Conservation: History and Future

What is Conservation? Defining Conservationism

We define conservation as a broad approach to preserving what is already there and the due care and attention to protecting it for the future (1). It is also dedicated to restoring something to a natural state and maintaining equilibrium. It is a practice and a philosophy, utilizing scientific tools and methods with applied ethics, and, where necessary, regulation and environmental law to limit the use of certain materials. It can apply to many areas, not just the natural environment. Typically, it covers three broad areas:

  • Cultural heritage and the built environment of archaeological monuments, buildings of historic importance, and landscapes. This promotes cultural awareness and respect and preserves a built heritage for future generations to enjoy
  • Conservation of ecology, maintaining the delicate balance of an ecosystem or set of wildlife to ensure population numbers of threatened or endangered species are not put at risk, to maintain a landscape for study or enjoyment, or for biodiversity
  • Resource conservation is the active ways in which we seek to limit the use of resources to reduce the strain put on supply. This can be developing energy-efficient homes to reduce raw materials burnt to produce electricity or efficiency savings of water resources

Conservation is important for many reasons, not least of all to the health of the planet. However, the study of the subject goes merely beyond health and ecosystems; helps us to understand the world around us and present problems for environmental engineers, archaeologists, ecologists and others to solve to improve how we use land and by extension, our lives. Cultural heritage conservation also benefits local economies through tourism and academic grants for study.

Conservation, Ethics, Philosophy

Most sciences are about looking for answers to problems within the data generated and devising tests to solve them. Conservationism is slightly different. It does all of this, but it is one of a few areas of environmental science that has a specific philosophy of ethics behind its founding idea. Specifically, conservation ethics work from the idea of respect for the things we are protecting, preserving for future generations, acting as a steward and seeing the natural world merely as a resource to be exploited. It seeks to present the consequences. One of its most important modern papers on resource exploitation and the damage it can cause is called “Tragedy of the Commons” (2) and presents a great case study.

Conservation ethics simply protects a resource and believes there should be minimal impact on the community - both human and ecosystem, in using it. This applies to food resources such as fish, habitats such as rainforests, cultural monuments as a mark of respect for their human interest. Conservation is not preservation, however, and the two are often mixed (3). The key difference according to the US National Park Service is that conservation ethics seeks the “proper use” of natural resources while preservation seeks to protect nature against any kind of use. Working to maintain biodiversity is conservation (regulate), making it illegal to build in a designated wilderness zone is preservation (eliminate).

Conservation as Restoration

Another area of conservation, although more related to preservation as discussed previously is the restoration of something to a former state. This typically applies to cultural works such as monuments or historic artefacts which have degraded or become damaged. However, it's recently become applied to natural landscapes too. This idea behind restoration is simply to restore it to a former state. This can be the repair of a cultural artefact (for example, replacing worn or rotten cotton threads in a tapestry with new material to restore it to a former state) or the restoration of woodland to plains or swamp/wetlands that may have previously been drained for agriculture or other use. This is more common in Europe than in North America due to the land issues (4).

A History of Conservation

The history of conservation is generally tied to the industrial age, as a kind of backlash against exploitation of uncontrolled industrial growth and unfettered capitalism of the age. But that is a simplistic answer. In reality, it goes back a few hundred more years before this.

Natural Conservation

Enlightenment and Early Industrial Age

Many argue that the conservation movement did not begin in the industrial era, but in a slightly earlier time. In 1662, John Evelyn presented a work called “Sylva or a discourse on forest trees and the propagation of timber in His Majesty's dominions” to the Royal Society (5). Two years later, a printed book version followed and it became one of the most important early works in forestry. Unlike many other works of botany from that age and later, Sylva highlighted the growing problem of deforestation in England. Way ahead of its time, it called for preservation of existing forests and the replenishment of new tree canopy with each that was cut down. Evelyn did not take this work upon himself. He was asked to do so by the Royal Society, increasingly concerned at the destruction of trees for Charles II building projects. The book was hugely successful although the concern was more about the depletion of a natural resource rather than concern for such modern concepts as biodiversity, ecology, or even the climate.

