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Wildlife is in peril, but that doesn’t mean conservation has failed

A chat with journalist Michelle Nijhuis about her new book Beloved Beasts on the history of the modern conservation movement.

A bison crosses the road near Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park in 2013.
Erik Petersen/Washington Post via Getty Images
Benji Jones is a senior environmental reporter at Vox, covering biodiversity loss and climate change. Before joining Vox, he was a senior energy reporter at Insider. Benji previously worked as a wildlife researcher.

You don’t have to look far to find signs that wildlife is in peril. And most of the news stories about it these days follow a predictable formula: Species are going extinct and, in most cases, humans are to blame.

To be clear, that’s true, and there’s every reason to be alarmed. A report from September, for example, found that the populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish have declined by almost 70 percent, on average, since 1970. Another finds that 1 million species are threatened with extinction.

But what those stunning numbers — and the headlines they inspire — tend to obscure is the more hopeful stories of success in conservation. Though they may be harder to find, there are many.

“It’s easy to forget that the world we live in is far richer thanks to those who found convincing reasons, and the required means, to provide sanctuary to other species,” environmental journalist Michelle Nijhuis writes in Beloved Beasts, a new book that chronicles the history of the modern conservation movement. “Without their work, there would likely be no bison, no tigers, and no elephants; there would be few if any whales, wolves, or egrets.”

The cover of Michelle Nijhuis’s new book, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in the Age of Extinction.
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

As an environmental reporter myself, I am generally skeptical about this. The data alone tells a depressing story that so easily overshadows blips of success. But as Nijhuis argues in her book, there’s still hope — and she does a good job in documenting the reasons for it.

I recently spoke with Nijhuis for an episode of Vox Conversations airing today — Earth Day — and posed a few questions that have been swirling around in my head for a while: Does conservation even work? Is it working fast enough? And is there any realistic way of reversing the extinction trend?

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What we get wrong about the “real work of conservation”

Benji Jones

What inspired you to write this book, and why now?

Michelle Nijhuis

I’ve reported on environmental and conservation issues for a long time, and I’ve always been interested in conservation history, partly because I see that conservationists don’t know that much about their own history.

I think people who are in the conservation movement know some iconic names. They’ve heard of Rachel Carson. They might know Aldo Leopold or John Muir. But they don’t have a sense of their own movement as a tradition that’s had successes and failures and learned over time.

Benji Jones

I think what comes to mind for many of us when we think of conservation is protecting charismatic species like pandas or tigers. How would you define conservation, and how has that definition changed since the beginning of this movement, more than a century ago?

Michelle Nijhuis

Conservation, in its most basic sense, is just the prevention of waste or loss of anything. People have practiced conservation of the species they depend on for food or shelter since the beginning of human history.

The modern conservation movement came about in the late 1800s after people realized that their own activities could not only reduce the number of animals they lived beside but could drive entire species to extinction. That realization birthed a global movement to protect all species, whether they were useful to humans or not.

That’s what conservation meant at the beginning. As the movement was informed by ecology, it’s come to mean not only protecting individual species but protecting the relationships among them and their habitats — and the relationship between humans and other species.

Conservation is still perceived by many as a movement to save individual charismatic species. We saved the bald eagle or we saved a species of rhino from extinction. Those are terrific victories. But I think that perception is a bit misleading. It doesn’t include the real work of conservation — which is to preserve species in abundance, and in relationship with other species.

The data is bleak, but there’s no shortage of successes

Benji Jones

The planet has lost 755 animal species and 123 plant species over the last 500 years, according to your book. “People are still killing too many animals and destroying too much habitat,” you write. Is conservation working?

Michelle Nijhuis

I ask myself that question almost on a daily basis.

Conservation has worked in some very identifiable ways in the past. There are certainly species and assemblages of species and landscapes that we wouldn’t have were it not for the conservation movement.

We would have very few songbirds, for example, were it not for the people, mostly women, who stood up against the feather trade in the early 1900s. The feather trade was killing millions and millions of birds every year to decorate hats. Due to their work, we got the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. There are huge victories that we don’t really take into account when we’re thinking about whether wildlife conservation has worked.

Prints from the late 1800s showing women wearing feather hats.
L. Prang & Co./New York Public Library

The conservation movement has learned a lot over the past century. It’s expanded its ambitions and learned what species need through the science of conservation biology and ecology. We know what species need to survive.

