Whither the Western Grey Whales – will saving them save other wildlife?

This is part three of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.

This is the umbrella species argument. It’s not really about the whales, it’s the habitat, stupid! If you are going to adopt this argument, which again has a lot going for it, then you need to quantify in some ways the value of all the other wildlife that will be protected. Since we do not currently know where these Western Grey Whales breed, we are talking here about their feeding grounds off Russia’s Sakhalin Island. A quick online search didn’t turn up anything definitive on this (the grey whales feature prominently due to the press interest drummed up by campaigners). Clearly there is a lot of wildlife or and around Sakhalin but it is not clear how much of it is threatened by oil and gas extraction, nor how much would be protected as a result of safe-guarding the whales.

This is symptomatic of a wider problem in conservation: so-called charismatic flagship species may not always make for good umbrella species if the flagship species’ range does not actually accord closely with the distribution of rare or endangered species. E.g. grizzly bears can be content to live in peri-urban environments and raid dustbins. That all said, the multiplier effect of the umbrella species argument cuts a lot of ice with me, and, in my mind, beats the above two arguments for importance, although ultimately it also rests on the assumption that protecting biodiversity and pristine habitats is a good thing, which are same the principles that underpin those earlier moral arguments for conservation.

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