Conservation for the sake of conservation is a romantic notion. But in reality, it’s far from it.
Conservation today requires the cooperation of many stakeholders, including the locals, different levels of government, corporations and even the potential economic benefit of the area in question.
Unfortunately, the last factor seems to be held in highest regard in most places around the world; this is especially true in developing countries like India. If an area has the potential for giving a boost to the economy through development, that will be pursued at the cost of ecological protection.
Here’s an interview with Dr. George Schaller, a renowned field biologist, conducted by Scroll.in.
He talks about how conservation methods have changed, how our priorities have changed, what is lacking and how he has tried to make a difference in conservation around the world.
With the world slowly but steadily descending into living hell (no, I’m not exaggerating), scientists in the field of environmental science are hard pressed for solutions. There have been many that have been proposed and implemented. Some of which, I have mentioned in my blogs as well: restoration ecology, wildlife conservation, genetic modification and manipulation, management practices, modification of policies, to name a few. Others like waste management, renewable sources of energy, disaster management also exist.
The problems of rising carbon in the atmosphere, along with the changing climate is one of the biggest in the 21st century. These problems are so large scale, so beyond human control that many people have just made peace with the fact that the world as we know it will soon end (or worse, live in denial). When the problem is so huge? How can a few people make a difference?
When you are staring at 60% of the coral reefs being bleached, and a 40% loss in coral reefs all over the world, as a scientist, you cannot just sit there and take it. Tens of scientists all around the world are working tirelessly to ensure that the reefs have a way to cope up with the large scale environmental changes that are occurring in the world’s oceans. However, so are the corals!
I mentioned in the previous post on coral bleaching about why it is happening, and what are the controls of coral bleaching. In this post, I’ll look at the the corals themselves are showing, and what kind of research is being done to understand this recovery process…
Corals have survived 5 extinction events in the past. This shows that they are extremely resilient creatures. This resilience stems from the simplicity of their structure, as well as the huge diversity of coral forms in the world. Corals occur at different depths, host different organisms, have different structure and have different temperature controls. This is a good thing for the corals; it will, at least, ensure that some corals will have a chance to survive the current global extinction.
Some scientists believe that corals that have already recovered from a past bleaching event are more likely to be resilient to coral bleaching in the future. This was observed off the coast of Indonesia, where the reefs weathered in the 1998 bleaching event showed much more resilience in 2008-2010 bleaching event. Scientists believe that corals might be adapting fast enough to withstand the environmental changes.
However, this is not the case for corals all around the world. The corals that recovered a past bleaching event may remain vulnerable for a long time, before it reaches full health. As a consequence, further bleaching events will prove disastrous for them. This has been observed in the Caribbean. Scientists observed that the recovering corals are highly vulnerable to diseases and attack from coral-eating fishes.
Are some traits in corals better than others?
It appears to be so. There is a growing belief among coral scientists that corals that have a complex structure, and survive at greater depth, are more likely to weather the effects of a bleaching event.
A greater depth allows corals to escape much of the warm waters in the ocean. Deep waters are cooler and are expected to serve as coral refuges in the future.
There have been reports of coral recovery in the Middle East, where corals migrated to deeper waters when temperatures rose. Along with this migration, fishes that depend on these corals also migrated. In a few years after the 2008 bleaching event, the fishes that were extinct in the shallow waters showed good numbers deeper in the ocean, where the corals continued to thrive.
Is coral bleaching an adaptive mechanism?
It has been established that different strains of zooxanthellae exist, both within and around the coral structure. These strains are different in their ability to tolerate stresses. Research into the physiology and genetics of corals have suggested that coral bleaching may just be an adaptive response to changing environment.
The corals recognize that the temperature in the water is increasing. Therefore, they expel the algae within their body, which was until now, suited for cooler temperatures. It becomes white and devoid of algae, allowing other zooxanthellae species to colonize the coral structures. The new species are likely to be more resilient to greater temperatures. This could be a reason why the coral reefs off the coast of Indonesia did not suffer during the 2008-2010 bleaching event.
This could well be the case, because geological history suggests that corals have managed to survive much higher temperatures than this before. They may not have existed with the current species diversity, but they existed and thrived nevertheless.
Coral bleaching may or may not be an adaptive mechanism. But the fact of the matter is that corals are trying their hardest to combat stressful environmental conditions to ensure their continued survival. But it isn’t just increasing acidity or temperature that is causing bleaching, is it? Overfishing, pollution and overexploitation of corals for economic benefits is by far the biggest contributor factor in coral bleaching. They may not directly cause coral bleaching, but they reduce the coral resilience to coral bleaching.
Is there something we should be doing to prevent coral bleaching?
Brown, B.E. 1997. Coral bleaching: causes and consequences. Coral Reefs (16): S129-S138.
Do you know why you look the way you look? People must have said you resemble someone in your family. You could have your dad’s jaw, your mom’s eyes and your grandma’s nose. However, you are never their replica. You have your own characteristics, your own features and quirks that make you uniquely you.
All of this is controlled by one thing: genes. Genes are the structural and functional unit of heredity. They control how you look, how you walk, how smart you are, how creative you are. Of course, certain environmental and opportunistic influences are present (you could have the potential to be a great tennis player in your genes, but what if you never got a chance to play tennis?). However, your life and the lives of every species is governed by their genes.
Now that we have established why conservation is as important as restoration (if you haven’t read that, read Conservation vs Restoration: The key differences), let’s delve deeper into the steps the world has taken towards conservation of biodiversity.
After recognizing that the world’s biodiversity is under threat, the countries of the world under the banner of United Nations came together in 1992 to formulate the first worldwide protocol on biodiversity conservation. This was the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Subsequently, many national and international protocols were laid down, and they were implemented.
All of these, were based on a document called World Conservation Strategy that was jointly developed by UNEP, IUCN and WWF in 1980. It’s been the go-to document for implementation of conservation measures all over the world. It highlights the “intellectual framework and practical guidelines” for conservation measures. It also delineates the priority activities in our conservation efforts. It is specific, focused on efficiency and calls for global action. Continue reading World Conservation Strategy: What is it and why is it important?→
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.