Conservation and science: what can we learn and where are we heading?

Wednesday at INTECOL saw Professor Georgina Mace give a plenary talk about the state of conservation science and practice in the 21st century and what directions we need to go in the future. The overall message? Well, in the words of perhaps an unlikely source – ex US president Theodore Roosevelt- ‘conservation means development as much as it does protection’.

The role of conservation in today’s world is an obvious one: habitats are being lost or fragmented, environments are being degraded and biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate. At the same time, conservation science is exploding, from work into understanding biodiversity declines to predicting the future challenges and solutions. However, as Georgina argued from the beginning of the session, a key challenge that faces conservation science and its practice more generally is defining who or what conservation is for. Often people, whether they are scientists, practitioners or volunteers can get lost in the passion for conservation and forget the core reasons regarding the benefits conservation is doing for who or what.

Linked to this central idea, we can see through time how conservation itself has changed in its focus and objectives. Using some clever use of word clouds to reflect this shift, Georgina led us through these changes which have occurred predominantly since the 1960s. Conservation is increasingly moving from preserving species and systems towards maintaining it for now and the future. There were four major stages of change that Georgina identified:

  1. Nature for itself – this focuses around conserving species, beautiful landscapes and wilderness areas.
  2. Nature despite people – conservation starts to address the threats and drivers of change.
  3. Nature for people – increasingly focus towards recognising that nature benefits us through the services it provides.
  4. People and nature – conservation takes a more socio-ecological perspective, with greater human focus and links to resilience and adaptability.

Stage 4 is where current conservation is at, and should and will continue to go in the future. Our conservation problems are intimately tied up with people, and therefore often require people-driven solutions.

In line with this change in the way conservation has been undertaken, the science that underpins the decisions made has also altered. Georgina introduced us to a variety of conservation research, from population persistence to extinction risks and climate changes. However, for successful conservation, we are increasingly in need of a wider scope of disciplines to answer the complex and multidisciplinary conservation problems. Whilst fundamental ecological questions need to be addressed, other disciplines like genetics, evolution and biogeography are needed to help in predictions and answering more complex issues.

Yet, this alone is not enough; the role of social science and economics is essential if conservation is to be effective into the future. Therefore, it is hugely important that collaborations and communication between these disciplines is increased, and with more technologies and knowledge exchange bases, this should be increasingly easier to do. Indeed, conservation should work to become not only for nature, but also to aid wellbeing of humans and our own future development.