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A Re-Evaluation Of The Role Of Ex Situ Conservation In The Face Of Climate Change

Volume 7 Number 1 - January 2010

Diana J Pritchard and Stuart R Harrop

Will conservationists need to change their approach as climate change limits our ability to conserve species in the wild?

In situ and ex situ conservation have been established as two distinct approaches to the protection of “wild” biodiversity with ex situ approaches relegated to a subsidiary position. In this article, we explore whether ex situ conservation should still be subordinated in this manner, particularly in view of climate change models which predict the extinction of species and drastic, rapid and chaotic shifts in the distribution of habitats and species across the globe.

The prevalence of in situ and ex situ as its complement

The in situ paradigm has predominated, and since the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio has been designated, expressly, as the legal and institutional priority. The regulations and policy generated at Rio emphasise the maintenance of ecosystems, habitats and component species in their home ranges. Thus the prevailing regulation, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), addresses a range of practices relating to in situ measures for conservation.

Other conventions also establish the prevalence of in situ conservation methods with some appreciation of the benefits of ex situ strategies. Thus CITES acknowledges that ex situ approaches in ranching can be a solution to avoid an outright trade ban on endangered species, although generally a CITES listing is designed to support in situ strategies. Similarly, global policies and strategies emphasise the role of in situ, and regard the use of ex situ methods as subsidiary. This is the case with the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation where the requirement is to: “employ in situ conservation measures as the primary approach for conservation, complementing them where necessary with ex situ measures”.

The in situ focus derives primarily from scientific considerations regarding the conservation and ecosystem benefits understood to accrue from the protection of integrated habitats and ecosystems. Yet, analysis of the process of negotiations leading up to the multilateral agreements defined at Rio reveals that the in situ focus was also key in addressing the concern of developing nations to end the extraction of biological resources which had typically occurred since colonial regimes.

Over the decades in situ conservation has been implemented widely through a variety of mechanisms such as protected areas, reserves, and integrated management approaches. The value of these being that they extend over the territories that correlate broadly to the ranges and distribution of threatened, vulnerable or endangered species and habitats. In the context of rapid climate change this fixed geographical approach may be their weakness.

Importantly, this in situ conservation work has been institutionalised through myriad public and private organisations and actors who operate at local, national and international levels. Large international organisations have become powerful implementers, and manifest the face of ‘corporate conservation’ which has characterised the science and practice of conservation in the late twentieth century (Adams, 2004). These have formed transnational networks of alliances which inform international conservation policy and facilitate the flow of funding, such as that available via the Global Environmental Facility, which has no focal area for ex situ activities.

Although ex situ strategies are dealt with expressly in the CBD in Article 9, they are unequivocally relegated to a support role as “complementing in-situ measures”. Article 9(c) states that countries are required to adopt ex situ measures to facilitate the rehabilitation of threatened species and the reintroduction of them into their natural habitats. This confines their significance to that of returning species to their habitual situ. Nonetheless, in recognition of relentless extinction rates, key elements of the international conservation community have since elevated the role of ex situ conservation.

“ex situ techniques must be adopted because in situ conservation will not always be sufficient to ensure the long-term existence of many species” IUCN

The implications of climate change for the in situ paradigm of conservation

Climatic conditions are now apparent which suggest the need to revise the prevalence assigned to in situ conservation strategies. In addition to the rapid extinction rates of species generated by direct anthropogenic causes (epitomised by Diamond’s 1989 evil quartet) we are faced with amassing evidence of the current impacts of climate change, and a view of the changes in the near future provided by sophisticated predictive modelling techniques. Some ecosystems are rapidly and demonstrably shifting, and even vanishing especially at the extreme polar areas. Although predictive models do not agree on the precise scope of these shifts in intermediate zones, they suggest that, without human intervention, fragile ecosystems may disappear altogether and some apparently robust ecosystem ranges are likely to shift geographical range and distribution (Bakkenes et al, 2002).

“The evil quartet: habitat destruction, over-exploitation, invasive alien species and chains of extinction” Diamond, 1989.

This means that any one particular area may soon experience very different meteorological conditions. Since the velocity of climatic and environmental change compromises their potential to evolve, the species components of corresponding ecosystems may face extinction unless they are able to adapt, disperse or migrate to other latitudes or altitudes. Studies on an array of taxa of fauna and flora show that individual species respond differently to environmental changes, that the range areas of species are shifting, and that those with specific habitat requirements and limited dispersal mechanisms are the most vulnerable to extinction (Hawkins et al, 2008). Given this, a number of protected areas may soon no longer harbour the species for which they were originally designated. Moreover, migration processes are jeopardised by ongoing habitat fragmentation (by the usual drivers of land use change) which inhibit the ability of species to re-colonise in new ranges, or even adjoining habitats. Given this, conservation strategies, predominated as they are on the management of habitats and species within specific geographical locations, will need to be reviewed.