But true modern conservationism grew during the industrial era, and relatively early on too. It's generally believed that the industrial revolution began in the late 18th century. This is true, but conservation began even before most western nations began the process of industrialization. In Prussia and France in the 18th century, there was a development (as there was in many European powers) of intensive agriculture and forestry management, later adopted in England and to the colonies of India of the British Empire. Management covered aspects to maximize production but also to reduce the risk of wildfire devastating crops and resources - particularly of the teak tree, vital for shipbuilding for most naval powers. Concerns began during the Napoleonic Wars when the resource was being plundered to build ships regarding today what we would call “sustainability(6, p36). The first conservation laws came in then, making it illegal to fell a teak tree under a certain size. But this measure failed mostly due to laissez-faire economics and inability to enforce the law. But conservation was not dead - in fact, it was only just getting started.

The Birth of Natural Conservation in the Industrial Age

Armed with the new scientific concepts and tools, the conservation movement recommenced during the industrial age (7). Earlier concerns about forestry exploitation morphed to become a general concern about resource exploitation and what would happen when natural resources ran out. As the world ran almost entirely on coal power at that time (and later on petroleum fossil fuels), it was quite clear that coal was not an infinite resource, and some scientists pleaded in the countries of most heavy use to take steps to limit mining and burning. The developing science of climatology with its understanding of the need for chemistry made scientists concerned for the future on seeing masses amounts of carbon released into the atmosphere (8), but also (as it was previously) regarding trees as a resource and the potential for depletion. But conservationists were fully aware that human activity was already damaging the environment, and not just due to cutting down trees. People like George Perkins Marsh (9) pushed the ethical belief that humans had a duty of care to maintain the environment for the future and presented the notion that scientific investigation was paramount in determining the extent of damage and coming up with a solution.

This is a period replete with the establishment of Forestry Departments within the European powers and the US too. This concern about natural resources meant the 19th century was also a great expansion in conservation in other areas. The world's first National Park opened in 1778 in Mongolia (Bogd Khan Uul (10) which today is a UNESCO protected biosphere) and it would take nearly a century for any other nation to follow suit. The world's second and the first for the US was Yellowstone National Park established in 1872. The development of conservation in the US is slightly different from that in the Old World. Much of North America was either untouched or barely touched due to the nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Native Americans in most cases. Over-hunting of bison and buffalo by both European settlers and Native Americans who started using horses for hunting, and many native birds of prey, the increased urbanization in the new states and industrialization all came together to demonstrate just how fragile our land was. This is why so many national parks were founded in the US in the late 19th century. But we should never underestimate the importance of key ethical conservationists such as Henry David Thoreau (11) who believed humans had a duty to live more in tune with nature. His work and others inspired many of the early forestry laws and departments that sprung up in the states.

The War Between Preservation and Conservation

Naturalists in the developed countries were largely split between conservationists (good practice in the management of resources) and preservationists (those who felt land should remain untouched) (3). This battle is no better demonstrated in the US than during the Progressive Era of 1890-1920. While the existing economic paradigm was one of laissez-faire economics that many felt was damaging the natural environment and integrity of natural resources, the conservationist movement led by Theodore Roosevelt (12) was deeply concerned about the wastage and harm it was doing to the land, leading to a large number of game species in the US on the brink of extinction in less than a century. Then there were the preservationists who argued that the proposals of the emerging conservationists did not go far enough. This was certainly the view of John Muir who believed that there was still too much concern for the economic value of land rather than the need for preservation of pristine landscapes. Muir's Sierra Club (13) is still around today and they made a stand with the development of the Hetch Hetchy Dam in Yosemite, arguing that the land should be kept pristine and the valley protected.

As president, Roosevelt pushed strongly for conservation issues which may be the reason they eventually won the day. During his term in office, around 230m acres of land were put under Federal protection, established the US Forestry Service, and created five national parks, and several national forests. That's not to say that preservationists did not have their victories. In the 1960s, the Wilderness Act (14) set aside large tracts of land with minimal human impact and of particular cultural, scientific, or natural interest. In these areas, logging, mining and other industrial activities are prohibited and there are strong protections in place to maintain the integrity of natural water sources partly for the ecosystem and partly for industrial and commercial developments downstream of the water flow.

