Animal conservation and ecosystem services: garnering the support of mightier forces


Belinda Reyers, Natural Resources and the Environment, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, PO Box 320, Stellenbosch 7599,
South Africa

Many conservation scientists have grown wary (and weary) of our culture of crisis and conflict with its litany of extinctions. They have instead adopted Redford & Sanjayan's (2003) advice to pursue a cause that inspires rather than blames, with approaches that offer feasible solutions and harness the support of ‘social and economic forces mightier than ourselves’. Central to this new cause is the tenet that humans, their well-being and their economies are ultimately dependent on healthy functioning ecosystems. Therefore, the judicious management of these ecosystems is in the interests of, rather than in conflict with, human development goals. This concept, that ecosystems provide benefits or services to humans including clean water, fertile soils and flood protection, is not new, but it is only in the last two decades that the concept has become mainstream in our work (e.g. Costanza et al., 1997; Daily, 1997).

The value of an ecosystem service approach to conservation is not without its challenges, with many conservationists raising concerns about the (mis)alignment of ecosystem service and conservation priorities, goals and values. These concerns are very real and it is vital that we develop an understanding of the synergies and trade-offs between biodiversity and ecosystem services. This will help to ensure the correct use of ecosystem service approaches in achieving some biodiversity conservation objectives, while recognizing that they will not conserve all biodiversity. Indeed, there are many win–win situations where gains for biodiversity can be made by using ecosystem services as a ‘strategy to buy time as well as getting buy-in’ (Daily, 2009). Certainly, it appears that buy-in is exactly what ecosystem services are securing, inspiring policy and decision makers at local to global scales to take an interest in the fate of ecosystems and their services.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment's (MA; MA, 2005) global review of ecosystem services highlighted the plight of the globe's ecosystem services, the implications for human well-being and the urgent need for action. An independent evaluation of the MA (Wells, Grossman & Navajas, 2006) recognized the MA's major contribution by explicitly linking the sustainable use of ecosystem services with human well-being and development. However, the review found little evidence of the MA's direct impact on policy formulation and decision-making, especially in developing countries. There are indications that this is starting to change.

The year 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, marks an important moment in the annals of the conservation community. As the October deadline for the Conference of the Parties (COP10) of the Convention on Biological Diversity is upon us, it is clear that 2010 will be the year where we admit failure in meeting the goal to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss. In spite of this failure, 2010 will also be remembered as the year of broad and deep societal commitments to biodiversity conservation.

June 2010 saw the representatives of governments recommend the establishment of an Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) ( This platform – which mirrors the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – would provide, for the first time, a bridge between the wealth of scientific knowledge and worldwide government action required to halt and reverse the declines in biodiversity and ecosystem services (Larigauderie & Mooney, 2010). The recommendation tasks the IPBES to perform regular and timely assessments of knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem services and their interlinkages, including comprehensive global assessments to provide ‘gold standard’ reports to Governments on the status of biodiversity and ecosystem services. It would also, importantly, support policy formulation and implementation by identifying, providing access to and where necessary, developing policy-relevant tools and methodologies. Its other tasks would include introducing standards and rigour into assessment processes, bringing new topics of interest to the attention of Governments and supporting (and catalysing funding for) capacity building in developing countries.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), states that IPBES would represent ‘a major breakthrough in terms of organizing a global response to the loss of living organisms and forests, freshwaters, coral reefs and other ecosystems that generate multi-trillion dollar services that underpin all life – including economic life – on Earth’. This sentiment is echoed in The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB; programme – a UNEP-hosted study aimed at sharpening the awareness of the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services and facilitating the development of effective policy, as well as engaging business and catalysing citizen responses. At about the same time that the IPBES plan will come before the general assembly of the United Nations for official approval later this year, TEEB will release its final reports. Just as IPBES hopes to follow on the successes of the IPCC in developing a more rapid and policy relevant science, so too does TEEB aim to follow the success of the Stern review (Stern, 2007) on the economics of climate change by making explicit the costs of the losses of public goods like biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as necessary changes to the current economic paradigm.

It is important to acknowledge the role that the concept of ecosystem services has played in these developments – developments that would have been unlikely under the guise of biodiversity alone. Ecosystem services have allowed our community to express the value of the natural world and the costs of altering that world in a way that taps into society's ‘intuitive notion of economic value’ (Costanza & Farber, 2002). But even beyond this economic focus, ecosystem services have helped solidify the link between ecological and social systems, allowing conservation scientists to interact more compellingly with value systems outside their usual ecocentric domain and thereby leverage the support of Redford & Sanjayan's (2003)‘economic and social forces mightier than ourselves’.

It is important to keep in mind that ecosystem services are not yet commonly agreed objects, lacking clear definitions and identities, and are as Hodgson et al. (2007) point out ‘epistemic’ objects with unresolved forms and functions appearing in ‘different guises depending on the context of use’. This lack of immutability is supported by the continuing debate around definitions, utility and validity of the ecosystem service concept (e.g. Wallace, 2007). It also presents opportunities for research and development (e.g. Carpenter et al., 2009) that involves collaborating across the natural and social sciences to clarify and make permanent the ecosystem service concept, and ensure that it lives up to its promise of leading society to more sustainable futures.

So what does this mean for conservation scientists? Two words – get involved. We propose that there is an excellent opportunity for us to get involved with the science and policy of ecosystem services – not only in generating the scientific knowledge essential to IPBES and programmes like TEEB, but also in interpreting and disseminating the information they provide, engaging with local policy and decision makers, as well as civil society around these programmes. We echo the call of Mooney & Mace (2009) to not only generate the science necessary to plug current knowledge gaps, but to become informed about policy- and decision-making processes locally and globally to ensure that our science is user-useful and user-demanded, and to take that extra step to get our knowledge into the relevant decision-making levels wherever we work.