Conservation: why care?

11 April 2016

Interview with

Dr Bhaskar Vira, The University of Cambridge

Conservation is a charity close to many people's hearts, but how many species Red pandaare we really losing, and why should we care?  Dr Bhaskar Vira, the director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, joined Connie Orbach to discuss why so much of our planet is at risk, and if there is anything we can do about it...

Bhaskar - The numbers are a little difficult to estimate because we still don't know how much biodiversity there is out there.  Every year scientists are discovering new species so it's difficult to know how much we're losing when we don't know how much we've got.  But recent research suggests that we're losing species much faster than before humans arrived on the planet, maybe something like a thousand times faster, so the influence of humans on extinctions is distinct and it's really important.  If the numbers are correct we might be losing as much as 10,000 species per year, that's the upper estimate.

Connie - Wow 10,000.  But why should I care about some frog in the Amazon that I've never heard of, if it's gone extinct?

Bhaskar - There are probably two ways and two reasons why you should care. One is that that frog might have some important cure that might actually improve the quality of human life.  A number of diseases have been addressed by previously unknown species that were discovered in places like the rain forest.  The other reason, of course, is the aesthetic beauty and the importance of nature for its own sake.  So it's not only about why the frog matters for humanity but because the frog is important as a member of the living planet.

Connie - So kind of basic value system there then?  What are the different factors driving species into extinction?

Bhaskar - I suppose the biggest factor is that we're using more resources than the planet generates. The WWF has estimated that we're living on one and a half planets which means, essentially, to sustain our consumption today we would need one and a half planets.  We don't have one and a half planets so we're running out of what the planet actually has to offer.  So those pressures manifest themselves in terms of habitat change, land use pressures, as well as impacts upon the aquatic environment.  And that's what nature requires in order to survive so our human impacts are making that big difference.

Connie - Now, with a growing population that's only going to get worse, and when humans and animals share the same space - what kind of conflicts can occur there?

Bhaskar - There are a number of conflicts that are, essentially, to do with the difficulties of cohabiting in these spaces.  As towns grow there's more demand for housing, green spaces start to shrink.  As land and resources become scarcer, industrial agriculture expanding for food production means that there's less forest in some parts of the world and those conflicts are becoming really important.  You asked about humans and animals.  Increasingly, living next to wild animals is no longer seen as something which is a pleasure but they're pests right on your doorstep.  Wild elephants trampling on crops in India and Africa.  Wild predators lifting sheep from shepherds and lifting cattle from cattle grazers, these have become real conflicts that are manifesting themselves today.  And it's to do with shrinking space and insufficient space for all these uses.

Connie - Yes I can see, if an elephant's destroying your crops, you might not value it in exactly the the same way we do when you just see it on the TV.  So what kind of ways are there of mitigating these conflicts?

Bhaskar - There are two types of things people are talking about.  One is to take a good hard look at how we can reduce our own excessive consumption.  What can we do to reduce that footprint that humanity has on the planet?  How can we reduce our impacts on nature?  How can we help people make these choices through information, through imparting more knowledge and, increasingly, through using regulation in the pricing system to try and help people make those decisions.  When people introduced a 5p charge on carrier bags, people stopped using quite as many carrier bags because it suddenly started to matter, so there are simple things that we might be able to do.  The other, of course, is to try and do more with less.  Using technology and innovation to produce more from the finite amount of resources that we have.  So those are the two ways in which we should really be thinking about this, both of which would combine to reduce that competition between humans and animals.

Connie - And very briefly - you were at the opening of the David Attenborough conservation campus earlier in the week - what makes this building so special?

Bhaskar - It's a really unique new conservation campus at the heart of Cambridge that brings together the University with nine leading conservation organisations that are based in Cambridge under the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, and the opportunity to be co-located, to work together is something that's really unprecedented.  These organisations and the University have a long history of working with each other.  We've been working together in this context for well over a decade.  It's unusual in the world because these are often organisation that compete with each other and, of course, what makes it extra special is that Sir David Attenborough has lent his name to this building.  So what could be more inspiring.

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