The 1960s and Beyond

The current trend of conservationism - of protecting the environment for future generations using scientific data and backed up with legislation goes back to the 1960s. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring highlighted many of the ecological problems that industrial and commercial activity was doing to our world. President John F Kennedy introduced the Clean Air Act in the US as one of many introduced in developed nations with heavy industry (15). Deeper into the 1960s, Richard Nixon signed the executive order creating the Environmental Protection Agency. Although their remit was (and remains) one of environmental health and public safety, a number of laws gave them the power to take action to ensure conservation of lands and secure their safety for the ecological environment. Globally, the natural conservation movement was growing armed with data suggesting climate change, the understanding that some of our finite resources were becoming scarce, the Greenhouse Effect, depletion of the ozone layer, toxic spillages and nuclear testing all came to public mind as issues for conservation in the latter half of the 20th century. Also, with many species going extinct in the industrial age and many more threatened with extinction to the extent that there soon became an official list (16), conservation won out with the same elements of preservation. Many people today believe there is a need for action on a range of conservation issues to ensure biodiversity while not damaging the economy of resources for the future.

Archaeological Conservation

In all the debate about conservation of natural landscapes, we must not forget that the 19th century also saw the development of interest in the cultural past. Although archaeology was around 100 years old at this point, at least in the Old World, it was largely an exercise in treasure hunting - digging up the treasures of the past as curiosities for museums or for the private collections of those who funded the dig. Changes in attitudes and law throughout the 19th century meant that monuments and artefacts were becoming part of the study of the past, no longer merely trinkets and curiosities, but indicators of a culture's development and identity. Modern archaeology would not arrive until the 20th century (17) and the concept of an archaeological landscape is younger still. The first laws to protect and conserve cultural heritage came into place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the developed countries. In the US, the first such law was the Antiquities Act in 1906 (18) which gave the office of president the power to set aside areas of land as protected cultural assets, known as “National Monuments”. This law was in place until 1979 when it was replaced with the Archaeological Resources Protection Act but several other laws came into place before then that required archaeologists to label and give proper contexts to monuments and artefacts.

There was also a global movement to protect by law and provide resources and funds for monuments that were nationally important, but also those deemed significant to human civilization as a whole. Founded in 1945, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has many responsibilities, one of the most important as far as archaeological conservation is concerned is the World Heritage List (19). The list began in 1975 as a recognition of globally important sites. The first 12 added on that first day included: L'Anse Aux Meadows in Canada (the site of a Viking settlement), The Galapagos Islands, Quito in Ecuador, Krakow, and Mesa Verde National Park in the US. Today, there are over 1,000 cultural monuments and natural landscapes on this list.

In the 21st century, it is common for countries to have laws in place to protect monuments, sites, and landscapes of cultural or historical importance and government-established charities or government departments assigned to their management, upkeep or conservation. The threats to them and their conservation go beyond the issues of the 19th century (plunder and theft). See the section on conservation areas of concern for the future for further details.

Archaeology and the Study of Collapsing Societies

One aspect of particular note and a niche area of archaeological curiosity is the study of how and why past societies collapsed. Most studies examine the artefacts and monuments of emerging cultures and during what might be considered their “Golden Age” or high point, but the study of how societies fall is one area that often overlaps natural conservation. There are several seminal works on this with Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Complex Societies Choose to Fail or Survive considered the most important. His studies take him all over the world as he examines the archaeological data for long-departed cultures. Often, evidence suggests that past societies engaged in what might be considered exercises damaging to their culture such as environmental malpractice and overexploitation of resources. Diamond perceives that that is exactly what happened to the people of Easter Island (20), although his suggestion that they cut down trees to build the stone heads is not the only theory. Others have suggested that invasive rat species brought aboard their rafts travelling across the Pacific also contributed to the tree canopy's decline and ecological damage. Diamond considers five main reasons why societies fall:

  • Natural climate change such as the medieval warm period (MWP) or the little ice age (LIA) changing the climate of an area meaning that crops no longer grow with the same abundance or at all
  • The hostility of neighbors and other competing groups putting pressure on the society meaning a strain on the resources or conquest by another culture
  • The end of trading partners either by conquest by other parties, or soured relations meaning they no longer have access to essential resources
  • Human-induced environmental problems which can include overexploitation of resources, or the introduction of invasive species either deliberately or accidentally
  • The failure or refusal to adapt to any of these four issues

All the above are conservation issues in one way or another, where conservation of the ecology is damaged - for example when a non-native species is introduced and causes harm to the ecosystem and/or to the complex society. Works about the collapse of such societies stand as a warning to consider conservation as a vital part of maintaining resources. It is as much about conserving an ecosystem as it is about protecting the income of vulnerable communities, for example where laws are in place to restrict fishing rights and prevent overfishing.

