The Future of Conservation was the lecture title, and the news wasn’t exclusively grim.
Yes, there are reasons for alarm. But recent research, innovative technology, and creative conservation initiatives are coming into play, aiding efforts to combat widespread extinctions, environmental degradation, and climate change, said Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund. Dinerstein, who addressed a large crowd in Ostrove Auditorium Sept. 27, is “one of the top conservation thinkers in the world,” according to his frequent collaborator and Colby host, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus.
The planet is experiencing what some scientists call “the sixth great extinction,” Dinerstein said, citing studies that suggest 100 species may be disappearing each day—six times the recent rate. Wildlife reserves, while increasing in number, seldom are extensive enough to support populations of large mammals such as tigers and elephants. “We are simply crowding them out.” Industrial agriculture threatens to replace tropical rainforests with soy, palm oil, and sugarcane plantations and cattle ranches.
But new tools and techniques hold promise. Scientists have identified as priorities 200 key global eco-regions that sustain the most diverse flora and fauna. Mapping technologies use lasers to identify tree species and measure above-ground carbon content of forests from aircraft, showing which areas are the richest habitats. Strategies for paying developing countries to conserve the most carbon-rich portions of rainforests, once identified, are on the table. Such are the pieces of an emerging conservation mosaic that Dinerstein described.
"America's really good at going other places and telling people what to do," he said, but Americans have a problematic history when it comes to protecting their own resources. He cited work being done in the U.S.—namely efforts to buy 700,000 acres of farms in North Dakota, as one example of efforts to address past missteps.
The goal there is a reserve the size of Connecticut to reestablish genetically pure wild bison on the northern plains, where the land is dry and poorly suited to cows and agriculture and the next generation isn’t eager to remain in farming. So 130,000 acres have already been acquired for the reserve, and Dinerstein said the goal is 10,000 bison by 2022. Bringing back the iconic buffalo could restore a lost ecosystem that includes wolves and grizzlies following the herd. Symbiotic prairie dog colonies would support the black-footed ferrets and large ferruginous hawks that prey on them.
Saving the world's rainforests will be key to managing the carbon that is causing rapid climate change. Besides describing laser technology that maps plant species over thousands of hectares at a time, Dinerstein talked about a new Google Earth feature that will allow anyone to see how forests have changed from clear cutting or other land use. Scientists will recommend that degraded land for industrial agriculture. He showed promising before-and-after photos of tiger habitat in Nepal, over a span of 18 years, describing lessons learned about rewarding people for coexisting with the tigers and elephants. And he described working with Nokia to wire elephants with cell-phone based monitors.
“If we can put all of these things together, with a little bit of luck and a lot of ambition I think that there is a future for tropical conservation and for life on earth,” he said. “But we have to act very quickly.”
A compete audio recording of Dinerstein's talk is online for streaming or downloading.