Everything You Wanted to Know About Conservation Biology


Essentials of Conservation Biology. 3rd edition. Primack, R. B. 2002. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA. 698 pp. $69.95 (casebound). ISBN 0–87893–719–6.

Textbooks fulfill many purposes. They provide an overview of a discipline and a framework within which information from lectures or other methods of instruction may be embedded. They furnish a resource of examples to complement a course, thus freeing instructors to provide context for the discipline in the more personable medium of direct contact with students. And, in the best of circumstances, they serve as references after students complete their course and advance in their discipline. Richard Primack's Essentials of Conservation Biology admirably accomplishes each of these purposes for the field of conservation biology.

I began using the first edition of Essentials even before it was published, working from page proofs until the first shipment of books finally arrived in the fall of 1993. Echoing Stanley Temple's review in this journal of that first edition (“Finally, an introductory textbook,”Conservation Biology7:961–962), I also had suffered too many years teaching my introductory course in conservation biology with sources that were not dedicated to the field because there was no other alternative. Over the years, Essentials has introduced conservation biology to a generation of nascent yet enthusiastic students. Now in its third edition, Essentials continues to perform well and to define the field.

Primack has done his homework to ensure that this edition of Essentials is as current as possible. Of approximately 1300 references cited in the bibliography, 70% date from 1994 to the present (the time-span since publication of the first edition), and many pre-1994 references are needed classics. Another key strength of Essentials is its broad taxonomic and geographic coverage. This is not a book about charismatic megafauna; rather, plants and animals of all kinds are highlighted, a clear message that biodiversity refers to all forms of life on our planet. Similarly, Essentials is not parochial in its use of geographic examples. The message to students is that biodiversity is important and at risk everywhere on Earth and that practitioners of conservation biology around the globe are united by their common concern for the protection and wise utilization of natural resources.

The litmus test for a textbook is how it is judged by students. Feedback from my students indicates that Essentials has served them well as an introduction to conservation biology. Primack's writing style is engaging and draws students in; thus, it packages a massive amount of information in a form palatable to students. There is no glossary, but key terms are highlighted in the text when they are introduced, another feature students like. This approach is inconsistently applied, however: some highlighted key terms are clearly defined, whereas others are defined only in one particular context when multiple meanings or nuances of the term are possible. The use of 31 boxed sidebars, each of which detail topical and controversial issues in conservation biology, is another feature that contributes positively to the overall impact of the book.

The six main sections of the book are consistent with earlier editions. Primack begins with “Major Issues that Define the Discipline,” in which he lays out the foundations of conservation biology and introduces the fundamental concepts of biodiversity. Under the second major heading, “Valuing Biodiversity,” Primack's discussion ranges from the most practical considerations (direct economic values) to ethical issues. Overall, this treatment is comprehensive, convincing, and ultimately one of the strongest sections in the book. Extinction and its causes are treated in a suite of four chapters in section three, “Threats of Biodiversity.”

The final three sections present those issues and remedies needed to preserve biodiversity. Four chapters in “Conservation at the Population and Species Levels” cover the problems faced by small populations and describe in situ and ex situ strategies for their recovery. It would have been more logical for chapter 14 “Ex Situ Conservation Strategies” to be placed before chapter 13, which discusses reintroductions, because one activity is the logical precursor of the other. Habitat-based conservation is treated in section five, “Practical Applications.” This unit is heavily biased toward the formation, design, and management of protected areas (three chapters). Chapters on management outside protected areas and restoration ecology round out this section. Two chapters in the concluding section, “Conservation and Human Societies,” focus on conservation and sustainable development at the local, national, and international levels. These chapters introduce the important subjects of regulatory interventions and legal instruments. Primack gives a thorough and balanced discussion of the U.S. Endangered Species Act in the national-level chapter, but frequent references to international conventions in this chapter seem misplaced. Treatment of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is too abbreviated and does not appropriately emphasize the importance of the CBD to international efforts in conservation. Although Primack correctly exposes potential restrictions on its biotechnology industry as a primary reason why the United States has failed to ratify the CBD, he does not put this decision into proper context. Currently, 187 countries are signatory to the CBD, and the United States joins the fellowship of only six other countries (Iraq, Somalia, Brunei Darussalam, Andorra, Thailand, and the Holy Sea), presumably each also with principled objections to the CBD, in not ratifying the convention. A final chapter presents an engaging agenda for conservation action: the overarching problems we face, the challenges of meeting conservation goals, and the roles available to current and future conservation biologists (students reading this text, one hopes).