Subdivisions of Conservation

Architectural Conservation

Buildings and complexes, and urban development are an essential part of the historic built environment, an expansion from traditional archaeology which used to focus on derelict buildings and monuments of historic importance. Many buildings of historical significance are still in use today in both the Old World and the New World and there are multiple examples of buildings still in use preserved on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Architectural conservation is the intervention to stop the degradation of historic structures - either in use or derelict, that are subject to protections for their historical significance for future generations to enjoy. Buildings are often subject to problems because they were not designed with permanence in mind, even those built to last. The longer they are standing, the more important they become and the more likely they are to experience problems, the higher the risk factor to their survival. The aim is to prolong a building's life for as long as possible and maintain the integrity of the building's fabric.

Conservation Biology

Arguably the area that most people consider when they hear the word “conservation”. This is the science of protecting biodiversity and managing an ecosystem to ensure its integrity. It aims to protect individual species (especially where they are threatened or endangered or at risk from invasive species), the habitats in which they reside and maintaining the status quo of an environment. It focuses on all biological life within a biome and seeks to promote normal interactions. It's a relatively young area, arriving in the late 1970s when it was becoming clear that industrial actions were affecting microclimates and delicate habitats and damaging biodiversity.

Conservation Ethics

This is more of a philosophy that underpins many of conservation's theories and practices. Simply, it is an explanation of standards of ethics in the protection of species, natural resources, land, cultural assets, and in their use and management (21). Although most sciences have ethics and code of conduct to do as little harm as possible and ensure maximum benefit may be extracted from such actions, few are so intertwined with an ethical approach so deeply ingrained. It acts as a counterbalance to the culture of “indifference” that many feel exist towards resource use under modern economic systems since the Industrial Revolution.

Conservation Economics

Economics is a vital link in any political system as there is a need to provide employment and funding for public services and investment and to ensure markets function. Conservation Economics applies economic models to understand the relative costs and financial benefits of everything related to conservation - laws, protections, limits on resource acquisition and so on. It also looks at the economic benefits of setting aside conservation lands such as tourism and the health benefits. With such models, progress and conservation are not in opposition or a battle of wits, but complementary with both seeing the other as vital in their systems (22).

Conservation Finance

Similar to conservation economics, this is the subdivision of conservation that looks to raise money such as venture capital for environmental projects like water and food security and natural resources, setting aside land as conservation spaces, and developing their financial sustainability through non-profit or by promoting sustainable tourism. It can also include setting up funds, grants, and bursaries to allocate to such projects. Businesses often do this to support environmental credentials as philanthropic activities. It is estimated that governments and private industry must put aside between $300-400bn annually to meet current obligations alone (23).

Conservation Genetics

Conservation is often as much a biological issue as anything else. While conservation biology is about maintaining the integrity of an ecosystem, conservation genetics concerns the genetic diversity of a certain species. It is integral to breeding programs that zoos and conservation parks now actively engage in as part of their efforts to avoid species extinction. It uses all the tools, techniques, and knowledge of genetics to select breeding pairs and to ensure genetic diversity amongst threatened and endangered species. Often, it is the most important and sometimes the only way to ensure genetic biodiversity.

Conservation Law (Also Known As Environmental Law)

Conservation Law, or Environmental Law as it is more commonly known, is the process of government (local, state/provincial, national and international) setting down legislation by which individuals and organizations must abide. It defines areas of protecting and how they are to be protected, including the punishments for infringements or non-compliance. Typically, environmental laws are put in place to protect public health and safety and to avoid the loss or damage of a natural resource.

Conservation Movement

Some may call this conservationism. It is not technically a subcategory of the science of conservation. Instead, it is a political or social movement for and by the public, usually involving non-profits and small groups actively seeking environmental protection at a local or global level. Their interests are broad and demands such things as protection of our natural resources and full accountability for those who break the law, special protections for biodiversity and habitat protection, legislation and adequate funding to enforce the illegal pet trade in endangered species, and activism that seeks to change laws with a view for conservation, clean energy, ecology, and the protection of cultural assets.

