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Species, biodiversity, people, and the planet—the wellbeing of all is inextricably meshed.

By July 4, 2020Editorial

“Take care of your pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” I can still hear my maternal grandmother’s gentle chiding of her young grandson, whose pennies were always burning a hole in his trouser pockets. Sound advice and I wish I had been better at heeding it.

But when it comes to nature, I would like to make a case for also reversing the order. I suggest that if we take care of the great and glorious species that still inhabit the wilder corners of our planet, the little things, even if unnoticed, will thrive without help from us humans.

Species conservation, back in the 1980s and ’90s, was very much the order of the day. But then came something of a backlash, especially against the fundraising emphasis on gathering war chests to “save” familiar and appealing animals. Some scientists became highly critical of the unrelenting campaigns that many wildlife charities used (and still do) to spotlight the plight of whales, polar bears, tigers, pandas, et cetera. They claimed that such drives were drawing a disproportionate amount of funding into the research and conservation of a few impressively huge, or cute and cuddly species. This, they said, was to the detriment of countless other, less glamorous critters and the ecosystems of which they were a part.

This criticism came in the wake of a novel concept of measuring the health of the natural world. In 1985, a new rallying cry was heard in conservation symposia and conferences—the term biodiversity had been born. It gathered some momentum, especially after the great thinker and biologist E. O. Wilson published his book Biodiversity in 1988. But the term remained largely unused outside the rarefied groves of academe. Now, of course, it is a buzzword of note. One would be hard pushed to read, write, hear, or watch anything even remotely about conservation without the word leaping out of almost every sentence. Where would we be without the constant warnings that just as we’ve “found” biodiversity, so we are losing it at an unprecedented and highly alarming rate?

At its root, biodiversity is a hefty, multidimensional concept. It embraces notions of “genetic diversity in a local population, the species richness of a local community or region, the diversity of functional groups (such as primary producers, herbivores, etc.) in a particular ecosystem, the diversity of habitats making up an ecosystem, and so on.” More accessibly, it refers to the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat. And a useful corollary is that it is generally a Good Thing to have lots of it. Wilson saw the importance of biodiversity as being a dramatic transformation for biologists from a “bits and pieces” approach to a much more holistic overview of wildlife conservation.

He was right, and biodiversity continues to motivate a large part of conservation thinking and policy. But then, in 2012 came another sea change when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (exclusively focused on humanitarian efforts) gave a grant of $10 million to Conservation International (an NGO firmly rooted in conserving biodiversity). Jeremy Hance describes this seminal event in his excellent series of articles for Mongabay on conservation’s changing nature. The grant was awarded to improve agricultural production in a remote part of Tanzania by showing how farming depended on faraway natural resources.

This and other similar events have attracted mega donations from wealthy foundations and corporations. And in many ways, big NGOs have significantly altered their missions (as Hance puts it) “from a wildlife centric approach to a human-centric one…to catch the really, really big fish like the Gates Foundation.”

Fundamentally it’s about doing what is needed to attract money. This is understandable. As much as it is accepted that good works in conservation won’t happen without generous charitable support, it is also recognized that conservation efforts will likely fail unless community benefits are at the forefront of desired outcomes. But it would be a sadness, and wrong, if this “new conservation” was to trump the interests of wildlife and their habitats.

This should never be the case, for wildlife and humanity are not at odds. The well-being of both is inextricably meshed in the environmental whole that is our home—our ball of rock, water, and air hurtling through the cosmos.

Polar bears can’t live without the Arctic ice, and the great whales can’t exist without the bounty of the oceans. Tigers and pandas can’t live without the forests of Asia or bears without the north’s temperate forests. And lions, elephants, and rhinos need the great plains of Africa. These and other charismatic species are our “pounds”—for them to thrive, vast swathes of healthy habitat are required.

Then, if the biomes of the world are in a robust state, the millions of other life forms, “the pennies,” will undoubtedly also thrive. And, dare I say it, so shall people.

P.S. MYSTERIOUS ELEPHANT DEATHS  Today we learned of more elephant deaths in Botswana. The total deaths since early May now stand at more than 350, a mass die-off unprecedented other than in times of severe and prolonged drought. Some 70 percent of the deaths have reportedly happened around water holes. As yet, no reasons have been given as to the cause. The Botswana government has been extremely tardy in its response, and we at the Shannon Elizabeth Foundation add our voices to the call for Botswana to conduct tests via an accredited laboratory without further delay.

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