Should we conserve nature at the expense of the economy? Specifically, should we risk the collapse of major industrial sectors to save species?
We’ve created modern buzzwords like “sustainable development” and “new conservation” to explain multiple-objective conservation programs because many argue that conservation is only sustainable when it aligns with other economic, social and political goals. I’ve even argued this point-of-view in the past. Society is petrified of putting an end to the exploitation of nature because we worry about the terrible consequences of dismantling the modern-day economy. Should we worry about the impending threat of unemployment, debt and unpaid mortgages if we were to choose conservation instead of consumption?
The short answer: No! Well, at least not if the past is any predictor of the future.
A historical case-study
The history of Golden Gate Highlands National Park on the South African border with Lesotho is the perfect example preservation taking precedence over exploitation. This recollection is based on a fascinating old monograph (in Afrikaans) about of the establishment of the park written by the historian A.P.J. van Rensburg in 1968. Alongside tales of dinosaurs, cannibals, farmers, and wars between the British, Boers and Basotho, the manuscript grounds the present-day biodiversity crisis in a historical framework. Some of the same problems faced today, are no different to those faced more than a century ago. We can perhaps learn something from the past?
A naturalist’s nirvana…
Central South Africa was teeming with wildlife in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is, for example, the retelling of the death of Paul Maré (1767-1838), who was so astonished by sheer number of antelope grazing in the region that he stood up on his wagon to get a better view. He was then fatally injured when he lost his balance, tumbled to the ground and was crushed by the trailer being towed behind.
There were also the alarming reports of a local farmer and his son who shot and killed more than 300 lions on their farm during the same period. This is particularly astounding because Golden Gate is now more than 800 km south of the present-day natural distribution range of lions.
My favourite story is the description of the earth trembling beneath the hooves of countless migrating antelope; migrations rivalling those in modern-day Serengeti. And at the heels of these migrating megaherbivores: massive packs of wild dog.
… or a hunter’s heaven?
What happened to this species rich paradise?
Where did all these animals disappear to in the last 150 years?
To cut a long story short, these incredible herds were destroyed by human exploitation. During the mid- to late 19th century, a large part of the South African economy was made of the trade in animal hides. In 1870, 173 340 blesbok, wildebeest and zebra skins were exported via Durban Harbour. The following year, that number increased to 311 446 skins. The excessive exploitation of natural resources caused the downfall of one of the great biodiversity regions in Africa.
Imagine the valley below – and the plains beyond- covered by half a million grazing antelope
Even though this kind of exploitation was standard colonial practice at the time, many realised that it was not sustainable. The editor of the Natal Mercury wrote:
“There are evidently some mighty hunters in the interior and at the present rate of destruction the celebrated gamehordes [sic] of South Africa will gradually become a memory of the past.”
There were even pleas to the government to conserve wild populations. A reporter from The Friend, a Bloemfontein newspaper, asked this question in 1870:
“Can nothing be done by our authorities to stop the wholesale slaughter of the game in this State? About one hour from Liebenbergsvley [sic] I counted forty-seven carcases of wild game which had been killed, and then only the skins taken off; the meat left to rot.”
It was joked at the time that even the vultures were overwhelmed by the wasteful practice of removing only the useable skins: they supposedly only fed on the eyeballs of the carcasses because they were unable to keep up with the mountains of flesh.
Human exploitation undoubtedly ruined the biodiversity of Golden Gate. But what can we learn from this depressing recollection? The first impression would suggest that we, as a society, have not changed much in the past century and a half; if anything, we only gotten worse in our exploitation. Even though we might understand the need for conservation, conservationists, researchers, policy makers and governments all fear the negative socio-economic consequences of environmental protection.
The Golden Gate case-study teaches us that we should not be scared at all.
Tough decisions and happy outcomes
In 1872, hunting laws were established to ban the killing of animals for the trade in skins. I’m certain that this was not a popular decision at the time; especially considering that such a pronouncement basically destroyed a thriving market; leading to many people losing their livelihoods.
But the people of time adapted and restructured their ways.
Decades later on 16 October 1963 – after one Anglo-Boer War, Two World Wars and the independence of South Africa – farms of the region were (willingly, I might add) consolidated and Golden Gate was officially established as one of South Africa’s national parks. Since then, South Africa has restructured its laws to create one of the most progressive environmental legislation systems in the world. Society, as a whole, has benefited from the politically-challenging decisions made throughout the last 140 years.
I love the lessons taught by the history of Golden Gate. First, it teaches us that once we destroy biodiversity, there is little we can do to get it back. The grasslands of the eastern Free State have not seen huge herds of migrating Wildebeest, prides of lions, or packs of wild dog for over a century; and their return has become increasingly unlikely. We should protect what we have.
Second, just as I resent the greed of 19th century hunters today, future generations will judge us for the decision we are currently making. We should stop being short-sighted and start thinking about the long-term consequences of the legacy we choose to leave behind.
Lastly, it is possible to destroy a sector of economy for conservation purposes without dire consequences. The hunting of animals for their hides was stopped in 1872, despite half a million animals being killed during the previous two years. South Africans survived without hunting-related livelihoods. They adapted.
We can also adapt. We should look back at the legislators of the 1870s and follow their example. If history teaches us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t shy away from making tough decisions.