Energy Conservation

This is one of the most important issues of our time. We live in an age of dwindling fossil fuels and inaction on renewable energy. That's one aspect of energy conservation - efficiency of the resource. The second aspect is making our electrical devices, vehicles, buildings and so on far more energy efficient. Great inroads have already been made in reducing the amount of energy consumed in lighting, replacing many conventional bulbs with LEDs (24) and power cells that are far more efficient for our smartphones and computing devices than ever before.

Habitat Conservation

“Conservation” is a broad subject covering every area - heritage, landscape, species, energy, soil, economic and so on. Habitat conservation is the process of effective land management for landscapes, ecologies, and small tracts of land to protect it from harm (such as human activity), manage it effectively for resource security, and restore habitat (to encourage biodiversity or to mitigate problems putting endangered or protected species at risk). This can apply equally to individual plant or animal species or be a general attempt to conserve the balance of an ecosystem. This can also include the removal of invasive species.

Marine Conservation

Oceans and seas cover around 2/3 of our planet. They are vital for life and home to thousands of species. It's a natural resource and an economic one; many problems blight our oceans today, not least of all overfishing and the dumping of waste. Marine conservation looks at ways of preserving the oceans as ecosystems for the species that rely on them and focuses on laws for protection and management of such ecosystems. It interlinks with many other areas, particularly oceanography and marine biology.

Object Conservation (Archaeological, Ethnographic, and Sculptural)

Related to conservation science which is the study of artefacts and artistic and ethnographic pieces to understand how they are put together to extend its life, object conservation is the applied science of conserving such items. It is less about the study of the how or why, and more about simply ensuring its continued existence for future generations to enjoy or maintain its integrity as a cultural icon. It will use archaeological data and studies by conservation scientists in ensuring that the art piece, artefact, or ethnographic item continues to be protected via the best methods presently possible. Object conservation typically includes modern objects or interest whereas archaeological conservation concerns much older artifacts.

Conservation Science

Sometimes known as “heritage science” or “heritage conservation”, this is an area of cultural heritage applying to art and architecture, artifacts and physical remains of cultural past, and their conservation. However, it also seeks to examine how such artifacts and art may have been put together and seek to understand how they were put together. While aspects of archaeology seek to do this purely for the understanding of the technique, conservation science does so to understand the methods and process, to maintain the authenticity and integrity of a piece in restoration and conservation by using the same or similar methods and materials, and to examine materials that may be causing deterioration, and where necessary, use new materials to ensure its long-term survival.

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Preventive Conservation

Most conservation programs are reactive - happening after the fact to restore something to an original state or taking measures to mitigate further degradation. But preventive conservation anticipates potential problems and does something about them before they become an issue of major concern. This area is sometimes known as “collections care” and is an area of artifact, archaeological, or objects conservation.

Soil Conservation

With broad applications in agriculture, disaster prevention and for ecology, soil conservation concerns maintaining or restoring the integrity of ground soil. Experts in this field with examine ways of engaging in soil management to prevent erosion or depletion of nutrients and work to remove contamination during toxic spillages. It is as much about ecological health as public health, and often as part of an insurance claim when there is lost income (for example, industrial spillage on or near agricultural land that could damage a farmer's income or lead to crop contamination). Intensive agriculture is a fact of modern life; while this concerns pollution, the biggest contributor to soil nutrient depletion is overuse. Other issues concern removal of tree cover in tropical zones that without adequate infrastructure will lead to flooding and nutrient loss.

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Water Conservation

Water security is a growing problem with a growing population and with both flooding and drought now common in some parts of the world, there are few areas of conservation considered more important than this. Simply, it is the management of fresh water supply. This is a sustainable resource but is often overused. Droughts in California and flooding in the southern states, in particular, mean active measures are required to reduce overuse of water resources, eliminate wastage from supplies to homes, commercial and industrial properties, and to take steps to avoid drinking water from being contaminated with so-called “grey water”. Water security is also important to crop growth and maintaining food security as fodder for cattle and our own food supply.

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Wetland Conservation

Wetlands such as swamps, tidal marshes and river floodplains are an important and broad source of biodiversity and home to rare, endangered, and threatened species. Many overwintering species use the wetlands of the world temporarily or as permanent homes. As they provide sanctuary to threatened and endangered animals and plants, they are protected in most areas of the world. In many cases, protecting their numbers and supporting their continued existence is solely dependent on protecting the environments that they inhabit. Wetland conservation is not just about maintaining what is already there, but also restoration. Draining in the recent past has had a massive impact on the local flora and fauna and steps are being taken to restore them (25).

