Sunday, 24 June 2018

Compassionate Conservation

While Invasion Biology (if it doesn’t come from here it doesn’t belong here) holds sway in much of the conservation world, the new kid in town is compassionate conservation. The keystone concepts of compassionate conservation are

--First, do no harm
--Individuals matter
--All wildlife has value
--Peaceful coexistence

Traditional conservation is ultimately about resource management, and that means people are continually making choices about how to “manage” and “control” the conservation estate. The [unproven] assumption that the elimination of introduced species will benefit native species leads to an inevitable death sentence for many undesirable animals. Sometimes populations of particular animals, even endemic ones like Australia’s kangaroos and dingoes, are considered too abundant in an area, and are thus ripe for culling.

But this raises a question. Should animal welfare be a significant part of conservation? While many people assume it is, the reality is different. Compassionate conservation comes  up and along with and part of our growing awareness of the sentience of animals, and the animal rights’ movement.

Sentience is the ability to experience negative and positive emotions such as affection and loyalty and fear, and respond to those emotions, and also to feel and respond to pain. Those of us who have pets have no doubt our “fur babies” experience emotions and react to pain. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate this beyond our household pets to include our livestock, and then, eventually, to animals in the wild. In New Zealand, animal sentience was written into law in 2015, but the law—curiously enough—only applies to “owned” animals—unowned animals (feral) apparently have no legal right to sentience.

It seems almost bizarre to me that animal sentience seems to have been questioned for so long. And yet the reason seems obvious: people like to use animals, and using them implies taking advantage of them, and sometimes--often--that means hurting them. Obviously, we eat many of them. We use them in research. We remove newborn calves from their mothers so we can process and drink the cows’ milk. We wage war on "pests". Many people enjoy the “sports” of hunting and fishing. If we acknowledge animal sentience, then there are some implicit moral and ethical dilemmas that come with these food, conservation, and lifestyle choices.

But back to “conservation”. The invasive biology model purports that to save endemic and vulnerable animals and plants, “pest” animals must be "managed" and that usually means killed. Our current methods for killing unwanted feral animals are fairly blunt and brutal. Poison is top of the pops in New Zealand (often applied aerial, as with 1080), and traps of various sorts are popular. Sometimes deadly viruses, like myxomatosis and calicivirus for rabbits, are released.  In both New Zealand and Australia, shooting is also common. In Australia, shot kangaroos (endemic, but not endangered--check out this documentary film trailer) are “harvested” for their skins and meat; in New Zealand possum shoots or hunts even become school fundraisers; sometimes the skins are harvested. Baby kangaroos and possums, like bobby calves in the dairy industry and male chicks, are nothing more than unwanted byproducts. Compassionate conservation, in contrast, has as its first tenant “First, do no harm”.

Traditional conservation is all about management and balancing numbers and resources. Individual animals don’t count, as long as there are more than a few hundred left. It’s all about “populations”. And while science and farming are generally about “bulk” numbers (statistics don’t work with one or two, you need whole populations for them to be valid), with compassionate conservation individuals DO count. The life of one tui, one possum, one skink, one deer…each of them matters, and no one more than the other.

A few questions to ponder on this theme:

Should animal welfare be a part of conservation?

Is it acceptable to kill animals in the name of conservation? How many animals is it acceptable to kill? 

Is it ethically justifiable to kill many common or "nuisance" animals in the hope of saving a few rare animals or plants?

Is the life of one kind of animal of more value than the life of another? If so, who makes the judgement call? (Compassionate conservation says no, ALL individuals matter.)

Given death by poison is slow and agonizing, and the use of traps followed by a bash on the head is little better, is killing animals by more “humane” methods acceptable?

If invasive species do threaten rare endemic species, is it okay to allow those vulnerable species to remain at risk of extinction?


If you have found this post of interest, you might also like
The Invasion Biology Movement in Conservation
A Brief History of the Conservation Movement
School Possum Hunt Fundraiser and Drowned Joeys

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The Invasion Biology Movement in Conservation

Common starling--a master invasive species. Photo
from New Zealand Birds Online
Invasion biology is the study of the introduction, infiltration, establishment, and control or elimination of non-native species in a given eco-system. It is a discipline that has come about primarily as a result of international trade and travel, which has increased the mixing of species worldwide. In many places, these biological “invaders” have raised concerns, particularly where agriculture and other industries find themselves threatened by the establishment of “alien” species, or where control of invasive species can, in and of itself, become an industry.

The science of invasion biology began in 1958 with the publication of Charles Sutherland Elton’s book The Ecology of Invasion by Animals and Plants. An animal ecologist and research fellow at Oxford University, Elton was given the task of finding ways to control the proliferation of rats and mice in stored grain during World War II. After the war, he continued his research into the connections between invasive/pest animals and human activity, and may also have been the first to suggest that invasive species might impact on native species and biodiversity in general, particularly when introduced into isolated habitats.

A “war” against invasive species was declared in the US in 1999 when an executive order “directed several federal agencies ‘to prevent the introduction of invasive species and provide for their control and to minimize the economic, ecological, and human health impacts that invasive species cause.’” (see here). 

Some invasive species are clearly destructive. One example is Dutch elm disease, caused by a fungus native to Asia where trees are naturally resistant to it. The disease, which is spread by bark beetles, first appeared in Europe in 1910, and over the next century spread to North America and New Zealand. By 1990, few mature elms were left in Europe or the UK, and vast swathes of North America’s elm forests had been destroyed. Today, disease-resistant elms are being bred, fungicides can be injected into infected trees, and a vaccine has been developed for injection into non-infected trees that seems to provide some protection against the fungus.

