As the American biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson said, “the worst part of ongoing planetary despoliation is biodiversity loss.”1 The term biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems, and the ecological and evolutionary processes that sustain it. Biodiversity includes not only species we consider rare, threatened, or endangered, but every living thing—even organisms we still know little about, such as microbes, fungi, and invertebrates.

By most measures, biodiversity loss is accelerating and there is abundant evidence that human use is resulting in an overall reduction of habitats,2,3 species,4-6 and genetic diversity, including agricultural diversity. Evidence of the human ecological footprint extends into evermore remote and southern parts of the globe.7,8

We are two conservation scientists who between us have some 30-plus years working for biodiversity. We’ve spent most of our time in Africa and Europe, more specifically in Tanzania and the United Kingdom. Our work in Tanzania started out conducting surveys of biodiversity and gradually shifted to demonstrating and comparing relative biodiversity values to prioritize the use of limited conservation funds.9–14 We have watched as global biodiversity has been lost to the extent that its decline now dramatically exceeds one of the recently defined “planetary boundaries.”15

This decline is not sustainable if, by that word, we mean maintaining what we have. Right now, we do not even know all that is being lost.1 While around 1.4 million species have been named by scientists, the total could reach 100 million. The American ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote more than half a century ago, “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”16 Leopold effectively invokes the Precautionary Principle, which aims to “ensure a higher level of environmental protection through preventative decision-taking in the case of risk.” The Principle has been implemented piecemeal and dismally, causing the onus to demonstrate the value of nature and the costs of excessive developments to still rest on conservationists.

Some scholars argue that “sustainable use” and “sustainable development” have drifted too far from true “sustainability.”17,18 Certainly, the reality is that unsustainable use is rising and biodiversity is in free fall, despite a host of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) incorporating sustainable use.2,19

Children walk past the Amani Nature Reserve headquarters in Tanzania on their way to school.

 We wonder if these global agreements have not missed opportunities to reconnect people with the natural world, which is arguably the source of the most lasting and effective conservation solutions. Do MEAs and international instruments generate a sense of the impact that biodiversity loss has on societies? By emphasizing economic values, do we risk undermining people’s—including politicians’—sense of a moral duty to act?

Here, we confront the question of what we call “biodiversity sustainability,” using the UK and Tanzania as case studies. By biodiversity sustainability we mean maintenance and use of biodiversity in ways that see it persist indefinitely. Using our experience, we then reflect on and weigh examples of global and local solutions. We propose that while MEAs may provide a relevant framework, it is local interpretation and action that define the fate of biodiversity.

Changes and Challenges—North and South

Twenty-five years ago, Tanzania was in the middle of the “lost decade” of African development; beset with debts and reeling from the trauma of two oil shocks as well as the collapse of its fragile post-independence socialist system. The economy was in disarray, infrastructure was poor, and rampant poaching of elephants had led to an international ivory trade ban. The population was under 25 million, and charcoal fueled cities while rural areas used wood fuel. Life was tough, but the country had retained most of its biodiversity, including many thousands of plants and birds as well as an abundance of large mammals, although rhinoceroses were hugely reduced and elephants had suffered badly from poaching in the 1970s and 80s. Important areas for conservation were identified, but there was little discussion of how biodiversity could be part of national development even though Julius Nyerere, the first independent president, stipulated it in 1961.

Tanzania’s population is now 50 million and still growing rapidly. The economy remains largely based on natural resources, but infrastructure has improved. Towns in Tanzania are still fueled by charcoal and rural areas by firewood. Industrial agriculture, oil and gas exploration, and mining are all rapidly expanding at the expense of natural habitats. The country is in the middle of a second, possibly graver wave of elephant poaching, due in part to Chinese-led development promoting links between Tanzanian poachers and Chinese ivory traffickers. The resource base of forests, wildlife, and fisheries is in decline. There is now much less foreign money for conservation research and action, and the bulk of what remains appears to increasingly come from philanthropists and a handful of countries.

In Tanzania, despite poor funding and capacity, corruption, and rural poverty, notable conservation gains have been achieved both nationally and locally. The Tanzanian protected area estate covers almost 50 percent of the country (compared with under 10 percent in the UK). Many reserves are under intense pressure, but reservation backed by laws and enforcement has largely worked to safeguard overall biodiversity and ecosystem services. Protected areas may not be fashionable in the era of market-based solutions, but they generally work. Even for well-publicized conservation crises in Tanzania around elephants and black rhinoceros, the remaining populations of the species are in the best managed protected areas in the country.

