Sunday, 13 May 2012

Charles Rothschild: The banker who changed the world for good

A century ago one of the richest men of his day had a bold idea: to save species, we must save their homes. Michael McCarthy enjoys the results.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense; but the understanding took a long time coming. You can't preserve wild things unless you preserve their homes. If you take a butterfly like the sparklingly brilliant Adonis blue, for example, you have to have chalk or limestone grassland for it to survive, for that is where you will find its food plant, horseshoe vetch; if you take a bird like the Dartford warbler, you need a big patch of lowland heath, for it has learnt to specialise in catching the insects of heathland.

It's true that a few creatures are generalists, and can survive almost anywhere, but most have found their niche in specific biological circumstances, or habitats, as we now say; and without the habitat, you don't get the species, and that is a cast-iron rule. In fact, the leading cause of wildlife loss across the globe is habitat destruction; orang-utans are disappearing from much of their homeland in Indonesia not because they are being shot in great numbers, as they were in the 19th century, but because the rainforests where they live are being cut down and turned into oil-palm plantations.

It seems such a simple insight, in a way, but for centuries, nobody saw it, and even early conservationists didn't get the connection; the women who founded the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the 1890s just wanted to stop wild birds such as great crested grebes being killed for their feathers (used in women's hats), and to stop birds' eggs being collected; habitats were a closed book to them. It wasn't until 100 years ago next week, on 16 May 1912, that the idea that you needed to save places, if you wanted to save species, was suddenly brought into focus, by a remarkable man.

He was Charles Rothschild, a scion of what was then the richest family in the world. In the 19th century the Rothschild banking dynasty had achieved financial pre-eminence right across Europe. Charles's father Nathaniel, the first Lord Rothschild, was head of the English branch but his two sons, although they both followed him into the bank, were far more interested in natural history.

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