Further reasons why ex situ conservation should have an increased role

Other factors converge to make a review of the role of ex situ conservation necessary. Primarily these comprise the advances made in recent decades by institutions (including botanical gardens, arboreta, gene banks, aquaria and zoos) involved in ex situ techniques relating to collection strategies, genetic assessment, gamete and zygote storage. These institutions have also increasingly responded to the need to expand from their traditional focus on acquiring horticultural and exotic animal collections, to demonstrate their contribution to conservation (Maunders and Byers, 2005). Studies now document their contributions and provide indicators to assess them.

Ex situ organisations have proliferated across the globe, and within countries. There has been an exponential rise in the use of ex situ facilities with half a million samples of plant genetic material stored in less than ten gene banks in the 1970’s, rising to more than 7.4 million samples stored in 1,750 gene banks in the present day (UN FAO, 2009). Some are developing the capacity through engaging with wider international policy agendas such as: development, food security, and community rights, whether or not motivated by the need to secure international donor support. Experience of international collaboration involving combining ex situ and in situ activities is also accumulating as exemplified by the new International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. This enhanced technical and organisational capacity constitutes a stronger base from which to advance the case for a greater role for ex situ conservation.

Moreover, since one of the key drivers in the CBD to temper the role of ex situ strategies was the need to halt the trend of expropriation of resources, it may be that the concerns in this respect are now largely satisfied. Many range countries have enacted strict access and benefit laws in line with the provisions of the CBD which on the face of it would make it very difficult for commercially stronger countries to continue expropriation of natural resources.

In addition, evidence points to the need to review some of the basic assumptions which have underpinned the in situ paradigm. In particular, in the same way that hunting and other extraction patterns exert selective pressure on targeted species, individual species respond differentially to climatic change. Thus, the underlying principle of in situ conservation, that ecosystem conservation ensures the protection of component biodiversity, is less compelling. The concept of ‘wilderness’ also holds a weaker grip since it is challenged by the documentation of the widespread impact of human activity on habitats across the globe and through time, including in places hitherto considered remote. The example iterated by Posey that many apparently pristine jungle surroundings were actually gardens created by humans over thousands of years, illustrates the point (Posey and Balee, 1989). This demonstrates that nature is not external to human beings and has anyway not been wild or pristine except perhaps at the poles.

“The fixed concept of ‘natural surroundings’ may be approaching meaningless for a number of species”


The current agendas of conservationists, and the conceptual bases informing them, may have to be modified as our understanding of the impact of climate change unfolds. If the conservation mission is to be coupled successfully, as it should be, with the pressing issues of wider global agendas including the need to secure food security, human health and even human survival, ex situ strategies can no longer be regarded as mere support mechanisms for in situ conservation but rather as a crucial means in themselves to fulfil a wider and integrated mission to preserve global biodiversity.

The adoption of alternate conservation options may, of course, meet some resistance. Insights from policy analysis of international development (Haas, 1997; Mosse, 2005) prepare us to anticipate how the interests of the networks of professionals and organisations working on in situ conservation become linked to the continuity of this paradigm. Through their involvement in the international structures of conservation, these ‘epistemic communities’ exert influence on the policy agendas of, and funding for, international conservation. Nonetheless, agents of conservation have proved adept during the last decade at modifying their approaches, and at trying to improve conservation practise (Adams, 2004).

It is also clear that it is necessary to diversify our own survival strategies by re-evaluating our established framework of thought on how to inhibit biodiversity loss. Necessarily, this will force a re-evaluation of accepted concepts such as the nature and meaning of what constitutes the “range” of a species. Such an analysis will require legislative changes. Within the CBD in situ conservation is defined in relation to wild species, by reference to their natural surroundings and this perspective pervades the concepts of in situ and ex situ strategies. As we have seen, this fixed concept may be approaching the meaningless for a number of species in that predictions describe a shifting of habitats in extension and distribution. A more fluid regulatory paradigm may need to be identified.

Ultimately, the challenge may force us to question more than mere regulatory definitions and institutional policies. With the recognition that populations decline or become extinct in their original ranges and habitats comes an heuristic challenge to the very concept of in situ. Reintroduction of species into the original home ranges will no longer be a desirable outcome of regeneration or captive breeding programmes. Therefore, a critical analysis of what, in some cases, have become sacred ecological cows may be required. This may well result in the distinction between concepts of ex and in situ conservation blurring to the point of disappearing altogether.


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Diana J Pritchard
Visiting Research Fellow
School of Global Studies
University of Sussex

Stuart R Harrop
Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE)
School of Anthropology and Conservation
Marlowe Building
University of Kent
Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NR