Friday, April 02, 2021

An open-eyed history of wildlife conservation

Rachel Love Nuwer 

...Yet the past — a key repository of lessons hard learned through trial and error — is all too often forgotten or overlooked by conservation practitioners today. In "Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction," journalist Michelle Nijhuis shows that history can help contextualize and guide modern conservation. Indeed, arguably it's only in the last 200 years or so that a few scattered individuals began thinking seriously about the need to save species — and it's only in the last 50 that conservation biology even emerged as a distinct field.

"Beloved Beasts" reads as a who's who and greatest-moments survey of these developmental decades. Through the eyes and actions of individuals, it portrays the evolution of the surprisingly young field from a pursuit almost solely of the privileged Western elite to "a movement that is shaped by many people, many places, and many species."

It's in the gray area of the personal, though, that the book is most fascinating. Even the most celebrated and successful conservationists had human flaws, and Nijhuis does not shy away from these details. As she writes, "The story of modern species conservation is full of people who did the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons."

In one chapter, for example, Nijhuis tells the story of William Temple Hornaday, an American taxidermist who served as the first director of what is now the Bronx Zoo, and who is credited with saving the American bison from extinction. By the late 19th century, evidence clearly pointed to the fact that bison, a species that once numbered tens of million, were set to disappear due to wanton overhunting. Yet at the time, most people assumed that "species were static and enduring," Nijhuis writes, and those who did catch wind of the fall of the American buffalo mostly responded with a shrug.

Strangely for his time, Hornaday became obsessed with the animal's plight. He decided that the only way to preserve the species from extinction was to establish a captive herd to, as he wrote, "atone for the national disgrace that attaches to the heartless and senseless extermination of the species in the wild state." With Theodore Roosevelt's backing, Hornaday established a small bison herd in the Bronx in 1905, one whose urban descendants became founders of some of the 500,000 bison that survive today. More than just save a species, Hornaday's work helped bring public recognition of extinction as a "needless tragedy" rather than an inevitable cost of expansion, Nijhuis writes.

Yet despite all the good he did for the natural world, Nijhuis points out that Hornaday's successes — like many conservation gains of the 19th and 20th centuries — were built on a foundation of nationalism, sexism, and racism...MORE

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