What we don’t know and what we haven’t paid enough attention to is how human behavior needs to change to provide species with those things. Conservation has been slow to incorporate social science and human behavior into its work — to say, “We know what needs to be done, but how do we get there?”

Benji Jones

What are some examples of how we’ve done that right? Where conservation is working?

Michelle Nijhuis

One of the most successful efforts I’m aware of is a project I got to visit in Namibia. It’s now been around for about 30 years. It’s a system of community conservancies, where people — who are mostly subsistence hunters and farmers — have a great deal of influence in how to manage the local wildlife. They have the ability to set hunting quotas, for example.

Over the decades, this has had a number of really positive and practical results. The numbers of black rhino, which were down to almost nothing in northern Namibia, are now pretty good, for example. But the social impacts are also significant.

People in the conservancies care about the long-term future of the species they live next to, even if those species are a pain in their necks. They want to be able to hunt them for food. But they also just generally want them around. They have pride in them.

It was very inspiring to me to see that potential for broadening the work of conservation to people who were not professionally part of the movement.

Benji Jones

I really love that example. How do those conservancies work?

Michelle Nijhuis

They are established by individual communities who live on communally-owned land in northern Namibia. The communities organize themselves as a conservancy. They elect their own leaders and then they hold regular meetings where some of these management decisions are made. It restores a level of authority to the management of species that has been missing since the days of colonialism.

Black rhinoceros walking through the grasslands of Etosha National Park in Namibia, Africa, in 2017.
VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The situation in North America is extremely different, mostly because there are not a lot of subsistence hunters and farmers here. But there are some of the same tensions. I think we could learn a lot from the example of what’s happening in Namibia, just in terms of uncovering what I think is a very common willingness among most people to help their local species survive.

Benji Jones

What are some other examples that give you hope that conservation is working?

Michelle Nijhuis

We’re seeing a global rise in Indigenous-led conservation efforts. There’s a real push to include the recognition of Indigenous land rights in what’s called the 30 by 30 initiative, which is a push to protect 30 percent of the globe’s land and waters by 2030.

If those goals include the affirmation of Indigenous land rights and give people some long-term security to start managing their lands for the health of both their own livelihoods and other species, I think that could be a really exciting global shift.

We’re always going to need parks and reserves because we’ve done so much damage to other kinds of habitats. But we also need to protect places where people are making a living off the landscape in such a way that other species can live alongside them.

Focusing on extinction alone can backfire

Benji Jones

A lot of success stories, though inspiring, do seem hyper-localized. That is a depressing thought to me when I think about the scale of the problem. Do you think scale is relevant here, or is that the wrong way to think about it?

Michelle Nijhuis

I get very depressed when I think about the small scale of some conservation successes. I get depressed about timescales, as well.

Some of these efforts that are successful have taken decades and decades to get to where they are today, and it often feels like we’re starting too late with too little.

That said, the conservation effort in Namibia and others are actually quite large scale. They started out very small and grassroots, but they’re now a national institution. They’ve been around for decades.

Benji Jones

Not to be a downer, but it’s just tough. I understand that extinction is perhaps not the best metric to be using to assess where we are today, but across the board, it just really seems like things are moving in the wrong direction. What do you tell people who just point to the data and say, “Things obviously aren’t going well”?

Michelle Nijhuis

I tell them I agree. I totally sympathize with the focus on extinction because it is irreversible. Regardless of what some people might tell you about creating elephant-woolly mammoth hybrids, there is no reversing extinction.

But, at the same time, if we aren’t able to at least shift part of our attention to these longer-term efforts that are trying to protect species while they’re still common and put in place structures that will conserve species broadly, rather than just one by one, we’re just going to have more and more and more extinctions. It’s a very human problem: Do we focus on the crisis or do we focus on the long-term solution?

I also think that — as important as it can seem to focus on every looming extinction — it can backfire. People do get numb to the constant drumbeat of extinction coverage.

Benji Jones

Yes, sometimes it feels like literally every story is exactly the same. It’s like, “Oh, here’s what we’ve lost. Great.”

Michelle Nijhuis

Right? You could almost, you know, write a Mad Libs about these stories.

Benji Jones

So would it be fair to say that you have hope?

Michelle Nijhuis

I take refuge in a quote from Aldo Leopold. Leopold was a very optimistic person. At one point, when he was in a very grim mood, he wrote to a friend of his and said, “That the situation is hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best.”

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