Her new book explores the history of the modern conservation, its successes and failures
By Lindsay Renick Mayer on June 10, 2021
Author and journalist Michelle Nijhuis discusses her book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for life in an age of extinction, which explores the history of the modern conservation movement. The book includes important conservationists most people have never heard of, the influence of the 'tragedy of commons,' and the importance of including local and Indigenous communities in protecting the the wild and all its complexities.
When I was a young biologist-in-training, I worked as a field assistant on a desert tortoise research project in southwestern Utah. It was a delightful job, but it was surrounded by political conflict and even violence, because there was no local consensus on how or whether to protect the tortoise, a threatened species, from extinction. I was struck by the depth of disagreement over what seemed like profoundly basic questions—people were standing around in coffee shops, arguing about humanity’s responsibility to other forms of life!—and I started to wonder how previous generations had answered similar questions.
When I became a journalist and began to write about conservation and climate change, I started to think it would be useful to tell the story of the modern conservation movement. People have of course been practicing conservation on local and regional scales for millennia, but the movement to protect species on a global scale didn’t really get started until the late 1800s, when North Americans and Europeans finally realized that it was possible for humans to drive even very abundant species extinct. That movement, for better and worse, is still central to the effort to protect life on earth, and I wanted to write as honestly as I could about the people who shaped it—about their successes and failures, their insights and oversights, and the development of their ideas over time.
The biggest surprises, and pleasures, of my research were all the connections among the people I wrote about. Those of us who are interested in conservation tend to know a few famous historical figures—Rachel Carson, John Muir, maybe Sand County Almanac author Aldo Leopold—and assume that each of them worked in relative isolation. But nothing could be further from the truth: famous and not-so-famous conservationists have always collaborated, corresponded, and strenuously disagreed. I loved reading the snippy exchanges between Leopold and bird conservationist Rosalie Edge, for instance, and Rachel Carson’s scathing review of Round River, Leopold’s book of hunting tales. (Carson later acknowledged that she hadn’t been quite fair to Leopold, but she continued to consider most hunting cruel.) All of these relationships created a kind of ecosystem, one that’s become more complex over time.
One of the most important conservationists who most conservationists have never heard of is Elinor Ostrom, the political scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009. She spent her career disproving the “tragedy of the commons”—the assumption that when people share access to a resource, they will inevitably consume that resource until it’s gone. She found that on the contrary, many societies throughout the world have developed ways of conserving shared pastures, forests, and fisheries, and that some of these cooperative systems have survived for hundreds of years. She always insisted that there are no “panaceas” in conservation, because every successful system is in some way particular to its place and its users.
The modern conservation movement is in some ways still very influenced by the tragedy of the commons—there’s a really stubborn, widespread belief that human appetites for habitats and species can only be controlled through top-down intervention. That’s true in some cases, but Ostrom showed that it’s not always the case, and by doing so she brought attention to the kind of inclusive, bottom-up conservation strategies that the movement has long overlooked.
Aldo Leopold wrote that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Conservationists are more alert than most of us to the damage humans have done to other species, and their experience often teaches them to expect more of the same. But I think conservationists can find a great deal of hope in the history of the conservation movement. While current threats to other species—and the rest of us—can sometimes seem overwhelming, it’s important to remember that people from all walks of life have already succeeded in protecting many of the species we love and value today—bison, bald eagles, and many, many lesser-known plants and animals. Those successes are significant, and it’s possible to repeat them, even in the midst of all we face today.
That the work of “saving species” isn’t just a bunch of isolated tragedies and emergencies, as it’s sometimes portrayed in the media—conservation is a tradition with a long history, and we can learn a lot from its successes and failures. I also hope readers remember that conservation isn’t just about saving extremely endangered species, as important as those rescue efforts can be—the ultimate goal of conservation is to preserve complexity, which means not just preventing extinction but preserving relationships among thriving populations. Rosalie Edge, who was active in conservation in the 1930s and 40s, liked to remind people that the best time to protect a species was while it’s still common, and that’s as true today as it was in her time.
There’s plenty to be discouraged about in conservation, but my immersion in the history of the movement gave me a renewed sense of possibility—conservationists and ecologists have learned so much over the past century about what other species need to survive, and younger generations of conservationists are recognizing that the movement has much to learn from Indigenous and other local community conservation traditions. We certainly can’t save everything, but we can save a lot, and there are many ways to do so.
During the research for my book, I had the chance to visit the community conservancies of Namibia, which developed in the 1980s and 1990s and now make up a nationwide system. The members of each conservancy manage and monitor local wildlife, serving as game guards and setting hunting quotas based on data they help collect. The game guards, who know their landscapes intimately, have had great success in controlling illegal hunting, and elephant and black rhino populations have recovered from near-extinction. Conservancies also benefit from tourism by contracting with outside companies or operating their own hotels, campsites, and guide services. Essentially, the conservancy system restores some conservation authority to the local level—authority that was destroyed by colonization—and that has revived a sense of responsibility to local species.
The conservancy meetings I attended were a revelatory experience—I sat and listened while members who had traveled for hours or days, in the middle of an extreme drought, discussed the long-term future of local wildlife. There were passionate arguments—at least as passionate as those I heard in Utah years ago—but there was also a shared sense that the survival of these species was important, and worth going to some trouble to ensure. I’ve been to a lot of meetings in North America with similar goals, and I’ve never seen that level of commitment. Initiatives like Namibia’s conservancies are now underway all over the world, and they’re a piece of the conservation picture that’s been missing for far too long.
Parks and reserves are important to conservation, but we can’t draw hard boundaries around every ecologically valuable habitat—not only is that impractical, but parks and reserves have a long history of excluding people from the habitats they depend on for survival, and some of those exclusions have had terrible consequences. International conservation organizations need to secure and defend the rights of people who are already successfully managing their local habitats, and find more ways of enabling humans to live sustainably alongside other species. If the short-term burdens of protecting local species can be reduced, and the long-term benefits of conservation can be more equitably shared, conservation can start to become what it should be: an everyday practice, for everyone.
Lindsay Renick Mayer
Lindsay is the Director of Media Relations for Re:wild and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.