Does Conservation Biology Suffer From a Lack of Compassion?

Compassion is a relevant and valid component of conservation to the extent that it does not override the ecological and social contexts of conservation.

In an essay published in the journal Conservation Biology last year, a group of conservation scientists led by Arian Wallach asserted that conservation generally overlooks animal ethics, and that it should “attend to the interests of individual sentient animals”.

The authors raise issue with the killing of certain invasive or predator species to promote the recovery of threatened native or prey populations, with sport hunting and commodification of wildlife, and with harm inflicted upon animals in captive breeding programmes.

They argue that wildlife management measures that subject animal, individuals or populations to such pain and suffering are unethical and immoral, and propose that conservation takes a more compassionate approach. The tenets of such an approach, they offer, are to do no harm, treat animals as sentient individuals, view all species and populations more inclusively, and peacefully coexist with them.

Wallach and colleagues provide examples of non-compassionate and compassionate conservation, and claim that while compassionate conservation is mutually beneficial, non-compassionate conservation measures are usually harmful. They go on to allege that some conservation measures such as control of alien and invasive species fail to outline, justify and fulfil their objectives, and do not monitor the control or recovery of species.

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The essay identifies the concepts of collectivism, instrumentalism and nativism as suppressors of compassion in conservation. According to the authors, collectivism is the tendency to prioritise ecosystems over species, species over populations and populations over individuals. Instrumentalism is the valuing of individuals or populations based on their role in achieving objectives (such as biocontrol, conservation, education, funding) and nativism is an ideology that legitimises violence based on normative ideas of pristine nature.

The essay has received some strong responses from conservation workers around the world. A pair of conservation scientists from Australia argue that the compassionate conservation approach advocates inaction towards biological invasions that often erode biodiversity, and that the welfare of surviving individuals spared by compassionate conservation may be compromised due to competition for limited resources, or degraded habitats.

Peaceful coexistence between all species is possible only if alien species do not drive the natives to extinction, argue some conservationists. Photo: Manjith Kainickara/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Another pair from the US point out that while compassionate conservation aims to minimise human-inflicted suffering, conservation decision-making is a nuanced process that needs to be addressed more explicitly and categorically by conservation workers. An international interdisciplinary group led by Meera Anna Oommen identify multiple drawbacks of the compassionate conservation framework – notably that it misrepresents the multidisciplinary nature of conservation interventions, its ignorance towards indigenous peoples, their cultures and their multi-layered contextual relationships with the wildlife they coexist with, and the anthropomorphising of animals and human-wildlife interactions.

Another group of diverse conservationists led by Matthew Hayward argue, among other things, that peaceful coexistence (a tenet of compassionate conservation) between all species is possible only if the alien species do not drive the natives to extinction, which is why invasive control is required.

The compassionate conservation ideology is hardly homogenous, with different authors believing in varying degrees of limits to animal individualism and suffering. However, the essay brings up some interesting questions that link to wider concerns about ethics and morals in conservation. For example, it raises valid concerns about the exposure of (human) children to violent invasive control through games, and the exploitation of animal social structures and behaviours to target larger populations for elimination.

Nevertheless, some of its arguments ironically allude to wider problems with traditional conservation, mainly a species-centric approach to wildlife management. For instance, the use of poison baits and single species culling are potential threats to the balance and integrity of entire ecosystems. The compassionate conservation appeal to narrow down consideration to individual animals defeats the systems thinking approach around which knowledge has been assimilated and effort has been invested in modern conservation.

Debate about the ideology includes blog posts and articulate comments, with parallels drawn between xenophobia and invasion biology. Much of it has understandably been centred on invasive alien species control, from which the ideology appears to have emerged. Although examples of arbitrary programmes exist, invasive alien control is more often than not based on sound evidence and monitoring protocol, overturning the authors’ claim otherwise.

Killing in invasive species control is driven by the desire to protect other threatened species or ecosystems. Photo: Nathan Rupert/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Further, Wallach and colleagues invoke the example of novel and resilient ecosystems to justify inclusivity towards introduced species, but they do not make distinctions between alien and invasive species, and the degrees of impact they may have on pristine, modified or degraded ecosystems. Invasive alien control efforts target species that have adverse effects on not only the biotic, but also the abiotic components of ecosystems, such as soil and water, and their functioning, which the essay does not address or acknowledge.

The essay’s reference to the alleged ‘militarising’ of alien invasive control warrants a mention of social justice in conservation, where Western ideologies of pristine nature have wreaked decades of violence on forest-dwellers and users. With this perspective, it becomes naïve to expect to extend human compassion to individual animals while we are still building a case for the ethical treatment of scores of our own fellow humans.

Conservation workers sometimes engage in larger ideological debates about the intrinsic value of nature, the importance of people in nature and the use of financial and market instruments in conservation.

For example, legalised use of sea turtle eggs and traditional and commercial hunting of large mammals can help maintain healthy populations of these animals and their habitats in coexistence with humans, reducing the need for conservation-related culling and enforcement. Some native communities have changed their traditional hunting to target invasive instead of endangered species, choosing to preserve populations of both species. The tenets of compassionate conservation appear to ignore this scheme of things in the attempt to place wildlife individuals above the ecosystems, communities and markets they interact with.

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The examples of violent conservation measures that the essay cites are predominantly of invasive species control, whereas those cited in relation to compassionate conservation are predominantly of human-(native) wildlife coexistence. Killing in invasive species control is driven by the desire to protect other threatened species or ecosystems, whereas killing in human-wildlife conflict is driven by the desire to protect human property. Consequently, the wildlife requiring conservation changes depending on context – a dynamic that is overlooked by the authors.

Another curious feature of the essay is its mammalian and avian focus. The case for compassionate conservation does not mention the violence against plants, insects, reptiles or amphibians, although much invasive alien control and human-wildlife conflict involve these living sentient beings.

In conclusion, Wallach and colleagues come from a place of concern about the violence against invasive mammalian predators in Australia, and reiterate the need for balanced conservation decisions based on scientific evidence and compassion. However, as Oommen and colleagues highlight, their call for compassionate conservation makes oversimplified, at times misinformed, and generalised statements and recommendations towards biodiversity conservation as a whole.

Compassion is a relevant and valid component of conservation to the extent that it does not override the ecological and social contexts of conservation.

Mallika Sardeshpande is a PhD candidate at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.