Posts Tagged ‘moral case for conservation’

On the horn of a dilemma

A few years ago a report by TRAFFIC entitled Rhino Horn Stockpile Management: Minimum standards and best practices from east and southern Africa was a strong contender for the most ridiculous book title that year. The oxymoron seemed obvious. With the South African government now considering legalising the trade in farmed rhino horn that conclusion is rather less clear cut.

“According to a study supporting the South African proposal, existing ‘demand’ could be met by moving 2000 adult rhinoceros – 10% of the wild population – to fenced enclosures covering a total of 400,000 ha. These a poor animals would then have their horns ‘humanely’ removed once every two years over their lifespan of 35 to 50 years.”

That is Paula Kahumbu writing in the Guardian. However she is opposed. She goes on to argue:

“But in reality there is no way that the supply from farmed rhino could come remotely close to meeting the demand, which is growing exponentially as consumers in the principal markets in Southeast Asia become richer.”

This seems something of a non sequitur: yes if demand does continue to rise exponentially and farmed stocks do not increase then clearly this solution will not suffice. But when protected from the threats of living wild and given proper veterinary care then animal populations can also increase exponentially. (Although it should be noted that rhinos breed quite slowly, so that exponential growth might not be of the most impressive sort. But with another 90% of the population still in the wild, early short falls could be met by moving more of the wild population on to farms.) Conversely the potential for market demand to continue increasing exponentially rather depends on how much unmet latent demand there is, and how that might react to a rare ‘status symbol’ luxury good becoming that comparatively common place.

However, instead of focusing on the economics, Paula’s article focuses on the emotional, with distressing tales of the fate of poached rhinos. Her biases are clear in the above description of farmed rhinos as ‘’poor animals”. She should check out Gerald Durrell’s defence of zoos* in relation to the Hobbesian reality to life in the jungle (or savannah). And why is it ok to farm cattle and chickens (and ostriches and kangaroos these days), but not rhinos? (Especially since de-horning is rather less fatal than a trip to the abattoir!) This seems to be drifting dangerously close to much debunked Victorian romantic notions of the noble savage.

Of course, I am with Paula in my abhorrence for poaching and a preference for rhinos to live free. But if the choice is between extinction and managed trade then such principles do not get us very far. There are far better arguments against farming rhino horn in the lessons learned from attempting legal trade in ivory a few years ago (it provided plausible cover for poached ivory and undermined moral arguments against the use of ivory amongst consumers). It is also unclear whether farmed rhino horn would have the same cachet as wild stuff: economic conditions need to be right for farming to work.

I suspect some conservationists do not like to engage with such arguments because they fear that in doing so they concede the point that this is a question of economics, when for them it is a moral issue. However, we are a long way from global consensus at present, and the ‘enlightened’ minority for the most part recognise the limits to which they are prepared to impose their morals on others. And while I can happily agree that maiming rhinos is clearly immoral, such moral arguments have fuzzy enough philosophical edges (especially for meat eaters) that our pleas for a more moral approach may cut little ice with those who see the world differently.

So I think we need this debate. As with the War on Drugs, strictly prohibitionist approaches to poaching and the illegal trade in animal parts seems to be getting us nowhere. Populations continue to decline, and species are ending up extinct. Whether the South African plan could ever work is another question.

* In one of his books. Alas I cannot recall which one, and for once the interwebs have let me down.

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The parable of the huntress and the trolls

huntress-and-prey

A modern day Artemis runs into a spot of bother

Bamm! And as quick as that it was all over for the lion. It was only just getting started for the self-proclaimed “huntress” though, as the hunter became the hunted.

Honestly, I tried to ignore this storm in a teacup when it hit my news feed. I mean on what basis was it not a dog-bites-man kind of story? The only discernible reason was that our animal-hating anti-heroine was made even more obnoxious by the triple sins of being American, a woman and kind-of-attractive in that rugged American way that makes some men nervous. Shame on her! But all that ridiculous out-pouring of misogyny is much better dismissed here.

