Finding Balance between Human Need and Global Stewardship


When asked to write an essay for the 25th Anniversary Issue of Conservation Biology, I was truly honored for the opportunity to be included as a Native American voice. My history is unusual for a Native American because I was born in a small village in southern France and lived in Europe until 1971. In addition to this oddity, I was not aware of my indigenous American heritage until I started school. Until that point I thought I was Chinese. My father had faced racism on a grand scale in the United States during the mid-1900s, and to his way of thinking, I would be better off with a Chinese pedigree. So my siblings and I began school in the United States as newly anointed, formerly Chinese Indians. My upbringing was in a mixed environment, some Native American, some Western centric, and at times the Native and Western messages I received regarding values conflicted with one another. My path has changed in the many years since I discovered who I really am. Today, I not only embrace my own heritage, I engage with cultures the world over because I believe we truly are one race of many colors.

I have learned from my interactions with indigenous peoples that we all share a common dependency on Earth and its resources and that a deep respect for Earth is primal. This is one reason I find conservation biology such a fascinating subject, and for those of you who are participating in its science, practice, or mission, these are very interesting times. When viewed through the indigenous lens, conservation biology is clearly an ancient subject, the first subject, and it speaks to the heart of cultures all over the globe. The practice of conservation was developed through trial and error over the ages and was the answer to survival. An understanding of the natural rhythm of nature and the need for balance between humans and nature became the core of the people and has been expressed in the oral histories, lore, and spiritualism of the varied cultures through the centuries.

These beliefs have taught generations the necessity of keeping a balance between their place as needy humans and their place as stewards of Earth, indicating that resource management and conservation are certainly nothing new. The First Salmon Ceremony of the Salmon Nations of North America, the culling of reindeer by the Ivenk and Yakut peoples of Siberia, and the reverence given the sacred waters of the Pongo de Mainique by the Machiguengas of Peru are but a few of the traditions with which people protect vital resources as they celebrate their providence.

In the First Salmon ceremony, one of which was witnessed and documented on 19 April 1806 by Lewis and Clark, the salmon-fishing tribes of the Pacific Northwest show their respect for the salmon by giving thanks to the Creator and by taking only one of the first run of fish to appear at the start of the season. The ceremony reinforces the belief in nature's laws and the natural cycle of life. After the ceremony, the fish are left alone for many days. This respectful acknowledgement allows the fish to go up river and spawn, perpetuating future runs, which the native people understand should not be interrupted. Modern science calls this escapement—Native people call it balance.

For the Ivenk and Yakut peoples in the far reaches of Russia, the careful selection of injured, weak, or older reindeer for use as food is a time-proven practice to ensure the strength and health of the herd. As with the Salmon Nations people, respect is shown for the animal, appreciation is shown the Creator, and the people maintain their sacred connection to the animals that sustain them as they receive nature's bounty. The herds are carefully nurtured and therefore the people continue to prosper, maintaining their stewardship of Earth which provides so generously for them.

Another strong connection to nature by indigenous peoples is evident in the high regard of the Machiengas of Peru for the waters that flow through the Mainique de Pongo. This 15.5-km2 area is described as one of the most species rich on the planet. The Machiengas believe this sacred place is where life and the afterlife merge. It is their beginning and their end. This connection, for a people dependent on the rainforest and the river for their survival, is yet one more illustration of the balance of nature that we as humans not only need to survive, but must achieve and maintain so the natural world that provides for us can thrive.

Make no mistake, some indigenous cultures have not heeded the rules of nature and may be gone today as a result. The Mayans, Anasazi, and Rapa Nui are well-known examples of lost civilizations whose disappearances have been hypothesized to reflect their lack of resource-conservation practices. The disappearances of these cultures still confound us and trigger debate.

Looking back over the last 25 years, I see conservation biology as a modern field of research that is still in its infancy, yet has made great strides. Who would have thought when the term conservation biology was coined in the 1980s, that in 2011 there would be schools around the world, both privately and publicly funded, offering graduate degrees in this field. To me, this is a giant leap in an amazingly short period of time and is a human accomplishment to be heralded. Muir, Roosevelt, Coetzee, Fossey, and Burroughs are a handful of pioneers in this field who would be proud.

From the Native American perspective, I say: We’re so glad you’ve arrived! What took you so long to get here? Native peoples have long grasped the importance of practicing conservation. Although not always effective or diligent in their application of conservation, they understood the grave consequences of failure. The hard-learned lessons of survival within the Native experience are relevant today and reinforce the importance of paying attention to how progress is accomplished.

