Worth more dead than alive

Should we attempt to conserve biodiversity simply for its own sake?

Requiem for Nature

Island Press: 1999. 656 pp. $24.95

John Terborgh has written a dispiriting book. He paints a grim picture of the current status and prognosis for tropical-forest ecosystems. His bottom line is that attempts by both local and international groups to deal with the conservation of natural tropical-forest ecosystems are not working and, in some cases, are acting against the long-term viability of the few preserves that exist. Given that the only solution Terborgh suggests will seem impractical to most, or at least unachievable in the time we have to save what exists, Requiem for Nature leaves the reader feeling quite hopeless.

What has led Terborgh to such conclusions? He carefully lays out his credentials as a long-term observer of the status of tropical parks, particularly those in Peru but also in other parts of the tropical world. What he has seen is the steady erosion of the integrity of preserves as population pressures build up around them, coupled with a lack of institutional capacity to deal with local threats to the wildlife. Further, Terborgh has documented the large areas that are needed to maintain top predators in tropical forests, and finds that these are often much larger than the sizes of preserves. And he has shown the substantial consequences that the loss of these predators will have for the dynamics of forest ecosystems.

What does Terborgh think we should be preserving? He states that the concept of biodiversity embodied in the Convention on Biological Diversity is too broad (genes to ecosystems), and that we should focus on species. However, he then notes that it is actually species interaction (the web of interactions) that we should be preserving, which would encompass the higher-level species. He doesn't think the human species should be part of these interactions, and certainly not part of the parks.

Terborgh's strong message is that we should be conserving biodiversity for its own sake and not for any utilitarian value, and that arguments for conservation “must be spiritual and aesthetic”. He makes this point to counter conservation efforts that have been based on the potential economic return to be obtained from intact forests through their exploration for medicines and other products, or the development of ecotourism. He states that these money-generating activities will be insufficient to save the tropical forests and that, to use his catchiest phrase, these forests are “worth more dead than alive”. No doubt this assertion will cause considerable consternation among conservationists. Terborgh does not evaluate, or even discuss, the concept of ecosystem services and how they might play into the conservation equation. However, it would be hard to do this within the context of the inefficient social systems that he attributes to many of the developing countries in which the tropical parks lie.

The book produces some compelling figures: 50 per cent of the world's biodiversity is contained in only seven per cent of the Earth's land surface that constitutes tropical forests. Only eight per cent of these forests are protected, at least on paper. Terborgh's point is that these park designations do not give a real sense of their lack of protection. He notes that the area of park needed to support viable populations of some of the top predators in these systems is about one million hectares. Few parks are this large. According to conservative estimates, the last tropical old growth, apart from that in parks, will be gone by the middle of this century, making park size and integrity an even more pressing concern.

So what is Terborgh's answer? First, we must do something about the forces that are confounding conservation efforts — “overpopulation, inequities of power and wealth, exhaustion of natural resources, corruption, lawlessness, poverty and social unrest”. More directly, we need to design better protection for the parks. Terborgh holds the US park service up as a model of what is needed: well-trained people who know the parks and have the authority to protect them, combined with a budget to do this and a human population that values their existence.

Terborgh believes that this model cannot be achieved with the current pressures of populations and the social systems that prevail in many of the tropical nations. He feels that stewardship and management of natural systems cannot be left in the hands of the local people in most of these regions. He proposes instead a top–down effort, a sort of UN nature-keeping force, to staff the tropical parks in those countries where there is still the possibility of saving something.

This is pretty radical stuff, and is diametrically opposed to many efforts that are taking ‘the village’ as the fundamental conservation unit and building upwards, using local knowledge and needs.

It is interesting to compare Terborgh's position with that of Daniel Janzen, another distinguished ecologist who has had a roughly comparable career. Both Janzen and Terborgh have dedicated much of their careers to on-the-ground study of tropical forests. Each spends part of every year engaged in research in their respective study regions. Janzen has come to the view that “humanity now owns life on Earth. It plans the world, albeit with an unintended here and an uninformed there.” He is looking towards human coexistence with nature rather than human exclusion, which would, in his view, lose the very things we are trying to protect.

Janzen has asked how we can most responsibly fulfil this management charge. He has become a gardener of natural systems, working towards their restoration and nurturing their diversity. To do this, he has engaged and energized local people, working towards his view of sustainability using many constituent parts. The viewpoints of Terborgh and Janzen could not be more different in spite of their similar experience.

Terborgh has focused on a remote, wet, tropical reserve in Peru, whereas Janzen has worked most extensively in a tropical dry forest in Costa Rica, a system that has been largely transformed by human activity. These differences could certainly lead to different viewpoints. Further, not only are the ecological systems in which they work different, but, as noted by Terborgh, Costa Rica is a model of what can be done for conservation by local governments in developing countries. He holds out less hope for most other tropical countries.

Most of us will stand in the wide middle ground between the approaches of Janzen and Terborgh. It is important, however, to have the Terborgh and Janzen signposts to help us gauge how successfully we are moving forward.

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Mooney, H. Worth more dead than alive. Nature 403, 593–594 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/35001122

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