Conservation questions

A workshop on conservation philosophy in the 2013 edition of the Student Conference on Conservation Science, Bangalore, started off with a discussion of the question, ‘Why conserve?’  Most participants said, ‘Oh, I love this species so much… it’s so beautiful! I can’t imagine a world without it.  So the species must be conserved.’  Questions that would naturally follow are, ‘Why should public money be spent on something you find beautiful?’; ‘What if someone (say a farmer who loses his produce) hates the same animal you love?’  What if someone feels, in a country struggling for land for food and shelter, the Taj Mahal is a waste of real estate?

There’s also the question of what to conserve.  Humans in general appreciate beauty, and several ‘charismatic’ animals, and ‘iconic’ birds with rare and colourful displays, are protected for their looks, by their looks*.  For instance, a lesser prairie chicken conservation biologist says**, ‘Watch them for a morning… Then tell me whether or not they should just disappear from the landscape’.  For some species, there’s a philosophical connect; a species can be an epitome of lofty values and emotions, or a symbol of the magical and mythical, like the ‘Asian unicorn’, the saola***.  The quest to find it may be analogous in ardour to the search for enlightenment.  But the question then is, what will you sacrifice to protect a beautiful species? A less beautiful one? Sometimes, to protect grassland species like the Indian gazelle, or the chinkara, and the Great Indian Bustard, grass seeds are brought from elsewhere and sown, black soil which is supposed to be good for the new grass is procured in truckloads, fences are erected to ward off other herbivores that might eat up grass that is painstakingly cultivated.  But what if all this kills off the last surviving population of a species of grass?  How much alteration can one make to a grassland while also ‘conserving’ it?

Some questions need to be asked.  Some questions need not have answers.

* A very useful trait for a species in the modern times would be ‘visibility to humans’.  Striking animals like the tiger or the sage grouse score (as against a species of herb growing in a forest understorey, say, or a tiny mushroom growing under logs); so would animals that are extremely numerous (we notice the decline in house sparrow numbers, for instance).

** In an article in Science about efforts to save this species of bird, declared ‘threatened’ after numbers plummeted following a severe drought, and the potential of these efforts to inform other endangered species conservation strategies.

*** A book by William deBuys describes a journey to find the saola.  I recently read a review in Science, and an interview with the author.

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