This post is written by Nick Harvey, a PhD student at the University of Manchester and Chester Zoo. Nick studies the conservation of the eastern black rhino in Kenya, using metabarcoding, hormone analysis and other methods to investigate the causes of breeding success between individuals and reserves. He also uses social science methods to study the role of zoos and concepts of wildness in the conservation of large herbivores. Alongside his research, Nick also works with the charity Action for Conservation, which aims to connect young people with the natural world.
Find out more about Nick and his work on his website, and Twitter page.
Conservation is not just about elephants and eagles, orchids and oaks, animals and plants. It is inherently a social process that is conducted by, and has great impacts on, people. Balancing the interests of wildlife and people causes the conservation community to tie itself in knots. Historically, it has been complicit in violence against indigenous and local peoples, although attitudes and practices have changed massively since the 1970s.
Despite the changes in attitudes towards the people that it affects, the people who “do” conservation often look similar to how they did 100 years ago. The conservation and environment sectors are dogged by a stubborn lack of diversity. In England and Wales, environment professionals are the second least diverse industry group behind farmers. It is not only a moral necessity to address this, but a practical one as well. Nature, climate change and sustainability are still not the mainstream political issues that they need to be. They do not enter the consciousness of many people who are rightly concerned with other things. This starts at a grassroots level; people will not look after something if they do not care about it.
One of the great things about nature is that it is completely free to enjoy and anyone can access it. All you need is a pair of sturdy shoes, a bit of time to get outside and the ability to marvel at what you experience. Well, this should be the case. In reality there are barriers that prevent everyone having the same opportunity to be able to wonder at the birds, the insects and the trees. This is particularly the case for deprived, minority and inner-city communities.
The access people have to green space varies massively, in spite of the many health benefits that it brings. In the UK, as in many other places, we have tried to fence nature in, protected by visitor centres that request payment. Membership and gate fees are obstacles to those that cannot afford them. As well as the direct cost of access, transport can be difficult. Even if a natural space is free to get into, you may need a car to get there. Rural public transport in the UK is limited, intermittent and slow. Wales gets an especially raw deal. A train from Cardiff to Aberystwyth to go dolphin spotting, half-way up the west coast and a car journey of around 100 miles, takes four and a half hours. If the dolphins are in Cardigan then you’re limited further, as there isn’t a train station. For people with disabilities, access to nature is even more difficult and there are precious few places where disabled people can enjoy the outdoors. These barriers are difficult to overcome, but only because they require money. Better public transport, funding schemes and fee waivers need investment but they don’t require complex ideas.
Other barriers are more fundamental and will be harder to address. People in deprived and minority areas can perceive that nature isn’t for them, and that they do not have the knowledge to get involved. For BAME people, this occurs with good reason due to the treatment they receive when in natural spaces. The video of a white woman in Central Park, New York, shouting at a black male birdwatcher, who asked her to put her dog on the leash, and threatening to call the police is a just one of many examples of this.
This incident has now been somewhat overshadowed by everything that has transpired since, and the suffering of black communities in the USA and elsewhere. Some of the positives that have shone through are schemes that highlight the experiences of BAME people in nature and STEM more widely, including #BlackBirdersWeek. This included five days of virtual events and hashtags to allow people to ask black birders questions. It is more important than ever for us all to thoroughly examine our own prejudices and decide what we can do to help make nature accessible to all.
Deconstructing these barriers needs more complex solutions. It needs attitude changes within the community of environmentalists and nature-lovers. We need to be actively welcoming. There are those who sneer at someone who has less knowledge than them, if they don’t know a particular bird name. Being condescending maintains the exclusive air of enjoying nature. It is also ultimately self-defeating as it will keep the community of people who care about nature small as species continue to decline to extinction. Targeted, free education programmes, for both young people and adults, is one way to help tackle this. Charities such as Action for Conservation are doing great work, and much more money and effort needs to pumped into schemes in schools and beyond. At the end of it all we are pulling towards the same goal, protecting nature. We need all the help that we can get.