Only new breed will save planet

January 16, 2004

Conservationists must learn to work in concrete and equatorial jungles, says Richard Ladle.

We are entering a critical period for life on our small blue planet.

According to an international study published last week, if we do nothing to curb global warming, then up to a third of land animals and plants may be on the fast track to extinction. Lest we become complacent, even if by some miracle we reduce carbon emissions and thereby halt or reverse the heating process, we are unlikely to stop a mass extinction on a scale unseen for millions of years. Furthermore, this ecological catastrophe won't happen at some unspecified time in the future - our children and grandchildren will have ringside seats.

There are no easy solutions. Somehow we need to develop strategies that ensure the long-term protection of a species or habitat while complying with international and national legislation, maintaining economic viability and ensuring the support of the various stakeholders. Successful conservation practitioners must therefore span academic disciplines and combine advanced social skills with intellectual rigour. They also need to work effectively in both a traditional office environment and some of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

An undergraduate degree in itself is normally insufficient for a difficult career that requires such varied professional and personal skills. One obvious way for higher education establishments to meet staffing demands is through the provision of broad-based postgraduate courses that use problem-solving approaches and that preferentially enrol older students who have considerable life skills. However, enrolling talented students does not, in itself, guarantee a successful postgraduate programme.

The past five years have seen an explosion of such conservation-related taught masters programmes in both the US and Europe, although not all have succeeded in producing postgraduates with the requisite skills. Common problems are an over-emphasis on conceptual issues or, for financial reasons, a lack of practical experience or exposure to working conservation practitioners. Often MSc conservation programmes leave students in the worst of all possible positions - their knowledge is too broad for an appropriate PhD programme yet they lack sufficient professional skills to gain employment with conservation organisations.

On the new MSc in biodiversity, conservation and management at Oxford University we are trying to address these issues by teaching conservation as a dynamic discipline integral to all the major areas of human concern - judicial reform, political economy, spatial planning, poverty alleviation, human and institutional capacity, agriculture, and population growth, in addition to the hard science of biodiversity. To facilitate this process we enrol students from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds, and it is not uncommon to find biologists, geographers and lawyers rubbing shoulders with engineers and historians. Consequently, each student brings something unique, and virtually every module benefits from personal experience from around the globe.

Conservation science is still in its infancy, as demonstrated by the gaping holes in our knowledge. We don't even know with any degree of certainty how many species exist on our planet, let alone how many are becoming extinct or at what rate. In the developed world there are few areas of pristine wilderness that require conserving, while the developing world struggles to make the compromise between sustainable exploitation and the quick dollar offered by activities such as logging and the bush-meat trade. What the planet needs is more conservation practitioners - professionals who will drive the hard bargains, make tough decisions and who are prepared to compromise idealistic principles for end products that may not please environmental activists, businesses or governments. The new millennium desperately needs this hard-nosed new breed of conservationist who is equally at home in the concrete or equatorial jungles.

Richard Ladle runs Oxford University's MSc in biodiversity, conservation and management.

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