I find it intriguing that numerous conservation achievements have resulted from human action, but not necessarily human intent. For instance, the decades of turmoil in South Sudan have had an unexpected effect. While the war raged, few paid much attention to wildlife populations and, surprisingly, herds of animals are thriving like never before. Migrations of up to 80,000 White-eared Kobs (Kobus kob) are witnessed, and sightings of the rare Shoebill Stork (Balaeniceps rex) are reported. The people of South Sudan now realize the value of and need for this diversity and are taking steps to preserve it through the creation of national parks and protective legislation, even having soldiers become park rangers.

The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea is home to several rare species: Red-crowned Cranes (Grus japonensis), White-naped Cranes (Grus vipio), and spotted seals (Phoca largha), whose numbers are unknown. People are prohibited in this area, and animal and plant life flourishes. The recent earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accidents in Japan have reminded us of Chernobyl, where surprisingly, life has returned. Moose (Alces alces), lynx (Lynx lynx), river otter (Lutra lutra), and many bird species are present again. (Although, the health effects of the radiation around Chernobyl are still a concern.) The Death Zone, a 1393-km strip of land that ranges in width from 50 to 200 m, separated the former countries of East and West Germany for 37 years and was a no-man’s-land. The area is now a preserve where, along with many other animals, the European dark bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) is thriving. The loss of bees all over the world is threatening agricultural production, and this particular indigenous bee is better adapted to the European climate than other bees. It could prove to be the hero of the story of declining bee populations on the European continent.

These examples seem to indicate that removing humans has produced optimum results for nature and conservation. Of course, civil wars, government oppression, nuclear disasters, or simply removing humans are obviously not acceptable ways to go about conserving Earth's species, their habitats, and ecosystems. Yet, can you imagine the outcome of our thoughtful and active participation in a global mission to promote conservation?

The efforts in many of the world's developing nations to create national parks and preserves are encouraging signs of conservation progress. Nepal's endeavor to restore one species, the greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), whose abundance is reported to have increased 22% since 2008, is momentous. There are ongoing efforts to restore and expand Xochimilco, a park near Mexico City. One objective of this restoration is the survival of the endemic axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), a fish-like salamander, which is in danger of extinction. A freshwater shrimp, the acocil (Cambarellus montezumae), and the Montezuma frog (Rana montezumae), similarly had high probabilities of extinction but are rebounding in the park. These projects are striving to help restore balance.

The stunning ecological devastation in the once-thriving marshes of southern Iraq caused by political oppression and the actions of humans looked to be irreversible. Throughout the 1990s the marshes were drained, and as a result the animals, plants, and people were virtually erased. Now, the marshes have been restored through the application and combination of science, engineering, traditional ecological knowledge, and involvement of the local communities. The winter 2010 count of the Marbled Teal (Marmaronetta angustirostris) doubled the known global estimate of abundance of these beautiful birds. The marshes are an essential stop along the birds’ migratory route. This is one more success in humans’ attempt to restore balance.

An innovative project nearing completion is bringing hordes of New Yorkers out of their cubicles and apartments and into contact with nature. They come to breathe fresh air and feel the breeze off the Hudson River while surrounded by trees, shrubs, and flowers. The project is converting an abandoned, elevated, freight-train line built in the 1930s that operated over the heads of New Yorkers for over 4 decades. The line sat overgrown above the streets of Lower Manhattan for many years. When the line was slated for demolition, a group of diverse citizens teamed up with the city to create a nonprofit organization to save the structure. Now this lovely human-made oasis sits serenely above the Meatpacking District and Hell's Kitchen. It is 2.5 km of “created nature” that offers a picturesque piece of the outdoors to stressed-out urbanites. It is no Appalachian Trail but, amid a sea of concrete, it is a unique and welcoming zone that can open the door to reconnection and balance between people and the natural environment.

Even with all of these positive steps forward, there is still much to be done. The connection between nature and humans is in danger of being lost due to human priorities regarding economic growth and development. Most of Earth's populations live in some form of settlement, whether a city or a village, and enjoy some level of modern convenience. Homes have electricity to power our various appliances and electronic devices. Most people don't grow or hunt their own food anymore. Farms and woodlands are being replaced with grocery stores, shopping malls, and urban sprawl. Elaborate climate-control systems in homes and places of work completely hold the outdoors at bay for many, and our numerous modes of transportation shorten the time and distance of travel, but further insulate us from the sky, the trees, and the soil.

