The human population constantly grows, producing more pollution and consuming more resources. This issue has brought to light the great need for humans to protect the earth as we consume resources faster than the environment can replenish them.
Conservation is the protection and management of ecosystems by humans; it is seen as an ethical, religious, or cultural duty to preserve life on earth for many people. There are also personal and economic reasons for conservation: our species rely on the productivity of many other species to live. Thus, it is in our best interest to maintain and ensure the survival of different species.
Conservation refers to how the environment, its inhabitants, and the resources it provides are protected through careful management and human intervention.
Examples of conservation in ecology
Several conservation projects and structures have already been established, six of which include:
- National Parks
- Marine Parks
- Frozen Zoos
- Botanical gardens
- Seed banks
National parks are areas in which the wildlife and environment are protected. The activity of humans on this land is highly regulated. National parks aim to protect wild species in their natural habitats.
The Lake District, Brecon Beacons, and North York Moors are national parks in the UK.
Marine parks are similar to national parks but for conserving endangered marine ecosystems and species. They have restrictions that prohibit overfishing and pollution.
National and Marine parks can attract thousands of tourists each year, which increases money and awareness for the conservation effort.
When a species cannot be sustained in its natural environment, zoos are used. Endangered species are placed in captivity to be conserved. Sometimes the offspring of individuals are released into the wild through breeding programmes. Zoos also allow research as scientists can closely study animals’ behaviours, needs, and genetics. Despite this, zoos can reduce genetic diversity and don’t provide a suitable environment for animals.
Endangered species refers to species that are being threatened with extinction.
Frozen zoos store the genetic information of animals at extremely low temperatures so that they are preserved and can then be used to breed more individuals of a species through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and genetic engineering. It becomes important when traditional conservation methods are no longer useful.
Genetic engineering involves the deliberate modification of DNA using gene technology. This procedure includes CRISPR-Cas9, which allows the precise insertion and deletion of DNA bases.
Botanic gardens are essentially zoos for plants. Cuttings and seeds are used to develop a species population in captivity that can later be reintroduced into habitats. Tissue culturing and cloning can also obtain large numbers of plants from a small sample size.
Figure 1. The Singapore botanic gardens. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Seed banks dry and store seeds in temperature-controlled environments to be used to regrow extinct plant species. As seeds only last a relatively short time, they are grown into plants and fresh seeds harvested every so often.
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)
An area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) is an area in the UK that is marked for conservation because of its considerable landscape value and scenic beauty.
In England, some of the AONB’s include Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and the North Devon Coast.
UNESCO world heritage sites
UNESCO World Heritage Sites were created by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). They are important sites around the globe that are identified as part of an effort to preserve the world’s cultural and natural heritage. World Heritage Sites show the development of human history time and represent the diversity of our planet. There are more than 1,000 World Heritage sites across the globe, and they fit into three categories:
- Cultural (such as temples)
- Natural (such as rainforests)
The UNESCO sites include the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Mogao caves in China and the Speyer Cathedral in Germany.
How do humans affect succession?
Human activities often alter the process of succession in many types of ecosystems. For instance, humans can clear and repurpose wide areas of land very quickly, destroying established ecosystems and preventing recolonisation from occurring.
Agricultural, residential, and recreational land are usually highly controlled by humans. For instance, the crops grown in farms are carefully controlled, and naturally occurring weeds are prevented from growing. Thus, a climax community cannot develop. However, as we will learn, this is not always bad!
Succession: the process of change in the species structure of an ecological community over time.
Climax community: the final stage of ecological succession that a community can achieve.
When ecosystems move between different stages of succession, different species can be lost as they are either:
- Outcompeted by more dominant species
- Their habitats are destroyed or significantly altered
Human activities can disrupt the ecosystem even further and enhance progression to the next stage of succession.
Communities at intermediate stages of succession are more diverse than climax communities and often contain species that could not survive progression to the climax community. These species might be rare or endangered or provide vital resources for other species. Diverse communities are more resilient to change and disruption. Because of this, from a conservation point of view, it can be beneficial to deliberately prevent succession from proceeding in specific environments such as these diverse communities. Habitats and the species they harbour can thus be preserved by artificially managing the process of succession.
There are several methods we can use to prevent succession deliberately. For instance, habitats such as moorland support a wide array of mosses, low-growing plants, birds, reptiles, and insects. If succession occurs, the moorland would be turned into deciduous woodland with a different collection of species. However, the introduction of grazing animals at strategic points – for instance, when new shrubs and trees are beginning to grow – can prevent succession from occurring. Controlled fires can also be lit to clear new growth and allow key moorland plants to recolonise the area.
Succession often involves drastic changes to an ecosystem that affect certain species’ survival rate. It is useful to harness your knowledge about natural selection and evolution when studying conservation methods. It provides you with an understanding of how populations react to environmental changes and what leads to their extinction. This knowledge can be used to help populations and species survive.
Conflicting interests between conservation and human need
As we saw above, habitats can be conserved through carefully controlled methods that come at the expense of particular species or resources. However, many human activities require excessive consumption of resources and are detrimental to ecosystems.
This problem has become particularly apparent as the human population grows and becomes more economically developed, requiring more and more resources to survive at an acceptable standard of living. Because of this, there is considerable conflict between human needs and conservation goals.
Take, for example, a coastal village that relies on the fish living in coral reefs both for food and income.
- Due to climate change, the coral reef experiences episodes of coral bleaching that kill the coral and reduce the carrying capacity for fish.
- As a result, fishermen experience economic losses and are driven to fish more than usual, further decreasing the fish stock.
- Eventually, they might turn to more destructive practices such as dynamite fishing, which damages the reef itself.
- If the overfishing continues, the coral reef population will decline into extinction.
- If the fisherfolk do not catch enough fish, they will not earn enough to support their families.
Carrying capacity refers to the maximum number of individuals a population can support, given its habitat.
Even after well-meaning interventions are put into place to conserve wildlife, communities may still end up paying a considerable cost to coexist with wild animals without gaining much benefit.
Some rural communities in Zimbabwe that border protected areas suffer livestock losses due to predation from lions, baboons and leopards but do not have the resources to protect themselves and their means of living. Poorer communities thus have a much harder time balancing their own needs with conservation efforts.
As we have seen above, the conflict between humans and conservation is often complex and multidimensional, and thus it is often difficult to resolve. Resolution requires careful and empathetic consideration of a wide array of factors, including the economic needs of the people, their capacity to enact specific tasks, and even the historical circumstances that led to the conflicts they currently face. Resolution can be tough when one or more of the deciding parties involved prefer to prioritise short-term benefits such as financial profit over long term sustainability.
However, with enough effort, it is still possible to develop resource management practices that balance human needs and conservation. Many interventions have been made to conserve biodiversity worldwide, such as the creation of protected areas, conservation laws, and breeding and repopulation programs. It is important to continuously evaluate the success and sustainability of these efforts and keep doing as much as possible to prevent further loss of the world’s biodiversity.
Conservation biologists are extremely helpful as they help protect ecosystems and natural wildlife habitats by using research and observational data. This involves working closely with landowners and the government. They monitor environmental indicators such as environmental conditions and population sizes.
Conservation - Key takeaways
Conservation is the protection and management of ecosystems by human intervention.
There are many reasons why we should conserve biodiversity on earth, including ethical, moral, religious, personal, and economic motivations.
Due to human activities, communities may not reach the climax stage; however, this is not always a bad thing.
Habitats can be deliberately prevented from moving into the next stage of succession to preserve their biodiversity.
The conflict between humans and conservation is often complex and multidimensional. Resolution requires careful and empathetic consideration of many factors.