students on a field trip to a sandy intertidal area

There are many different reasons why people choose to put in a lot of time and effort and often, unfortunately, a lot of heartache into conservation projects. Although many ardent conservationists have there own personal motivations, the reasons most commonly given for their concern and hard work are:
  1. To protect particularly beautiful, endangered, rare or otherwise "special" species;
  2. To conserve "biodiversity"; or
  3. To conserve rapidly dwindling vestiges of natural habitats.
Unfortunately, these reasons, although well meaning, are fraught with problems. We often do not know which species are rare or endangered. Most people, including many professional scientists, are only really aware of very common or large species - often called the "charismatic megafauna". The status of the hundreds of thousands of small invertebrates in Australia, the snails and slugs of the forest floor, beetles and bugs of the forest canopies, worms, brittlestars and crabs on the seashore, is little understood.

Any discussion of "biodiversity" soon reveals that it is almost impossible to define what it is, let alone how it should be conserved! Many species contain different subspecies, races or groups with different genetic make-up. This is all part of biological diversity - "biodiversity" - so how much of it should or, indeed, can we protect?

Protection of habitats has to be done in a world in which people are having and will continue to have a major influence. The idea of natural habitats - untouched by human hand - however attractive it may seem, is unlikely to be realistic in future. There are few, if any, parts of Australia that have not been influenced by the introduction of feral animals and plants or other human activity. The impacts of all our activities are not yet understood for any habitat.

Nevertheless, whatever our motives for wishing to be involved in conservation of our natural world, it is certainly in need of care and protection. This is a task in which everyone can help - scientists and non-scientists, young and old alike. The environment is here for everyone and we all have a stake in its well-being. We are, indeed, an integral part of it. But in order to look after it most efficiently and successfully, we need to understand the habitats we are concerned about and the animals and plants that live in them. We need to know about their ecology.

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Centre for Research on Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cities