Is there room for compassion in conservation?

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Double-crested Cormorant, many roosting (Salton Sea, Feb.)

Is there room for compassion in conservation?

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Is it ok to kill thousands of cormorants to save endangered salmon? In many conservation initiatives, the welfare of individual animals tends to be ignored on utilitarian grounds.  But do conservation practice and concern for animal welfare really need to be so polarised? Not according to proponents of the “compassionate conservation” movement, who call for empathy for individual animals to be factored into decision-making processes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to kill 11,000 double-breasted cormorants in Oregon’s Columbia River Estuary to keep them from preying on salmon and steelhead. Besides being commercially valuable, both fish species are classified as Endangered, and that’s what’s forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to act.

This lethal approach to conservation – where members species of one species are killed to save another – is commonplace.

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began shooting barred owls in efforts to save northern spotted owls. And from 2006 to 2011, a staggering 80,000 wild goats were killed on the Galapagos island of Isabela in efforts to save endangered tortoises.

Such scenarios can raise difficult ethical questions.  Why should individuals animals bear the burden of increasing pressures on our shared planet? When is it OK to kill one species to save another? Is there a point at which the benefit to a species or ecosystem is outweighed by the suffering inflicted on individual animals?

Ecosystem versus individual welfare

Environmental legislation, policy and practice is focussed on measures of species and ecosystem welfare, with little regard for the welfare of individual animals. This is strongly linked to social norms and language –  with terms such as pest, feral, and invasives used to label the “undesirables”.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than New Zealand. As recently featured in the New Yorker:

…on a per-capita basis, New Zealand may be the most nature-loving nation on the planet…But theirs is, to borrow E. O. Wilson’s term, a bloody, bloody biophilia. The sort of amateur naturalist who in Oregon or Oklahoma might track butterflies or band birds will, in Otorohanga, poison possums and crush the heads of hedgehogs…conservation (in NZ) is all about killing things.”

New Zealand has had some spectacular conservation wins – bringing birds such as the Kakapo, South Island Saddleback, Takahe, and Black Robin back from the brink of extinction (though many remain endangered).

Of course, these pest eradication efforts – New Zealand uses 80% of the world supply of 1080 poison – have resulted in the deaths of millions of possums, stoats, rats, foxes, and other animals.


Poster for the 2014 Picton Pestival, or Pest Eradication Festival. Prizes were offered for dead pests, including possums, rabbits, hedgehogs and rats. One local pub even offered beers in exchange for possum pelts!

Speaking in NSW Parliament in 2013 on Game and Feral animal control, Sydney MP Alex Greenwich stated that:

Introduced species do not feel less pain because they have been labelled pests.

However, in many conservation initiatives, the welfare of individual animals tends to be ignored on utilitarian grounds. Concern for animals who are killed or harmed gets lost in the mire of complex and competing values about human welfare, ecological health, and anthropomorphic bias. It may also be seen as an impediment to making decisions and taking action.

Negativity toward individual welfare has become entrenched because it has been viewed as an impediment to holistic decision making.

But do conservation practice and concern for animal welfare really need to be so polarised? Not according to proponents of the “compassionate conservation” movement.

Compassionate Conservation

Compassionate conservation is an emerging field that:

  • Seeks to build the welfare of individual animals into conservation practice
  • Urges scientists and land managers to ensure that the most humane research and control methods are employed to further conservation outcomes
  • Calls for decision-making processes to consider a plurality of values, including explicitly recognising individual animals

Proponents of the compassionate conservation approach include the U.K.’s Born Free Foundation, Professor Marc Bekoff from University of Colorado, and Sydney’s Centre for Compassionate Conservation, led by Dr Daniel Ramp.

A recent journal article by Ramp and Bekoff pointed out that:

Unlike the dominant utilitarian approach to conservation, which puts the cost of reaching conservation targets squarely on the shoulders of other animals, a compassionate ethic for conservation brings empathy into decisionmaking alongside other values.

Examples of compassionate conservation in action include employing Maremma Sheepdogs as guards to protect Little Penguins from foxes on Middle Island, Australia; and using non-lethal paintballs to deter baboon troops from urban areas in South Africa’s Cape Penninsula.

Evaluating trade-offs

But time is running out  many of the world’s threatened species.  To resolve conflicts that arise from sharing space on our now-crowded planet, trade-offs must be made between conservation and human well-being, and between species individual animal welfare.  Not all individual animals can be spared from suffering.

Compassionate conservation doesn’t refute this reality. Instead, it urges conservation practitioners to be more explicit about these trade-offs.

Compassionate conservation is challenging decisionmakers to have clear objectives where the lives of animals are affected. If interventions are necessary, the range of values of different stakeholders (human, nonhuman) should be articulated so that trade-offs may be transparently evaluated. (Ramp & Bekoff, 2015)

The challenge is for compassionate conservation field is to establish a practical frameworks (able to be implemented through on-ground activities) that accommodate the ethical and moral position of individual animals within conservation practice.

Feature image: Double-crested Cormorants. © John  C. Avise

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