Introduction to Conservation Science | Big History Project

My name is Sanjayan. I’m a conservation scientist. I wasn’t born here;
I was born quite far away from this place actually,
in a little, little island in the middle of the Indian
Ocean called Sri Lanka. And when I was born,
my grandmother looked at my head and noticed a pattern
of swirling in my hair which you call cowlicks. You can see that on your head. And in Sri Lanka,
people read this like you read your palm. So she had my head read
and came back and told my family the bad news and that was
I was going to die by drowning. And as a kid, that’s kind of
devastating news to get because I lived
right on the ocean and I could not go in it. I was forbidden
to go in the water. Then when I was about
nine years old, my mother broke with convention and taught me how to swim. Her reasoning was,
if, you know, the kid is going
to die by drowning then I want to give this kid
a real fighting chance. In a lot of ways,
that’s exactly where we are in the conservation
movement today. And conservation science really
gives us a fighting chance. A fighting chance to survive
what we call the Age of Man, the Anthropocene. So we know we’re having
lots of impacts on the planet, lots of negative impacts
on the planet. The question is,
how do we survive it? How do we continue
to have a quality of life without exhausting
all the resources, without exhausting nature that we need and
depend on to survive? It’s conservation science
that helps us do that. Now, how do you become
a conservation scientist? Well, see, it turns out that
most conservation scientists come from biology. But for me, it was
a little bit different. See, my parents really
wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer. I’m Asian. That’s what your parents
push you to do. And I sort of studied
to do that but as I was studying
to do that, I was also taking classes
that I was really just good at. In turns out,
I was good at biology classes because I just liked wildlife. I’ve always been curious
about things that move and how the world works. And most kids are;
they’re curious about critters. And I had lots and lots
of animals growing up, from guinea pigs, and hamsters,
and parrots, and dogs, and cats to strange things like
fish in my bathtub, right? And I got fascinated by that. So I kept doing the things that
I really, really enjoy doing and that passion
eventually drove me to the point where
I had a PhD in that and I realized, “Wow,
someone could actually pay me to actually do
something with this.” So I just followed my passion. The good news is, as
a conservation scientist or an environmental scientist, you have lots and lots
of options for work. See, 20 years ago,
you’d pretty much work in academia,
so in the university or school, or for government, maybe
in the National Park Service as a ranger or as a scientist. But today, you can work
for a non-profit, like I work
for the Nature Conservancy which is a conservation
organization that cares about nature
and people, or you can go
and work for a company. See, it turns out
that if you were, say, Coca-Cola and you cared about
where your water comes from, Cola-Cola uses lots of water for all the Coke
that they make, obviously, you need to care about where
that river is coming from, where the water in that river
is coming from, or what kind of pollution
you’re putting back into your system. So, as a company
living on a planet with seven billion people,
you really do need to worry about the environment. And many conservation scientists and environment scientists today
also work for companies. So that’s the good news. So, what do we really do ultimately in conservation
science? You know, what’s the big
questions that we really wrestle with? Well, it turns out that really
the ultimate big question that we conservation
scientists wrestle with is about trade-offs. So, let’s say
you wanted to save rhinos. There’s only 3,500 black rhinos
left on the planet. People kill them
because they want their horns because a rhino horn is worth
$60,000 in some parts of Asia. So, how do you…
how do you save rhinos? Well, you could go about
with an armed guard. You could put a ranger
to follow the rhino around and keep poachers away. You could put all
the rhinos in the zoo and just breed them there. You could create
lots of habitat, create a big, big national park,
which is so far away and so remote that no one
could get to them or you can cut off rhino’s horns so that poachers
won’t be tempted to kill them. Or you can go and work
with the Asian markets and convince people
that rhino horns are nothing more than hair,
which is what they are, and they really have
no medicinal value. So, there’s a lot
of different ways in which you can go about
trying to save the rhino. Which is the best way, which
gives the rhino the best chance and which requires the least
amount of work from us, if you will? So, how do you value trade-off tends to be really what the work
that conservation scientists do. See, as a conservation
scientist, when I got into it, I thought my job was gonna be
all about saving big animals and save… you know,
working on tigers or elephants or rhinos
or sharks, but it turns out
that most of what I do is working on
how you manage people and that’s the neat part
about conservation science. It’s biology but it’s also
economics and sociology. So, it’s a combination
of those type of things and it’s about
evaluating trade-off to see what gives you
the best outcome. When a conservation scientist
looks in the future, I think the big challenge
that we have to face is that, where do we want nature
to ultimately look like? Do we want to recreate something
that was in the past or do we want to envision
something that’s out there into the future? So, are we looking backwards or are we looking forward
in terms of restoring say a forest or a field
or a marsh? The last thing I would say
about conservation science is that it’s something that everyone
can participate in, everyone can be a bit
of a citizen scientist. And doing that
really puts me out of my job and that’s wonderful
if people can do that. So, you don’t actually have
to go and become a conservation scientist
in order to participate in it. The ultimate question though
that all of us in conservation will struggle with
is what makes people happy, what makes people content? My proposition,
what I truly believe, is that if we live on a planet
with lots of nature and lots of wildlife, we will live better
and happier lives. Is that true?
I don’t know. What’s the evidence?

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