When we talk about remediation of impacts of human activities, it will always have two aspects: recovering what is lost and preserving what remains. Recovering what is lost comes under the banner of restoration ecology. Preventing further loss, on the other hand, is the work of a field called conservation biology.
I’ve illustrated the concept of restoration ecology and discussed specific examples here, here, and here on Eco-intelligent. In many ways, restoration ecology is considered to be the future of ecology; so much has been degraded that we have to restore it if we want to maintain ecological balance.
However, that does not mean that we can ignore the saying “prevention is better the cure”. Conservation biology is integral to ensuring we do not lose what is with us at the moment. Both these fields go hand in hand; nevertheless, there are key differences in our approaches to restoration and conservation.
Conservation Biology: An aim to stem the flow
Conservation biology works on critical areas of the ecosystem. It focuses on managing biodiversity that is under severe threat. Under these efforts, conservationists have two distinct approaches: preventing a declining population of organisms from declining further (called declining population paradigm) and working on increasing numbers in an already declined population (called small population paradigm) (Young, 2000). Conservationists focus on threatened and endangered species.
In recent times, this field has expanded to include conserving habitats of organisms as well. Conservationists also take into account habitat fragmentation and the dangers of degraded landscape that plays a critical role in extinction of species.
Area of focus
From your experience, and from the description above, you would have recognized that conservation efforts are concentrated on animals, more than plants. You always here about different conservation programmes for tigers, lions, snow leopards; have you ever heard of a Project Rafflesia arnoldii? (This plant produces the largest flower in the world.) While plants are also classified as “threatened”, “endangered”, etc., they are not given as much attention as animals.
Restoration focuses on the botanical aspect of an ecosystem. This is important because plants have a stronger influence in development of an ecosystem and its successional stages.
Underlying ecological principles
Conservation and restoration use different ecological principles. Conservation tends to focus more on the population level of an ecosystem. This is understandable, since conservation is done for one species at a time.
Restoration, meanwhile, is more of a community level science. Succession process and dynamics dictate the progress of the restoration project. When you are reviving an ecosystem, you do not look at one species; you are to look at the entire collection of populations of different species. Their interactions will determine how the succession proceeds.
The final difference is in their application methods. Conservation relies heavily on software-based analysis and modelling. Conservationists collect specimen from the field, upload it on the software and analyse movement of the species, the genetic variability in the species and determine if the species can viably live and reproduce in the wild. Accordingly, steps are taken.
Restoration is experimental. Since succession process is not always controllable, it is possible that a community composition may develop that is not according to the “plan” ecologists created. When this happens, they need to adapt. Therefore, restoration has no foolproof strategy that can be applied, as in the case of mathematical models. It requires experimentation and flexibility.
Which is more important?
If our aim is to preserve and maintain global biodiversity, both are equally important. Restoration is receiving a lot of attention because of its ecological and economical benefits. That is a happy sign, since we need to revive a lot of our degraded ecosystems if we are to continue supporting the world population. However, restoration without the application of conservation measures is like keeping a bucket under a dripping tap to conserve water instead of repairing off the tap.