What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Conservation?


“We shall never achieve harmony with the land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.” – attributed to Aldo Leopold, Round River

Between 18 and 22 January 2017, I had the pleasure of participating in the Education Thematic Conference hosted by AIF in Kutch, Gujarat. (For more on that, see this post by the brilliant Denise Fernandes, titled “The Education Troopers.”) My posting with the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) is not directly related to education, but I chose to attend the Education Thematic Conference in order to expand my own understanding. The exposure has been one of the highlights of my Fellowship to date. Over the course of the conference, I worked with four of my amazing co-Fellows to develop a framework of lessons which may someday be field-tested by AIF through the Learning and Migration Program (LAMP). Our topic was “Conservation,” construed vaguely. Our objective was to think outside the silos that normally frame our thoughts and work.

Since my posting with SLC-IT is related to conservation, I entered the exercise confident that I had a good baseline understanding of the topic. As I have learned countless times over the past few months, there is always more to learn. My thoughts have been churning ever since. As you can see from a drawing of our “mind-map” made by my super-talented co-Fellow Avan Antia, the primary sub-topics we listed are familiar to any discussion of conservation: flora, fauna, land, water, energy, etc.

This is a dzo, a hybrid yak/cow, which are very common in Ladakh. They’re well-adapted to life in the high-altitude desert, but even they are prone to getting ice-whiskers when it’s really cold…apparently. Anyway, the existence of the dzo is under threat because their females (dzomos) do not produce as much milk as modern domestic breeds of cows. This is a domestic creature threatened by modern development, an element of culture that Ladakhis rightfully wish to conserve.

It seems obvious that we need to “conserve” such things. However, a few oddball suggestions were included as well: history, culture, and even disasters. What exactly did we mean when we said we wanted to conserve history and culture?

Truthfully, I’ve been a bit troubled by the whole exercise ever since. I’ve been asking myself: To what is the idea of conservation even opposed? What makes “conservation” a unique concept, and how does it inform our actions? If we were forced to set up a dichotomy between conservation and anything else, for the sake of understanding, what would we say? “Growth”? “Preservation”? “Development”? Is the idea of conservation even a useful one if it forces us to think in opposition to development (i.e. becoming different)? How should we think about conservation?

My gut tells me that conservation is one of those concepts that we do not question often enough. And while I’m passingly familiar with the long history of debate on this topic (at least in the United States – I know very little about the intellectual and legal tradition of conservation in India), I’m not certain I’ve personally been thinking about it correctly. This may sound strange coming from someone ostensibly working in the conservation sector, but I occasionally find myself wondering what we’re talking about when we talk about conservation.

My thoughts suggest that we often muddy the waters of conservation with ideas that are more aptly called “preservation” – the idea that there are certain things (land, historical sites, endangered species) that should be removed from general use by humanity – i.e.“set aside.” In the U.S. we have a legal category for certain tracts of land, some of them quite enormous, called “Wilderness Area.” Wilderness Areas are intended to be kept as free from human influence as possible. While they usually afford certain opportunities for recreation such as trekking and camping, the number of people allowed to visit them is usually limited by a permit system, and certain activities such as having campfires are strictly prohibited.

I’ve always had a conflicting personal relationship with Wilderness Areas. The fact is, they grew from an intellectual tradition that viewed humanity’s activities as inherently destructive. Thus from a romanticized view of “nature,” we Americans created a legal designation to preserve some of those areas we thought were particularly beautiful and worthy of being “set aside.” We legally enshrined our otherness from it. Of course, we also had the luxury of “setting aside” such places as the new nation was expanding westward. We conveniently forget that such “wilderness” had been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years previously. (There was truly no such thing as the “virgin” wilderness white settlers had been imagining – those forests and grasslands and deserts that they usurped had been tended by humans for centuries before they arrived.) “Wilderness” is a dubious concept indeed.

And unfortunately I see such ideas creeping into the idea of conservation – at least here in Ladakh. In my other posts, I’ve enjoyed pointing out that Ladakhis have been living on and manipulating their environments here in Ladakh for hundreds and hundreds of years. I’ve also pointed out that they found ways of doing so relatively innocuously – for example, by increasing biodiversity and encouraging nutrient retention in their agriculture and silviculture. Such practices were good for nature, and they were good for nature on nature’s own terms. Again without romanticizing those (incredibly difficult) ways of life, it would be wise of us to re-learn some of those lessons now, in the present day.

