Reason for hope: Time to celebrate conservation’s successes, as well as challenges.

I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid stories of environmental woe and sturm und drang since starting this blog late last year. There’s enough of that going around.

Besides, those contrarians who don’t believe humans are affecting the environment — the small but noisy and politically influential minority who insist climate change is a fabrication intended to deep-six the coal and fossil fuel industry — are unlikely to change their minds now.

As for the rest, as Sir David Attenborough so aptly put it when defending his sunny-skies view in Planet Earth, no one sitting at home at the end of a long, hard day wants to be told the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that it’s all their fault.

Pessimists often depict conservation efforts — underfunded for the most part, and stretched thin — as a cry in the wilderness, and about as effective.

There are success stories, though.



And the Attenboroughs of the world — not to mention the conservationists themselves — prefer to focus on those stories, rather than warning yet again of imminent threat of a mass extinction. The planet has lost 58% of its birds, mammals, fish and reptiles since 1970 — this, according to a recent survey by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and London Zoological Society, but virtually anyone who can read already knows that.

The same survey found that the average yearly decrease in animal biodiversity is now 2%, “with no sign yet that this rate will slow down,” but again, this won’t come as a surprise to anyone watching the nightly news.

The success stories, rare as they might appear at times, are in the news now, though, thanks to a specially arranged meeting of conservationists, the Conservation Optimism Summit, later this month in London, with gatherings in other cities around the world, including Washington, DC and Hong Kong.

The summit is timed at least in part to Earth Day, which falls on April 22.



The implications extend beyond one day in April, though. People need to hear that all is not lost, that there’s reason for hope. One of the surprising conclusions to be drawn from the past 25 years of conservation is that it’s the smaller, grassroots efforts that have a more pronounced effect on the ground than the efforts of big, bloated conservation organizations that are often weighted down by their own bureaucracy and burgeoning operating costs.

Some of the more radical environmental activists say people ought to be told what they need to know, rather than what they want to hear.

The truth is that there’s room for both.

Polar bears are in serious trouble — the bears need pack ice on which to hunt and sustain themselves throughout winter hibernation, and the ice is melting across the Arctic — but the panda bear, the iconic symbol of the World Wildlife Fund, has recovered significantly throughout its former range.

Rhinos are facing a devastating surge in poaching throughout their range in Africa, but the saiga antelope, an oddly shaped grazing antelope endemic to the Eurasian steppe, has survived not one but two population crashes in recent years. The Siberian tiger has made a comeback in Russia, and a new population of rare Indonesian tigers was discovered in a national park in eastern Thailand just last month, even as conservationists warn that the lion — one of the most iconic, most easily recognized animals on the planet — faces a population crash throughout much of its range in Africa, due to habitat destruction, human population growth and the inevitable animal-human conflict that results.

©University of Oxford

©University of Oxford

Despite its Pollyannaish and easy-to-ridicule name, the Conservation Optimism Summit has an important purpose, as Oxford University zoologist E.J. MIlner-Gulland, a summit cofounder, and Oxford professor of biodiversity, told the Sunday Observer this past weekend.

“We have to change our ways and celebrate our successes if we’re going to protect endangered species,” she told the newspaper. “If we’re too gloomy about saving wildlife, you people will think there’s nothing they can do and that would be tragic. And wrong.”