Twenty-five years ago, the countryside in the UK was the product of thousands of years of human use. All large mammals had been extirpated. Even deer and birds of prey were hugely reduced in abundance and range. Most of the country was under industrial agriculture and the human population density of the southern UK was among the highest on Earth. However, in the 1980s there was a swing towards habitat restoration and some recovery of heavily exploited species, such as the marsh harrier and golden eagle, had been achieved. Biodiversity fates were divided—species in woodlands and wetlands were doing well, while in farmlands they were doing badly.

A grey heron at the Rainham Marshes in Essex. Once a live munition firing range, the marshes fell into disuse as an illegal dump before the RSPB recovered the area, which is now an important bird habitat.

Today in the UK, industrial agriculture still dominates the landscape. The population has reached 64 million, and the 2008 global financial crisis has resulted in reduced public spending on conservation. Farmland biodiversity continues to suffer, while woodlands and wetlands continue to recover. Some formerly persecuted species (e.g. red kites and buzzards) have expanded and climate change has brought in new species, such as little and cattle egrets, which increase rapidly. Ecosystem services are in mainstream conversations and are experimentally incorporated into national accounting. However, attempts to undermine the Birds and Habitats Directives and remove layers of green planning and legislative safeguards are gaining the upper hand in the UK and elsewhere in the European Union. Even efforts to minimize climate change through clean energy subsidies take a back seat, as the economic imperative takes precedence and debts created by non-green sectors are paid by the environment.

Arguably, the UK and Tanzania are microcosms of the world at large where conservation has shifted from an ecocentric to an anthropocentric perspective. The intrinsic value of nonhumans is now being pitted against mankind’s developmental rights in both countries. The natural environment is declining as the number of people, including the poor, is rising. Reconciling these issues poses an exceptional challenge.

The Shifting “Sustainability” Agenda


In the global policy sphere, the United Nations has embedded sustainable use within the Sustainable Development Goals, which have replaced the Millennium Development Goals and run until 2030. The goals further link conservation with development and will likely define the next 15 years of conservation efforts. There are many potential benefits to this linkage but there are also risks. For example, much of Tanzania’s natural heritage is in its amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, and small mammals—most of which are unlikely to prove useful to humans. Where do these species sit in such a utilitarian worldview? And what about intelligent and opportunistic large mammals such as great apes and elephants that are increasingly perceived as threats to human food security because they eat human food crops? Will species with which we compete for space be eliminated?

An Abundance of Global Targets and Instruments

The previously mentioned MEAs are supported by most countries and effectively seek to mainstream biodiversity in decision-making at all levels. While important, this mainstreaming is partly premised on the economic value of biodiversity, raising the risk it will be too easily traded off to the detriment of many species, albeit inadvertently. The economic valuation approach is becoming central, even dominant, in conservation deliberations. While global decisions that value biodiversity economically are certainly better than ones that do not, such market-oriented global solutions may also have become detached from the local, human scale where most decisions are actually made day-to-day.24 Our own experiences suggest that an emphasis on the global, moreover, while helpful and important, can inadvertently push out vital local approaches.25

We do not dispute, however, that there is much to be gained from the MEAs, along with various linked assessments, such as the Global Biodiversity Outlook, Global Environment Outlook, global assessments under the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and the UNFCCC’s work on forest protection. They play significant roles in defining national strategies and legislation. For example, the CBD-defined Aichi Target 11 is promoting a major expansion of protected areas worldwide. Marine protected areas in the UK and Tanzania have been established and expanded as a direct result of government participation in the CBD.

A fundamental global challenge lies in overcoming the growing disconnect between humans and their natural environment, and, in so doing, implementing top-down agendas effectively at the grassroots level.


Reconnecting People Through Local Solutions

In contrast to the MEAs, which are somewhat abstracted from most people’s lives, community-based conservation is more local, not only in terms of conservation but also in generating experiences that reconnect people with nature, inculculating a sense of duty to ecosystems and species, and encouraging people’s local adaptation to rapid environmental change.

A red-headed agama in Shinyanga, Tanzania. Much of Tanzania’s natural heritage is in its amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, and small mammals.

