From the complex social structure of elephant herds to the understanding that gorillas are susceptible to deadly “human” diseases to the impacts of climate change, conservationists are struggling to balance a suite of challenges unknown in past generations.

“We are running as fast as we can to keep up. It’s not our grandparents’ conservation anymore,” said Wildlife Conservation Society President and Chief Executive Officer Steven Sanderson. “I think what’s required is that we have a new imagination for conservation.”

Sanderson spoke about the future of conservation last week (Oct. 29) at the Geological Lecture Hall in a talk sponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society runs the famed Bronx Zoo and supports hundreds of scientists working in the field around the world.

Sanderson presented the audience with several vignettes of the society’s work and said there are reasons for both hope and concern about the future of wildlife on Earth.

Zoos, he said, can have a potentially beneficial impact for small animals such as frogs and other amphibians, which, if threatened by a potentially catastrophic event, such as the chytrid fungus that has been devastating amphibian populations, can be removed from the wild in large numbers, bred, and returned to the wild.

The situations of larger animals, such as polar bears, whose arctic hunting grounds are threatened by global-warming-related ice melt, present a much more difficult problem, Sanderson said. While zoos can certainly keep polar bears for educational purposes, there is little they can do to stop the arctic ice melt that is threatening the bears in the wild.

Sanderson said that as science has increased our understanding of animal behavior, it has also added to the complexity of conservation management. He used the example of elephants — whose sophisticated social structure is becoming increasingly apparent — as an example of a creature whose management has become more complex. One issue, he said, is that elephants seek areas away from humans, presenting problems for scenarios that have the two sharing the landscape.

“Elephants are smart animals, smart in a way that makes them avoid human populations. So finding a way for humans and elephants to [coexist] is tough,” Sanderson said. “Humans don’t treat elephants well, so they avoid them.”

Other issues affect herd management as well. The experience of older animals can be a critical factor for survival in tough times, Sanderson said, citing studies that have shown that elephants who’ve lived through previous droughts fare better in subsequent droughts. It’s important, he said, to keep that in mind when managing herds.

Similarly, Sanderson said the recent discovery of a large population of gorillas in the Congo is cause for encouragement — the discovery of 125,000 gorillas greatly increased the known population of the animals — and presents a host of new management challenges. The apes are in a swampy, inaccessible region that makes it difficult for managers and scientists to enter, but it is also in an area where the deadly ebola virus infects human populations. The disease is known to also infect gorillas, so it’s important to understand the health status of the population.

“Well through the 1980s, people pooh-poohed the idea that gorillas were dying of diseases in the central Congo,” Sanderson said.

It is also important to understand land use by humans, as logging is prevalent in the area. Because it provides needed revenue for local people, it’s unrealistic to think logging will simply cease, Sanderson said, but some areas can be set aside and, in others, steps can be taken, such as prohibitions on bush meat, to protect the animal populations.

Another recently uncovered wildlife bonanza was in the southern Sudan, where war has been raging for years. A large wetland and savannah in the region had been thought to have been cleared of wildlife by the region’s armed conflict, but a recent flyover revealed large numbers of wildlife, including giraffes, elephants, and oryx. The happy find presents significant management issues, both because of the region’s remoteness and because of the unstable political situation there. The problem now, Sanderson said, is what comes next. The government is unstable and the area is enormous. The Wildlife Conservation Society is working with local people to disarm them and educate them about the value of wildlife. Millions of dollars, Sanderson said, are available to create a conservation strategy that might include ecotourism.