05/05/2014 02:34 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2014

Why Conservation Is a Dangerous Business

As Executive Director of the Arcus Foundation, I have the distinct privilege of meeting extraordinary leaders and organizations on the frontlines for change. This past week, I spent time at Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park learning firsthand from park rangers and our grantees about their conservation work. The park is one of the few havens for the endangered mountain gorilla, among other animals, and I had the chance to observe these stunning creatures up close in their natural surroundings. To see these gorillas eat and play in peace only several feet away from where I was crouched in the brush was just one more affirmation of why our foundation supports ape conservation.

Yet not too far from where we were lies another park confronted with an uncertain future. Virunga National Park, Africa's oldest national park, is located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The park is home to half of the world's estimated 800 remaining and highly endangered mountain gorillas.

It was only a couple weeks ago that Emmanuel de Mérode, Director of Virunga National Park, was gunned down with AK-47 guns by unidentified would-be assassins. De Mérode, has for years led a fearless team of rangers in facing down armed rebels, violent poachers and outside corporate interests who have threatened this park, which is treasured by the Congolese people, protected by Congolese law and designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. From his hospital bed, the undaunted Belgian has vowed to fight on to protect the park despite the obvious threat to his own safety.

And then there are the 140 Congolese rangers killed in the line of duty protecting their beloved park over the last decade. The violence toward Africans on the front line of conservation is epidemic. Working for wages that place them barely above the poverty line, these brave souls put their lives at risk on every patrol -- and of course when they pay the highest price for their valor, their sacrifices are less noticed and less noted than when prominent Westerners are the targets.

The violence on conservationists is longstanding. Nearly three decades ago, renowned conservationist Dian Fossey was not as lucky as de Mérode. Long targeted by poachers who saw her as the only thing standing between them and the mountain gorillas, Fossey -- an American -- was murdered in 1985 under suspicious circumstances. Her killers have never been apprehended.

The stories of the rangers and of de Mérode and Fossey remind us of a basic fact: Conservation can be a deadly business.

In the West, we picture conservationists as heroes protecting fuzzy pandas and cuddly chimps. But in the countries where they work, conservationists are often just an obstacle to be overcome by poachers seeking baby gorillas or elephant ivory to sell, or industrialists seeking oil to extract, or loggers seeking valuable timber to cut down. When you're the last thing between greedy people and the chance to make big money, you're in a very dangerous place indeed.

Our failure as a global society to rise to the imperative of conservation is not only destroying the planet, it is killing people.

Humans around the globe are silent partners in this deadly game. More and more of us live in cities where we come to live indifferent to nature and non-human life. (Ironically, burgeoning cites in China seeking to establish zoos are driving demand for endangered species.) How hard can it be to connect the dots between our consumption and its impact on the planet and on people? After all, whose cars run on the petrol extracted from once-pristine habitats? Whose floors are covered in exotic hardwoods chopped down from virgin forests? Who provides the incentive to remove the conservationists -- often by any means necessary -- who resist the destruction of nature for profit? We do.

If we truly want this epidemic of violence to stop, we need to act. We need to aggressively prosecute those who sell and buy endangered species or the items derived from their murder, like ivory. We need to invest in the capacity of local authorities -- like those in Virunga -- to protect these irreplaceable habitats. Most of all, we need to start thinking about our own consumption patterns, to reduce our own greedy consumption of resources, to start asking how the things we consume were attained, and to pressure corporations to source materials in both ethical and environmentally sustainable ways. Until we do, the blood of the martyrs of the conservation movement will be on our hands as much as it is of those who pull the trigger.

Conservation is indeed a dangerous business, and will stay that way as long as we provide an incentive for those driven by greed to eliminate those who stand in their way.