However, there was another kind of hypocrisy also being practised. Quite simply were it not for people like Melissa Bachman, that lion she shot may never had a chance to live in the first place. Though I would hate to pull the trigger myself, and doubt I would particularly enjoy Ms Bachman’s company, the high license fees paid by big game hunters are an extremely effective and pragmatic conservation solution in southern Africa. Given that market-based solutions are usually much cheaper than the alternatives, I hope all those armchair critics are prepared to open up their wallets in a big way if they want to ban such trophy hunting for the sake of the lions. I also hope they are life long vegetarians.

Not true? Well maybe best you shove that supercilious moral superiority away where it belongs with the misogyny.

Update 22/11/13: So upon reflection, the temptation of a nice turn of phrase may have gotten the better of me there, and some readers may be forgiven for pondering whether “that supercilious moral superiority” might not also apply to a certain blogger. In which case I would have to plead “Fair cop!” Sometimes the immediacy of blogging gets the better of one. But there we go. This post has already been read by over 100 people, so it’s a bit late to take those words back. At least all those internet trolls out there should be used to the abuse: if you dish it out then you should be prepared to cop some in return.

Killing cuddly animals update

A quick follow-up to my post at the beginning of the year over the controversy surrounding the proposal to ban the hunting of polar bears. It appears that scientific sense and respect for indigenous cultures have prevailed over blind love for cute (on TV) animals: CITES have refused to pass a ban on hunting polar bears. My heart still weeps for the polar bears’ fate, but if we want to change that, then we need to tackle global climate change. Anything else is just a distraction; a chance to feel good whilst accomplishing nothing of lasting benefit.

No killing cuddly animals (even if they’re not cuddly)!

Polar bears made, I suppose, an appropriately seasonal topic for this article on the BBC news website that appeared on Christmas Day. Except that the contents were actually pretty grisly and touched upon a central tension of the conservation movement.

At question was what is driving polar bears to extinction. Is it climate change, hunting or both. WWF claim the main driver is climate change. The Humane Society say it is a combination, and that hunting will deliver the coup de grâce. They may be technically right, but, without, I confess, having actually examined the science, I would be inclined to trust WWF, IUCN and Traffic, when they suggest that hunting is little more than a side show and that climate change will likely cause the extinction of polar bears in the wild regardless of hunting pressure.

Quite apart from the likelihood that the big guns have got their science right, my suspicion is aroused by the name of the disputants. If the Humane Society are concerned that the hunting of polar bears is inhumane they should say so, and preferably put it in context by comparing it with, say, the trauma that livestock experience at a typical abattoir. But when they start arguing the toss over biodiversity losses with the experts you have to wonder at their motivation.

Mike Shanahan touched upon the same problem in his confession that he once ate shark fin soup. We are back at the same question of “What is conservation for?” that I tackled in my series last year on the Sakhalin whales.

I suppose in some ways it is a good thing that urbanites consciences should these days extend to the killing of animals previously seen as dangerous predators. But there surely is a limit to this inter-species empathy; I bet few such urbanites would hesitate to call a pest control company if they experienced a sudden rat infestation. And the romantic fantasising about the fierce world of the top predator is as nonsensical as the Victorian myth of the noble savage. We should respect other cultures and other species regardless of their apparent nobility or lack thereof.

The fact is that we find the lives of these charismatic species inspiring. The soaring flight of an eagle will always have considerably more emotive power than the domestic fluttering of a sparrow (unless there are chicks involved). Moreover these emotive connections are what first drew all of us in; nobody was inspired to be a conservationist by biodiversity loss statistics. So we should harness these stories.

But conservation policy and practice is best if it is science-driven. What good is saving a polar bear from a hunter’s bullet only for it to die of starvation as its arctic habitat disappears? The bullet might be the kinder way to go; something the Humane Society might wish to reflect upon.

I still (probably naively) harbour hope that humanity will get its act together to stave off catastrophic climate change, and thereby save the polar bears and many other species from extinction. A ban on hunting polar bears would be the equivalent of worrying about whether you made the bed while the house burns down.