Other invasive species have been of benefit to nature and sometimes to man. Honey bees, for example, are native to Europe, but are “non-native invasives” in the Americas and in countries like Australia and New Zealand; much of our agricultural pollination and our honey industries depend upon them. Many “invasive” plants and non-native garden plants gone feral are enjoyed by native birds, providing valuable sources of food and shelter. The Japanese white eye, a small silver-eye-type bird, is an invasive bird species in Hawaii, but its introduction means several native plants are now being pollinated, something that became a problem after the indigenous birds that used to pollinate the flowers became extinct.

Some places have taken the invasion biology approach to conservation to heart. In New Zealand, much of the conservation movement is aimed at the removal of non-indigenous species in an attempt to recreate uninhabited areas that appear to present a more “nativist” landscape. Even in towns and cities, there is a strong drive to exterminate wild mammals (before Man arrived, New Zealand had no mammals other than bats), and many public parks and private gardens are planted predominately—sometimes exclusively—in native plants. The Department of Conservation has a long list of “weed” species under the [usually chemical] gun, and every Kiwi is deliberately  indoctrinated to believe that rats, stoats, possums, and feral cats are public enemy number one (two, three, four…). New Zealand has become a land of poisons and traps for unwary four-foots. It is a profitable industry. (For more on this, see my blog posts Predator Free New Zealand and How Belief About the Nature of Nature Impacts Conservation Decisions.)

One of the primary arguments presented by invasion biologist enthusiasts, especially in places like New Zealand, is that controlling or exterminating invasive species in an ecosystem helps improve biodiversity. See my previous post on biodiversity for a bit more on that issue.

Certainly, studying the effects invasive species have on an ecosystem and its inhabitants provides tremendous opportunities for understanding how ecosystems function. While much of the current movement is directed towards removing visible species identified as “pests,” I think much could be gained in simply observing what Nature does without human interference. It can be argued that Man, rather than Nature, is responsible for moving species out of their native habitats and into alien ecosystems, and therefore He has a responsibility to remedy those “mistakes”. Yet, once established in the new ecosystem, invasive species become a part of that system, and their removal results in yet more chaos for Nature to repair.

There is a lot we don’t know. We are just beginning to understand and appreciate the interconnections between individuals and species. In spite of Darwin’s theory that species thrive through competition and that only the fittest will survive, we are beginning to understand that many species have symbiotic relationships with other species, some species are surprisingly nurturing to others, and that when one thing is changed in a system, many things change.

Friday, 1 June 2018


The term “biodiversity” gets used a lot in modern conservation, though there seems to be some confusion as to what it actually means. Invasive biology proponents—those who believe that the invasive infiltration of non-indigenous species into an ecosystem inhibits the thrivability of indigenous ones—often assume “biodiversity” refers to just endemic populations in situ, something to be protected at all costs. In New Zealand, this is a big issue, and one of the key assumptions that is used to justify the “Predator Free New Zealand by 2050” movement.

Awesome Poster by Pedro Teixeira 
The Oxford dictionary defines biodiversity as “the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat, a high level of which is usually considered to be important and desirable.” There is nothing in this definition about a species being endemic.  And here’s why this matters: If a species exists, and perhaps even thrives, outside of its native natural habitat (and therefore might be considered an invasive species in another habitat), but it no longer thrives--or perhaps even exists--in its native habitat, is that a loss of biodiversity? If a plant or animal exists in a controlled environment but not in the wild, is that a loss of biodiversity? For more on this line of thinking, see my post on endangered species.

And while we’re on the subject of definitions, words like endemic and native are often wrongly used interchangeably, so just to clarify...  Endemic refers to an indigenous species found naturally nowhere else on the planet. Native species, by contrast, are species that naturally occur in a place, and they also occur elsewhere. In New Zealand, for example, the kiwi and the tui (birds) are endemic, while fantails and pukekos (birds) are natives.

Some numbers:  According to Wikipedia (they have a pretty decent article on biodiversity I think), 99.9% of all animals that have lived on this planet are extinct. The estimated current number of different species on earth ranges between 10 million and 1 trillion, of which a little over a million have been identified. Which means scientist haven’t really got a clue about how much biodiversity there really is on this planet. (I suspect the trillion figure may include micro-organisms.) 

The earth has undergone five mass extinctions that we know about, and it is generally accepted that we are undergoing a sixth mass extinction now, a human-generated catastrophe caused primarily by habitat destruction. The World Wildlife Fund estimates the annual number of extinctions as between 200 and 100,000, while the UN Environment Program estimates 150-200 species become extinct daily. Such diverse numbers suggest nobody really has a clue. It is estimated between 5000 and 10,000 new species are discovered/identified every year.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, acclimatisation societies sought to increase biodiversity by introducing non-native species into newly-colonized lands. These societies were popular in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. Numerous birds and game species were introduced by settlers to make their new homes feel a bit more like their old homes, for farming purposes, and to provide wild meat and fish for the table and hunting and fishing pleasures.

Today there is a strong movement to reverse many of these deliberate introductions ostensibly because of a concern that introduced species puts the survivability of indigenous species at risk, though the actual risk from introduced species may be fairly small.

Ultimately, most scientists agree that the greatest threat to the planet’s biodiversity is humanity. We decimate wild ecosystems and habitats with our forest clearings, and our agriculture, our seas of plastics, and our toxic chemicals that contaminate our lands and our waterways, our seas and our skies. One recent study in Germany documents an astounding 75% decline in insects biomass in Germany over the past 30 years. We tend to walk carelessly across the surface of our planet with hobnail boots and are headless of our tread.
Some of my other posts on the conservation theme: