How Conservation Helps People, Too

A woman in overalls picks up garbage in the forest.

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Conservation projects protect essential habitats and preserve threatened species but their impact is felt far beyond the boundaries of the animal kingdom. From erosion stabilization to economic diversification and beyond, saving endangered animals improves the lives of their human neighbors, too.Indeed, famed biologist Edward O. Wilson has explained that the protection of species and biodiversity is not only beneficial to human populations, but is essential to their survival. "Wilson's Law," as he calls it, states that "If you save the living environment, the biodiversity that we have left, you will also automatically save the physical environment, too," but the relationship is not bidirectional because, "if you only save the physical environment, you will ultimately lose both."

Habitat preservation, of course, is a key tool for conservationists struggling to protect the living environment. When these efforts are successful—and regional biodiversity is maintained or restored—it can have a ripple effect that supports human communities and helps to create new opportunities.

Protecting Health

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Perhaps the most compelling reason for communities to support local conservation initiatives is that they actually protect human health. Conservation International reports that "more than 50 percent of modern medicines and more than 90 percent of traditional medicines come from wild plants and animals." While these naturally sourced medicines are not without their own issues, they nevertheless represent an essential pharmacopoeia and body of medical knowledge that cannot be easily replaced by synthetic alternatives.

Moreover, healthy ecosystems, provide important buffers between humans and disease. Numerous studies have linked decreases in biodiversity—and a reduced diversity among mammal species, in particular—to an increase in the transmission of animal-born diseases to humans.

In addition to this, healthy ecosystems are essential for regulating climate, and mitigating air and water pollution.

Assuring Food Security

A group young girls with a man looks at an orange edible mushroom in the forest.

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Regulating these environmental factors are critically important to securing food sources and agricultural production in much of the world. Already, research has shown that habitat destruction has altered seasonal rainfall patterns in parts of the world.

Agricultural biodiversity, too, is an important part of a robust, secure, food system. Unfortunately, the trend has been to abandon the diverse range of locally adapted crops and animals in favor of high-yielding, internationally-distributed, varieties. One example, cattle, shows that 90 percent of all stocks in the developed world come from a handful of breeds. As these breeds spread, there exposure to new disease vectors threatens the global population.

Finally, protecting and rebuilding forest habitats to preserve biodiversity generates effective syncs of carbon, guards against erosion, and offers new economic opportunities.

Creating Opportunity

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It is in the creation of new economic opportunities, above all else, that conservation programs offer communities the most tangible benefit.

Short-sighted resource extraction—like clear-cut logging and the bushmeat and charcoal trades—extend the gap between rich and poor and have been shown to fuel political strife and civil war.

Carbon capture schemes—which make living trees more valuable than logged ones—are perhaps the most recognized conservation programs with strong economic incentives. Community-based conservation, however, has the power to drive development in many other ways as well.

Increasing biodiversity has been shown to improve agricultural productivity, making existing farms more profitable. Healthy ecosystems that house banner species are powerful tourist attractions that draw visitors and invite a new infusion of investment. Perhaps most importantly, however, is the need for local participants in conservation. From administrators to rangers, conservation projects hold the opportunity for a new preservation-based economy.

Protecting the world's biodiversity, Wilson argues, is essential for the survival of the physical environment and, ultimately, humanity. Successful conservation, however, does much more than simply ensure survival: It offers an opportunity for growth, development, and improved health.