Take for example a good friend of mine who lives near and works in Washington, D.C. Seldom during the regular work week does she feel the breeze or hear birds singing. Each morning she leaves her climate-controlled home in her climate-controlled car from her garage. Taking the elevator from the underground parking garage at work, she arrives at her climate-controlled office where the windows do not open. Typically she eats in the cafeteria of the building where she works, and in the evening follows the same path in reverse. Never once does she leave her human-made, climate-controlled environment. For many like her, the grand achievements and technological advancements of humans have cut all connections to nature. Any thought of caring about nature and conservation, taking responsibility for it, and engaging with it is all but gone thanks to our desire and addiction to lead what we have come to believe are comfortable, normal lives. My wife and I had lunch with this friend recently, and we walked from her office across a park to a café nearby. She commented how nice it was to breathe fresh air and be outdoors for a change. She noticed the birds. It is hard for someone to care about something with which they have no contact, but our friend's acknowledgement and appreciation of being outdoors with us on this particular day shows there is hope.

Part of our challenge is finding a way to make nature and science easily understandable and appealing to common people. This task is made all the more difficult as the world's population quickly surpasses 7 billion. These incredible masses combined with a lust for material wealth and unbridled development and the overuse of ever-fewer natural resources will without a doubt contribute to the degradation of our planet and quickly create a place in which none of us will want to exist. This disturbing reality illustrates our need for the field and practice of conservation biology. It harkens back to the indigenous view of living within nature, being a human and achieving balance. In this age of hyperdevelopment, marketing a scientific discipline that can make sense of our place in the natural world (i.e., presenting conservation biology in an understandable and engaging way to modern society) is not only important, but imperative. This is not to say it will be easy.

Because there are many children and young adults who care little or not at all about conservation, or biology for that matter, the necessity for this concerted outreach is paramount. Reaching the multitude of youth who are unaware of nature, mostly because they have not been exposed to it, or of the difference they could make in conservation should be the goal.

Given what has been accomplished in the last 25 years in conservation biology, there is clearly huge hope for the next 25. To the visionaries who toil in this field, I say step out of your comfort zones and show up as the rock stars that you truly are. Come out and take center stage! Creating a highly engaging and successful program of massive outreach is much more likely to gain the attention needed if passionate leaders are willing to get out and stir up a crowd. Although I was not a fan of public service announcements in my youth, I can say I will never be a litter bug and I will always buckle up; this, thanks to two tremendously successful marketing campaigns that seemed to be constantly present on the radio and television in the 1970s when I was a kid.

Regarding this necessary introduction of conservation biology to the masses, it strikes me that perhaps the community of conservation professionals should create a treaty or accord among all of its members. This agreement would create a body, the Conservation Biology Council, to oversee a fund, the contributions for which would come from already funded projects. Accord signers would commit to and contribute a percentage of their project funding to a Conservation Biology Council account. This council and the designated funds would provide for the marketing, branding, outreach, and curriculum development for the community as a whole—for the maximum benefit of all.

The field of conservation biology can and should become the source of motivation for people to want to reconnect with the outdoors, and although the kids I mentioned earlier may be a challenge, there are millions of people who, if made aware, would readily engage in this amazing field of study. Awareness should begin in the earliest years of education. Conservation professionals could collaborate with educators and develop a conservation curricula structured to follow students throughout their school years and academic career. Additionally, people of all ages could be connected in creative and culturally sound ways in a program that introduces conservation biology through social media networks, while advocating an increase in the amount of time spent outdoors.

Conservation biology also belongs in the boardroom. There is no such thing as the perfect contingency plan for disaster or its effect on the natural world. As we witnessed after the explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Japan's nuclear accident, the magnitude of a disaster is not predictable. Frontloading conservation biology into development plans is a much more effective way to prepare for disasters than to panic and scramble once they have occurred. Frontloading can go a long way to mitigating the loss of species and their habitats at the start of a project rather than wishing later that the clock could be turned back. Mind you, my idea is not to stop development—which will not happen—but to intertwine the corporate and conservation-science communities to enhance and safeguard development for the sake of profitability and environmental health.

Now, in one final Thoreauish thought (no trip to Walden Pond required), set aside some time for yourself and nature this coming week. Inspire your friends and family to do the same. Find a place in the natural outdoor world and just be there for an hour. Whether you are in a park, on a campus, or on the edge of a golf course, find your spot to watch and listen to nature, in solitude, and reconnect. Find your balance. It is great therapy for your brain and your bones.


I thank M. Marshall for her contributions to this essay.

About the Author

Jon Waterhouse is Native American, of S’Kallam, Chippewa, and Cree descent. In 1995 he retired from a 20-year career with the U.S. Navy as a chief petty officer and moved to Alaska. He and his wife, author Mary Marshall, live in Anchorage where Jon is the Executive Director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed, an Indigenous organization comprised of 70 Native Nations from Alaska and Canada. He is the leader of The Healing Journey, a unique canoe journey, and travels to rivers around the world combining collection of modern scientific data with traditional knowledge. In 2010 he became a National Geographic Education Fellow and was appointed by U.S. President Obama to the Joint Public Advisory Committee to the Council for Environmental Cooperation.