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Conservation and the race to save biodiversity

Video transcript

(gentle instrumental music) - [Narrator] I often find it helpful to look at a formal definition of a term in order to jumpstart some ideas about an interesting topic. And for this video, the term I want to look at is conservation. It's been defined as, the study of the loss of Earth's biological diversity, and the ways this loss can be prevented. So right there up front, biodiversity is a fundamental part of the very definition of conservation. Conservation or protection of biodiversity can be accomplished in many, many ways, and from my point of view, these can be classified into two basic approaches. One is protecting species, and the other is protecting places in which those species live. Different kinds of conservation techniques can be applied to these two different approaches, but in a lot of cases, very similar methods can also accomplish the goals. The concepts of savings species and saving places weave together just as much as they can be treated separately. Let's start with techniques that can protect species. Species protection is valuable because it can be used to prioritize which species are most in need of being saved before they face the biggest deadline of all, extinction. Species protection can include legislation at national or local levels to protect organisms that most need protection through things like the Endangered Species Act. Other types of statutory protection of species can be developed through international treaties such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. This treaty controls or regulates international markets for wild animals and plants, or their parts, so that they're not driven to extinction or over exploited in ways that are harmful not only to the organisms and biodiversity but to the markets themselves. An example of how economic interest can and should dovetail with protection of the environment. In some cases, a species is so threatened that a complete ban on its trade is required. International wildlife trade is estimated to involve hundreds of millions of individual plants and animals, resulting in a market worth billions of dollars a year. So it's not a small problem, and it ranges from live animals and plants, to products that are derived from organisms, such as food, leather goods, timber, curios, medicines, and even things like wooden musical instruments. Another really useful conservation tool is the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the IUCN, which provides very useful guidelines highlighting the types of biodiversity or the species themselves that need to be protected the most. All species are placed in one of seven IUCN categories, ranging from extinct to least concern. Placing species into these categories requires adequate data, which underscores the importance of biodiversity research and the dissemination of the findings. And that's what I always mean about biodiversity research and its symbiotic partner, education. Good data equal better decisions. The IUCN highlights the crucial nature of research. If you have the right data, you can place known species into one of the seven different categories. Categories that are really, really helpful for education as well as for making good protection policies, and even for helping fundraise for more research, more education, and conservation. Another species protection technique involves the establishment of species survival plans, or SSPs. When scientists believe that captive breeding programs can help prevent extinction, SSPs can be developed for species that are in danger of extinction in the wild. SSPs help to maintain in captivity a reservoir of healthy populations of endangered animal species. Populations that maintain genetic diversity through careful breeding programs within the accredited community of zoos and aquaria that are approved for maintaining these breeding programs. In North America alone, there are over 170 species covered by more than 100 formal species survival plans that are specifically aimed at trying to maintain populations of species that may or may not still exist in the wild. Some SSPs are specifically aimed at reintroducing these species back to the wild. I should say a few brief words on the concept of reintroduction. It's a bit like any high risk surgery. A complex ecosystem can be compared to your own body. With surgery, it's hard to know if it's going to be successful or maybe introduce more problems down the road, and it's always bloody expensive. Same with programs that reintroduce species to wild ecosystems. They can be risky and expensive too, but also like surgery in some cases reintroduction can be really effective as a last resort to save lives. It's slowly working for things like some species of rare plants, the Oryx, and whooping cranes. There are guiding principles for reintroductions. There has to be adequate, appropriate, intact habitat in which to actually reintroduce the species. So here we get this overlapping effort not just to save an individual species, but to start talking about habitat preservation and restoration. It's not much good to set your hooping cranes free in the wild if there's not enough wetland for them to dance around in, to mate, breed, and get food for their young, to let them do their thing. I would insist that the expense that we put into these efforts are worthwhile at every step of the way, because of so much more than just counting up the individuals that you can save. The whooping crane is a magnificent animal. It symbolizes something special about unique environments in wild places that in general, people really want to hold onto. People like magnificent animals. These cranes focus attention on organisms that symbolize the importance of trying to save not just individuals of certain species, but entire places where these species can continue to exist. And the side benefits of this kind of conservation, this technique of reintroduction, includes public awareness. A teaching opportunity that focuses even more awareness on the overall problems of biodiversity loss. Let's explore more about what it means to conserve places in nature. Arguably, this is the most powerful way to protect biodiversity, because by saving a place, you will likely be saving entire ecosystems. You're certainly saving habitats, and this approach presents an opportunity to protect the most highly biodiverse or unique places on Earth through the enactment of public policy. Places like biodiversity hotpots. Again, this brings research and education together to help promote and expand the idea of saving an entire place. Now some places have been protected simply by their remoteness. Think of Antarctica for example. In spite of seeming to be harsh and lifeless, it's a fragile place full of life, and it's constantly under pressure from some kind of resource extraction, like fishing. Luckily, so far Antarctic biodiversity has been able to avoid most of the damage caused by human activity, but really only because of its distance from most human activities. It's a more difficult place to get to and to make money in, but that will change as technology improves so that the passive protection of remoteness will likely soon go away. Of course, other places that are more threatened by human encroachment have been singled out for special status as protected parks. I remember in my youth, we even had places called conservation areas in Southern Ontario where I grew up. Certainly as a kid I loved being able to walk through these conservation areas, and seeing things that I wasn't gonna see in any urban environment that surrounded them. They had a big influence on my early ideas and hopes to study and protect these special places. Everybody knows about the United States national park system, which has been called America's best idea. It could be argued that without the protected parks and regions that have been established around the world, biodiversity would have taken an even bigger hit than it has so far. In the sea, marine protected areas are underwater conservation parks. These places are havens for organisms like fish that would otherwise be subjected to over-harvesting that would reduce diversity, and cause negative changes in their ecosystems. Marine protected areas can allow populations to recover, serving as reservoirs to repopulate surrounding areas. A good example of this is in the Philippines, where a body of water called the Verde Island Passage already has patches of coral reef ecosystems that are marine protected areas. But imagine if the entire passage could become a gigantic area where the recovery and reservoir functions can happen. With regulation, total exploitation of this special part of the coral triangle could be prevented, allowing the passage to act as a kind of pump for corals and other reef species, distributing them out to more impacted areas in surrounding waters. The Verde Island Passage has shown resilience to coral diseases and bleaching, and surrounding areas suffering from environmental degradation would recover more quickly because you've got this unsurpassed biodiversity reservoir in the Verde Island Passage as a neighbor, a neighbor with that all important healthy ecosystem function that makes for strong ecosystem services. Lastly, I want to mention an emerging field called conservation genetics, that ties into protection not just of species, but of several different levels of biodiversity from the genetic traits that vary among individual members of populations, all the way to the various populations that make up a species. And of course, this includes the genetic diversity held within entire ecosystems. So conservation genetics is a different potentially powerful way of looking at conservation techniques and a new way of assessing the value of protecting and conserving different ecosystems. Essentially another tool in the conservation tool belt. Any big picture inclusive conservation approach such as this requires rigorous, diverse data that rely on the science of evolutionary lineages. The stuff of how biodiversity is actually generated over time and space. All this science helps us better understand what types of organisms are most crucial to a given area, or to a given lineage, and how biodiversity protection can most effectively be served by the right conservation techniques. Techniques that we need now more than ever.