A few years ago, during a walk through the British countryside, I was struck by the vastly different approaches to conservation in Zimbabwe, an extremely poor country, and the UK, one of the world’s wealthiest nations. I was born and live in Zimbabwe, but I went to school in the UK and my work takes me there frequently. As I walked through the Peak District National Park, I noticed a gate with a sign that read: “Please close the gate, sheep grazing.”
Strange, I thought, how different the concept is in the UK of what a ‘national park’ comprises. While unquestionably beautiful, the Peak District could not be more different from the wildernesses that have been set aside for conservation in Africa. Instead of intact woodlands there was a mosaic of human-engineered fields and moorlands, with just small patches of trees. Sheep were abundant, but several of the key species that once roamed the landscape such as bears and wolves, were absent.
This to me raised an ethical question. ‘If African people in and around protected areas are expected to live with elephants and lions, surely Britons can live with species as comparatively innocuous as lynx and wolves?’. This question seemed especially reasonable given that most African people depend on livestock or crops for their survival, whereas comparatively few Britons have that reliance. By setting aside vast wildernesses and by living alongside dangerous mega-fauna, Zimbabweans and citizens of several other African countries are arguably making a much greater sacrifice for nature than Britons, who do none of the above.
While appreciating that these kinds of comparisons are admittedly simplistic, there is nonetheless a need to assess the relative contributions and sacrifices of countries of the world for conservation. A group of colleagues and I set about to try to just that. We decided to focus on the efforts of countries to conserve terrestrial ‘mega-fauna’ (large mammals). Such species play really important ecological roles, but are difficult to live with because they are prone to conflict with humans and are challenging to conserve. For example, large mammals are often vulnerable to poachers and tend to be less resilient than smaller and faster-breeding species. However, large mammals also engender unparalleled passion among the public for conservation. Thus, measuring the efforts of nations to conserve such species seemed like a good place to start.
We created a ‘mega-fauna conservation index’ (MCI), where we measured countries on the following three measures: a) the proportion of the country occupied by each mega-fauna species; the proportion of the range of these species that is strictly protected in each country; and the amount of money spent on conservation by each country – either domestically or internationally, relative to GDP.
We found wide divergence among nations. Poorer countries tend to contribute more and have higher MCIs, richer countries less, with lower MCIs. African countries scored highest, those in Asia and Europe the lowest. The idea was to identify a benchmark such that countries that are under-performing in conservation terms could be encouraged to do more.
There are three ways in which countries can improve their score:
“Re-wilding” landscapes by reintroducing mega-fauna and/or by allowing the distribution of such species to increase;
Setting aside more land as strictly protected areas; and
Investing more in conservation, either at home or abroad.
The world needs to do more for mega-fauna conservation—much more. But some countries need to step up to the plate more than others. Several developed countries in particular arguably need to make much more of an effort. Reverting to the example of the UK, there is a case for the country to do its part by reintroducing some of the mega-fauna that used to occur there and by setting aside more land as wilderness. However, if those steps are unpalatable to the public or if they too costly, then an alternative approach might be to partner with countries in the developing world to facilitate their efforts to conserve mega-fauna.