An open story about wildlife conservation

Ttoday’s environmentalists are taxed to protect living embodiments of nature’s tens of millions of years of creation, and they face unprecedented challenges in doing so – from climate change and habitat destruction to pollution and trade unsustainable wildlife. Since extinction is the price of failure, there is little forgiveness for error. Success requires balancing not only the complexities of species and habitats, but also of people and politics. With around 1 million species now threatened with extinction, conservationists need all the help they can get.

Yet the past – a key repository of lessons hard learned through trial and error – is too often forgotten or overlooked by conservation practitioners today. In “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in the Age of ExtinctionJournalist Michelle Nijhuis shows that history can help contextualize and guide modern conservation. Indeed, it is arguably only in the last 200 years or so that a few scattered individuals have begun to seriously consider the need to save species – and it is only in the last 50 years that conservation biology has even emerged as a separate field.

“Beloved Beasts” reads like an investigation of the who’s who and the greatest moments of decades of development. Through the eyes and actions of individuals, it portrays the evolution of the surprisingly young realm from an almost uniquely pursuit of the privileged Western elite to “a movement that is shaped by many people, many places and many species. “.

It is in the staff gray area, however, that the book is most fascinating. Even the most famous and successful environmentalists had human flaws, and Nijhuis is not afraid of those details. As she writes, “The history of modern species conservation is full of people who did the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons.”

In one chapter, for example, Nijhuis tells the story of William Temple Hornaday, an American taxidermist who was the first director of what is now the Bronx Zoo, and who is credited with saving the American bison from the extinction. By the end of the 19th century, there was clear evidence that the bison, a species that once numbered in the tens of millions, was on the verge of extinction due to excessive and gratuitous hunting. Yet at the time, most people believed that “species were static and enduring,” writes Nijhuis, and those who heard about the fall of the American buffalo mostly responded with a shrug.

Strangely for his time, Hornaday became obsessed with the animal’s plight. He decided that the only way to save the species from extinction was to establish a captive herd to, as he writes, “atone for the national shame which attaches to the heartless and senseless extermination of the world. ‘species in the wild’. With the support of Theodore Roosevelt, Hornaday established a small herd of bison in the Bronx in 1905, whose urban descendants became the founders of some of the 500,000 bison that survive today. More than simply saving a species, Hornaday’s work has helped publicize extinction as an “unnecessary tragedy” rather than an inevitable cost of expansion, writes Nijhuis.

Yet for all the good he has done for the natural world, Nijhuis points out that Hornaday’s successes – like many conservation gains from the 19th and 20th centuries – were built on a foundation of nationalism, sexism, and racism. . “For Hornaday and his allies, bison rescue had nothing to do with people who depended on the species – and a lot to do with their own self-delusions,” Nijhuis writes.

Bison were slaughtered en masse in the 1800s, not only for their skins, but also “as a practical means of controlling” Native Americans who depended on animals for food, writes Nijhuis. At the same time, white men like Hornaday and Roosevelt began to appropriate the bison as a symbol of wild Caucasian masculinity, both for the animals’ association with “hard living” and as a prime target. for the rich white hunters. Despite evidence to the contrary, Hornaday attributed partial responsibility for the bison’s disappearance to Native Americans, and its Bronx-raised bison, Nijhuis points out, was released on land seized from the Apache, Comanche and Kiowa. Protecting the bison therefore meant protecting “a perniciously exclusive version of natural progress,” writes Nijhuis.

With each subsequent generation, however, the field of conservation has gradually improved in scope and ethics. In his old age, Hornaday, for example, supported and encouraged Rosalie Edge’s environmental activism and education. A bird-loving New York socialite, Edge helped reform the Audubon Society, which at the time supported the eradication of raptors and opposed tightening hunting restrictions.

A year before the term “ecosystem” was coined in 1934, Edge discussed with Hornaday a revolutionary realization she had come to: that species should be protected not just because they are of interest to them. humans – as Hornaday and the men of his time had motivated. – but because each one forms a vital link in a living chain. A decade after Edge and Hornaday’s conversation, the centrality and fragility of ecological ties would become all the more apparent when Rachel Carson reflected on the impacts of the pesticide DDT on raptors at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, a protected area founded by Edge.

Ideas and connections continued to develop. Around the same time that Edge was campaigning for birds, Aldo Leopold popularized the idea that ecosystems, not just species, must be protected, and that game is a public trust that should be managed by scientific law. . This change in the zeitgeist resulted in the North American model of wildlife conservation. Leopold “believed that it was possible to love other species and use them wisely too,” writes Nijhuis.

The conservation movement gained momentum in the wake of World War II, writes Nijhuis, when the word “global” became more widely used and the interdependence of the world – both ecological and human – became. blatant. Data compiled by the new International Union for the Conservation of Nature also revealed how many species were threatened with extinction and shifted the focus of the movement towards emergency relief. But as conservation spread to other continents, especially Africa, it continued to face various growing pains, including racist views about independent Africa’s inability to manage. its own natural resources. “Many foreign environmentalists saw the African landscape as John Muir saw Yosemite – as an extraordinary place meant to be visited, not inhabited,” writes Nijhuis.

This so-called fortress conservation approach continued in the 1950s and 1960s – a top-down endeavor in which global authorities ultimately inform national and local programs – has since been criticized and has been increasingly replaced by a version of the conservation that recognizes that humans are an inextricable part of the landscape. Moreover, time and time again, conservationists have learned (often the hard way) that protecting wild places can never be successful without the buy-in of the people who live there. “To protect biodiversity – to provide other species with the resources they need to adapt, survive and thrive – environmentalists, including conservation biologists, have had to persuade some of their fellow human beings to make sacrifices, at the same time. less in the short term, ”Nijhuis said. writing.

The problem, Nijhuis continues, “is not inattention to human needs, but inattention to human complexity.” Environmentalists too often see humanity in the same way they would for a population of species that fits into a single ecological niche with defined relationships and dependencies, argues Nijhuis, rather than as thinking beings and endowed with technologies aware of our place among other species and with each other. We are not passive players either. “As the perfect future transforms into the perfect present, we can focus on creating a tolerable present and future – for ourselves and for the rest of life,” writes Nijhuis.

However, the decisions we make are often unpredictable, informed by a wide range of social, cultural and individual factors. “Conservation biology, in other words, cannot be left to biologists alone,” writes Nijhuis. It is for this reason that the field began to draw on other areas of expertise outside of pure ecology, including economics, politics, social sciences, etc. This need for diversity – not only in nature but also within human efforts to protect it – is something that Leopold and others recognized decades ago, but which is only now beginning to materialize in practical ways. .

History is also an integral part of this complexity. Just as we can’t protect something we don’t know exists, neither can past failures and successes be used for future gains if history is forgotten. “Beloved Beasts” is therefore a must read and necessary for anyone interested in the field of conservation. As Nijhuis writes, “We can move forward by understanding the history of struggle and survival that we already have – and seeing the possibilities in what remains to be written.”

This article was originally published on Darkness. Read it original article.

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