Wildlife Conservation

Whereas conservation biology is about preserving ecosystems for species by looking at their biological functions through anatomy and genetics, wildlife conservation is less concerned with the science of biology and more with protections based on habitats, numbers, diversity, and fragility to changes in the environment. It's an application of conservation rather than a study. The aim is to ensure that everything possible is done to ensure the integrity of populations and their ecosystems for continued survival. It involves charities and governments, often working together to change laws and enact measures to achieve goals.

Wildlife Management

Related to wildlife conservation, it is different in several major ways. Management methods are put in place to conserve wild species, their habitats, and maintain the integrity of the ecosystems. This does not necessarily mean conservation of species - it can be the removal of problem areas. It can even mean reducing numbers of a certain species so the integrity of the ecosystem can survive. Several countries in Europe have problems with deer which have no natural predator and, if not controlled, could eat their way through a landscape in the course of the fall and winter with many of their number starving to death and lasting damage to the ecosystem. Management is about keeping a balance between species and preventing damage through over-population.

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Conservation Success Stories So Far

Conservation engages governments, local people, interest groups, and charities working together to ensure that a certain resource or elements of the natural landscape or cultural heritage is preserved for future generations. There are many such examples of success stories around the world, some of which are listed here.

Southern White Rhino

2018 saw the technical (if not the literal) extinction of the Northern White Rhino when the last male died in an African reserve. Political instability and a lack of unified program of care led to the demise of this subspecies, the story of its cousin to the south is a much different affair. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Southern White Rhino numbered just 20 individuals, all located in a reserve in South Africa. But international conservation efforts, effective laws and management, funding and a coherent breeding program changed all that. At the last census in 2015, it was estimated that species numbers were anything between 19,500 and 21,000. As recently as the 1960s, there were just 840 individuals. It is now the most prevalent of all rhinoceros species (26).

Giant Panda

The Giant Panda is the symbol of the World Wildlife Foundation. Since the 1980s it has been the most prominent species globally in terms of the conservation movement. Despite still being in a delicate situation, the Giant Panda recently moved from the “endangered” to the “vulnerable” list. Due to mass deforestation in the industrial era, they were driven out of the lowland habitats and into the highlands of China. But a scheme of breeding, conservation and protection, forest restoration means their numbers are once again growing. It was estimated in the 1970s that the total number of Giant Pandas living in the wild was around 1,110. In 2016, similar figures suggested anything between 2,000 and 3,000 although the official figure was 1,800 (27).

Giant Panda

American Bison

The argument over who was responsible for the decline of the North American Bison will go on for some time. Colonial powers are largely given the blame, but some have pointed to changing hunting habits of Native Americans. Either way, everyone has agreed that the decline of this once-prevalent species is of major concern. Today, most American Bison live on farms and ranches and are bred for meat. Wild herds are far less common and numerous attempts have been made to restore them to the great plains of the US and areas of Canada where they once roamed. Nevertheless, their numbers are increasing, both in captivity and in the wild. Their status today is “Near Threatened”. We know that 500 years ago when the first European colonies were formed in North America, there were millions of bison (28). In 2008, there were 400,000 with over 90% of them in captive herds with a gradual increase in wild herds of both plains and woodland bison.

Bat Conservation

These fascinating mammals are subject to some of the most stringent laws on conservation and wildlife protection in every country where they exist. In the western countries, disturbing bats or their habitats are often subject to severe penalties. Despite that legends inform us that they are carnivorous, most bats are herbivorous, living mostly on fruit, while some are insectivorous or omnivorous. Although not unique, they have a rare place in mammals in that they are responsible for a large portion of pollination; they also control insect pests. Simply, they are vital for agriculture and ecology. The majority of bat species today are endangered or vulnerable. Although this means laws are necessary to protect them and we must remain on guard, it is an improvement over the last few decades when numbers declined. Arguably, the largest success story is the Rodrigues Fruit Bat, reduced to just 100 individuals on the island after which it is named in the 1970s, today there are over 25,000 (29).

