Conservation is inbuilt in the lifestyles and beliefs of most indigenous peoples. In advanced civilizations, conservation began when rulers of countries set aside land for hunting or other royal recreation. However, structured conservation initiative is a fairly recent phenomenon. In fact, conservation with a view to protect a forest area only began in 1872 when the first national park in the world, Yellowstone was established in the north-western United States. As the American frontier ‘closed’, it became apparent that the vast country’s resources were not infinite, as they seemed to the first settlers 200 years earlier. Restricted hunting seasons had been introduced in the original 13 colonies as early as 1700 to protect deer. The Yosemite Valley in California was set aside in 1890 as a national park, one of the first in the world. Ironically, one of the greatest threats to Yosemite is posed by the 3 million tourists who flock there every year.
Now there are more than 1000 national parks in 120 countries around the world, almost half of them established since 1972 – with new acreage being continually added. Many of these parks were originally introduced to preserve landscapes, but it is now recognised that it is more important to preserve whole ecosystems. This is far from being achieved. More than half of tropical countries, whose biomes are under greatest threat, have no systematic approach to conservation. The conservation of one biome or group of species may be emphasised over general conservation. A case in point is India, where the most protected areas are those that contain large numbers of mammals, while other areas, equally valuable, ignored.
1.8 million hectares of Amazonian rainforest have been handed over by Colombia’s government to its indigenous population in recognition of their conservation skills. The local people live in and farm the forest. Their traditional shifting cultivation – farming a small patch at a time, does not overuse local resources. If taken up elsewhere, this approach to conservation could save the world’s rainforests.
Certain species are culled or removed in protected areas to prevent them from becoming dominant. Undergrowth is burned to remove old, woody plant material and encourage the new growth on which insects and ground nesting birds depend. Controlled fires also remove dead material – allowed to accumulate, a natural fire may turn uncontrollable. Woodlands are coppiced – trees periodically cut almost to ground level, to allow more light to reach the ground for the benefit of herbs. Sediment is dug out of small pools to prevent overfill.
Restoring derelict areas, especially the scarred landscape created by open pit mining, is another increasingly important aspect of conservation. Quarry faces may become inland cliffs covered in climbing plants. Gravel pits can be flooded and carefully shaped to attract waterfowl. It is even possible to grow plants on the huge spoil tips associated with mining. Plants are being bred to tolerate the high levels of heavy metals that are present in the spoil.
Conservation is often hampered by social and economic considerations. Poorer countries, such as India, prioritise food, housing and public health at the expense of the environment. Their economic interests are sometimes combined with conservation programmes supported by international organisations. In 1987 the first ‘debt for nature swap’ was arranged. $650,000 worth of Bolivia’s national debt was written off against a 160,000 sq. km area of rainforest and savanna. This area is now designated a biosphere reserve: a whole ecosystem with a strictly controlled central zone where no interference is allowed, surrounded by a transition zone in which research is permitted, and finally a buffer zone to protect the ecosystem from encroachment. There are now more than 250 such reserves worldwide.
Antarctica is the last place on earth that is all wilderness. 25 countries have research stations there, but exploration for commercial purposes – such as mining, was banned by international agreement in 1959. In 1991 the ban was renewed until 2041. It has been proposed that the entire continent, only 2 percent of which is not under ice, should be made a World Park and all access carefully controlled.
Inputs from http://forests.org, www.foresthistory.org, Sally Morgan, Ecology and Environment.