Promoting Predators As A Conservation Method
Successful conservation of species that are threatened or endangered can be a delicate balancing act. While there are many methods of conservation that work for different species in different contexts, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Many conservation programs work by protecting a species directly from human or environmental dangers while others involve killing “invasive” animals who might kill the conserved species. This has led to a belief, in some conservation circles, “that human-mediated killing can right human-caused disturbance” and we have seen policies developed in accordance with this view. Of course, this perspective is not shared by every conservationist, and some have looked to nature itself to guide conservation. Examining ecosystems and the structure of predator-prey relationships can guide us in more holistic and perhaps even “natural” ways to enact conservation policies without taking population control into our own hands.
This paper argues for a “3-tiered conservation ethic that encompasses the welfare of individuals, populations, and ecosystems … to guide decision making for improved conservation and animal welfare outcomes.” Their reasoning comes from reviewing other “killing conservation” programs where “evidence of low efficacy, insufficient monitoring, and deleterious unintended consequences” have been widespread. Apart from such practical considerations, the authors also object to killing conservation based on the “pernicious ethical questions” it raises: “harming sentient beings is a serious matter that cannot be justified solely on the basis of noble aims,” they say, while also stating emphatically that while “the costs to those individuals killed are certain, the benefits to populations and ecosystems are not.” In other words, we know that killing harms the individual animals that are killed, but we don’t know for sure that that killing helps the bigger picture. The authors also describe a range of human social costs associated with conservation killing.
How do we shift away from killing conservation to “promoting” predators in a natural fashion? The authors outline the theory of “trophic cascade” and the role of “apex predators” in regulating populations of their prey and “meso predators.” However, they note that “many apex predators are endangered, primarily due to persecution by humans” and we use lethal control methods to try to act as de facto apex predators. Simply put, this hasn’t worked. Based on examples from Australia, newly introduced animals have caused trophic cascades that led to extinction waves, and poisoning programs involving other species have been even worse. “The very method used to promote biodiversity has paradoxically driven its decline,” say the authors. However, there are also some “successes” and this paper outlines one particular story where sheepdogs were introduced to help reduce fox predation on little penguins on Middle Island, Australia. The program was so successful that more money is being invested in similar work.
What does this mean for wild animal advocates? Does this type of thinking go against another strain of thinking that looks at wild animal suffering more broadly and demands that we undertake more efforts to mitigate it? Some advocates would likely see a fine line between promoting predator species and promoting the killing of target species directly. But based on the case studies above, it seems as if there is a much clearer gap between the two techniques in terms of results. How can we encourage a shift from killing conservation to compassionate conservation? The authors make some initial suggestions and focus on the potential of landowners to resist killing programs in which they are asked to participate. “As a first step,” they say, the “testing of non-lethal approaches must be allowed” and one possibility is “the establishment of a predator-friendly network to support… landholders” who would face pressure from government and regulators. Overall, like many advocates, the study’s authors would like to see killing moved to “the bottom of the toolkit or removed altogether.”