Conservation: So easy a child could do it

13 09 2013

child's playI don’t like to talk about my family online. Call me paranoid, but there are a lot of crazy people out there who don’t like what scientists like me are saying (bugger the evidence). Yes, like many climate scientists, I’ve also been threatened. That’s why my personal life remains anonymous except for a select group of people.

But I’ve mentioned my daughter before on this blog, and despite a few people insinuating that I am a bad parent because of what I said, I am happy that I made the point that climate change is a scary concept of which our children must at least be cognisant.

My daughter’s story today is a little less confronting, but equally enlightening. It’s also a little embarrassing as a scientist who has dedicated my entire research career to the discipline of conservation biology.

As a normal six year-old without the ability to refrain from talking – even for a moment – I hear a lot of stories. Many of them are of course fantastical and ridiculous, but those are just part of a healthy, imaginative childhood (I am proud to say though that she is quite clear about the non-existence of fictitious entities like faeries, easter bunnies and gods).

Every once in a while, however, there are snippets of wisdom that ooze out from the cracks in the dross. In the last few months, my daughter has independently and with no prompting from me come up with two pillars of conservation science: (i) protected areas and (ii) biodiversity corridors.

Of course, she didn’t use that nomenclature, but the concepts came through loud and clear nonetheless. As a contextual prologue, she has been fascinated with extinction for the last six months. She wants to know about every animal or plant that went extinct since the Ediacaran, what caused them to go extinct, and how important they were in the grand ecosystem scheme of things. Yes, this is obviously of prime interest to me, hence the subject at hand, but I’m amazed at how obsessed she is with the topic. When it comes to everything from the Late Pleistocene onward, the cause almost always comes down to humans, whether directly by exploitation, or indirectly through habitat loss or invasive species (or all of the above).

So having fully determined that the human race is largely responsible for extinctions, and that forest loss is one of the biggest contributors, she has it in her head to save the forests that remain. Her idea? Build a big fence around remaining forests and don’t let people in. Sounds a lot like ‘protected areas’ to me.

The second concept follows similar lines. Well, if you can plant trees (we have planted trees together on our property), then you can restore forests, right? Rather amazingly, she suggested that we should plant trees between existing forest fragments so that all the animals could “move back and forth between the forests and have more room”. Amazing.

Or is it? Like any parent, I’m convinced (without any corroborating evidence) that my child is a genius, but deep down I know that she’s rather normal. No – I don’t think she’s particularly brilliant to come up with these independently1; rather, I think these two bastions of conservation biology represent some of the lowest-hanging fruit in applied conservation.

In other words, these are perhaps some of the easiest and most mundane solutions to the biodiversity crisis. While we do our best to protect what’s there, clearly it isn’t working. For example, over half of tropical protected areas are still losing their biodiversity, and Australia’s largest national park is experiencing a pathetic collapse of its vertebrates. Add all this to our governments’ charge to remove protections of our national reserve system, and you can see that we have to do so very much more. Biodiversity corridors are another potential disaster if not done very, very carefully.

Happily, conservation ecologists are now talking a lot more about what to do between protected areas. We also have a lot of research going on about the most biodiversity-friendly ways of farming. We’re even talking about our need to generate biodiversity-friendly energy for our growing and power-hungry human population.

So we’re getting there, but it’s essential we do not spend all of our efforts on merely documenting the calamity. We need some real solutions and we need them quickly. Think laterally. Think transdisciplinarity. Think controversially.

CJA Bradshaw

1I am obliged to confess that my daughter is an only child, she has two scientists for parents, she spends substantial amounts of time watching David Attenborough documentaries, and she lives on a farm surrounded by forests and native animals. She’s therefore not entirely naïve about biodiversity or its problems.



4 responses

28 10 2014
Human population size: speeding cars can’t stop quickly |

[…] damage to endemic species will likely occur – most of Africa and the subcontinent. Will my daughter ever get to see rhinos and African elephants in the wild? Unless I take her there soon, it’s […]


7 10 2014
How I feel about climate change |

[…] bonding to the future human race; rather, I am speaking as a father of a seven year-old girl who loves animals and nature in general. As a biologist, I see irrefutable evidence every day that human-driven climate […]


19 09 2013
Franck Courchamp

Corey, when I was working on the rhino Science paper, my 10 yo son told me that he though we should assign individual rhinos to individual, local people, and pay those people each year the rhinos are alive, and even more if they reproduce. We would pay them so much, and they would be so proud of “their” rhino, that they would do all their best to keep their one alive and reproducing. It sounded like a good idea :-)
Perhaps it’s not because we are subjective, love-blind parents, perhaps it’s just a brilliant generation ;-) There is hope then,


14 09 2013
Alejandro Frid

Corey, this post and its earlier companion on ‘scaring our children’ resonate deeply within me and I thank you for them. The search for optimism amidst the climate change and biodiversity crises is among the most difficult struggles for many parents today. (For my own journey into intergenerational justice see ) So I spend much of my time grappling with the irrevocable changes that humans have thrust upon the biosphere and—most difficult of all—how much to divulge about the state of the world to my 9 year-old daughter.

I grew up in Mexico, where my early childhood was a blend of immersion into the magic of bio-cultural diversity and of witnessing extreme poverty, human rights violations, and land degradation. Fortunately, my parents did not shelter me from the full range of realities and contrasts about our country, and so my early childhood experiences committed me, quite viscerally, to my current work and values.

My daughter is being raised similarly. So I was only partially surprised when at age 5, at a Climate Change Action Rally in downtown Vancouver timed with the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, she stood near the microphone as my wife and I spoke to the crowd of a few hundred activists. Then, she had her very own impulse and asked for the microphone to be lowered and, facing the crowd, spoke these clear and loud words: “I hope people don’t drive.”

Her little speech freaked me out in both good and bad ways. It made me realize that there is a risk to over-shelter, yet there is also injustice in robbing her of her childhood too early. Worse. I had been told the story of a depressed teenager who committed suicide, leaving a trail of the environmental doom and gloom readings that propelled him into the dark vortex. But the cat was out of the hat. That day at her first climate rally my daughter understood enough to sense that something serious was happening, and that that something was not going to go away easily.

I believe from my personal experience and stories from Corey and other parents that kids get it and, if we don’t overdo it as parents, they would rather learn about the Yin and Yang of the Anthropocene from us than to discover harsh realities out of the blue through the distorted filters of the mass media. If their lives are grounded on both fun and reality (and the fun part is essential), then they may grow up to become committed participants in our attempt to swim towards shore.

And, fortunately, many children already show signs that this is happening…


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