05 December 2010

Literally a conversation on conservation

I don't know how I'm going to put this in a single blog post, and in the process of writing it, it's become something completely different to what I intended. Essentially, I think it's about the meaning of conservation. I guess it's somewhat about my own personal journey in terms of understanding all this. I got into a lovely little discussion over it yesterday - it may have been via Facebook commenting but it was the kind of discussion that gets you thinking. I used it as proof and reassurance to my dad that my education at UCT hasn't been a waste so far, that I am actually learning :P
Firstly I want to bring up a few cases of single species conservation programs that I've come across and been inspired by, starting with the story of the Kihansi spray toad. My own story with this species started in September 2006. It was my first year at AISJ, I was in grade 10, and I decided to join the school's JOMUN (Johannesburg Model United Nations) programme. I joined the Environment Committee of course, and one of the issues we were debating on that year was the implementation of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). In line with this topic, on the first or second day of the conference, we had a guest speaker come in and talk to us about the CBD and projects that have been undertaken globally to conserve biodiversity - one of these being the Kihansi spray toad. Now that I think about it, I think the speaker might have incidentally been from the World Bank. To be honest, at the time, it didn't really phase me. But that JOMUN conference was the beginning of me actually doing something about my passion for the environment. Prior to that, the only action I took was helping some stray dogs in Delhi. A few years later, the Kihansi spray toad came back to me in the form of an extremely depressing article that declared the Kihansi spray toad officially extinct in the wild, in spite of efforts to salvage the population. At first I thought, why does this frog sound so familiar? Once it dawned on me, I spent a couple of days being seriously upset about it, the Kihansi spray toad became somewhat of a symbol of species conservation to me. The toad got some tears out of me until a friend cheered me up by reminding me of the fact that this is just one failure, and that there are always success stories too (coupled with an article on peregrine falcons making a return to Manhattan skies :D). Another year later and I found the Kihansi spray toad's very own success story of rehabilitation. It's this little amphibian's story on which I base a lot of my passion and belief in single species conservation.
Recently I've been coming across more of these stories of perseverence in single species conservation efforts, and good lord do they cheer you up when all you read otherwise is stories about failing climate negotiations and shark finning. One of these was about efforts to make barn owls prevalent in the UK again (not so much a success story, I just love the commitment), the other one which I saw yesterday was about giant panda captive breeding finally meeting some success (which triggered the facebook debate). The fight to save giant pandas has been running for decades, mostly being fought in zoos around the world. If there's a global symbol of single species conservation efforts - it's the panda. After all, it is WWF's logo - probably one of the world's only widely recognised brands for conservation. Maybe it's my obsessive personality speaking, but I've always felt that single species conservation holds huge importance in the "saving the planet" field. And sure enough, I'm currently sitting in a WWF office with walls covered in red panda, tiger and Gangetic dolphin posters. But in the last year and a half, a combination of increased maturity, lots of free time after graduating, reading, studying at UCT and meeting people like Kyran and Nick (two of the most opinionated biologists you'll ever meet) has forced me to rethink my views on what the world should be like. I've gotten into heated debates with people, been pissed off at lecturers teaching us that conservation has to be big thinking rather than at the species level or about how maybe elephant culling is one of the only viable management strategies, struggled with academics and where my passions lie, what I want to later specialise in, the list goes on... At the same time I've also become addicted to Whale Wars in the past year and I confess, I've been pretty brainwashed by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and for now, I still stand by my little dream to one day volunteer in the Southern Ocean on the Steve Irwin.

So that was quite the sidetrack. The point is, I've really struggled with my understanding of what conservation should mean and what that should translate to on the ground, in the field and in policy-making. I obviously know that single species isn't the way to make a difference (unless it's a keystone species with an important ecological niche), it's the entire ecosystem that you want to protect. But I can't help still being a strong advocate of captive breeding endangered populations, etc. Being from India, I guess it's because of our own species in danger of extinction that I feel this way - the tiger, Asiatic lion, red panda, leopards (snow, clouded, Indian), Indus and Ganga river dolphins, rhino, olive ridley turtles - and those are just our flagship ones.

The question now is how do you develop the right model to conserve an ecosystem, establish a protected area, and protect all the species in that range? How do you then incorporate that model into policy decisions? It's so easy to criticise existing systems, but how do you change them so that they're actually doing what they set out to do, what they should be designed to do? How do you find the funding to do it all? How do you make policy makers worldwide understand the need for this proper system? To provide funding for it? How do you make it so that conferences like these UN Biodiversity Summits actually make a difference and aren't just numbers on paper for delegates to negotiate without understanding? I could go on with these somewhat cynical questions, unfortunately, I have no real answers for them (yet). It's an area with so much scope for research, funding, implementation and appreciation since it's probably one of the most rewarding areas.
Here's a concept I hadn't heard of till yesterday (thank you Kyran), paper parks:
"Many protected areas are only protected in writing and have little to no real protection. Numerous studies indicate that 80 to 90% of existing protected areas lack proper enforcement and management operations to ensure that the plants, animals, and ecosystems within them are truly protected – essentially defeating the purpose of protecting the area in the first place. Even worse, many conservation organizations to continue to push for the creation of new protected areas often at the expense of existing protected areas. Fighting Paper Parks employs direct action against this problem by applying funding and resources directly to enforcement and management operations in the world’s most important protected areas." - fightingpaperparks.org

It sounds almost like a conservation conspiracy theory. I'm looking into it more now and I'm finding so many little organisations like Fighting Paper Parks that talk about this "silent crisis". What I really want to look into is paper parks in India. Because the term "park" gets thrown around a lot here... maybe the model works, like I said it's easy to criticise an existing model - but I was shocked to discover that most of what we call Corbett National Park is in fact just a "buffer zone" as opposed to "core area". It's great that access to the core area is prohibited, but the fact remains that this buffer zone is a bunch of villages and towns. Being an Indian who's lived abroad her whole life and doesn't know Indian conservation issues very well, I'll stop my criticism there because no other country has to deal with population pressure like we do (though the fact that we have to in the first place is bad enough), but I personally find the concept of a buffer zone extremely counter productive if you're talking about saving tigers and forested areas. Anyway, enough cynicism because I'm losing the point here. I guess I've decided that this is one area I'd like to work on and find answers for.

This post hasn't answered any questions , I guess it just elucidated the problem and where I've decided my passions (at least currently) lie. It does also set the stage for one of my main interests - trying to fix India's conservation model, maybe even by borrowing from the South African model, which I think is quite successful for the most part from what I know of it.

More Kihansi spray toad articles:


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