Bald Eagle

In the US, there is no greater example of the success of national efforts than the bird that has become the nation's symbol. The Bald Eagle has captured the imagination of conservationists the world over, mostly because it is only one of a few species that have ever come off the endangered species list. Its story is even more inspiring because it was once on the brink of extinction due to a combination of massive forestry clearance, a considerable reduction in its prey species due to overhunting, and farmers shooting them due to the perception of threat to livestock. Also, we know that the use of DDT also killed a great many more (30). The banning of DDT, the Clean Water Act, banning of shooting eagles, protected nest sites and targeted restoration programs means this majestic bird of prey has gone from just 500 at the low point to 70,000 today.

Buffalo Clover

Invasive species are as problematic for plants as they are for animals. Yet non-native and destructive plants can often be far more problematic than invasive animals. US foresters and other conservation landowners have traditionally had a hard time protecting and propagating a native plant called Buffalo Clover. There are four types of plant by this name, but the conservation success story is a true clover, sometimes known as Running Buffalo Clover - it's scientific name is Trifolium stoloniferum (31). It's native to the Eastern and Mid-Western states and currently on the endangered list. It was believed extinct until several colonies were discovered in 1985 in Virginia. Since then, it's been subject to some of the most stringent plant conservation laws in the country, more colonies have been found, it's been replanted in areas where it once thrived. It remains critical but efforts to conserve it are pushing Buffalo Clover towards a stable return to the east.

Douglas Hawthorn

Native to the US states and Canadian provinces around the Great Lakes, few plants have received as much special attention as the Douglas Hawthorn. It resides along the borders of woodlands, in forest clearings and other areas where tree cover is not too dense. It has come under attack from a number of threats, specifically from insects adapted to non-woodland environments moving into farmland and clearings and trampling through excess tourist visitation. It has special concern status in Michigan and much effort has been devoted to cultivating seeds and reintroducing it on both sides of the border in areas where it has been under the greatest threat. It's been successful, but it remains in a delicate state in some areas while experiencing critical success in others (32).

UNESCO World Heritage List & World Heritage Day

There is much to be grateful to UNESCO for. Their work has allowed heritage to become truly universal, the make available funds and special protections for some of human civilization's most important monuments, landscapes, and special heritage areas. Since the inception of the World Heritage List, the number of protected heritage monuments and sites has grown from 12 on its first day to over 1,000, covering everything from the wonderful painted caves at Lascaux in France, the tomb of the first Qin Emperor (Home of the Terracotta Army in China) to the Mesa Verde National Park and the Independence Hall in Philadelphia. World Heritage Day began in the 1980s with the intention of encouraging interest in heritage to raise awareness of conservation issues. Most are open to the public at no charge and most countries put on special events to mark it too.

Conservation Areas of Concern

It would be impossible to list all of the conservation areas that concern researchers, conservationists, governments and special interest charities. The list below includes some of the most urgent, pressing, or important to conservation today.

Heritage Crime

Go back just a few decades and the biggest threat to heritage conservation was indifference and a lack of concern for preserving the past in striving for economic growth. Today, we value our heritage far more than we used to do, thanks to tourism and public perception of our built heritage. But in some areas of the world, political instability has led to a growth in what is called “heritage crime”. There are several aspects to this:

  • Iconoclasm - the deliberate targeting of monuments and artefacts for destruction as symbols of a people's cultural identity based on the past, or the destruction of religious minority sites. The situation in the Middle East has seen massive damage to important ancient Greek and Roman sites in Syria at the hands of ISIS. Similarly, the Taliban destroyed Buddhist statues in Afghanistan
  • Art and antiquity theft - the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt led to the massive theft of irreplaceable and priceless artefacts (33) that had become symbols of each country's cultural heritage. Sometimes stolen to order by rich donors, many more are opportunistic thieves hoping to sell it through the black market, took advantage of rioting and ransacked museums
  • Damage to culturally or archaeologically sensitive land - It can also include illegal excavation for archaeological treasures, mining or digging for resources for economic benefit (which is sometimes against the law if the land is specially protected for heritage conservation) or illegal building of commercial, industrial or residential properties without permission leading to damage of a site heritage. Historic England, an NGO responsible for maintaining and monitoring historic sites in England, reported that around 18% of protected heritage conservation sites and areas suffered heritage crime in 2017 (34)

When damage occurs, it is sometimes not possible to repair them. In the cases of the lootings in Baghdad and Cairo, there are still many artefacts missing that global authorities are trying to track down.

