Oliver Steeds writes about the issues raised in his Dispatches film, Conservation's Dirty Secrets
'Species are becoming extinct at a rate of 1000 to 10,000 times higher than it would naturally be without humans.'
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature
Remarkably it was only in 1986 when scientists discovered something called prochlorococcus - an ocean dwelling bacteria that produces 20% of the oxygen that we breathe. In other words, it was only 25 years ago we found out what made life possible on our little planet. Most of us, me included, have no real clue that our existence depends on all sorts of species we've never heard of. Nor do we know what's happening to them.
We're in a golden age of discovery but a dark age of destruction. We're discovering species at a faster rate than any time in human history, but we're destroying them on a scale last documented 251 million years ago with the demolition of the dinosaurs. The eminent biologist EO Wilson believes we're losing 30,000 species a year increasing to 200-300,000 species per year in a couple of decades. And we know what's causing this - it's me, it's you, it all of us, the collective choices we make that are consigning species to the land of the Dodo every single day.
Conservation is crucial. And we need to get it right. The purpose of our film is not to make you throw up your hands and stop supporting conservation - far from it - its crucial we tackle these uncomfortable realities head on so we can develop better conservation practices on the ground.
I've always struggled with trying to define 'conservation'. What we found making this film is that conservation means many things to many people, the movement is diverse, and we can't simply say there is a unity of thoughts, values and practices. If anything, it's a broad church, ridden with conflict and the pains of conservation are too often borne by those least able to bear it - the poorest, most vulnerable people on our planet. The science of biodiversity can tell us what is happening but not what we want to conserve. As one conservationist we interviewed explained: 'We're not playing God, we're playing God's accountant'.
So what is it that we should prioritise and who should decide? Pandas or plankton? Tigers or termites? Is it either-or? Is science or sentimentality defining our choices of whether we're prioritising vulnerable, irreplaceable or even biodiversity that is valuable to ecosystem health and continuing our ability to live on the planet? Why is so difficult to find quantifiable system of measurements that are needed to make informed decisions?
Conservation work is undeniably complex, riddled with contradictions and competition but it fundamentally it is underpinned by our own relationships to nature. We're the cause and we can be the effect. Turn on our TVs and the natural world is often presented either as pristine or through an anthropomorphised looking glass - and that kind of makes sense. We need to love nature before we will want to conserve it. But we shouldn't be deluded from what is really happening.
In Britain, most of us say we love animals - but in reality that only translates to our cats and dogs and perhaps a few charismatic wild animals. We can't hide from the blatant contradiction of how we treat other animals, such as the factory farmed chickens and pigs that end up on our plates. As a society we're becoming increasingly urbanised, increasingly disconnected from the natural world, from the food on our plates, and from the natural processes that make life possible. Of course, as the disconnect grows, so the natural world suffers.
For millennia, man has been driven to transform nature, and humanity will move forward through the advancements of science and technology. As a species we're coming to a crossroads. We can continue to disconnect from nature and we will continue to destroy it until something cataclysmic occurs that will either wake us from our delusions of immortality or destroy us.
There is a cost to our progression and we need to awaken to the realisation of the costs: the species that we will lose; the destruction of human diversity; the damage to our environment, the list grows by the day. We all have choices.
Sitting around a campfire with a Samburu Elder in Kenya, a man who had been abused by Joy Adamson (of Born Free fame) and been marginalised by tourist lodges and conservation parks, he shared with me an African proverb, which I hope we carry at the heart of our film:
'Until the lions have their praise singers, the tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter'.