Thoughts on Scientific Conservation
By Udayan Borthakur
It's a fact that the species are fast disappearing from the frame, yet even today we are unable to adopt a strategy for scientific evaluation of conservation priorities.
Biodiversity conservation in the common terms is viewed as an effort to keep a consortium of species alive in a particular area. Many also view conservation as an acronym to development and this is why biodiversity often faces the wrath of economic and political demands. It is imperative to say that such economic demands are based on rather short term requirements, as the long term economic benefits of biodiversity conservation are often unseen or rather ignored. It is the economic and political demand for space and the limited nature of resources that makes prioritization of conservation actions peremptory. Such calls are almost always made by the policy makers with a limited biological foundation, and prioritization of space or species to conserve is often decided based upon anecdotes and myths rather than systematic appraisal of evidences.
The point of this discussion is not how or what in the local context but why do we need systematic appraisal of evidences, or in a plain language, the philosophy of science in determining conservation priorities. The present practice of localized and species-based conservation actions has short term benefits, but it often diverts the attention from the global scenario of rapid loss of biodiversity. Flagship species or the focus species that can draw public attention, at the time of concept inception, was only meant to raise public and financial support for conservation. The deplorable situation of current conservation practices is that flagship species conservation marks areas for conservation which may often be less significant from overall biodiversity point of view. This minimalist approach is even dear to the politicians, as it provides a way to determine “how much” in the name of conservation or how to project species conservation success for political benefits. Even the species-experts or the scientists conducting scientific research on a particular species try to project a single species survival requirements as the ultimate goal of conservation, particularly in an area occupied by it. Though this concept is apparently working in raising funds and popularity for conservation, determining conservation priorities at a landscape level need consideration far beyond the requirements of survival of a species or two. Species based approaches will work for the greater benefit of biodiversity only when such species are selected subsequent to and not prior to determining the overall biodiversity conservation priorities.
So when we discuss about why science in conservation, we also need to be aware that all kinds of systematic appraisals of evidence in the natural world may not be equally important in determining biodiversity conservation priorities. Thus successful biodiversity conservation not only demands the herculean task of convincing the politicians and the policy makers, it also needs prioritization of the very scientific approaches in biodiversity research which is meant for conservation. Since the word priority comes hand in hand with minimization of resource utilization for the given task, anyone attempting such refinement of approach towards biodiversity conservation would have to deal with the overbearing need of providing an alternate way to the policy makers to easily measure and project conservation success.
And this is where my thought process stops, and I begin looking at science based conservation as still a fantasy!
* Article republished from Biolink December 2014 issue.
Udayan Borthakur is a wildlife biologist, nature photographer and filmmaker working with Aaranyak. He specialises in conservation genetics of threatened species, having 15 years of experience of working in India and abroad.