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Fergus, P.; Chalmers, C.; Longmore, S.; Wich, S.; Warmenhove, C.; Swart, J.; Ngongwane, T.; Burger, A.; Ledgard, J.; Meijaard, E. Conservation. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 16 June 2024).
Fergus P, Chalmers C, Longmore S, Wich S, Warmenhove C, Swart J, et al. Conservation. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 16, 2024.
Fergus, Paul, Carl Chalmers, Steven Longmore, Serge Wich, Carmen Warmenhove, Jonathan Swart, Thuto Ngongwane, André Burger, Jonathan Ledgard, Erik Meijaard. "Conservation" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 16, 2024).
Fergus, P., Chalmers, C., Longmore, S., Wich, S., Warmenhove, C., Swart, J., Ngongwane, T., Burger, A., Ledgard, J., & Meijaard, E. (2023, June 13). Conservation. In Encyclopedia.
Fergus, Paul, et al. "Conservation." Encyclopedia. Web. 13 June, 2023.

The biodiversity of our planet is under threat, with approximately one million species expected to become extinct within decades. The reason: negative human actions, which include hunting, overfishing, pollution, and the conversion of land for urbanisation and agricultural purposes. Despite significant investment from charities and governments for activities that benefit nature, global wildlife populations continue to decline. Local wildlife guardians have historically played a critical role in global conservation efforts and have shown their ability to achieve sustainability at various levels.

conservation biodiversity guardians wildlife

1. Introduction

Our planet is a diverse and complex ecosystem that is home to approximately 8.7 million unique species [1]. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals report revealed that one million of these species will become extinct within decades [2]. While the situation is critical, the report emphasises that we can still make a difference if we coordinate efforts at a local and global level. Humans have played a major role in every mammal extinction that has occurred over the last 126,000 years [3]. This is due to hunting, overharvesting, the introduction of invasive species, pollution, and the conversion of land for crop harvesting and urban construction [4]. The illegal wildlife trade, fuelled by the promotion of medicinal myths and the desire for luxury items, has also become a significant contributor to the decline in biodiversity [5][6]. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the illegal wildlife trade is estimated to have an annual value of USD 8.5 billion [7][8]. The white rhinoceros commands the highest price at USD 368,000, with the tiger close behind at USD 350,193 [9]. Animal body parts that are highly sought after, such as rhinoceros horns, can fetch up to USD 65,000 per kilogram, making them more valuable than gold, heroin, or cocaine [10]. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world, and although the value of their scales is significantly less than rhinoceros horn (between USD 190/kg and USD 759.15/kg) they are traded by the ton [11]. In 2015, 14 tons of pangolin scales, roughly 36,000 pangolins, was seized at a Singapore port with a black market value of USD 39 million [12].
Charities, governments, and NGOs protect wildlife and their habitats by raising money, developing policies and laws, and lobbying the public to fund conservation projects worldwide [13]. In 2019, the total funding for biodiversity preservation was between USD 124 and USD 143 billion [14]. The funds were split with 1% towards nature-based solutions and carbon markets [15], 2% for philanthropy and conservation NGOs [16], 4% for green financial products [17], 5% for sustainable supply chains [18], 5% for official development assistance [19], 6% for biodiversity offsets (in agriculture, infrastructure, and extractive industries that unavoidably and negatively impact nature) [20], 20% for natural infrastructure (such as reefs, forests, wetlands, and other natural systems that provide habitats for wildlife and essential ecosystem services such as watersheds and coastal protection) [21], and finally, 57% for domestic budgets and tax policy (to direct and influence the economy in ways that increase specific revenue types and discourage activities that harm nature) [22].

2. A Brief History of Conservation

Conservation is a multi-dimensional movement that involves political, environmental, and social efforts to manage and protect animals, plants, and natural habitats [23][24]. During the “Age of Discovery” in the 15th to 17th century [25], sport hunters in the US formed conservation groups to combat the massive loss of wildlife caused by European settlers [26]. As local policies emerged, people living close to areas where biodiversity was protected lost property, land, and hunting rights [27]. Settlers criminalised poaching, which was associated with local people who often hunted and fished for their survival [28]. Widespread laws led to the creation of protected areas and national parks [29], which were established within the context of colonial subjugation [30], economic deprivation [31], and systematic oppression of local communities [32].
As a result, local people engaged in “illegal” hunting to meet subsistence needs [33], earn income or status [34], pursue traditional practices of cultural significance [35], or address contemporary and historical injustices linked with conservation [34]. They viewed settlers (including sport hunters) as unwanted interlopers who stole their lands [28]. The industrial revolution in the 19th and early 20th centuries [36], marked by larger populations and working communities, further escalated the demand for natural resources, resulting in increased biodiversity loss [37][38]. Today, many local communities in ecologically unique and biodiversity-rich regions of the world still perceive conservation as a Western construct created by non-indigenous peoples who continue to exploit their lands and natural resources [39].
For decades, conservationists have debated whether it is human activity or climate change that has driven species extinctions and whether the loss of biodiversity is a recent phenomenon [3]. Studies have provided compelling evidence to show that it is, in fact, humans who are responsible for the wave of extinctions that have occurred since the Late Pleistocene, 126,000 years ago [40]. For example, toward the end of the Rancholabrean faunal age around 11,000 years ago, a substantial number of large mammals vanished from North America, which included woolly mammoths [41], giant armadillos [42], and three species of camel [43]. Similar extinctions were seen in New Zealand when the Dinornithiformes (Moa) became extinct about 600 years ago [44][45] and in Madagascar where the Archaeoindris fontoynontii (giant lemur) disappeared between 500 and 2000 years ago [46]. Many believe that species and population extinction is a natural phenomena [47], but the evidence suggests that human activity is accelerating species extinction and biodiversity loss [48].
Despite the efforts to protect biodiversity and natural habitats, we are sleepwalking ourselves into a sixth mass extinction [49]. Economic systems driven by limitless growth continue to negatively impact conservation efforts [50]. Rapid development and industrial expansion is depleting natural resources [51] and intensifying the conversion of large stretches of land for human use [52]. The Earth’s forests and oceans are persistently exploited by major corporations who view the planet’s natural resources as capital stock [53][54]. Economic models and financial markets treat natural systems as assets to be used immediately, leading to the abuse of nature for short-term profits with little regard for the long-term costs to society and the environment [55]. While The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) attempt to hold large corporations to account [56], many believe we need nothing short of a redesign of corporations themselves if we are to successfully enable a transition to a ‘Green Economy’ [57]. Conservationists agree that biodiversity and natural systems are essential for human survival and economic prosperity but criticise the big corporations and political systems that prioritise immediate economic gains at the expense of the prosperity and well-being of both current and future generations [58].
The importance of involving local stakeholders as essential contributors in biodiversity monitoring and conservation efforts is emphasized in current perspectives [59]. Recognizing their role as capable natural resource managers, equitable schemes have been introduced to promote their engagement in locally grounded social impact assessments that consider the diverse implications of human activities in biodiversity-rich areas [60]. These efforts are largely driven by the Durban Accord led by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) [61], which advocates for new governance approaches in protected areas to promote greater equity in local systems [62][63]. This necessitates a fresh and innovative strategy that upholds conservation objectives while inclusively integrating the interests of all stakeholders involved. This integrated approach aims to foster synergy between conservation, the preservation of life support systems, and sustainable development.


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