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As more space is taken up for cities and climate issues worsen, wildlife conservation goals have become increasingly essential.
Wildlife conservation aims to prevent declining populations of plants and animals by preserving their habitats and limiting harmful activities like poaching. Goals of wildlife conservation include mitigating impacts of climate change and protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services.
As population numbers have risen over the last few decades, so has deforestation, pollution, and other factors that have threatened the health of wildlife around the globe. In the last 20 years alone, more than 46,000 square miles of land has been lost to deforestation, in addition to increases in pollution and rising temperatures. This article will cover how wildlife conservation methods approach these problems, how biodiversity is interconnected with conservation, and the importance of preserving habitat and mitigating climate change.
Wildlife conservation can seem like a huge and complex subject. One of the most important things I’ve learned in studying environmental management and working in conservation research is the interconnectedness between biodiversity, habitat preservation, and wildlife conservation goals. In this article, I’ll sift through these interrelated topics and use my experience to give you a thorough understanding of what wildlife conservation actually aims to do.
What Is Wildlife Conservation?
Wildlife conservation is a large field that encompasses many efforts to preserve both plant and animal wildlife from dwindling population numbers and extinction. You might sometimes see the term ‘wildlife’ used to refer to non-domesticated animals, but it has generally been expanded to include all plants and organisms in areas that haven’t been developed by humans.
Many wildlife conservation efforts focus on habitat protection, since a healthy habitat is the main thing wildlife can’t live without. If a species’ natural habitat or ecosystem is harmed or destroyed, they cannot live outside of it. This is true for wildlife both in the water and on land.
What Are The Goals Of Wildlife Conservation?
One of the main goals of wildlife conservation is to protect biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the variety of species of plants, animals, and living organisms on earth. It can be looked at on different scales, such as genetic diversity, species diversity, and larger ecosystem diversity.
Biodiversity is hugely important because more diversity makes ecosystems more resilient. Interactions between species in, for example, a tropical rainforest ecosystem, is what results in healthy trees, which in turn pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and benefit us oxygen-breathing humans.
One example I studied in school that particularly highlights the importance of biodiversity is looking at what happened in Yellowstone National Park with the reintroduction of wolves into the ecosystem after their eradication. Wolves keep the population of deer in check, and when deer overpopulate, the vegetation they consume is reduced. Vegetation loss impacts beavers, amphibians, and other organisms that call those areas home or rely on them for food. Similarly, wolves kill coyotes, so their presence helps maintain the populations of small animals like rabbits. In turn, the presence of small animals increases the number of predatory birds in the ecosystem.
As you can see, the interconnections between species are complex, even in a seemingly straightforward ecosystem. While it might seem like the loss of one species isn’t a big deal, complex relationships between species exist and the effects of losing one can end up harming others (and eventually us as humans) as a result. Preserving biodiversity is the cornerstone of protecting ecosystems and the services they provide us.
In addition to other conservation efforts, an important way that biodiversity is maintained is preventing the killing of wildlife itself. Poaching is the illegal act of killing or trafficking certain types of wildlife, and preventing poaching is an important aspect of conserving biodiversity.
Hunting and poaching have been named two of the leading causes of biodiversity loss. Larger animals are usually targeted the most, like tigers, rhinos, and elephants. Rhinos in particular have been pushed near to extinction due largely to poaching (as well as habitat loss). Dwindling population numbers of these animals from hunting and poaching activities can have huge impacts on their ecosystems, driving biodiversity down. Toughening laws, increasing punishments for wildlife trade and involving local communities are all some of the ways that poaching can be prevented in order to conserve wildlife and protect biodiversity.
Protecting Ecosystem Services
Ecosystem services refer to the ways that we as a society benefit from wildlife. Ecosystem services range from things like clean air and water to the pollination of flowers and crops, each which require a healthy ecosystem and that we as humans depend on.
Biodiversity And Ecosystem Services
Protecting biodiversity is closely intertwined with protecting ecosystem services, since changes in biodiversity have huge impacts on the ability of ecosystem services to provide us with what we need. For example, pollinators worldwide support the growth and production of the 87 leading food crops. Since most pollination is done by wild bees (which there are about 20,000 species of), protecting the biodiversity of bees through wildlife conservation is essential to our production of food.
One ecosystem service that you might not think of right away is medicinal plants. Not only have plants been used for medicinal purposes for the last 60,000 years, but new uses of plants and other wildlife continue to be discovered even today. New species of plants are found every year, many with unknown potential to be used for medicinal purposes.
Today, 40% of pharmaceutical drugs in the US are derived from plants, including the 20 top prescription drugs in the US. Protecting biodiversity ensures that further advancements can be made through the discovery and preservation of species in the future.
Mitigating Impacts Of Climate Change
The effects of climate change are closely related to biodiversity and wildlife conservation. Climate change creates a feedback loop with wildlife health, where wildlife health can actually help lessen the harmful effects of climate change. However, as climate change worsens, so does wildlife health.
Conservation And Carbon Dioxide
I’ll share another example I learned in school to demonstrate the feedback loops I mentioned, this time with whales instead of wolves. Whales actually help to mitigate the effects of climate change by being an essential part of the ocean ecosystem. After whales feed deep in the ocean, they return to the surface to breathe. They also poop while they’re there (and as you can imagine, they poop a lot). This waste acts as a fertilizer for phytoplankton, organisms at the surface who use sunlight and fertilizer just like plants do to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and emit oxygen.
These phytoplankton might be microscopic, but their cumulative effect on capturing carbon dioxide is massive. Phytoplankton are an integral part of the carbon cycle, and they’ve been estimated to absorb about four times as much carbon dioxide as the Amazon Rainforest.
As you can tell, whales and phytoplankton are both essential to removing this greenhouse gas from our atmosphere. The feedback loop comes into play, though, when you consider that warmer oceans (from climate change) negatively impact both whales and phytoplankton. These less-than-ideal conditions mean less whales and less phytoplankton, which means less carbon dioxide is drawn out of our atmosphere. As a result, more warming occurs that continues to warm the ocean, causing a positive feedback loop.
Climate And Wildlife Feedback Loop
There are lots of examples of this kind of relationship in the wild, with climate change having a similar effect. Therefore, mitigating the impacts of climate change on wildlife health is an essential part of wildlife conservation. Some impacts have already happened, like the warming I’ve mentioned, so conservation requires protecting habitats and reducing the effects they have on wildlife.
Because of these types of interactions where one species can have a huge impact on others and on larger systems, addressing continued warming from climate change by targeting the underlying factors is also an essential part of wildlife conservation. Reducing human-caused emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is necessary to slow warming and prevent more severe weather patterns that not only harm wildlife, but us as humans as well.