Many types of wildlife conservation are used in order to protect the vast array of species under threat from human activities.
Wildlife conservation efforts involve habitat conservation, endangered and keystone species protection, ex-situ efforts, and poaching prevention. These strategies each have strengths and limitations, and are often used together.
Threats to wildlife are growing as human impacts expand, with almost a million species facing threats of extinction in the next few decades. In this article, I’ll go over how wildlife conservation efforts aim to combat this, including the different types of approaches used today. We’ll look at key characteristics that differentiate these approaches as well as important strengths and limitations of each. I’ve included a table at the end summarizing these key aspects so you can distinguish between conservation approaches and recognize them when you encounter them.
In my own experience in conservation research, I’ve learned that wildlife conservation is a huge, resource-intense field and that conservation efforts are rarely all-inclusive or perfect. I’ve written this article to provide a detailed overview of the main strategies used and help provide a balanced view of each.
What Is Wildlife Conservation?
The term ‘wildlife’ has been used in the past to refer only to animals living in the wild, but it’s now usually used to refer to plants and other organisms as well.
Wildlife conservation as a field encompasses quite a few different strategies that all aim to protect wildlife from decreasing populations and extinction.
Why Is Wildlife Conservation Important?
Wildlife conservation is not only important to preserve the abundance of life on earth for future generations to enjoy, it also provides essential services that we depend on as humans. These ecosystem services, which depend on healthy ecosystems with abundant wildlife, include processes that give us clean air, water, and pollinate the crops we eat.
Natural ecosystems are so dependent on the functioning of each element within them that decreased biodiversity and dwindling population numbers can have huge impacts on their services. The absorption of carbon dioxide from the air, creation of healthy soil to grow our crops, and cycling of water for us to use and drink are all processes that depend on the conservation of wildlife, and are things that we as humans can’t necessarily replicate.
What Are The Types Of Wildlife Conservation?
One of the biggest ways that human factors negatively impact wildlife populations is through habitat destruction. Deforestation for things like logging and agriculture are a prime example of this. Places like the Amazon Rainforest have recently experienced all-time highs of deforestation, jeopardizing the habitats of the millions of species of plants and animals (in addition to the indigenous communities) that reside there.
As opposed to restoration, habitat conservation involves preserving habitats that already exist and protecting them from things like deforestation, pollution, and climate change.
Habitat conservation programs can be large- or small-scale and usually involve identifying habitats that are at risk as well as those that have high levels of biodiversity. Monitoring these areas and working with communities, policymakers, and governments are often part of habitat conservation, since it requires land to be preserved rather than developed for human use.
In looking at why habitat conservation is such an essential part of wildlife conservation, it’s important to also remember that habitats don’t exist in isolation. Just like any system, there are inputs and outputs and the health of one habitat or ecosystem can have huge impacts on others.
Human factors can disturb the inflow and outflow of these systems, even when a particular habitat isn’t a target for human development. The physical disruption of areas between habitats through the building of roads and fences can fragment them, and maintaining wildlife corridors is another way that habitat conservation can be practiced.
As opposed to conserving existing areas, habitat restoration aims to restore ecosystems that may have been disrupted. Restoration involves human intervention in order to enable an area to be self-reliant and fully functional again.
Restoration efforts are based on scientific evidence and information about an ecosystem in order to avoid negative impacts. Understanding which species are most necessary and what will help an ecosystem return to a self-regulating state can be complex, and continued monitoring and maintenance is usually required.
In fact, some of the difficulties with habitat restoration include the fact that we don’t always have a thorough understanding of the complexities of ecosystems. They are constantly changing, and without thorough, up-to-date data it can be difficult to predict what kind of human intervention will be successful to its recovery. Restoration efforts can also be very resource- and time-intensive, requiring substantial collaboration between stakeholders as well as long-term investments of time and money.
Removal of invasive species is often an important part of habitat restoration efforts, but invasive species removal can get somewhat controversial, especially when it involves animals.
Invasive species are defined as species that are not native to a certain area, but have been introduced ‘accidentally’ and are harmful to the native species in that area.
Though they are not native to the area, invasive species usually thrive in the place they have found themselves in and outcompete native species for resources. This can cause habitat loss and greatly change the dynamics of the natural ecosystem. Some argue that invasive species are actually the biggest threat to biodiversity, since they are capable of causing extinctions through this competition and habitat alteration.
Likewise, some species are non-native but are not necessarily harmful to an ecosystem. Opinions have evolved in the conservation realm away from the belief that non-native species are automatically invasive and need to be removed no matter what. In fact, non-native species are also occasionally introduced on purpose as a form of pest control.
The classification and protection of endangered species is another important strategy of wildlife conservation that focuses on species in danger of extinction.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973 and is one of the most important laws in the US for the protection of wildlife and biodiversity, with estimates suggesting that around 227 species may have gone extinct since 1973 without its passing.
Under the ESA, species are listed as either ‘endangered’ or ‘threatened’. Endangered species are referred to as those who are under threat of extinction for either their whole range (where they’re found during their lifetime) or a majority of it. Threatened species are those who are likely to be put on the ‘endangered’ list within the near future. Some of the success of the ESA is shown by the fact that 99% of the species listed as either endangered or threatened have avoided extinction.
The ESA works by allowing petitions for species to be listed as either endangered or threatened under the Act. The ESA can be implemented slightly differently between states, but there must be scientific evidence showing that the species and/or its habitat are under real threat of destruction, overutilization, disease, or other significant threats.
