When you think about wildlife conservation the types of images that come to mind are probably all centred around biodiversity. Perhaps an aerial view of a misty rainforest, a panoramic shot of an African savannah with cheetahs on the run, or maybe even a glistening coral reef brimming with life. We often think of biology, ecology and zoology as the central, or only, sciences associated with wildlife conservation.
You probably don’t think about people or social sciences at all. However, economics, sociology, geography and anthropology are all also key aspects of conservation, along with many other disciplines. It is unsurprising that when discussing some of the biggest issues to face humanity and the planet, such as climate change and declining biodiversity, that an interdisciplinary approach is not only valuable, but essential.
Most conservation work is about people
People are often a key stakeholder in most conservation decisions, and we often view our own species as the centre of the web. Thus, understanding human dimensions of environmental issues is essential within conservation. The irony is most conservationists start out because they love animals. Many have a disdain for humans due to their treatment of the natural world. Yet, a lot of conservation involves dealing with people.
Social sciences are placed under discipline of ‘Conservation Biology’, coined by Michael E. Soulé in his influential article in 1985. Fifty years prior, in 1935 Aldo Leopold argued for the fusion of those who study human, animal and plant communities. Conservation is a crisis discipline and involves trade-offs and decision-making. By definition crises are imminent, and thus decisions are often made without all the facts. Soulé therefore describes crisis disciplines as a mixture of art and science, because intuition is needed as well as information.
As human beings, we rely on biodiversity for our survival
Ecosystem services is the term given for ecosystem functions that directly benefit human beings. Pollination is a good example. Pollination is essential for the development of many foods we eat including fruits, vegetables and seeds. Aquatic ecosystems support water provisioning. Scavengers prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases. Furthermore, without biodiversity, the balance of equilibrium which makes our planet hospitable for life would be lost. I could go on and on about the importance of biodiversity for the survival of our species.
Human beings have become accustomed to a life separate from nature. We have built houses to shut ourselves away in, enclosed nature within fenced areas, and abstracted water from natural systems into our own man-made systems. But even with these very literal walls between us, this separation only really exists in our minds. We are a part of the natural world, not apart from it.
For some people, this overlap is even more obvious. The city of Cape Town, shown in the photo, borders a marine protected area and a national park. In Kenya, elephants raid the crops of local communities, who live alongside or in national parks. A solution to this was pioneered in the late 2000s when local farmers noticed that elephants avoided browsing trees which contained beehives. Therefore, zoologist Lucy King and others from ‘Save the Elephants’ placed beehives on fence poles at 8m intervals around the crops. They found them to be more effective than traditional thorn bush barriers at keeping the elephants away. Conflict with humans can be a threat to elephants, and thus understanding both the elephant and human side is important to mitigate the conflict. When elephants and humans live in such close proximity, and their lives impact each other to such an extent, it is impossible to think about conserving elephants without involving those people. This example also highlights the value of indigenous knowledge: without the farmers noticing the elephants avoiding the bees, this solution might never have been found.
Another example of human-wildlife overlap that has impacts on both humans and wildlife is when a shark bites a human. A shark bite often ignites an emotional response from people, and sometimes ‘shark hunts’ occur. Shark hunts are when a group of people go out on a boat attempting to kill the shark responsible for a particular bite. Obviously, this does little to solve the problem. The odds of finding the exact shark responsible for the bite are slim and killing one shark does little-to-nothing to mitigate the risk of sharks biting humans. All these hunts might achieve is a misguided sense of victory. Beyond the obvious human impact on the victim of the bite, shark bites have been shown to impact local economies. Following a bite, numbers of visitors to beaches tend to decline. Restaurants, bars or surf shops, rely on beach goers as customers. Furthermore, other forms of shark safety management can be lethal to sharks (Read: Shark Nets Kill Sharks) and decisions on this are often informed by shark bite incidents. To fully understand this conflict, an interdisciplinary approach is needed. If we focussed only on shark ecology, we would miss out a key habitat in which major shark conservation decisions are made: the beach.
Due to both our reliance on nature, and our overlapping existence with it, we are key stakeholders in the conservation of nature. Thus, understanding the human element of conservation is important for the progression of the field. This ‘human element’ is just one example of how interdisciplinary approaches aid conservation. Other disciplines such as island biogeography or natural hazard management are also important alongside ecology to aid conservation efforts.
Overall, sharing knowledge and combining expertise benefits conservation. Climate change and biodiversity loss are both existential crises that impact every aspect of our lives. We cannot hope to tackle them without considering all of those aspects together. No one person or one discipline is the answer. We need a collaborative effort, whereas many voices as possible can be heard.