01/30/2013 04:21 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

The Conservation Crisis Is a Spiritual Crisis

News headlines point to the natural world diminishing by the minute. For example, last year, 668 rhinos were lost to poaching in South Africa. Tropical rain forests, a habitat that covers only 5 percent of the land area but holds more than 50 percent of all species on Earth, are being cut down at an alarming rate. Two years ago we learned that there may be as few as 3,200 tigers left in the wild, far fewer than the numbers of tigers in private hands in the state of Texas. Taken together, biologists assert that we are entering the sixth great extinction spasm in the history of our planet.

Only this conservation crisis is different in one major way: It is the only one of the five previous events that has been attributed to humans. Some economists argue that only until much of the developing world is more secure financially will we see an end to the crisis, when once-poor nations can afford conservation. Yet, if we look closely at the three countries widely regarded as the most advanced globally in their conservation efforts -- Namibia, Nepal, and Bhutan -- all among the poorest of nations, we can trace a different, more hopeful story. More than half of Namibia is now covered by communal conservancies or national parks; 38 percent of Nepal is covered by parks, reserves, or co-managed conservation areas; in Bhutan, 50 percent of the country in under parks or corridors linking them and the country maintains in its constitution the commitment to keeping 60 percent of the country under forest cover. And looking more closely at ourselves, we can also see a way out. There is ample evidence that the conservation crisis going on in the rest of the world is actually a spiritual crisis in disguise. WWF's mission is to create a world in which people live in greater harmony with nature -- this starts with learning how to value nature and rare species based on humility and compassion.

Our species is still evolving and our cultural evolution is in its adolescence. After all, only 10,000 years ago, a blink of an eye in evolutionary history, we made the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists and to industrialists only 150 years ago. But evolution never stops and perhaps ahead of us is a prominent marker in our own development or cultural evolution: the point when we truly value nature's diversity I suggest, by conserving the rare creatures around us, like rhinos, tigers, and mountain gorillas. Developing our gift for compassion is a critical contribution to the persistence of these rarities.

Compassion alone of course will not do the trick. It didn't work for flightless rails or ducks against invading rats in Hawaii, nor will it work for saving many other of nature's rarities that are the targets of well-organized poaching rings. Economic incentives for conservation, superb science, and improved governance for everything from a climate change treaty to enforcement of anti-poaching laws are critical parts of the solution. The fate of rarities is not only in the hands of impoverished villagers but also in the hands of those in political palaces and the boardrooms of multinational corporations who should take seriously the conservation of rare creatures and habitats and act on its behalf with far-reaching effect.

The challenge ahead for us in preserving rarities is to link the science-based approach that focuses on populations rather than individuals and the animal-welfare philosophy that gives ethical value to individual dogs and cats and horses and their wellbeing. There is ample evidence to hope for such a grand merger of science-based thinking and compassionate connection to wildlife. The combined scientific and compassionate response is already taking root. In November 2010, at The Global Tiger Summit, attended by heads-of-state of the tiger range countries, the first ever for a wild species, leaders committed to giving this this rare carnivore a second chance -- by vowing to double the wild tiger population by 2022. In 2012, new legislation was passed in several countries to stop the senseless finning of sharks, another top predator now made rare by senseless slaughter, whose demise has altered the regulation of marine systems.

A marriage of science, political will, and compassion in the rich countries as well as the poor could embrace not only empathy for animals, but also our ability to conduct and understand science and to appreciate fully the wonderful beauty of rare animals and old-growth forests, the complexity of life. As we enter the early 21st century, we must hope that humans are finally able to reach accommodation with uncommon nature, and dare we hope, for a celebration of rarities.