What is wildlife conservation, management, and counter-poaching?
The study and manipulation of nature have been of major interest for humans since the beginning, either for survival or to understand the environment around them. Since the discovery of fire and the beginnings of agriculture it has become of higher importance to understand the characteristics of nature (Morris, 2009). Around the IV century B.C, the Greeks began questioning the characteristics of plants and animals, their structure, and reproduction (Simonetta, 2002), but it was Aristotle who first coined the term Biology, and studied it thoroughly for purposes other than consumption. Other naturalists like Anaximander, had previously done studies of nature and wildlife, but only from a philosophical point of view. It was Aristotle who first showed evidence of sampling and experimentation. He developed a classification proposal and several writings related to characteristics of internal animal morphology.
Biology progressively migrated away from other sciences after being, in most cases, the consequence of agricultural and medical studies (Mayr, 1982; Simonetta, 2002). From that point, it could be defined as the study of all living organisms. This includes the morphological structure, functioning, methods of organization and classification, and the way organisms interact with one another, as well as with other ecosystems.
Biologists then determined several research areas within Biology dedicated to the specific study of one of the aforementioned categories. However, from those areas, evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr included only evolution, taxonomy, and genetics in its book “The Growth of Biological Thought” (1982); even though other important terms like ecology had already been used and applied for the past two centuries (Morris, 2009). Today, biology is comprised of several branches such as, taxonomy, systematics and phylogenetics, genetics, genomics, ecology, evolution, behavior, and physiology.
Specifically, the branch of ecology is dedicated to the study of the interactions between an organism and it’s environment, including abiotic and biotic elements (Odum & Barrett, 2005). The way in which those elements impact the organism of interest varies widely, according to the ecological scale at which it is studied, given that some ecological interactions matter most in each level. The ecological scales range from the individual to an entire ecosystem, biome or beyond; an ecological interaction like competition, for example, will impact differently if our study unit is one animal or an entire population. In the first case, we will find inter and intraspecific competition, while in the second we can only find the first type.
The conclusions derived from ecological studies are important, not only for the advancement of science and the knowledge of the world around us but also for the evaluation of human impact on the persistence of many elements of nature on our planet. Given the high level of transformation that human activities have done to many ecosystems, the discipline of Conservation Biology was progressively developed by ecologists, beginning with studies during the 15th Century, in which the level of pollution and its effects were evaluated (Morris, 2009). But, as Fred Van Dyke from Wheaton College states (2008), conservation biologists and conservation problems came long before Conservation Biology itself. According to Soulé (1985) Conservation Biology was only founded in the second half of the 20th Century. Even though the problems were identified, the group initiative to work solidly on them only appeared during the 1970s. He defines Conservation biology as a “crisis discipline” that had the ability to avoid a common problem and “break down the dichotomy of pure versus applied science” (Soulé, 1982).
From those discourses, it can be concluded that challenges for biology as a science have changed a lot throughout the years and should encompass not only the understanding of life on earth, but also a response through that understanding which avoids the disappearance of diversity for unnatural causes, like humans’ overuse of finite resources, or pollution. Conservation biology must be able to integrate information from other fields of biology (like ecology or genetics) to respond to arising problems and be able to predict them.
To achieve these goals, there has to be a group of clearly distinctive activities to approach each task directly. Among those activities conservation, management, and counter-poaching are most commonly heard of by people not directly related to the field. It is important to understand these areas of study and know what can be expected from each of them, given their specific aims.
Regarding this, Professor Greg Yarrow from the Clemson University (2009) defines pure conservation as ‘the activities made in an effort to use natural resources in a smarter way and be able to maintain them abundantly for the use of future generations’. Van Dyke (2008) states that this can only be achieved if humans use resources “at less than maximum sustainable rates” or stop using them altogether. But, the value of the elements of nature is not only defined in terms of those things that are important for humans. It is now understood that a negative, unnatural effect on the persistence of any element of an ecosystem can have harsh consequences for the survival of all other elements within it.
Wildlife conservation, then, deals with the maintenance of animal biodiversity, even if those animals don’t have a direct and indispensable use for human society. In a research sense, conservation evaluates the state of populations, communities, and ecosystems in terms of its’ size, stability, and resilience (the ability of those organisms to respond to a disturbance in their environment). Once these studies are complete, decisions must be made between preservation or management in order to give an adequate response to each specific situation. In the first case, the purpose is to maintain the integrity of an environment, through the avoidance of any type of intervention. This includes an attempt to avoid human presence at all, but still has a constant evaluation of the quality of resources (Yarrow, 2009).
In contrast, the response can include management, a component of wildlife conservation directly related to manipulating a biological entity of interest (be it one or several species, por their ecosystems), with the purpose of using it for human benefit. The main idea, in this case, is to avoid harming the environment and ensure sustainable use of the resources in question.
