Environmental non-profits are missing a critical piece of the wildlife conservation story


Environmental non-profits are missing a critical piece of the wildlife conservation story

Childhood visits to zoos and aquariums inspired my love of animals and desire to protect species and the wild places they call home. These institutions are where I first learned about conserving wildlife, restoring ecosystems and the actions I could take as an individual to reduce my environmental footprint. 

The conservation programs of my youth inspired me to change my behavior at home. I turned off the lights in my bedroom to save energy, made sure my parents separated the trash from the recycling and transitioned to a plant-based diet. 

My actions matured as I aged: I signed petitions that demanded companies adopt more sustainable practices, researched the details of political candidates’ environmental policy and pursued a degree in wildlife ecology. But there’s one important aspect to conservation that I never learned from conservation organizations, environmental non-profits or my institutions of higher education: how my personal reproductive choices impact the planet. 

That’s not to say that the future of the environment rests on any one person’s decision to have children, but learning about my individual impact helped me understand the importance of creating systemic change through policy and law. Improved access to healthcare and education helps ensure people only have children if and when they are ready. Today in the United States nearly 50% of pregnancies are unplanned. We have a long way to go in terms of making sure everyone has the necessary support they need to have autonomy over their reproductive decisions.

Human population growth and the pressure that growth puts on wildlife is the unspoken driving force behind more commonly cited environmental issues like pollution and habitat destruction. There is a growing amount of literature to support the fact that our current patterns of growth and consumption are unsustainable and harming endangered species and their habitats.

Conservation organizations are beginning to recognize this. A recent motion passed by the IUCN cites the importance of removing barriers to rights-based voluntary family planning for the conservation of nature. Reports from major organizations like the World Wildlife Fund point to human population growth as one of the major causes of the devastating species loss we’re experiencing. 

But it’s one thing to acknowledge this connection as a conservationist and non-profit employee, and another to educate the public. In my role as Population and Sustainability Organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity, I share messaging around population growth and consumption during adult-focused events in order to help the public understand the connection between population growth and habitat loss. 

At these events, I give out endangered species condoms, which feature colorful illustrations and punny phrases like, “Before it gets any hotter, remember the sea otter.” 

These condoms serve as a humorous conversation starter about how safe sex can save wildlife. Having one less child is the most impactful action a person can take to reduce their carbon footprint (it’s many times more effective at curbing pollution than those actions I took as a kid). 

Having safe sex is a fun, new conservation action that most people haven’t heard of before. While condoms may not work for all outreach settings, simply presenting information about the accelerating growth of the human population, like this video does, can open the public’s eyes. 

The other solutions to population growth are rights-based and include gender equity, the empowerment of women and girls and access to voluntary family planning resources.

And these solutions that promote human rights are also conservation compatible. Educating and empowering women and girls can improve reproductive freedom. That freedom enables them to be more involved in conservation efforts and work their way up to leadership positions. Notably, when empowered girls grow up to serve in leadership roles, we get better conservation outcomes at every level. This effect has been found in over 130 countries. 

Reframing population growth messaging around achieving positive outcomes like sustainable fertility rates and empowering women can make this an approachable conservation message for everyone. 

I’ve always loved and supported organizations that help us connect to the natural world. I appreciate their commitment to supporting wildlife, conserving wild places and educating their members about all the ways they can help. 

Promoting habitat conservation by talking about one of the biggest drivers of habitat loss — human population growth — should be a part of that. Organizations can deepen the relationship their members have with the planet by giving them the complete story on the actions they can take to help conserve the natural world. 

Sarah Baillie is a population and sustainability organizer with the Center for Biological Diversity.

If you're interested in sharing your story and guest blogging for NAAEE's Conservation and Behavior Change group, email us.


Great piece Sarah! I love that you are really addressing one of two fundamental issues in terms of wildlife conservation, that of human population numbers. And I appreciate the empowering message(s) used to make the issue more palatable for most audiences. When I was the state Wildlife Extension Biologist, I was always sure to mention that habitat loss was just a polite way of saying "too many people, using too many resources" so that I'd get at both the numbers problem as well as the consumption problem (obviously I worked in the USA). Thank you for your work and ideas on how we can be effective in furthering wildlife ocnservation!