When conservation and preservation were separate
There was a time when the ecological community was deeply split when it came to ideas of environmental protection.
Some, like the founding chief of the American Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, wanted to see mankind co-exist sustainably within nature. Others, like the now-revered John Muir (also known affectionately as just John of the Mountains), preferred a more idyllic vision of the outdoors, entirely without the influence of humans; untouched, untrodden and totally protected.
Back in the early years of mass environmentalism in the 1800s, these two schools of thought were rigidly defined with monikers that have today become unhelpfully blurred: preservationism and conservationism. We tend to use them interchangeably within a larger language of ecology, but to do so ignores some fundamental aspects of modern environmentalism, and fails to capture the changing perceptions and definitions of conservation over the decades.
Africa and old conservation
To see how ideas of both conservation and preservation have developed we can look to Africa. In a land once fabled throughout the Western Hemisphere and Europe for its wild hinterlands of rolling savannahs and dusty Sahel, acacia-topped plains and primeval hills, it’s easy to see how the two competing ideas of ecology have evolved, changed, failed and succeeded.
In the centuries before colonisation, African nature existed in a state of simple symbiosis. Tribal peoples and bow hunters were able to stalk and kill some of the big game we now label as endangered, true. But so too were the big game naturally equipped to outmanoeuvre the hunters, escape and even fight back. The reality, chosen or not, was one of sustainable conservationism: humans living in tandem with their environment.
The loss of African ecology
In the 19 th century, the mass arrival of Europeans and their weapons from abroad tipped the scales. Reports of large hunting parties and romanticised images of big game hunters touting Victorian moustaches and wide-brimmed safari hats spread across the sea.
The plight of the black rhino is just one of the tragic tales to emerge from this period. Stories tell of more than 800 horns a year being loaded onto trade convoys and sent drifting down the meanders of the Chari River, or of infamous explorers like J. A. Hunter, who’s said to have killed over 1,000 rhinos between the lands of the Maasai and the now-legendary safari tracts of Ngorongoro, even at the behest of governments looking to clear space for resettlement, industry or colonisation.
With the odds so heavily stacked against, it’s easy to see how the idea of sustainable conservation in Africa faltered, altered and became changed forever.
Forging a new idea of conservation
The loss of old conservationism, the fall of colonialism and awareness-raising campaigns like Save the Rhino finally helped to clear the way for a different type of ecology to emerge in Africa; one that both protected the great hinterland of the continent and nurtured a sustainable presence of human life within it.
Today, it’s this fusion of ecological thought that dominates. Widely referred to as, simply, conservation, it is actually a refined, qualified and evolved idea of what the old type of African conservationism once was.
It means both respecting and utilising the environment. It means developing ways in which humans can harness the power of their surroundings without damaging them. And, above all, it means creating a world in which wild creatures not only survive, but thrive and multiply as they once did.
In practice, this manifests in campaigns and organisations like the David Sheldrick Trust, Africa Wildlife Foundation and Rhinos Without Borders, which combine the likes of hands-on habitat monitoring with educational programs, local poverty relief with demand reduction tactics; taking a multi-pronged approach to rhino ecology that presents a better, brighter future for the great beast of the African wilds. Smaller sanctuaries and foundations such as Rhino Revolution, Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre and Saving Private Rhino focus on rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife to be released back into the wild.
And then there are organisations like WildAid focused heavily on demand reduction and iDOPT Wildlife which fuses modern technology with ideas of this type of conservationism, the service aims to raise awareness for the plight of endangered African beasts among the children of the digital generation, helping them forge personal, emotional relationships with the rhinos they adopt to contribute to the sustainable and ethical ideas of the new ecology.