When you think of parks, most think back to their childhood adventures. Zooming down the slide, getting pushed so hard on the swing you could touch the sky and being envious of those kids that were strong and brave enough to swing across the monkey bars. However, national parks are on a much larger scale and are nature’s playground!
Americans made the first step in protecting areas of natural beauty by setting up Yellowstone National Park and passing it into law in 1872. Since then the National Park System has grown to protect over 450 areas of natural, historical and cultural value in the United States and this concept of protecting millions of acres of land has spread worldwide from the plains of Africa to the Great Barrier Reef.
Yellowstone covers over two million acres and is home to 76 species of mammals including bears, ungulates and wolves, 322 species of bird and 16 species of fish as well as over 1300 species of plants. Now that’s a lot of biodiversity! This beautiful, vast park draws over three million visits each year yet you can still walk the park as if there’s no other person in the world. One of the main conservation projects that occurred at Yellowstone was the reintroduction of the wolves. Over a century ago there were around 100,000 wolves wandering the western United States, however these numbers dramatically dropped when they became a pest to farmers. With wolves eliminated, populations of elk and deer rocketed, leading to overgrazing of vegetation and a decrease in smaller animal populations; which in turn affected many other aspects of the ecosystem. Finally in 1995 following 20 years of campaigning from ecologists, wolves were reintroduced with the relocation of 31 wolves from Canada to Yellowstone. Their population became quickly established and led to remedial effects on the ecosystem; reduced populations of elk and deer allowed regrowth of the vegetation, providing food for the smaller animals. This case study highlights the importance of national parks, demonstrating how easy it is to tip an ecosystem out of balance but also how it can be restored given careful management and protection.
In other areas of the world where conflicts arise, protecting national parks is a life risk. Virunga national park is located in the tropical forests of eastern Congo and is home to enormous amounts of biodiversity including the last remaining mountain gorillas. The park is protected by rangers that scout the area for poachers; 130 rangers have died protecting Virunga. Caretaker Andre Bauma spends his life caring for the mountain gorillas, particularly orphans who have lost their mothers to poaching. The protection of the park has become more dangerous due to British Oil Company SOCO pushing for entry into the park in search for oil. This devastating but also inspiring story is told in the Netflix documentary Virunga and I’d highly recommend giving it a watch!
But why is conservation so important? Why is it worth spending lots of government time, money and risking lives to protect? Part of the reason is that these areas are aesthetically magnificent and draw many visitors who seek to explore a different world. National parks become a tourist attraction, generating lots of revenue for local communities as well as giving back to the environment. We also learn a lot from studying the indigenous creatures, with findings often used to develop medicines and technology. An example of this is how biofluorescence (when an organism absorbs, transforms and re-emits light in a different colour), led to the development of fluorescent tags which has advanced studies into AIDS, cancer and Alzheimer's disease. Ecosystems provide many other services that are useful to humans. Pollinators are crucial in maintaining biodiversity but are also of great economic importance, having a global value of $27 billion per year. Biodiversity can also save lives; regulatory services such as mangroves have reduced deaths from cyclones and flooding by 69%. All components of biodiversity, from genetic diversity to the spatial arrangement of landscape units, may play a role in the long-term provision of ecosystem services.
People who depend on ecosystem services most are those in poverty; relying on nature for food, fuel, materials and protection. It’s the privileged who are causing the most upset to the ecosystem yet those in poverty are paying the price for these biodiversity losses, such as subsistence farmers and fisherman in the face of industrial agriculture and intensive fishing. This highlights how biodiversity preservation is a lot more than just to satisfy the curiosity of intellectuals and academics in privileged societies.
National parks and protected areas are key to sustaining the world’s biodiversity. As well as encouraging more areas of interest to be protected, awareness needs to be raised for those parks that are struggling and are under threat, such as Virunga. It is also important that everyone does their part to reduce resource use and lessen their carbon footprint in order to put less strain on the Earth, so exploiting areas of natural beauty isn’t even on the cards.