do want to protect from all human influence, given what we’ve done to the rest of the world, he maintains the faith that humans can also have a constructive role in the assemblage of life on Earth, that we can also do good.

Mongabay: There’s a good quote by Aldo Leopold in the book, to the effect that hopelessness shouldn’t prevent us from doing our best. Did that resonate with you?

Michelle Nijhuis: All the time. I have a very clear memory of thinking about it this summer when my family and I were trapped inside our house in Washington state, not only due to the pandemic, but due to wildfire smoke that was you choking our entire town, and looking out the window thinking, this really is not good. At this moment, I’m not feeling a lot of optimism about the future, and I do go back to that Leopold quote where he says that the future is hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best because none of us can predict the future. We may feel like declaring an apocalypse, but we don’t know the end of the story, and it’s arrogant to assume that we do. One of the benefits of looking at the history of conservation is recognizing how few people got to see the rewards of their work. Conservation victories come slowly, and they come after a lot of work by a lot of people. There are many people that we think of as iconic now who certainly didn’t see themselves as iconic and didn’t get to see just how important their work was during their lifetime. It’s a bleak sort of hope, but I think that can help us in times when the view in front of us is so dark. We can remind ourselves that it’s been dark for a lot of other people and that the work that they continue to do has proven to be worthwhile.