What Is Conservation Really About?

By Michelle Nijhuis, author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction

Join Michelle at the Desert Museum on Saturday, November 13, from 3:00 – 4:30 p.m. for a brief reading from Beloved Beasts, a lively discussion with renowned field ecologist and conservationist Harry Greene, and a book signing. Books will be available for purchase.


In the mid-1990s, shortly after I graduated from college, I had the good fortune of working as a field assistant in Saguaro National Park. I was helping a team of University of Arizona researchers study the recovery of desert plants after wildfire, so I spent most days hiking across charred hillsides on the outskirts of Tucson, looking for hints of green. One late-summer afternoon, my boss promised me and my coworkers a diversion, and as we piled into a caravan of pickup trucks, he pointed toward the stack of monsoon clouds on the southern horizon.

The clouds were already fringed with rain, and as we neared them, they began to flicker with electricity. Water hit our windshield, first in heavy drops and then in sheets, soaking us as we rolled down our windows to feel the cool air and smell the petrichor.

Photo by Liz Kemp

We pulled over on a deserted two-lane road, and as we jumped out, we heard not only the rumble and roar of the storm but a penetrating chorus of croaks and groans. If you’ve lived in southern Arizona for any amount of time, you know what was happening: the rain had drawn the local toads out of their underground summer hideaways, and they were frantically breeding and feeding while they could. As our eyes adjusted and we started to explore, we saw dozens of them hopping on the wet pavement and gathered at the edges of puddles, some pairs already clasped in the mating embrace called amplexus. Though we were wet through, nobody complained. It was a joyous experience of abundance, however brief—an abundance of rain, and an abundance of toads.

In the years since, as I’ve researched and written about the history of conservation, I’m often reminded that protecting this kind of abundance is what conservation is really about. These days, conservation groups understandably focus our attention on scarcity—on charismatic, desperately endangered species like the northern white rhino, the vaquita, and the Amur leopard. There’s no question that we humans should respond to these emergencies, and go to great lengths to ensure that these species survive. But conservation isn’t only about preventing extinction. It’s not only about saving the species we love and admire. It’s about restoring all species to abundance, and protecting them while they’re still common—even those we might consider ugly, annoying, or dangerous. (I happen to think toads are captivating, but that’s just me.)

Conservation isn’t only about preventing extinction. It’s not only about saving the species we love and admire. It’s about restoring all species to abundance, and protecting them while they’re still common—even those we might consider ugly, annoying, or dangerous.

For millennia, people have been conserving the species they value for practical and spiritual reasons. The modern conservation movement, which began in North America and Europe in the late 1800s, began when a few hunters, bird lovers, naturalists and others realized that their industrializing societies were threatening species not only nearby but around the world. These conservationists began by working to protect charismatic species that were facing direct threats from commercial interests, such as the American plains bison that were decimated by hide hunters and the showy subtropical birds whose plumage was valued for fashionable hats.

During the decades that followed, as the science of ecology informed the movement, it became clear that it was important to protect all kinds of species, and all kinds of habitats, from both direct and indirect threats. Ecologists learned that each species plays a role in its ecosystem, shaping its habitat and maintaining the air, water, and soil that many species, including humans, need to survive. Some species—beavers, wolves, tiger sharks, and others—came to be called “keystone species” because their activities are so fundamental to the systems they live within.

Black-tailed prairie dogs are considered a keystone species in the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert region. Once abundant, they were extirpated (intentionally eradicated so as to become locally extinct) in Arizona in the mid-twentieth century.

But in the mid-twentieth century, as researchers began to understand just how many species worldwide faced extinction, the movement began to turn its attention toward these pressing cases, spending less time protecting plants and animals still numerous enough to contribute to their ecosystem. Only in recent decades has the movement begun to recall the importance of protecting abundant species, and in particular to understand the value of older kinds of land, water, and wildlife conservation—the Indigenous and other traditional practices that the movement has long ignored and disrupted. These methods of managing shared resources, when adapted to current conditions and supported by the conservation movement’s funding and reach, can help humans from all walks of life to live more sustainably alongside other species, protecting healthy populations and restoring others to abundance.

While very rare species must be protected by zoos or hard boundaries, abundant species live among us, and we live among them. As they hop, wing, lumber, and sneak into our daily lives, they can remind us that we, too, live within ecosystems, and have our own roles to play in their functioning. Ultimately, conservation is about protecting relationships—among species, between species, and between species and their habitats. By sharing our habitats, abundant species give us an opportunity to repair the relationship between other species and our own. And when it comes to conservation, those relationships might be the most powerful of all.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Alan Conrad says:

    I had the good fortune to spend a few days in the spring of 2010 and 2011 wandering about in Saguaro National Park. I long to go back, but your post here provided me with an invaluable visit. Do you know the dates of those wildfires?


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