The Language Of Conservation, Simplified!

October 23, 2023 | By Neellohit Banerjee
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What exactly is nature conservation? This term has been used in different conversations, ranging from climate change, protection of animals, preservation of natural resources and even in discussions about adopting a lifestyle that is not harmful toward our surroundings. Nature conservation is indeed a broad sphere of study that covers various aspects.

If you come to think of it, nature, by itself, is a wide-ranging term, as it includes the study of natural history, biology, ecology, ethology, geography, biodiversity, environments, and natural resources. Therefore, ‘nature conservation’ would require intensive study of each of these aspects or subjects.

The conservation of nature can be translated and simplified as conservation of Earth, along with her natural spaces and resources. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Suryoday Singh Mann]

Understanding certain terminologies associated with nature conservation plays a key role in conversations about conservation. In this article, we will try to explore some of the conservation jargons that are being used widely by wildlife experts as well as in academic research.

The Language Class

One common misuse in the lexicon of conservation science is to use the term ‘nature conservation’ and ‘environment conservation’ interchangeably. Let’s clarify this right here: Nature is all-encompassing, whereas our environment is a part of it.

To put it more simply, the whole of planet Earth is nature, and all water bodies such as rivers, lakes, oceans and lagoons, all land such as forests, mountains, deserts and cities, and even the atmosphere or the sky, can be considered as an environment. When it comes down to the meaning, the word ‘environment’ can be defined as surroundings. And surroundings are prone to change.

Here, the world of water is the turtle’s home environment, which is a part of nature. [Photo (c) Unsplash]

That is why there exist multiple environments and the terminology ‘environment conservation’ should not be used loosely, as it would restrict the meaning to one particular region or area. Environment conservation, when spoken or written in an academic context, must specify the type of surrounding to avoid misinterpretation or confusion with the comprehensive term ‘nature conservation’.

Assessing Meanings

The Cambridge Dictionary meaning of the word conservation stands as “the protection of plants and animals, natural areas, and interesting and important structures and buildings, especially from the damaging effects of human activity.” Nature conservation, in particular, would include the conservation of all the elements of nature, both organic and inorganic. This meaning has its limitations as it leaves out essential components such as natural resources like water, soil, and minerals.

Organic resources of nature include plants and animals. Inorganic natural resources are non-living that include air, water and light from the sun. Judicious use and management of inorganic natural resources is undoubtedly a vital aspect of nature conservation. However, to balance the conservation of nature, the pillar of biological or organic resources needs to be given equal importance. These resources are also referred to as biodiversity or wildlife, terms that can be used interchangeably since they both refer to the diversity of life or living organisms.

biodiversity hotspot Amazon rainforest
A tropical evergreen forest is known to be a hotspot of a huge diversity of living organisms. [Photo (c) Flickr]

In this conversation about conservation, it would be relevant to talk about Wildlife SOS’ scope of work that encompasses the conservation of various aspects of nature. We are actively involved in wildlife conservation i.e both plants and animals, as well as environment conservation through ecological restoration of habitats. When it comes to the subject of conservation, readers of our research studies and articles often come across certain terminologies that are inherent to this subject.

Understanding Concepts of Nature Conservation

In conservation studies, some of the commonly used terms include biodiversity, habitat, ecology, ecosystem, biome, camera trapping, tagging and conflict mitigation. Let’s familiarise ourselves with important concepts that fall under nature conservation:

Biodiversity – As discussed above, biodiversity includes a variety of living organisms, which include plants, animals, fungi and even microorganisms like bacteria, that belong to different habitats on land and in water.

A region which has high biodiversity shows the presence of a variety of different species of organisms. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS]

Ecology – This word is derived from the Greek words oikos, meaning home or house, and logia, meaning logic or study of. Translating it would mean the study of house or home, which in this case is planet Earth. Ecology refers to the interrelationship of living organisms, including humans, with their physical environment. Though it is a major branch of biology, ecology also depends on other fields such as biogeography, natural history and evolution, in its scope of study.

Ecosystem – An ecosystem is any area on land or in water, where plants, animals, and other organisms, along with climate factors including weather, temperature and precipitation, work together to form conditions where life can thrive. There can be various types of ecosystems based on whether it is terrestrial (land), aquatic (water) or subterranean (under Earth’s surface). For instance, a desert is an ecosystem, but so is a lush forest! Something as small as a decomposing tree is also an ecosystem, as is an abandoned building, since these can harbour smaller living organisms.

In-situ and Ex-situ Conservation – The term “in situ” means in place or position, whereas “ex situ” refers to off or away from the natural location. For conservation, both the terms are applicable depending on the species of organisms. In-situ conservation can be understood as conservation of a plant, animal, fungi or protist in their natural habitat such as a jungle or a coral reef beneath the sea surface. Ex-situ conservation, on the other hand, means methods of conserving a species outside their natural habitats for their protection, such as breeding of an animal species that is extremely threatened by the risk of extinction, or creating botanical gardens for the posterity of certain species of plants. Ex-situ conservation is done in an artificial environment, such as a research or a zoological facility, that closely resembles the natural habitat.

For our leopards kept in rescued care, a near-natural environment is created to mimic their habitat. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Akash Dolas]

Keystone Species – Ecologist Robert Paine coined the term “keystone species” in the 1960s to denote how certain animal species play a significant role to sustain an ecosystem. Keystone species ensure the survival of other species that occupy the very same habitat. Scientists broadly include three categories under keystone species: predators, ecosystem engineers, and mutualists. Predators create a balance in the ecosystem by controlling the population of their prey.  Ecosystem engineers leave long-term and far-reaching impacts on a natural environment, and help shape it. Mutualists are those flora and fauna species that can benefit each other upon interaction.

