What are we protecting?

There is a dark side to conservation that many of us are not aware of.

The American Bison, which is the symbol of the Native American culture and the national mammal of the United States, was numbering once up to 50 million in North America. Today bison have dramatically decreased in numbers, more than any other species on Earth, as they were nearly hunted to extinction in 1800’s. There were only about 300 wild bison left in the United States by 1884.

Bison are very aggressive by nature, they can run very fast and an adult bison can jump up to 5-6 feet high. Incorporated with their endless roaming behaviour, the mass destruction of this untameable animal was a relatively pragmatic decision by US Government. The reasons why the bison were slaughtered can be clustered under three major points. First, commodification of bison was a lucrative trade, since every single part of it, from the fur to the bones, were sold in the market. Second, clearing off the furious bison from the prairies provided construction and infrastructure companies pushing West, a safe passage. Third, it was an effective tool to displace or starve out Native Americans, who made their living from the Wild, especially from buffalos.

Today, roaming vast interior grasslands spread all over the western North America, there are 30,000 bison in several conservation herds. Sadly, these creatures are still sharing their limited living space with humans. Vast plains in North America are highly exposed to fossil fuel exploration and extraction, as well as infrastructure building, which consequently bring habitat fragmentation alongside. Losing more and more of its habitat, like many other wild species, bison are stuck to conservation areas.

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines seven categories to classify protected areas: Starting with a high priority, “Category Ia – Strict Nature Reserve” down to lowest priority “Category VI – Protected Area with sustainable use of natural resources”. By January 2016, there were 217,955 protected areas considering the joint reports by the IUCN and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The number might look enormous but further reports by many environmental NGOs prove the international efforts to preserve wildlife wrong. Establishment of protected areas is not always remedy for environmental decay.

Overall, the term ‘conservation’, meaning sustainable consumption of nature, is dominating its counterpart ‘preservation’, which means protection and maintenance of the present state. Given the millennial standards of living for more than 7 billion people (the global population is also in increase and the living standards are improving), belief in the sustainable consumption of natural resources is unrealistic. Thus, the efforts of international agencies to conserve the nature are highly questionable and this approach seems to gain no further ground.

A fine example of such declining conservation areas is the Doñana National Park in Spain, also nominated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, which has been threatened by desiccation for decades. Doñana, also known as one of Europe’s greatest conservation areas, is home to over 4,000 species, including around 6 million migratory birds. It is a National Park and supposed to be under protection by the international law as to the following sentence:

Category II: National Park

Primary objective: To protect natural biodiversity along with its underlying ecological structure and supporting environmental processes, and to promote education and recreation.


Projects including industrial activities such as oil, gas and mining exploration and exploitation are pursued even though incompatible with World Heritage status. The Doñana wetland has lost 80% of its natural water supplies due to marsh drainage, unsustainable and illegal agricultural water use and water pollution from the mining industry. In their latest reports, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was also alarmed by plans of a Mexican company to reopen a nearby mine that caused an environmental disaster in 1998. The accident killed 30,000 kilograms of fish, and cost €380 million to recover.

Man-made disasters have happened and may happen in the future. However, the ambiguity of international will concerning the protection of wildlife is playing right into the hands of “sustainable industry”. Putting the ‘preservation’ aside, a combination of weak international regulatory bodies and global markets and industries are far exceeding the limits of adequate ‘conservation’. Insistently stressing sustainability, the well-respected Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have neither a goal nor a target for wildlife protection. According to WWF, Earth has lost around 60% of its wildlife over the past 50 years. We are losing animals at a rate of 2% a year and by 2050, the amount of plastic in oceans is expected to be more than the amount of fish in total. In an environmentalist’s words:

We only have one planet. If we screw it up, then we’re gone.

Martin Taylor – WWF Officer

Ignoring the destructive power of human civilization and pursuing further “domesticate or destroy” policies is not paving the road to sustainability but to a dead end. It is important to underline the latest incidents in Dakota where the construction of pipelines was ongoing. Besides the core environmental problem regarding the oil industry, there was also a major socio-political conflict. The initial plans of Dakota access pipeline indicate that pipes were supposed to cross the city Bismark 10 miles northwards. Yet, after concerns about the risk of oil leakage were revealed, pipeline was rerouted 50 miles southwards, exactly across the sacred lands of Native Americans. Although months of protest brought a stop to the construction, highlighting this intention shows that after 200 years, human greed is still swiping away any obstacle in its way.

Best described by an influential Economist:

Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation to man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations: as long as you have not shown it to be “uneconomic” you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.

Ernst F. Schumacher

Burag Gürden

Burag Gurden is a masters student at Lund University's International Development Programme. Before moving to Sweden, he obtained a BA degree in economics and got experience by working for a multinational bank in Turkey. He is a WWF volunteer and has a great interest in environmental conservation and preservation. His other enthusiasms are for consumer behavior and consumption patterns.
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    Words In The Bucket is a team of global citizens with the common goal of raising awareness and information about issues related to human rights protection, social inclusion, development and environment.

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