Tanzania has established a network of community-based conservation areas covering over 10 percent of the country. As part of a community-based forest management framework, timber certification schemes under the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) have been successfully implemented in a number of places yielding economic, social, and biodiversity benefits. One example is the community of Kilwa, where an FSC scheme has helped ensure that timber production is within sustainable limits resulting in effective conservation of species such as the Zanzibar galago, Galago zanzibaricus, and an endemic flame tree, Erythrina schliebenii, once feared extinct but now also growing in the President’s residence in Dar es Salaam.26 This community-based forestry connects local people to the survival of the forests and their dependent species.

Enduring partnerships between small local NGOs (e.g. the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group) and communities are also helping nurture biodiversity and community development in rural Tanzania. The West Usambara Forest Conservation Project has slowed deforestation since 2000, saving five endemic vertebrate species, protecting water catchment sources for 12 communities, planting half a million native trees, and providing fuel-efficient stoves.

Efforts to cultivate public involvement, interest, stewardship, and biophilia—an ingrained affinity for the natural world—through citizen science have become more numerous in both the North and South.27-28 In Tanzania, people are involved in an ongoing effort to produce a detailed atlas of bird distribution and seasonality.29 In the UK, there has been success in engaging citizens in conservation through schemes like the Big Garden Birdwatch, managed by the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). With over a million members, the RSPB campaigns for conservation and manages a nationwide network of reserves—it’s one of the UK’s most powerful lobbies. Through work in their nature reserves, and in the wider countryside with the support of the general population and landowners, notable population declines of some of the most iconic British birds have been reversed.

Recently, the RSPB joined a call for a publicly funded nature-for-health plan, built on and adding to a strong body of evidence on the importance of natural areas to good human health and well-being. This local-scale connection of nature—fostered by organizations like the RSPB—has facilitated the creation of wetlands and forest areas on the margins of towns across the country—with positive benefits for people and biodiversity.

Opportunities for exchange of local experiences are also important: by partnering UK volunteers with Tanzanian farmers, the organization Raleigh International helps construct beehive fencing in Tanzanian farms adjacent to Udzungwa Mountains National Park, where people have been adversely affected by elephant crop depredation. There are examples of similar schemes all over the world, often dramatically altering the courses of the lives who participate.

Town-dwelling people in Tanzania also need to reconnect to the nature in their own country. Many Tanzanians’ lives have become entirely urban, and the remote areas of their own country, and the wildlife that lives there, is perceived as both dangerous and part of a life that has been left behind. Important work is being done in Tanzania, and many other developing countries to bring young people into nature and show them the natural and outside world, through school visits to wildlife areas in hired coaches and walking trips to mountains. The aim is to develop interest, appreciation, concern, and care for nature. However, these efforts remain confined to the urban middle classes and private school-educated children, and there are many who do not get such opportunities.

Of course, participation and capacity building can also happen at larger scales and between countries that share more than the UK and Tanzania. The United Nations Office for South–South Cooperation encourages peer-to-peer learning of best environmental practices, and the United Nations Environment Programme has just launched, an interactive web platform intended to facilitate citizen engagement in global environmental governance. We suspect, however, that to partake in such large global processes, citizens must first be primed through participating in conservation at more local scales.

Tanzanian farmers and Raleigh volunteers affix wires to a beehive so that it can be suspended from a beehive fence.

These reflections on our experiences in Tanzania and the UK illustrate that neither the protected area “fortress,” nor the “community” model, can be a panacea. We also fear that the conservation agenda has swung too far towards market-based or development-focused, anthropocentric approaches. Far from being “practical,” these divert attention—and donor funding—from local pluralistic approaches that yield results at neighborhood levels. MEAs, while vital in providing a global framework for action, risk overshadowing citizen resolve, interest, and action.

We believe that ultimately, saving biodiversity will be borne out of local stewardship achieved via positive partnerships among people and the nurturing of homegrown biophilia.30,31 In other words, conservation on a human scale, but within a global to national framework, containing both ethical and human self-interest elements. This is our greatest hope to save the natural world we inherited when we emerged onto the African plains millions of years ago.


This contribution is based on deliberations in the session ‘Putting biodiversity concerns into operation’ at the IARU Sustainability Science Congress 2014.


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Neil Burgess

Neil Burgess is a conservation scientist with field engagements in Tanzania and Denmark.  He leads the science program at UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Center in Cambridge, UK and has a part time...


Katarzyna Nowak

Katarzyna Nowak has 10 years of experience in wildlife conservation, primarily in Tanzania and South Africa in both the academic and NGO sectors. She is a research associate in Zoology at the University...

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