Saving our biosphere – why we need conservation

Cian White highlights the importance and benefits of conservation and the horrifying consequences of human activity which may lead to the extinction of animal and plant species.

Illustration by Sarah Larragy


   The Giant Panda was removed from the IUCN’s endangered list at the beginning of this month and is now listed as vulnerable. But what’s the point? Does it matter if the Giant Panda goes extinct? Or the Siberian Tiger or the Eastern Gorilla (now critically endangered) or the Polar Bear or any other species which conservation organisations invest all their efforts trying to protect? Surely, it’s better to direct funds towards something like starving children or homelessness or more hospital beds? And anyway, species go extinct all the time, why should we bother trying to halt a natural process? We won the dice of chance and are now kings of the world. Why bother with conserving the lesser species? That’s evolution right? Survival of the fittest.

    First of all, I don’t think you’ll find a conservation scientist who does not agree that the homelessness and hunger are important issues and need to be addressed. This article is to convince you of the rest, that even though humans are amazing, we are also reliant and part of the biosphere, not something set apart from it and not something we can recklessly destroy.

   The simple fact is that conservation happens. Some people want to conserve the other species that share this planet, they have some kind of appreciation for nature, they think animals are cute, awesome or fascinating. Who doesn’t like a cute tiger cub? So some of these people have set up conservation organisations to protect these animals.

    However, then you risk just saving the lions and bears – the animals that are cool, majestic or beautiful. There are a lot of species that aren’t so majestic. Take the snails for example. They’re not majestic and besides, they eat your lettuce! What use are they? None, right? So they can jolly well jog on down the road to extinction. What about tigers? It’s very well for someone with money and safety to want to preserve tiger cubs, but cubs grow into adults. What about the Indian farmer faced with protecting his family and livelihood?

   The rationale many people would have heard behind protecting rainforests goes along the line of: “What if a plant that could cure cancer goes extinct?” Bioprospecting, or the search for commercially useful products, does sometimes lead to new discoveries. However, there are easier ways of making new drugs that don’t involve trekking through a rain forest and there isn’t the question of who controls the knowledge. Many local people know the medicinal uses of plants and object to outsiders stealing them. By this line of thinking, only medicinally useful species would be conserved until they are tested, useful chemical extracted and then fossilised. The panda is unlikely to have the cure for Alzheimer’s in its little finger.

   However, in the 1990s ecologists made the big step. They began outlining the benefits that species provided just by being alive. To understand these benefits, or ecosystem services as they are called, imagine life on Mars. What structures must be constructed to replace the ecosystems that don’t exist? For a start, we need oxygen to breathe and all our oxygen comes from photosynthesis. With no plants we would have to manufacture our own oxygen. This can be done by a process called electrolysis, whereby electricity is run through water. However, electrolysis plants on the scale that we would need them would cost an extraordinary amount of money so why not let the plants take care of it.

    Then, we need food and with no other living organisms you would have to manufacture that artificially. While it’s true that we can artificially make sugars and fats, making them appetising would be extremely difficult. So just let the plants and animals do it for us. This is also where pollination comes in and why there has been such concern over pollinator population declines. Without pollinators, many crops would be economically unviable to produce for anyone other than the super wealthy.

    Just ask the Chinese farmer who now has to pay workers to pollinate his apple trees because the bees have gone. In the late 1990s China realised that the wholesale destruction of its forests were causing flash floods on the Yangtze. 4000 people died and damages were estimated at $30 billion. Logging was banned immediately. If only the Irish government could recognise the importance of bogs and how their drainage is a cause for the nearly annual floods on the Shannon (the other cause being climate change).

   All these services, when accounted for, turn out to extraordinarily large. Robert Constanza, an economical ecologist, found that, in 1997, the biosphere provided services valued at around $33 trillion that year. In comparison, the global economy in the same year produced $18 trillion.

   Now this talk of economics and figures might seem a bit cold to you. How do you put a value on nature? It’s like how do you objectively measure beauty? You can’t – yet it’s done every day with music, paintings and other art forms. If we value something and are willing pay for it, then it has value. Right now nature is priceless. It has no value.

    A simple way of putting value on nature involves people paying to see a wild animal: eco-tourism. People will pay to see a wild panda. So what does that leave us with? Conserve the panda – and maybe the bees because apples are nice and sure throw in species that provide some kind of service, like flood mitigation. The others can walk the plank.

   Yet if you want to conserve the panda, you need bamboo. And if you want bamboo you need other grazers to keep down other plants that would compete with the bamboo stands. So you can’t extricate the panda from its ecosystem. Killing off one species or other might not make a difference or it could lead to a cascading effect that brings down the whole ecosystem. This is where some people balk. They don’t care about the insects or worms or mosses, and sure as hell won’t pay for them.

    This is where the ecosystem services come into play. A bamboo forest on a hill is useful. So are all the species in it that keep it a bamboo forest. Here’s one example why: sometimes it rains a lot and floods occur, other times it rains very little and a drought occurs. Forests, like bogs, help to smooth this out. They release water at a reliable rate preventing flooding downstream and providing water when it’s needed most. For this though, the forest has to be there, not just some of the time but all the time. It needs to be resilient.

    Over the last decade ecologists have amassed a large body of evidence which tells us that the more bio diverse an ecosystem is, the more resilient it is. This has astonishing impacts! Now some obscure snail in that bamboo forest, or a bog in the midlands, is contributing to the resilience of the whole ecosystem.

    Therefore, to protect ecosystem services, the amazing animals like the panda, the pollinators, we must protect the ecosystem itself. The panda is merely the ambassador, the flag waver, the umbrella species that advocates for the conservation of its ecosystem. Since it’s cute and cuddly, savvy conservation organisations use it to raise money to protect its ecosystem which, in turn, benefits the local people, in terms of ecosystem services and benefits everyone else because we get to go “Aww, look at the cuddly panda cubs!”

   For the good of our species, both in terms of practicalities like oxygen and water but also in terms of  immeasurable commodities like beauty and wonder, ecosystems should be conserved. Long live the panda and long live the humans alongside it.