Essentials concludes with a useful appendix of selected environmental organizations. I rely on this appendix early in the semester in my teaching of conservation biology because it is important for students to be able to see who the players are and to connect what is being done with who is doing it. It is also important for today's students to be able to picture themselves in any of a wide variety of governmental or nongovernmental organizations because the landscape for employment in the field of conservation biology has changed dramatically in the recent past.

Although I am generally satisfied with Essentials, I have found the need to compensate for some topics that are weakly presented or that somehow get lost in the shuffle as a result of Primack's organization. For example, it is important to distinguish clearly between sustainable use and sustainable development, but these topics are treated separately and not contrasted. Issues surrounding sustainable use are collapsed into a narrow discussion of maximum sustainable yield (in chapter 10, on overexploitation). Primack states that there is an extensive body of literature on the scientific harvest of species, but the heuristic background for sustainable-yield calculations is not presented (one equation for MSY is thrown in, but not properly placed into context). Thus, students do not get a sense of the difference between optimum and maximum sustained yields or the nuances of varying levels of optimum sustained yields and the conditions under which they apply or should be engaged. In fact, the concept of optimum sustained yield is not introduced at all. Sustainable development is presented in chapter 20, but here Primack fails to capitalize on the opportunity to clarify the role of the sustainable use of natural resources in development programs.

Some topics are weak because they are not presented with sufficient rigor. Because most of the (sometimes acrimonious) debates at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species center around the placement into or movement of species between convention appendices, students would better understand these proceedings if given more complete definitions of Appendix I and II species (chapter 21). Considerable space is given to the process of red listing—determination of the global status of species using the categories and quantitative criteria of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Unfortunately, the material is outdated; although revised IUCN categories and criteria were introduced in February 2000, Primack uses the initial 1994 version of these quantitative criteria. The discussion emphasizes the need for quantitative criteria (pre-1994 listing processes), yet it falsely presents the 1994 categories as those that “have proved problematic.” More important, it is impossible to understand the actual process of evaluating a species with the IUCN criteria from the disordered treatment given in Essentials.

I approach the teaching of geographical and spatial issues with the metaphor of peeling an onion in mind, treating spatial scales as layers to be understood and then broken down into finer levels of resolution. My use of this approach means that my syllabus does not follow the topics sequentially as they are presented in Essentials. Island biogeography is treated in chapter 7 (and again in chapter 16), whereas metapopulation analysis appears in chapter 12. I also believe that an understanding of the spatial structure of populations is necessary before introducing the concepts of minimal viable population (MVP) and population viability analysis (PVA) because both factor heavily into how MVP and PVA must be interpreted. In Essentials, however, both these concepts appear before the discussion of metapopulations.

The clear strengths of Essentials are its breadth of coverage and its accessibility to students beginning their exploration of conservation biology. Therefore, both Primack and Sinauer Associates must be commended for their vision and outreach in ensuring an active translation program for various editions of Essentials. Earlier editions have appeared in German, Chinese, Hungarian, and Spanish, and at the time this edition was published French, Greek, Arabic, Italian, Thai, Russian, Romanian, and Mongolian editions were in the works, as were volumes to service India, Africa, and Madagascar. Conservation biology is a global discipline, and Primack's Essentials is a major contributor to its future.