There was once a perception that nature was somehow unspoiled and humans changed that. It was never really true, it was just an arbitrary naturalistic fallacy, but it caught on among environmentalists who began lobbying for a return to this historical ecosystem.

Actual conservation efforts have to be a little more practical - after all, if keeping things untouched is the goal, environmentalists would be voting for the Tea Party Republicans who kept the US government shut down. Since the president wouldn't let anyone into National Parks, the animals and plants were left alone.

On continents with vast natural parks, such as the USA and Africa, critics remain trapped in past policies that were never realistic, and argue that a realistic constructive conservation approach could weaken the protection of historic nature by, for instance, redirecting financial resources towards more active intervention and design of ecosystems.

Day gecko Phelsuma ornata with a blossom Gastonia mauritiana on the island of Mauritius. Credit: Christopher Kaiser-Bunbury

Not so, argue a team of Darmstadt and Zurich biologists. "Our framework combines strategies that were, until now, considered incompatible. Not only historic wildlands are worth protecting, but also designed cultural landscapes. Given the increased anthropogenic pressure on nature, we propose a multi-faceted approach to preserve biodiversity: to protect historic nature where ecologically viable; to actively create new, intensively managed ecosystems; to accept novel ecosystems as natural, wild landscapes; and to convert agricultural and other cultivated landscapes while generally maintaining land-use priorities." 

Agricultural landscapes "of little value" to environmentalists - but that is not true

New ecosystems may also include maize fields and banana plantations, as agricultural land can be used to preserve biodiversity. In fact, necessary measures are relatively easy to implement and comparatively inexpensive. In India, for example, native trees are planted in and adjacent to coffee plantations to attract native pollinator species, which increase the yield and quality of the coffee. In the USA similar strategies are applied to secure pollination services of almond and melon plantations and provide habitat for native biodiversity at the same time.

Trials in Europe involving hedges and meadow strips along fields have shown that many animal species use these areas for feeding and nesting. Such modifications also create corridors between habitats that are traditionally worth protecting. "The individual measures proposed here are not novel but what is needed is an overall concept that combines these measures on a landscape level. And this is something that has been tested on many oceanic islands – with considerable success."

The studies by the Darmstadt and Swiss biologists have shown that biodiversity conservation on regionally heterogeneous islands, such as Galapagos, Hawaii, Fiji or Seychelles, illustrates the successful implementation of such an integrated concept. On the Seychelles, for instance, the combined conservation measures include the strict protection of natural cloud forest on a few mountain tops, the management of abandoned cinnamon plantations, and green urban areas such as gardens. The recovery of threatened species and a halt to the decline of native biodiversity are indicators of the success of these conservation strategies.

"The examples from Seychelles mirror similar conservation efforts on many islands independent of their specific ecological problems. The lessons show that a mix of conservation strategies should thus be upscaled to the landscape level elsewhere to tackle biodiversity loss."

"Extinction is natural - some species cannot be saved"

An important rationale of the proposed conservation framework is to maximize the effective use of financial and natural resources.

"We must prioritize species and habitats for active management. There are numerous threatened species which cannot be saved from extinction. Instead we should focus our efforts on species that are important for the functioning of an ecosystem or evolutionary distinct. Those species of historic nature should be preserved with the most elaborate and costly management interventions to sustain viable populations – including ex situ management techniques in zoos or botanical gardens. We have to make use of what is left in nature, at the same time we need target our efforts."

In another study the ecologists aim to investigate how the concept developed on islands can bet intensively tested in different landscape settings, including on a larger scale on continents.