Biodiversity and Conservation - continued

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Conservation at the National Level

National governments are vital to the preservation of biodiversity through the passing of laws requiring protection of species and habitats. If national laws do not protect species, then there is little hope of preserving them. However, it is not enough just to have laws, there must also be the will and the resources to enforce them. Even in economically developed nations, the necessary resources to properly enforce laws are not always made available. In under-developed nations, even the most basic resources for enforcement may be lacking. In addition, national laws may not in the end translate into local action, in which case they do not accomplish much. In democratic nations, national laws are also driven to a large extent by public opinion. They may in some cases be drafted more as a response to emotion than by actual scientific need.

Several international conventions exist for the preservation of biodiversity. These include such conventions as the Ramsar Convention (1976) which provides for the conservation of internationally important wetlands and the Bern Convention (1979) which requires the protection of endangered and vulnerable species of flora and fauna in Europe and their habitats. There are many others. Signatory nations to these conventions must ratify national laws to ensure compliance with the conventions.

In Britain, the main piece of legislation covering conservation is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and 1985, which implements preceding EU conventions. It protects both species and sites of UK importance. Enforcement of conservation directives is the responsibility of the Environment Agency, a government organisation. English Nature, a government funded watchdog, is also responsible for the promotion of the conservation of England’s wildlife.

In addition to the enforcement of laws, the Environment Agency is also responsible for data collection and monitoring. Environmental monitoring and biodiversity surveys are important because they provide information on the condition of ecosystems and the changes that are taking place within them. They therefore provide the scientific information on which to base environmental policy decisions. Similarly, assessments of the environmental impact of large development projects are vital before relevant authorities can either grant permission to proceed, or require that changes be made to development designs.

International Conservation

Species and ecosystems are seldom neatly confined within national boundaries. Many species roam across countless national borders and the oceans are owned by none. Trade in endangered species (or parts thereof) is international and pollution produced on one side of the world may wind up affecting regions on the other side of the globe. Biodiversity conservation is thus an international problem requiring international solutions.

The role of international conservation organisations is a vital one, particularly in terms of brokering international agreements between governments concerned with protecting their national interests. The most far-reaching agreement on biodiversity in recent years is the Convention on Biodiversity, signed by 156 nations at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development ( the Earth Summit ) in Rio in 1992. Many others have signed since, and as they ratify the convention, governments accept responsibility for safeguarding biodiversity in their nations. Many international conservation organisations including WRI ( World Resources Institute ) and IUCN ( The World Conservation Union ) contributed to the formulation of the documents signed at the convention.

The UK was one of the first countries to follow up its commitment under the Convention on Biodiversity. Biodiversity: The UK Action Plan was published in January 1994. A UK Biodiversity Steering Group was appointed , which published a report entitled Meeting the Rio Challenge in 1995. The report contains action plans for over 100 endangered species and 14 key habitats, together with a commitment to produce further plans. The Steering Group proposed the use of a standard methodology for the production of local biodiversity action plans. These would be based upon the priorities of the UK plan, but would be supplemented by local priorities.

Action Plans seek to apply principles of business planning to a strategic view of the environment. They identify objectives, set quantified targets and define the actions needed to reach those targets. The Nature of Devon - A Biodiversity Action Plan is Devon’s response to this national biodiversity planning process. This regional process is going on throughout England. The sum of all the regional Biodiversity Action Plans should add up to the full UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

International conservation organisations play an important role in the wide publicising of environmental information. IUCN was responsible for the idea of compiling lists of threatened species as a means of drawing attention to the plight of species faced with extinction. These lists became known as Red Data Books ( RDBs ). In these, species are placed into one of several categories which range from ‘extinct’ to ‘vulnerable’ or ‘rare’, depending on the degree of threat to their existence. The first internationally applicable RDB was published in 1996. The ‘red’ stands for ‘danger’ and the concept has since been adopted by many different countries, including Britain. RDBs point the way for government agencies charged with environmental protection, as well as for non-governmental organisations ( NGOs ) concerned about maintaining diversity.

Organisations such as WWF, founded in 1961 by Sir Peter Scott, the eminent naturalist, are highly effective in publicising the plight of endangered species world-wide. They also play a large role in raising charitable funds towards projects concerned with saving wildlife in various areas of the globe. Many such conservation organisations pay for the basic resources needed by under-developed countries to enforce their laws. This can be as basic as providing a means of transport and salaries for enforcement officers. However, how effective these campaigns and projects are in the long run remains to be seen. Loss of habitat is still the most pressing problem.

In some areas, biodiversity is seriously threatened as a result of trade in endangered species. The international trade in wildlife is estimated to be worth 12 billion a year. Up to a quarter of that trade is almost certainly illegal. The main piece of legislation limiting trade in endangered species is CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). This is a UN convention which came into effect in 1975. CITES prohibits commercial trade in endangered species of plants and animals. Legitimate international trade in species which are not now threatened, but which may become so if trade is not controlled, is allowed via a permit system. Responsibility for implementing it lies with signatory nations.

Many of the problems involved in protecting habitats and species arise because local people either need to use the resources available in sensitive habitats to provide the necessities for subsistence or survival, or traditionally have always done so. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), through its 'Man and the Biosphere' programme, has set up a number of Internationally recognised biosphere reserves in an attempt to address this problem.


The world has a vast range of different species which are all inextricably linked.  The eminent naturalist and television presenter, Sir David Attenborough, summed this up neatly when he said "The inter-dependence of species evolved over millions of years and underpins the complex diversity of life which exists on this planet."

We can only guess at many of the interactions taking place within habitats. While we have come a long way in our knowledge of the natural world, we need to recognise that we are still fundamentally ignorant. With recognition of this ignorance comes the understanding that we need to preserve whole habitats intact, so that the complexity of interactions remains, whether we understand them or not.

The fate of the entire planet is now dependent upon a single species - humans. This is unprecedented in the Earth’s 4.7 billion year history. Ultimately, conservation of biodiversity will hinge upon the control of human populations. Continually expanding human numbers have led to an escalating competition with wildlife for the space required to house everyone, as well as to produce enough food to feed them.
Increasing standards of living also require that further natural areas and resources are given over to sustaining western lifestyles and associated demands. 

We are interfering with biodiversity on a great many levels, from the molecular (genetic modification), all the way through habitats and possibly global climate change as well. However, the many predictions made about species and habitats losses need to be carefully examined in each case and not just taken at face value. Many are based on computer simulations and emotions can get in the way of clear practical thinking.

Anyone concerned about conservation needs to question whether the innumerable strategies and policies in place are actually being delivered. International conventions and national laws are in the end only ideas on pieces of paper. These must be translated into concrete action in local situations for anything to be truly accomplished.

On the plus side, it is possible to restore some habitats which have been lost or degraded. This is not to imply that it is permissible to destroy habitats in the first place. This causes the local extinction of all the species in the habitat and it can take hundreds of years for complex ecosystems to become re-established. The species which have recolonised the restored habitat will also not necessarily be of the same genetic make-up as the original inhabitants.

However, restoration does mean that action can be taken to repair damage. The natural world given half a chance is amazingly resilient. All it needs is space and time.





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