The scene could have been repeated in a thousand protected areas in Africa: a small line of visitors walking carefully in the savannah, accompanied by a local game guard with a rifle. We were approaching an old female elephant on foot, in an area set aside for wildlife in a remote corner of the Zambezi Valley. I had seen plenty of elephants in the wild before, but always from the safety of a vehicle. I felt intensely aware of the noise of my movements and highly conscious of the direction of the wind. It struck me that the tree I stood behind was about the same size as the one the elephant had just gently pushed over.
The elephant population in Zimbabwe was buoyant at that time, and the thorn bush around us crackled as the rest of the group moved around the old female we were watching. The country was empty of people, with only visitors and managers allowed to enter. As a result, the landscape looked wild, but in fact it had once been grazed and farmed, and was now carefully monitored and managed for wildlife conservation.
Conservationists love charismatic species such as elephants. They appear on brochures, websites, and logos. The catastrophic decline in elephant numbers due to illegal hunting in the 1970s (and again now) provides one of the longest-running and most clear-cut stories about the plight of wildlife in the modern world. Who could forget the images of elephant carcasses, with their tusks removed, rotting in the bush? Or the huge pile of confiscated ivory set on fire by Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya’s President, in 1989?
Tourists also love elephants, and wildlife holidays in game reserves and parks offer a deeply romantic experience of wild creatures and people in apparent harmony in a remote, unspoiled land. In establishing protected areas for species such as elephants, conservation creates special places where the normal destructive rules of engagement between people and nature do not seem to apply.
However, nature reserves and national parks — or, in broad terms, ‘protected areas’ — are much more than a romantic idea. In the Anthropocene era, humankind is an increasingly dominant ecological force across the planet, from the tropics to the poles. Biodiversity is in decline everywhere, and the human impact on nature includes over-harvesting and overfishing, agricultural intensification and the growth of cities, toxic chemicals, ocean acidification, climate change, and many others. There is a real possibility of reaching ‘tipping points’, or changes that cause permanent shifts in the state of global ecological systems.
The loss of global biodiversity is the focus of huge efforts by charitable foundations, non-governmental organisations, and governments. The nature of the challenge is widely researched and, broadly, well-understood, yet international biodiversity targets are not being met. Recognising this, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity pledged in 2010 to create more and better protected areas (at sea as well as on land). This is the familiar strategy of setting aside spaces for nature, which has dominated modern conservation since the late 19th century.
Proponents of this strategy argue that efforts should focus on those areas that are still relatively unchanged by human action — most of all, the tropical frontier, where the rate of biodiversity loss is greatest. In the words of a 2011 article in Conservation Biology, the chief priority is to ‘identify remaining intact ecosystems at local extents, to protect them, and to remind the public of them’.
In his poem ‘The Explorer’, Rudyard Kipling wrote of ‘Something lost behind the ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!’ Back in 1898, this refrain epitomised the Boy’s Own spirit of colonial adventure. Now it could be the marching song of global nature conservation. But there are worrying signs that this emphasis on preserving the wildest and most pristine places is mistaken. Parks and protected areas cannot save the world’s biodiversity. If that is why we fence, patrol, fund and manage them, then we need to find out what’s gone wrong.
Part of the problem is biological. Protected areas such as national parks do help preserve the animals and plants inside them, if the areas are large enough. Yet, despite the fact that there has been a huge increase in both the number and extent of protected areas through the 20th century, biodiversity loss has continued apace, accelerating in many regions.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/the-wilderness-fetish-is-bad-for-people-and-for-the-planet