Expansion of Boreal Forest in the Arctic

The growth of forest without the intervention of conservators and ecologists will, in most cases, be seen as a good thing. After all, tree cover can only be good for biodiversity and as a carbon net sink. But in an ecologically delicate area as the arctic circle, the spread of boreal forest on the land masses of northern Russia and Scandinavian more temperate regions is currently of deep concern. Climate change has led to warming in these areas; arctic boreal tree cover is now spreading at an alarming rate and threatening the existence of a large number of native species that were already in a delicate conservational state. It is also believed that the spread of tree canopy has accelerated the warming already being triggered by carbon emissions (35). A process that has been observed to take centuries during warming phases in the past is now taking decades.

Energy Conservation

As the population grows, we need more energy. Fossil fuel supplies are dwindling, and many believe we have already reached (and passed) peak oil. Steps are already being taken to reduce our dependence on these fuel types, but in the western world, grants and funds for renewable energy are facing government cutbacks in the face of industry lobbying. There are other steps though; our devices require far less power than they did even 10 years ago. Our homes and premises are becoming more energy efficient, but the amount of energy we consume continues to rise, even in the face of LEDs replacing traditional bulbs, power cells replacing conventional battery power, and continued expansion of renewable energy. The Energy Information Administration predicts a global rise in energy consumption of 56% between now and 2040 (36).

Consider an energy policy degree.

Food and Water Security

The ecological problems we are currently facing such as climate change, flooding, drought, ice caps melting, ocean acidification and many others have knock-on effects for our water and food security. Flooding and drought both have the capacity to damage our food supply, and in many cases protecting the sources of both are conservation issues. In the case of water, there needs to be a coherent plan for reducing the amount of wastage and encouraging businesses and households to reduce the amount they use (37), and not just during drought periods. Some states in the US and some countries have taken to encourage the use of water buttresses to collect rainwater to use to flush toilets and storage for plants, for example. Food security is dependent on water security, but it can be subject to meteorological events, terror attacks (38) and natural disease. Some argue that the refugee crisis in the Middle East is partly caused by climate problems.

Agricultural Monoculture

Monoculture is the removal of most native, wild, or biodiverse landscape to plant a single crop or farm a single species of livestock. Most farmland is like this although, in the modern era, steps are being taken to ensure that a landscape is not too limited. In areas where there is a long history of agriculture, fields are broken up with hedgerows and dotted with trees to ensure as diverse a landscape as possible. Increasingly, important cash crops in the developing world are diversifying, such as growing coffee beneath tree canopies. This is called “intercropping” (39). Some evidence suggests that coffee plants are more productive for this, but it is also good for biodiversity. The current big issue with agricultural monoculture is palm oil, commonly added to our food and even toiletries. Foliage is cut down to make way for this cash crop, devastating landscapes and causing particular problems for orangutans (40) which are now threatened species.

Illegal Hunting

Despite stringent international laws on hunting big game and protecting species traditionally hunted such as elephant and rhino, the illegal pet trade and ivory trades continue to be problematic for international law enforcement whose role it is to protect endangered and threatened species. We have already seen the virtual extinction of the Northern White Rhino due to historic overhunting and a lack of coherence and cooperation from the bodies that could have made the survival of the Northern White Rhino as successful as its southern cousin. The black market trade is also an issue. Some Traditional Chinese Medicines use rhino horn for perceived painkilling properties and relief of rheumatism. Ivory is also on sale in many Chinese markets and some in the developed world where monitoring is lax. Illegal hunting that leads to extinction of one species is not limited to that species but has knock-on effects for other, sometimes equally threatened species (41).

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  36. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=12251
  37. http://www.unwater.org/publications/water-security-infographic/
  38. https://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-public-health-preparedness/tips/topics/food_security.html
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  41. http://wwf.panda.org/our_work/wildlife/problems/illegal_trade/

Matthew Mason

MG Mason has a BA in Archaeology and MA in Landscape Archaeology, both from the University of Exeter. A personal interest in environmental science grew alongside his formal studies and eventually formed part of his post-graduate degree where he studied both natural and human changes to the environment of southwest England; his particular interests are in aerial photography. He has experience in GIS (digital mapping) but currently works as a freelance writer as the economic downturn means he has struggled to get relevant work. He presently lives in southwest England.