Mindful conservation – why we need a new respect for nature
'We should look at whales and dolphins as the indigenous people of the seas - and treat them accordingly.'
To succeed in our efforts to protect this planet and the species we share it with, we need a radical rethink of our approach to conservation. WDC Germany’s Fabian Ritter shares his vision of a new way of thinking about science, ourselves, and the world.
I travelled to La Gomera (Canary Islands) recently to run the first WDC whale watching adventure trip there, and I visited a place known to be a special ritual area for the indigenous people, the Guanches, who used to live on the island. It is said that the spirits of those people are still present in many places around La Gomera, including this one. To honour these beliefs - and the spirits - I placed a flower on a distinct rock that stood out to me, as a gift.
In the future, I see conservation respecting places, as well as species and habitats, in a new and holistic way – I call this ‘mindful conservation’.
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As a biologist, I am trained to believe that data is everything. I have collected data and published scientific articles for more than 25 years. But while scientific data certainly is important to underpin the need to protect landscapes, to create protected areas and to restore biodiversity, it’s just one aspect of how we can work towards safeguarding nature.
I often ask myself why the purely scientific-intellectual approach to marine conservation has had only limited success in recent decades. Without doubt, there are some great success stories in whale and dolphin conservation, but overall, the situation for many species and populations today is worse than ever before. The concept of ‘we need to know more’ - a credo of science - is often politically abused to postpone necessary conservation measures.
So, I came to the conclusion that to make our way towards more effective marine conservation, we need to dig deeper and find the root causes of our multiple global crises. We need to change the ‘narrative of separation’ - this concept that humans are disconnected from the rest of nature.
Whales and dolphins are seen as flagship species for marine conservation, while at the same time we cause them to suffer globally and often in extreme ways. There seems to be a great discrepancy between what we humans think about our fellow creatures in the sea and our claims to protect them.
We need different approaches to marine conservation and a holistic and conscious approach to protecting the ocean and its inhabitants. We need to embrace the fact that humans are an integral part of nature.
Traditionally, in marine conservation, we think about conservation as a numbers game - conserve a certain number of specimens of a species in a given area, and everything will be fine. But we need to consider whales and dolphins as sentient beings with a high degree of personality, social complexity, cognitive capabilities, self-awareness, population-specific behaviours, traditions and culture. A more holistic approach to marine conservation would include:
- Listening to traditional knowledge and indigenous wisdom, because local people often know local nature best
- Recognising whales and dolphins as our allies in the fight against the climate and biodiversity crises, as they fulfil a whole range of ecosystem functions.
- Respecting the sacredness of nature, by honouring places and landscapes and our relationships to them - this was my intention when I placed my gift on the rock on La Gomera
- Focussing on the personhood of each whale and dolphin and understanding that each individual plays a specific role within their community
- Emphasising the cultural identity of whale and dolphin communities. No population seems to be the same. There is a large amount of knowledge, learned behaviours, dialects, etc. which are transmitted culturally from one generation to the next.
WDC, M.E.E.R. (an organisation of which I am president), and others are spearheading a shift in focus, for example by focussing on the need to respect the rights of whales and dolphins and recognise their climate and biodiversity functions.
As humankind, we must rethink our behaviour in a profound way. Effective protection of whales, dolphins and their ocean and river homes will only be possible if we substantially change our values. Every one of us must ask ourselves what footprint our actions leave on the planet and how those can be minimised. Going even deeper, I believe questions like ‘what is really important in my life?’ or ‘what is my purpose here on Earth?’ can help us find direction, something that we are not trained to do.
We’re distracted from what really matters, from our deepest values such as freedom, equity, justice, understanding, self-care (not self-optimisation!), love and peace, and this has become dominant in our lives. It’s a direct consequence of a narrative that tells us to always strive for more, ask for better, become more effective, more functional and has led to a separation from ourselves, from the environment, and a disconnection from each other - as communities, nations, races, genders, scientific disciplines, you name it.
Growth, as understood by a capitalist system, means always more, bigger, faster. But physics, biology and ecology all tell us that everlasting growth is not possible within the given limits of this planet. Instead, we collectively need to cultivate qualitative and personal growth which will result in more appreciation of each other and expand our respect for nature.
Future conservation efforts will recognise that there is more – much more - than meets the eye. A fundamental change in the system we live in will be necessary to turn the tide. This might sound radical, but I believe that there are many signs of humankind already heading in a new direction. My idea of ‘mindful conservation’ is one such approach and might contribute to marine and whale and dolphin conservation reaching a new level.
In October 2022, my article Marine Mammal Conservation in the 21st Century: A Plea for a Paradigm Shift Towards Mindful Conservation was published in the scientific book series Advances in Marine Biology. I wrote this piece as the representative of M.E.E.R., a partner NGO of WDC based in Berlin where I am president and director of research.
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