Living urban lives in our towns and cities, and living half of them peering into electronic screens, it is easy to be cut off from the natural world and not register the cataclysm which is overtaking it; but the most casual glance at the figures will make it clear. Half the rainforests are cut down; most fish stocks are at danger levels; the seabed is increasingly degraded; and one fifth of all vertebrate species – mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles – are threatened with extinction. The World Wide Fund for Nature estimated this year that a third of the world's wildlife has disappeared since 1970.
It is a calamity past generations never imagined. The Earth, the exquisite, life-thronged blue sphere hanging in the barrenness of space, is being wrecked by us, the human species, with our exploding numbers, whether through habitat destruction, pollution, over-exploitation or the introduction of alien creatures and plants into new environments where they cause havoc – not even to mention climate change. And the wrecking is not a discrete event, terrible but over, like the dinosaur-destroying asteroid; it is a continuing process driven by the ever-expanding human enterprise, and it is going to get worse. In the circumstances, "what can we do about it?" is one of the most challenging questions humanity has ever been asked. Yet all over the globe, as Andrew Balmford shows in his gripping new documentary-cum-study, concerned men and women are trying to hold back the tide of ruination, and sometimes succeeding.
Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at Cambridge, travelled to every continent save Antarctica in search of examples where conservation on the ground is actually making a difference. The seven detailed case studies he presents all show that with committed people and imaginative polices – the latter often the key – the widespread destruction of nature which seems such an inevitable part of economic growth can be halted and reversed.
In some cases, such as the protection of India's remaining one-horned rhinos in Assam, now a mouth-watering target for poachers because of the value of their horns in traditional Asian medicine, the old-fashioned remedy of "fortress and fines" – which ultimately means shooting armed poachers dead – is still necessary. But in other situations vividly portrayed in Wild Hope, such are the attempts to preserve South Africa's unique fynbos flora, or the cloud forests of Ecuador, the trick is to make other players – governments, businesses or communities – understand that preservation can be in their interests too.
Balmford is an astute analyst of just why it works in some places and not in others. Wild Hope will doubtless be taken by many conservation professionals, as well as students, as a textbook. At its close he distils his perceptions into seven "ways to win battles" which include, tellingly, not letting the best be the enemy of the good. But underlying the technical insights is the larger question of whether or not the obliteration of the natural world can be held back generally.
Conceding that his list of successes is the result of "deliberate cherry picking", Balmford admits: "The sad reality is that the majority of conservation efforts are not so successful and most activities that diminish nature... evoke no organised response at all." Yet the very fact that these conservationists are doing what they are doing throws into sharp relief a paradox. While human beings are destroying this planet, our only home, human beings are also trying to save it, and this offers at least a glimmer of the hope in this moving book's title.
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