Human activities  








Conservation Issues

Conservation Priorities

Introduction | A focus on species | Protecting ecosystems | Deciding what gets protected


Knowing how important diversity is and that our activities are having detrimental effects upon it leads to the inescapable conclusion that it must be protected. Agreeing that it needs to be protected is simple enough, but deciding how to protect it and what to protect is much more complicated. This page briefly covers the historical thinking on conservation and some of the ideas and priorities of current conservation action. Details on the actual acts and organizations are found in the Legislation section of this site.

A focus on species

Golden eagle. Photo: Peter MirejovskyOriginally, conservation was ignored in what was considered to be a world of infinite resources. Originally, land that was set aside was for economic reasons; the creation of Banff National Park in 1885 was not done to protect wildlife but to provide a vacation spa and wilderness recreation park. Early efforts at conservation were focused on protecting species. Not all endangered species were protected, though; at first only economically important species were given much weight, in part because they were the species whose decline was worrisome and in part because the extinction of species thought of as pests was still welcomed. In time, though, species that didn't have obvious commercial benefits for humans were also protected.

There is a natural tendency to think of conservation in terms of species. The loss of a species is something that is easier to grasp and more tangible than the loss of genetic diversity or an ecosystem, and many endangered species are photogenic enough to evoke an immediate emotional response. Even scientifically, species are easier to work with than genetics or ecosystems (see the Theory section for why this is), which leads to species getting the lion's share of attention even from conservation biologists.

Protecting ecosystems

Up until fairly recently protection focused almost exclusively on the species itself. Habitat protection originally had little to do with species protection, as the view was still that the environment was limitless and the consequences of human activities on it minor. Species that we specifically harvest might be endangered, but the systems they were a part of weren't considered to be at risk. Only with the creation of the Canadian Wildlife Service (now Wildlife Canada) in 1973 were ecosystems being truly protected by law.

Trying to save species individually is not very effective; there are over three hundred threatened and endangered Canadian species and populations on COSEWIC's list (see the Legislation section for more details), and separate efforts to save each of them would be wasteful. Protecting the habitat of these species makes much more sense, as there is little chance of them going extinct in their natural environment once it is safe. In addition to saving those already endangered species, this approach helps prevent other species who share the same habitat from becoming endangered and preserves the ecological integrity of the protected area. Protecting areas saves all levels of diversity.

Efforts were made to protect systems, but not until "Our Common Future," the 1987 report of the UN's World Commission on Environment and Development (commonly known as the Brundtland Commission) was released, was the idea taken very seriously. The report was enormously influential, and its emphasis on habitat protection as a better means to protect species led to the widespread adoption of that practice.

Deciding what gets protected

Ideally all biological diversity would be protected, but this isn't likely to happen any time soon. Rather than randomly conserving patches of habitat, what gets protected is a mix of systems and species that are in immediate danger or that have special characteristics. Many countries have passed legislation that makes it difficult to destroy the habitat or to kill members of endangered species, and legislation that likewise protects endangered ecosystems is also becoming more common. Species that are threatened in Canada are designated by COSEWIC; unfortunately, Canada currently has no endangered species act to consistently protect endangered species, and COSEWIC's list of threatened and endangered species has no binding legal implications.

Photo: Sinead CollinsA key special characteristic for an area is to have especially high numbers of species. These areas are known as "biodiversity hotspots" and are generally found in the tropics, though Canada has hotspots as well. Globally, it has been estimated that almost half of all higher plant species and over a third of amphibian, reptile, mammal and bird species can be found in 25 hotspots that take up only 1.4% of the land of the planet. Naturally, this does not mean that most of the natural landscapes of the world can be destroyed without any ill effects resulting, but it does mean that a large proportion of species can be protected in a relatively small proportion of the world's surface. Areas that perform important ecosystem functions in relation to their size, such as the water filtering activities of wetlands, are also special areas that should be protected. Keystone species (see the Theory section) are examples of species with special characteristics; similar to the wetlands just described, they have a larger impact on their system than would be expected by their numbers.

When it comes time to decide if certain species or areas should be protected, the decisions made unfortunately often end up resembling popularity contests. Attractive species and areas get more attention and arouse more passion than their less attractive cousins. Endangered insects aren't held in the same regard as endangered mammals, and picturesque landscapes are defended with more vigour than marshes. This phenomenon is so widely recognized that a term has been coined for these attractive species: charismatic megafauna. What all this means is that the focus of conservation efforts is diverted from species and areas that may be more important or threatened to those that are simply beautiful. Given how close to extinction many species are, this is a truly unfortunate.

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