When we talk about remediation of impacts of human activities, it will always have two aspects: recovering what is lost and preventing what is left from permanent loss. Recovering what is lost comes under the banner of restoration ecology. Prevention of loss, on the other hand, is the work of a field called conservation biology.
I’ve illustrated what is restoration ecology in many posts before now (see here for an overview of what restoration is, and here, here, here for examples of restoration degraded ecosystems). 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). In other words, most conservationists focus on threatened and endangered species.
In recent times, this field has expanded to include conserving habitats of organisms as well. Now, conservationists also take into account habitat fragmentation and the dangers of degraded landscape that plays a critical role in extinction of species.
How does this differ from restoration?
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, by the way.) While plants are also classified as “threatened”, “endangered”, etc., they are not given as much attention as animals.
Restoration, on the other hand, is heavy on botany. This is important because restoration looks to revive the entire ecosystem of an area; plants play a much stronger influence in development of an ecosystem and its successional stages.
Conservation also differs markedly in terms of the ecological principles it uses. It 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 aspect in which conservation and restoration differ is how they are practiced. Conservation is heavy on the use of software-based analysis and modelling. They 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 more experimental in nature. 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 turning off the tap. There is little to gain from that approach.