Sudan, the last northern rhino male has died. Rhinos, lions and elephants are in danger of being wiped out in the wild.
We hear similar tales of woe all the time, from all around the world. Whether it’s tigers, pandas, California condors or African Penguins, much of the world’s wildlife is under threat. It’s initially upsetting, and eventually just numbing.
Is it worth worrying about it all? Sure, it will be sad if there aren’t any more cute pandas on the planet, but it’s not like we depend on them. Besides, surely it’s more important to take care of humans than to spend millions on preserving animals. What, in short, is the point of conservation?
On the face of it, there are plenty of reasons why we shouldn’t bother to save endangered species. The most obvious is the staggering cost involved.
Species go extinct all the time anyway. As well as individual species dying out, there have been five mass extinctions that obliterated swathes of species. The most recent one, 65 million years ago, took out the dinosaurs. If extinction is a natural process that goes on even in the absence of humans, why should we stop it?
One answer is that species are now going extinct far faster than they used to. A recent study estimated that the extinction rate has increased a hundredfold over the last century, and humans seem to be to blame.
But beyond that, there’s a simple reason to save species: because we want to.
Many of us love the natural world. We think animals are cute, majestic, or just plain fascinating. We love walking in our fynbos reserves or scuba-diving over a coral reef. Who doesn’t think chameleons are awesome? Nature is beautiful, and that aesthetic value is a reason to keep it, just as we preserve artistic masterpieces.
But the fact that some of us find nature beautiful, by itself, is not enough. There needs to be a more practical reason to keep species around.
The big leap forward came in the 1990s, when biologists started outlining all the ways animals and plants benefit us just by being there. These benefits, which most of us take for granted, are called “ecosystem services”.
Some of these services are obvious. For instance, there are plants and animals that we eat. Meanwhile, photosynthetic plankton in the sea, and green plants, provide us with the oxygen we breathe. These are quite direct, but sometimes the services provided can be more subtle. Pollinating insects like bumblebees are an obvious example. Many of our crop plants rely on these insects to produce seeds, and would not survive – let alone provide us with food – without them. This is why the decline in pollinating insects has provoked so much concern.
Let’s not even get started on the millions of microorganisms living in our gut, many of which are enormously beneficial.
The problem is that mostly we don’t even understand how a myriad of organisms interact with each other to produce a healthy eco-system. It is far easier to let the existing wildlife function intact.
The scale of these ecosystem services, when you add them up, turns out to be extraordinarily large.
In 1997, ecologist Robert Costanza and his colleagues estimated that the biosphere provides services worth around $33 trillion a year – that’s R400 trillion a year. For comparison, they noted that the entire global economy at the time produced around R200 trillion a year. Unchecked species loss would wipe 18% off global economic output by 2050.
Five years later, the team took the argument a step further by asking how much we would gain by conserving biodiversity. They concluded that the benefits would outweigh the costs by a factor of 100. In other words, conserving nature is a staggeringly good investment.
Many conservation groups now support putting a value on ecosystems. Take the idea that nature is beautiful and we should preserve it for its aesthetics and wonder. Our pleasure at the beauty of nature can now be thought of as an ecosystem service. Nature provides us with beauty.
If we value something and are prepared to pay to have it, then it has value. You may well ask how we can put a price on that. How do you objectively measure beauty? Well, you can’t, but that doesn’t stop us deciding what it’s worth. We do it all the time with paintings, music and other forms of art. If we value something and are prepared to pay to have it, then it has value.
To do the same thing with nature, we just need a system that allows us to pay to experience it. One simple example is ecotourism. Ecotourism offers a way to make the beauty of nature pay for itself.
But there is another way of looking at it.
Let’s consider African Penguins. They live in a marine environment. If we want to preserve the penguins, we also have to preserve the ecosystem they live in. They need fish to eat. So do people. If we don’t look after marine eco-systems, neither penguins nor humans will have fish to eat.
The penguins are part of a wider network of species, and it’s difficult to separate them from it. Wiping out one of these species might not make much difference, or then again it might cause a chain reaction that alters the entire ecosystem. So if we decide to save a species, by extension we are also choosing to preserve the particular habitat they live in and the majority of the species that live alongside them.
Ecologists have amassed evidence that ecosystems with a wider range of species are more stable and resilient, and less prone to sudden die-backs. This has a startling implication. A tiny, obscure worm may not be doing anything that’s obviously useful to humans, but it is probably supporting the ecosystem it lives in – and that ecosystem will be providing services.
Whether you put it in economic terms or not, science is telling us that ecosystems provide us with a host of things we can’t do without, and that the more diverse each ecosystem is, the better.
So for our own good – both in terms of practical things like food and water, and less physical needs like beauty – we should protect them. We can’t take care of ourselves without also preserving nature, because we need it for so many things. In specific situations we might choose to favour one or the other, but overall we have to do both.
About the Author
Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.
Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to
- raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
- to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.
WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation. We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.
WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.
WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.
WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP). YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.
WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.
WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.