Current Issues in Conservation: Week 1

Yesterday we eased into the Current Issues in Conservation module (part of the MSc Wildlife Management and Conservation) gently with some ‘small’ questions: what is conservation, who does it and how does it work?! There was a genuinely light ice-breaker as we each shared the best wildlife we’d seen over the Christmas break. These included penduline tits and a great northern diver in Gloucestershire, crocodiles and wintering yellow wagtails in Ghana, and rafts of surf scoters on the coast of Canada.

So, who are these mysterious ‘conservationists’? As a group we agreed to being labelled that way  but accepted that the word comes with some baggage, such as being dismissed as ‘tree-huggers’ or told ‘you must be depressed all the time’. Turning our thoughts outside the group, we suggested that many people must feel that wildlife contributes to their quality of life but that this rarely translates into action. Some students mentioned grandparents who felt nostalgic for the abundant wildlife of their youths, especially when told about species in decline like yellowhammers, which older generations remember being common. We wondered whether younger generations, especially, genuinely stay indoors too much and have lost their innate connection with the natural world, or whether this is just a perception. Later in the term we will do some hard thinking about how we as self-declared conservationists fit into the picture: are we really any different to ‘normal’ people?

Next we considered what it is that we as conservationists seek to conserve. Generally, the group felt we aim to conserve all wildlife, but do we really mean all? An honest appraisal suggests that in reality our actions and engagement are driven by our particular interests, which for most of the group means birds. For some in the group the initial spark that hooked them on wildlife came from encounters with charismatic wild mammals like hedgehogs and foxes, often in a garden or other urban setting. Despite frequent media citing of Attenborough documentaries or Springwatch as triggering much of the contemporary interest in wildlife, nobody mentioned television: for Reading students, inspiration appears to come from the real world.

Since one of the Christmas sightings mentioned was of an American mink, we discussed how invasive, non-native or otherwise undesirable species fit into our conservation philosophy. Some raised the argument that species should not deliberately be made extinct (whether locally or globally), however troublesome, as they are simply being themselves and should be allowed to exist in peace. However, there was general agreement with the idea that control of certain species in certain circumstances has a role to play in wildlife conservation.

How the decision to control should be made is an open question – do we need to draw a line in time, before which a species is definitely classed as non-native? If so, what is the right cut-off date? Or should the decision to control be based purely on the destructive potential of a species? In this case, should native species be under consideration and how destructive (and destructive of what) does a species need to become before we step in? To guide our discussion, we considered a hypothetical button which, if pressed, would instantly eradicate all American mink in the UK. Everybody agreed to press it, although some would feel bad about doing so.

We finished with a brief discussion of the varied public attitudes to potential wolf or lynx reintroductions. At times points were made which strayed towards being dismissive of concerns we don’t agree with, but all then agreed that publicly ridiculing opponents of whatever you are trying to achieve in conservation is at best counter-productive. Perhaps it’s more important to understand other points of view, using conversation to build a conservation consensus. After all, every conservation issue has people at its heart, since without people there would be no issues and indeed no wildlife conservation. As we go through this module, we will continue to consider the many ways that people think about and relate to the world around them – and each other – as the key to understanding conservation issues in the 21st century.

Conservation: what’s your viewpoint?

About Chris Foster

I am a Teaching Associate and PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences. My main interests are in birds and insects, but in the good old-fashioned spirit of natural history I try to keep an open mind and open eyes.
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