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Protecting nature, preserving humanity: A Q&A with Robert Pringle

Posted by: 
Morgan Kelly
Publish Date: 
Friday, June 2, 2017 - 9:45am

Protected natural areas are the surest way to ensure the survival of the increasing number of plant and animal species that face habitat loss and extinction. Yet, worldwide many of these sanctuaries suffer from inadequate funding, maintenance, enforcement and public support.

Robert Pringle, a Princeton University assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, advocates in a June 1 perspective piece in the journal Nature for a global effort to upgrade and enlarge protected areas. He draws on the lessons learned from successful expansion, public engagement and rewilding campaigns in Costa Rica's Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) and Mozambique's Parque Nacional da Gorongosa. Pringle serves on the advisory boards of two NGOs — the Guanacaste Dry Forest Conservation Fund and the Gorongosa Project — that oversee conservation and human-development initiatives in these ecosystems, and he and his research group have done extensive work on the ecology of Gorongosa's wildlife-rich savannas.

In his piece, Pringle presents an eight-point plan for how to revitalize protected areas. Among the pillars of this approach are the need to save degraded habitat fragments, which can be used as "seeds" to grow new, larger and more intact ecosystems; to develop creative financial strategies to ensure fiscal self-reliance for wild places in perpetuity; and to engage society at all levels, especially young people dwelling near protected areas, in appreciating and experiencing the nature that thrives within well-managed protected areas.

In the Q&A below, Pringle discusses the need to defend and shore up protected areas, and how, if we forsake our remaining wild places, we risk losing the foundations of a healthy planet and the links to other living things that make us human.

Robert Pringle

Q: Ecologically speaking, how urgent is the need for protected areas now?

Pringle: The pressures today are the same pressures that existed 10,000 years ago when people were wiping out the mammoths, mastodons and other North American megafauna. That's the ultimate driving factor, and it hasn't changed — it's just that there are 7.5 billion of us now. We're on track to add another 4 billion people to an already crowded planet before the end of this century. That means we're going to have to farm harder, fish harder, burn more fuel and use more water. The small minority of non-human species that can persist in our cities, suburbs and crop fields will be okay. But if we want the survival of majestic, wild nature — and of charismatic species such as elephants, rhinos, tigers and wolves, and mahogany and rosewood trees — we need to designate space for them in the form of protected areas. The species that inspire us the most are the ones that are least likely to survive in the absence of an immediate global agreement that they should be allowed to survive.

Q: Are you optimistic that people will come to that conclusion?

Pringle: I am cautiously optimistic. People act out of self-interest, and we tend not to think too hard or too clearly about the future until it arrives. I don't imagine that we can alter that fundamentally self-regarding aspect of human nature. But I do believe that conserving biodiversity and wild places improves the human condition in many ways — and that environmental conservation can ultimately come about as a function of our self-regard. In fact, I don't think there's any other way. The very existence of protected areas is a testament to the fact that a lot of people and a lot of governments worldwide see it the same way I do. But obviously not everybody does, and the challenge is how to persuade them. We need to maximize the number of people who feel that wild things and wild places enhance their condition.

Q: How do we do that?

Pringle: People need to be able to experience protected areas and the biodiversity inside them. There are a ton of ways to use a wild area without destroying it, but the surest way to condemn a wild area is to prevent anybody from using it. A protected area survives by building a coalition of people who want to use it for their own reasons — hunters, fishers, birdwatchers, backpackers, mushroom pickers, meditators. Bug collectors, wildflower photographers, rock climbers. The outfitters who sell rifles and fishing rods, the park rangers who draw salaries, the village downstream that gets clean water and the farmers who get their crops pollinated for free by wild bees. And, of course, the politicians who can take credit for all of the above. That's not to say that all uses are appropriate in every time and place — figuring out how to juggle and balance all the uses and users so that they remain non-damaging is what we mean when we talk about "effective [environmental] management." Technology is a double-edged sword in all of this. Technology can enhance your experience of the wild and your ability to access it. But there's also a risk that we will burrow so deeply into our constructed digital worlds that we lose sight of how nourishing nature can be. By the time we snap out of it, it may be too late.

Robert Pringle 2

Q: Your article talks a lot about conservation in some of the world's poorest countries. How can developing countries balance conservation with growth?

Pringle: There's this undercurrent in the discussion about conservation and development that rural subsistence farmers can't muster any aesthetic or intellectual appreciation of wild biodiversity because they're too preoccupied with putting food on the table. To a certain extent, that's obviously true — it's hard to appreciate anything when you're hungry. But I think it's really important to not underestimate the capacity of all people everywhere to appreciate the biota. That is what we need to tap into.

Q: What makes up the gap between the will to establish a protected area and the inclination to make sure it actually works?

Pringle: Politically and economically, there are always competing agendas. People don't want to pay for things if they can avoid it, and politicians think on very short timescales. The U.S. National Park Service is overwhelmingly popular — it has a 75 percent approval rating, which is ahead of the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Homeland Security. But it also has a $12 billion backlog for deferred maintenance because it's hard to ask people to pay more in taxes. People like the idea of national parks, but they also like the idea of not getting sick, and they also like the idea of being safe from terrorism. When push comes to shove, people are going to pay for the things that they perceive to be giving them a return on their investment. In my article, I talk about how protected areas need to pay their opportunity costs and justify their existence to their constituencies. What I mean is that they need to provide services, and they need to market those services. National parks cannot just sit to one side and expect to survive on popularity alone — they need to make themselves useful, and they need to be used in as many different, non-damaging ways as possible.

Q: Why do you present ACG and Gorongosa as successful models?

Pringle: What has drawn me to these two places, besides their natural beauty, is that they embody this ideal of survival through non-damaging use. Both places are administered by people who understand that a protected area survives only at the pleasure of the populace, and they invest an immense amount of ingenuity and resources into negotiating that contract with society. There is no illusion that you can save a wild area by deploying rangers with guns and badges to keep people out. You need to do the opposite of that — you need to welcome people in. The attitude at these two parks is, "We need a place at society's negotiating table," and there's a recognition that if you negotiate well enough, you might even be able to grow. It's an optimistic mindset, and a creative one — we're not just saving the scraps, we are literally growing wild ecosystems from the scraps. And that to me is far more compelling than the more conventional conservationist mindset of battening down the hatches and throwing up more and more fortifications.

The perspective piece, "Upgrading protected areas to conserve wild biodiversity," was published June 1 by the journal Nature. The work related to this article is supported by the National Science Foundation (grant nos. DEB-1355122 and DEB-1457697); the Princeton Environmental Institute; Princeton's Dean for Research Innovation Fund for New Ideas in the Natural Sciences; and the Gorongosa Project.