If a species is chosen, they receive protection under federal law against things like poaching, harassment or capture, and their critical habitat receives protections as well.
While the Endangered Species Act has had some significant successes, it also has some limitations which can complicate its effectiveness. The Act has been criticized for containing ambiguous language, meaning that interpretation by experts is required in order to determine whether or not certain species should be listed. This ambiguity can sometimes leave too much to interpretation, though, and stakeholders with interests that compete with those of endangered species have tried to weaken the Act to prevent its interference with things like oil and gas exploration and extraction.
Despite its limitations, the ESA has been used as a model for many other countries’ conservation efforts and itself helps to conserve endangered species outside US borders. Under the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES), international trade of wildlife is monitored for the protection of endangered species.
Another conservation strategy focuses on the keystone species, which are the species that have a critical role in their ecosystem and are usually at the top of the food chain. In a forest ecosystem, these species would be the wolf or the bear, organisms whose health has significant effects on the dynamics and diversity of the ecosystem as a whole. If the keystone species were removed, a significant loss of biodiversity would occur, through a domino effect on the other species.
For example, elephants (a keystone species) play a vital role in maintaining African savanna ecosystems. Elephants’ actions maintain the landscape of the grassland and actually prevent wildfires by clearing paths in the brush. They also help maintain the health of the plants that other animals like the zebra and gazelle feed on, maintaining those populations for consumption by other animals like lions.
The strategy behind keystone conservation is that by targeting those species, the health of the rest of the ecosystem will follow. This can save resources by focusing one one species rather than trying to tailor efforts towards each species in the ecosystem.
Keystone species conservation is similar to strategies that protect endangered species, but be careful not to confuse the two. Keystone species do not necessarily have to be endangered, although they can be. In fact, sometimes a keystone species is chosen because they have an important role in maintaining the habitat of another species that could be threatened or endangered.
Because keystone conservation only focuses on one species, its success is highly dependent on the identification of the most important species in the ecosystem. While this saves resources, it may not be as effective as other forms of conservation, especially because of the complex relationships in ecosystems that I mentioned before.
Poaching And Hunting Prevention
Another important part of preserving wildlife is preventing the hunting and capture of animals in the wild. Poaching and trophy hunting often target large, keystone species like elephants, tigers, and rhinos. It’s estimated that 100,000 elephants were poached between 2014 and 2017, and poaching almost led to the extinction of the black rhino before conservation efforts were enacted.
Animals are poached, hunted or captured for things like ivory or horns as well as for the exotic animal trade. Unfortunately, many times the poachers themselves are impoverished and driven by the small profits they receive for animals. Because of this, legal conservation efforts aim to control the trafficking of wildlife as well as just the act of poaching itself, and many nonprofits try to create alternative sources of income for poachers.
As well as the need to address socioeconomic factors, poaching can also be difficult to control because of how regulations differ between countries. For example, it’s believed that the Vietnam government has not done enough to address illegal rhino horn trade, which has had impacts in places like Africa where many rhinos are poached. Additionally, access to locations where poaching occurs can be limited and resources are needed to employ and train rangers to directly enforce anti-poaching laws.
The types of wildlife conservation addressed so far are all referred to as ‘in-situ’ conservation, meaning that the conservation of ecosystems occurs in natural habitats. Alternatively, ex-situ conservation refers to protection efforts that exist outside of that habitat, such as in botanic gardens, zoos, safaris, or wildlife rehabilitation centers.
Ex-situ conservation can look different for plants and animals, and the amount of human intervention used can also vary. However, in all ex-situ environments, organisms are not under the same pressures of natural selection that they would be in the wild.
For plant wildlife, ex-situ conservation can involve techniques like using seed banks and cryopreservation (preserving plant material for long periods under very cold conditions) to preserve plant species. The type of preservation used depends on the resiliency of the seeds, but it ensures that this genetic diversity is protected against total extinction if wild populations face significant threats. Botanic gardens are another form of plant life preservation, where the plants are actively grown and maintained as opposed to stored as seeds or pollen.
Similar to ex-situ plant conservation, ex-situ conservation techniques for animals also involve the preservation of genetic material as well as the animals themselves. Gene banks are used to preserve genetic material like eggs, sperm and embryos.
Zoos as organizations are often involved in both ex-situ and in-situ conservation programs, but the keeping of animals in zoos themselves is a form of ex-situ conservation, similar to botanic gardens. Zoos also focus on conservation from an education standpoint, using animals for advocacy of conservation programs in the wild.
Ex-situ conservation has strengths in terms of preserving wildlife and preventing total extinction, but it does not target species habitat or the ability for species and ecosystems to be self-reliant. In addition, it can be highly resource-intensive, requiring the appropriate technology for preservation or care for live plants and animals.
How Do Types Of Wildlife Conservation Compare?
Each type of wildlife conservation strategy has its own strengths and limitations, and different efforts are often used together. The table below shows the key differences between these different methods as well as the main strengths and limitations of each.
About THE AUTHOR
In addition to finishing my Masters in Environmental Policy and Management with a concentration in Energy and Sustainability, I have had extensive research experience. My undergraduate degree concentrated in Environmental Science, and I have been involved in multiple research projects including conservation and environmental research. My ability to look critically at information and understand scientific vernacular has helped me in communicating that information to others who have different backgrounds and strengths than my own. I love discussing topics in conservation, climate, and renewable energy and thoroughly enjoy writing about them every day.Read more about Ariana Guilak