Yarrow (2009) gives the example of timber extraction in South Carolina, a process that was putting the survival of Woodpecker populations at risk. In response, a new management proposal was implemented for wood extraction to ensure the maintenance of adequate foraging and breeding grounds for the bird.
Yarrow also states some important facts of wildlife management. He mentions that it should be able to identify what people desire from a determined environment and meet that goal through the manipulation of habitats and wildlife populations, as well as the management and education of human population. Accomplishing these three activities is the only way to assure that resource exploitation is maintained in a sustainable and eco-friendly way.
It can be concluded that wildlife management and wildlife conservation itself should be a priority for all humankind, as we all exploit natural resources in one way or another, many of which are finite. In consequence, there must be conservation initiatives that include the community that lives near or in the territory of interest, to ensure they can have a sustainable impact in the long term.
It can be concluded that wildlife management and wildlife conservation itself should be a priority for all humankind, as we all exploit natural resources in one way or another, many of which are finite. In consequence, there must be conservation initiatives that include the community that live near or in the territory of interest, to ensure they can have a sustainable impact in the long term.
One of the most important cases of resource overexploitation is Poaching. Although hunting is an important part of the survival of many animals, human beings hunt animals for purposes other than consumption in rates at which animal populations are unable to respond. The consequence of this extraction is the decreasing of population sizes, the alteration of its stability and a serious risk of extinction (Brooks, 1990; Department of Fish and Game Current Issues, 2010). According to the purpose and extent of poaching it can be classified into three primary groups (a) Subsistence, when the extracted resources (meat, leather, etc) are used for the survival of the poacher or their families (b) Commercial, when the resources are sold organized, the poaching is usually done in groups and the amounts of hunted individuals are higher or (c) Syndicated, when it involves organized crime, well funded and usually internationally organized (The Campus Group, 2014).
In every single case, the main cause of poaching as a continuing problem is the inequality, poverty and low possibilities of a sustainable legitimate job in their country. Although cases (b) and (c) are on a bigger scale that includes organized teams counting with telescopic sights, night vision spotlights and radio communications (The Campus Group, 2014). The resources obtained through poaching, mostly meat, leather and ivory (Montesh, 2012; The Campus Group, 2014) are traded internationally and the risks taken by poachers do not correspond to the economical retribution. While the poachers are underpaid for their criminal activities, most of the profit goes to acquiring technology for the business and sustaining other criminal activities, like the Low Resistance Army in Congo (Agger & Huston, 2013).
Many efforts to counter poaching have been initiated through of science, wildlife management, politics and other groups. Despite these efforts the illicit industry has found a way to continue and reports approximately $23 billion in profits per year (Traffic, 2008). The creation of public and private reserves is an attempt to protect endangered animals and the training of a large group of rangers is important to ensure productive results in protecting such areas. In the last few years, we have also seen the inclusion of technologies, like the use of Drones, to identify the presence of animals at risk and poachers (Montesh, 2012; Bergenas et al, 2013). An example of this is the creation of enterprises completely dedicated to the production of drones for these purposes, like Conservation Drones, or the development of initiatives to promote the creation of specific technologies to control poachers’ activities, like the wcUAVc from the Kashmir World Foundation (http://www.kashmirworldfoundation.org/#!wcuavc/chjn).
The use of new tools and technologies appear promising in counteracting poaching. Through these counter-poaching tools and technologies, scientists and communities can understand the importance of a transformation in the conservation concept. Some modern conservationists have used the term New Conservation to refer to such concepts (Soulé, 2013). This new way to approach conservation issues is expected to have better results in terms of the number of people involved in conservation, given that it has a humanitarian point of view. According to these conservationists, conservation is meant to preserve biodiversity not for the sake of nature, but for the sake of human populations. In this order of ideas, conservation studies and entities should focus themselves in the resolution of human inequality and economic growth, which would ultimately result in a higher sympathy and affection of humans towards nature (Soulé, 2013).
As a conservation biologist, I consider that this extreme point of view will not be adequate for the growth of science or the maintenance of nature’s diversity. The encouragement of better quality of life for people around the world MUST be matched with educational programs that, simultaneously, teach people to care about nature around them. Sustainable development is only achieved when people understand themselves as a part of the ecosystem they live in and learn to give value to not only for the obvious benefits and resources that can be extracted and used by them. Understanding the processes inside each ecosystem and the limits that those environments can handle is essential for the development of lasting, ecological industry. Only when humans understand themselves as a part of nature and another member of Planet Earth, we will be one step closer to true sustainability.
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Bergenas, J; R. Stohl & A. Georgieff. 2013. The Other Side of Drones: Saving Wildlife in Africa and Managing Global Crime. Conflict Trends (3). Durban, South Africa.
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Yarrow, G. 2009. Wildlife and Wildlife Management. Extension Forestry & Natural Resources, Clemson University. South Carolina, USA. Consulted: 17.10.2014. Available at: http://www.clemson.edu/extension/natural_resources/wildlife/publications/fs16_intro_wildlife_management.html