Habitat – Simply put, habitat is the place where a species lives. For animals in particular, habitats are prone to change. As opposed to the plant and fungi kingdoms, animal species locomote or migrate in search of food, due to weather conditions, and to breed. As a result, their habitat changes according to their needs.

The high altitude region of under Jammu & Kashmir is the Himalayan brown bear’s natural habitat. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]

Habitat Encroachment – Intrusion and destruction of any natural habitat such as wetlands, forests, deserts, marshes, coastal regions, and rivers to construct human infrastructure can be regarded as habitat encroachment. When environmental degradation occurs due to deforestation where a forest has been replaced by a town, human beings have essentially “encroached” upon the habitat of the forest’s original residents. A major negative outcome of encroachment is habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation of a natural habitat is done by creating divisions in the forest line, such as a linear road or a railway line that cuts through wildlife territories.

Habitat Restoration – To summarise the vast scope of habitat restoration, it means to restore the natural conditions of a habitat that have been degraded or destroyed due to human activities. These include deforestation, draining or destruction of wetlands, poorly planned construction on coastal areas or damage to an ecosystem caused by climate change. A notable example of habitat restoration includes the construction of underpasses or overpasses on a highway. This is done not only to avoid fatal road accidents of wild animals, but to also create a safe wildlife corridor for their movement. Habitat restoration is a key step to ensure that the loss, destruction or fragmentation of habitat is contained.

Cashew fruit growing at Ramdurga, a site where Wildlife SOS is carrying out the habitat restoration. [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Samad Kottur]

Biome – In modern discourse of ecology and biogeography, a biome is a vast area, either on land or water, and consists of a biological community. On land, biomes are further classified into grassland, forest, desert and tundra. Aquatic biomes include freshwater (ponds, lakes, wetlands and rivers) biomes and marine (seas, oceans) biomes. Such vast biomes have formed over a long period of time due to the geological processes of Earth. They are characterised by certain landscapes and climate, and remain unchanged for millions of years.

Camera Trapping – In wildlife conservation, using the technology of camera traps is essential for biologists to study and familiarise themselves with movements of animals in a non-invasive way. A modern camera trap is a digital photography device with an infrared sensor. These are stationary, remote sensing devices that get self-triggered by motion or heat. This technology has allowed wildlife researchers and conservationists to carry out studies that can contribute to better survival chances of a particular species.

Tagging – Various technologies are used to ethically tag animals for tracking them, and include microchips, radio-collars and leg bands. While microchips are inserted inside an animal, such as a leopard cub, and leg bands are used mostly on birds, radio-collaring is one of the most commonly applied techniques to track animals. These collars are equipped with GPS devices or transmitters and are wrapped around an animal’s neck. Tagging helps to follow the movement and regular activities of animals in their natural habitat without any human interruption, thereby enhancing sophisticated research for conservation.

Lost leopard cubs are often tagged with microchips before being reunited with the mother. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Akash Dolas]

Human-Wildlife Conflict – One of the most commonly used phrases in wildlife conservation, human-wildlife conflict refers to any interaction between humans and wild animals as a result of human settlements encroaching a particular species’ natural habitat. It is interesting to note that the term is not applicable to indigenous people, who have been living in forests or jungles since time immemorial, and are therefore natural inhabitants of the region. The term refers to modified geographical areas such as towns, cities and villages, as they have replaced the erstwhile habitat or natural environment of a particular species. Some commonly occurring conflict scenarios include human-elephant conflict, human-tiger conflict, human-snake conflict, human-bear conflict and human-leopard conflict, to name a few.

Conflict Mitigation – When instances of human-wildlife conflict arise, they can lead to negative consequences such as the loss of lives. Conflict mitigation is an intervention method that actively looks for solutions to prevent any negative encounters between humans and non humans. Conflicts can originate from lack of awareness about surrounding wildlife leading to fear, misconstrued understanding of animal behaviour, and belief in unfounded myths and superstitions. That is why education, and sensitisation about animal behaviour are two of the most effective pillars of conflict mitigation.

Conducting local awareness with the local people such as villagers is an essential step for conflict mitigation. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS]

Community-based Conservation – This term points to a specific area being conserved and protected, the management of which lies with the local, indigenous community of humans. Community-based conservation is based on the simple premise of looking after your own home. People living close to forests are therefore guardians of these precious zones.

Wildlife Rehabilitation – Rehabilitation in the context of wildlife conservation means the rescue, treatment and subsequent care of an animal that has either faced an accident or an injury. The rehabilitation period is usually short, where the animals are treated and then released back into the wild. But there are cases when animals need long-term care due to a history of abuse, torture, exploitation, or permanent disability due to injury. All the elephants, bears and most of the leopards at Wildlife SOS have been rescued from dire situations and remain under our care as they cannot be released back into the wild.

Veterinarians treating a rescued and injured bear named Millie. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Akash Dolas]

Once the concepts are laid down with simplicity and clarity, understanding conservation lingo becomes easier. The subject of nature conservation is vast, and requires urgent attention given the fast-paced depletion of natural resources and wildlife habitats. The study of natural sciences welcomes one and all to gain, and share, knowledge far and wide to save our precious planet’s charismatic nature.

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