How much is five percent? It depends what you’re talking about, for one thing. Five percent more ice cream for dessert isn’t likely to add up to very much – but talk about a 5 percent increase on your income tax and you’ll be sure that there’ll be some wailing and gnashing of teeth down the line. What about setting aside five percent of the Earth’s landmass in the name of conservation?
For centuries, conservation has proved a thorny problem for humans and animals alike. President Theodore Roosevelt, a noted early proponent of the movement, was instrumental in the creation of America’s National Park Service, designating wild areas an “integral aspect of intelligent use of natural resources.” Only recently have we begun to appreciate the sheer scope and urgency of the problems that we face – problems exacerbated through rapacious human activity gobbling through shrinking tracts of wilderness.
Recently, a joint team of scientists from Yale University and the French University of Grenoble have developed a new plan, one designed to triple the protected range of numerous endangered species. For the most part, conservationists view the protection of endangered or threatened species as a numbers game focused primarily on counting how many species remain in the wild or captivity. While this approach has numerous advantages, conservationists can sometimes literally fail to see the forest for the trees. They might be so focused on protecting wolves, for instance, that they might be blind to changes in the biomes they exist in – bird, fish, or reptile species are equally crucial to maintaining a healthy, wolf-friendly ecosystem, and their passing might herald a big, bad change.
At present, more than 26 per cent of the world’s bird and mammal species aren’t reliably included or recorded in these protected areas. In other words, while some species are rigorously tracked and recorded, we don’t always know what’s going on with other animals.
So how do we change this? The Yale/Grenoble team argues a simple and seemingly elegant solution: focus on protecting the land rather than specific species. Under their very much hypothetical plan, a simple increase of 5 per cent protected land on Earth would be enough to safeguard thousands, if not millions, of different species of all shapes and sizes. The new conservation strategy advocates for “global representation”: a new focus on evolutionary heritage and species function rather than local numbers. Rather than simply focusing on conserving wolves in a region, for instance, this new plan would expand to all top predators in a protected region: wolves, cougars, bobcats, hawks, and more.
Given the current biodiversity crisis, any innovations in this field are welcome. This, however, is among the largest and most radical plan proposed: it will involve a great deal of restructuring if we want to turn over 5 per cent of our land – which might include towns, factories, or farms – back to the wild. Will it be enough?