Is the idea of conserving wildlife and environments conceptually opposed to development? I suggest not, and I further believe that when it seems as though they are opposed, we may be thinking like preservationists as opposed to conservationists. I certainly hope I am correct in this, because if “becoming different” (i.e. development) is in opposition to the continued viability of non-domestic creatures, then wildlife is sure to lose. I do not mean to understate the case for legal protections, but it is my hope that societies the world over can find ways to live alongside wildlife as opposed to “setting it aside.” In finding ways to live more within the regenerative capacities of our environments, and by encouraging biodiversity in all we do, we will not only be securing “ecosystem services” for ourselves, we will be helping nature. I doubt we will ever achieve the utopian perfect balance, and I believe that kind of thinking is misleading, but we can surely do better than we are now.

One of my co-Fellows and I estimated that it would take roughly thirty-four million tennis balls to fill this reservoir. We may be wrong, but we’re probably in the right ball-park. (Get it?!)

The same lessons apply when thinking about conserving history and culture, for example. At the tail end of the Education Thematic Conference a few weeks ago, my groupmates and I had the thrilling opportunity to visit what is perhaps one of the oldest human settlements in the world – Dholavira, a Harappan settlement of the Indus Civilization. We used the opportunity to discuss “outside the box” ways of incorporating lessons on mathematics, geography, science, etc. into a lesson on history. (We estimated that it would take thirty-four million tennis balls to fill Dholavira’s eastern water reservoir, for example, using basic arithmetic and geometry. LAMP incorporates such innovative methods of learning into education throughout their program areas.)

However, one of my favorite lessons of the day was more personal: I loved visiting the site because it’s largely open to explore. With the exception of the 10-meter deep well in the main plaza, which was wisely fenced over, there were myriad tunnels and verandas to discover, in addition to the partially reconstructed Citadel in the center. I felt like a wide-eyed child, able to wander through this ancient site with little hindrance. My joy was heightened even more by the thoroughly-adult understanding that my feet were humbly trodding the same paths that Harappans had walked more than four thousand years earlier.

Over the past four millennia, I wonder how many silly twenty-somethings have stood on this spot, grinning like fools. I’m surely not the only one…right?

This, to me, illustrates the difference between preservation and conservation. If Dholavira was “conserved” as environmentalists often talk about conserving wildlife, when they actually mean “preserving” them, I would not have been able to explore the site as I did. I would have only been able to walk along fenced-in corridors, to view those things that interested me from afar. Instead, Dholavira is “conserved” in the way that I hope we will come to think of conservation in general. I was able to interact with those things that interested me, touching stones that were shaped by ancient hands and crawling through dim tunnels designed by ancient minds. The situation became real for me, and I learned far more than I would have otherwise. The idea is the same for both education and conservation: people will only care about something, and will only truly wish to conserve it, if they can form an emotive relationship to it through interaction. This is the most important lesson on conservation I have ever learned.


Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.

Leopold, Aldo. Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold. 1953. Ed. Luna Leopold. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Timothy is continuously impressed by India and its people. Its development challenges combined with its immense human potential make it a fascinating study. He is looking forward to being immersed in India's rich history and contemporary culture. He is proud to be counted among AIF's Fellows and is excited to contribute to the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust's valuable conservation efforts. He hopes to increase the market share of SLC-IT's Himalayan Homestays program, and generally increase its viability, sustainability, and visibility in the international context. He also aim to develop monitoring tools for the Conservancy's social programs. Prior to AIF, Timothy has done an internship in Sri Lanka, have had previous travels in India and recently graduated from Tulane University with a M.S. in Disaster Resilience.

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3 thoughts on “What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Conservation?

  1. This is an amazing introspective piece on the difference between ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’. As you have outlined beautiful the ‘Wilderness Areas’ in the USA, we have had similar issues in India that has come about through the colonial era and then adopted by the independent democratic government. As you have mentioned ‘to form an emotive relationship to it through interaction’, we have had numerous examples out here where indigenous populations who have had a distinctive relationship with the forests in terms of preservation have been displaced to ‘conserve’ these very sites leading me to question the sustainability of such conservation areas. Great job Tim

  2. Tim, you have done a great job of both recognizing the talents of other Fellows in your batch and pointing out how words/terms can play trick on our mental models and are in need of questioning at times. Thank you for such a thoughtful post. I look forward to more from you.

  3. Tim,

    This is an exquisitely articulated and thought-provoking piece… I love how you reconcile the sometimes conflicting notions of conservation and development, and how you tie in our Dholavira experiences to illustrate the (all-too-often glossed over) distinction between conservation and preservation. Thank you, as always, for making me think in new ways and challenging the tidy definitions that specialists in any field love to rely on. It was *such * a joy to share the Education conference experience with you, and equally wonderful to read your reflections on it after the fact.

    (Also I loved your ballpark pun! :D)

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