Why do we Conserve Biodiversity?

This week we were focusing on the reasons behind conserving biodiversity. The first part of the session consisted of a lecture on the concepts of values and ethics, and their role in conservation. We defined a value as a “general basis for an estimation of worth” and talked about the different types of values, mainly distinguishing between “non-use” and “use”. “Use” values include both direct benefits provided by ecosystems, such as food, fuel and other goods for consumption, and indirect benefits from ecosystem services. “Non-use” values consist of existence, aesthetic, bequest and intrinsic values. Aesthetic values relate to the happiness and pleasure experienced by people as a result of natural beauty. Bequest values represent the benefits gained by future generation from the preservation of current ecosystems. Existence values refer to the satisfaction derived from knowing that a species exists in the wild, even though we are unlikely to ever see it. They differ from intrinsic values, which are independent of humans and are the value of an organism in itself. Each species has a right to exist, so all individuals, populations and ecosystems have the same intrinsic value.

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After the lecture we split into small discussion groups to talk about this week’s papers. The three papers exposed contrasting opinions on the criteria that should be considered when prioritising areas to conserve. One paper (Vucetich et al., 2014) was defending the idea that nature possesses intrinsic value, and suggesting this should be the underlying reason for conservation. On the other hand, instrumental values are thought to be more efficient and practical, since they can be categorised and prioritised when making decisions (Justus et al., 2008). The idea of triage was introduced, which proposed a system of prioritising conservation effort and allocating resources. Four parameters were considered in the triage process: values, biodiversity benefit, probability of success and costs (Bottrill et al., 2008). Despite the fact that this system provides useful tools to maximise resources, it has been argued that its use accepts the inevitability of extinction and may lead to the disappearance of endangered species. The general consensus was that since only limited resources are available, intrinsic values cannot be applied to conservation plans. Because everything has the same intrinsic value and therefore everything has the right to be conserved, it is necessary to accept compromises when prioritising conservation efforts.

For the last part of the session each discussion group had to give a two-minute presentation in the style of a Dragon’s Den pitch, aiming to convince the audience that their chosen species had the right to be conserved. This exercise helped us understand the process undertaken by conservationists when trying to obtain the economical and public support to preserve a species. We discussed how different approaches are taken depending on the audience. Different aspects of the benefits derived from maintaining the species were highlighted including economical, ethical and emotional perspectives.

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The session emphasised the fact that conservation spans many disciplines and takes into consideration social and economic factors. The multi-faceted nature of conservation makes it essential to have a universal system to allow the prioritisation of resource allocation.

By Izzy and Eleonora

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