by Ida Marwedel
'urbanisation and the ever increasing human population have made this [migration] nearly impossible'
Environmental devastations are occurring at an alarming rate, and the link between human action and climate change is undeniable (1). The increase in deforestation, floods, droughts and forest fires has decimated wildlife populations. The effect this has on biodiversity means there is more need for conservation than ever before.
Conservation of animals, habitats and ecosystems actually has enormous consequences for our day to day life. Now the climate is changing at a faster rate than ever, species have three options: adapt to more hostile environments, migrate to more suitable environments or go extinct (2). The capacity to adapt genetically to harsher climates is often impeded by the rate of climate change, meaning populations are not always able to adapt quickly enough, as these changes would usually occur across many generations. In the past, migration was much easier – large groups of animals could migrate north and to higher altitudes to escape rising temperatures . However, urbanisation and the ever increasing human population have made this nearly impossible due to huge physical barriers to wildlife migration, such as roads and railways. So for many species, extinction is a very real threat.
'Even if from a purely self-interested viewpoint, humans should prioritise conservation for their own self-preservation.'
Many of us care about biodiversity and conservation, but why is it actually so important? Ecosystem health and animal health are both critical to human health! The changes in human: animal interfaces due to pressures such as climate changes force more interactions between wildlife, livestock and humans and are a major reason for disease outbreaks (3). This is amplified by extinctions, which allow animals that are more adapted to humans, such as rats and urban foxes, to thrive and spread even more disease. Over 70% of emerging infectious diseases (including Ebola and COVID-19) are zoonotic, meaning they can be passed between humans from animal species. So, even if from a purely self-interested viewpoint, humans should prioritise conservation for their own self-preservation.
In the conservation world there are many theories that aim to help species survive. One example is the translocation or assisted colonisation of species to more appropriate locations to aid survival (4). The building of wildlife bridges to allow animals to bypass busy roads and settlements, connecting isolated habitats, allows genetic pools to mix which can improve the genetic health of a population (5). Captive re-release breeding programmes are being used to counteract extinctions and stricter measures on animal exploitation can do wonders for struggling populations (6).
'there are loads of ways we as individuals can help in the UK, aside from donating to big conservation charities.'
It sometimes seems like conservation is a ‘far-away’ issue that doesn’t affect us due to the focus on non-native wildlife such as pandas, lions and rhinos. But there are loads of ways we as individuals can help in the UK, aside from donating to big conservation charities. Keeping parts of your garden overgrown can encourage wildlife such as birds, hedgehogs and insects to thrive. If you live in a city, having flower boxes on window ledges can be a great way to boost local insect populations. Small bird feeders (which aren’t accessible to larger birds and squirrels) can help smaller species of birds to survive, despite competition from other wildlife for resources. Keeping dogs on leads in nature hotspots and putting bells on cat collars can also help minimise disturbance to wildlife, especially in breeding seasons. I was really pleased to see areas around my home-town of Lancaster cordoned off or left to grow freely to encourage wildlife population growth: I will be writing to my local council to show my support for this. Small ways in which we can help local wildlife conservation in day to day life can have a much bigger impact than you think!
1. May, R.M. (2009) Ecological Science and Tomorrow’s World. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B 365: 41-47
2. Wang, L. F. & Crameri, G. (2014) Emerging Zoonotic Viral Diseases. Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz., 33 (2), 569-581
3. Aitken, S. N., et al (2008) Adaptation, Migration or Extirpation: Climate Change Outcomes for Tree Populations. Evolutionary Applications. 1 (1), 95-111
4. Seddon, P. J. (2010) From Reintroduction to Assisted Colonization: Moving Along the Conservation Translocation Spectrum. Restoration Ecology. 19 (6)
5. Whiteley, A. R., et al (2015) Genetic Rescue to the Rescue. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 30 (1), 42-49
6. Pain, D. J., et al (2006) Impact of Protection on Nest Take and Nesting Success of Parrots in Africa, Asia and Australasia. Animal Conservation. 9 (3), 322-330
Ida Marwedel is a veterinary student, usually living in Edinburgh, with a particular interest in conservation and the links between human and animal health. When she’s not studying, she likes climbing things and being in or near any kind of water. She also works with a student run charity offering free veterinary care to homeless and vulnerably housed pets - follow @all4pawsedinburgh to have a look!