So what, finally, about those Western Grey Whales?

This is the conclusion to the series I have run recently on the fate of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin, and whether or not we should care about them. This was all prompted by an article by Richard Black on some esoteric arguments about whether some of the Sakhalin whales may actually be temporary visitors from the much larger population of Grey Whales in the Eastern Pacific, and the implications this discovery has for how they may be treated from a conservation perspective.

Such, apparently unexpected outcomes of conservation analysis and regulation are not as rare as one might expect. Global warming is shifting species ranges across national borders. When this first happens the new arrivals instantly become a rare species in their new country, and may be afforded all sorts of protections (and thus constraining businesses) as a result. Viewed globally this is nonsense since the vast majority of the population is elsewhere; so long as it is not globally endangered then there is no real reason to grant it extra protection in a country it has not historically called home.

So how did we get here? We start from a basic moral argument for conservation that is usually rooted in a love for nature, that assigns it some intrinsic value. Aesthetics and empathy for our mammalian cousins (except for some of the rodent class) often plays a big part. How many conservationists were converted to the cause by watching the likes of David Attenborough?

This, however, only serves to protect a few gems in national parks and other protected areas, and is not very scientific. So biologists have long talked about biodiversity, a measure of the degree to which wildlife found in a given place is both different from each other (many species) and different from elsewhere (unique). Biodiversity hotspots have become a major theme of conservation. It helps that many of these hotspots coincide with traditional views of conservation priorities, e.g. the lemurs on Madagascar, but not all such hotspots are so charismatic; it is unlikely that the East African Coastal Forests will ever attract huge numbers of tourists. More tellingly, biodiversity itself is an abstract concept; easy to relate to when marvelling at the lush and beautiful diversity on display in a tropical rain forest or coral reef, but much harder to grasp when, say, a new car park obliterates the last home of a hitherto undiscovered beetle.

So where do I stand?

I kicked this series of posts off with a poll. I asked you readers to select from a number of options:

Alas less than 10% of you bothered to vote. I guess I should be flattered that you are rather more interested in my opinion than in expressing your own (either that or you couldn’t care less either way). The votes were fairly evenly split except for the last option which received no votes, so it is difficult to draw any conclusions. I shall leave the poll open for a while longer and watch to see if anything interesting does come of it.

As for my position, it is this. I think it would be great if sufficient moral clarity existed in the world that the top arguments held sway. But that is not the case. Other moral arguments about the ‘rights’ to development, food and clean water, and to health and education, also command our attention, and often compete with conservation. Sometimes, as in this case, there is a direct trade-off, other times it is simply a matter of competing for scarce financial resources. Thus conservation must prioritise internally and compete with other causes externally for support. Such prioritisation requires careful, rational thinking which often takes us some distance from our purer, more emotive starting points.

First and foremost I am a conservationist, but I recognise that conservation must fit with the economic realities in which we find ourselves; people who argue it should be the other way around are simply being Utopian. It is possible, nay desirable, to change the rules of the game, e.g. with the introduction of natural capital accounting, but it is not feasible to change the game entirely.

Thus my preference, were it possible, would be to try to combine economic development (in this case drilling for oil and gas) to go ahead with appropriate regulation to minimise such negative impacts as could be mitigated cost-effectively. If that were not possible, and as I previously remarked, the situation in Russia is not encouraging in this respect, I would probably be prepared to sacrifice the sub-species, with the hope of achieving better conservation results elsewhere, unless the umbrella species argument were particularly compelling, which I do not believe to be the case, though I know far too little about the Sakhalin environment to know for sure. Finally I would challenge anyone who disagrees with me to pony up the cost to buy the rights to the Sakhalin oil and gas if they think it is so important.

Whither the Western Grey Whales – might sacrificing a sub-species be justified?

This is part five 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.

In that poll I offered the option that: “Conservation and development should be balanced, but we’d be asking Russia and the local communities in Siberia to sacrifice a lot of money and this is just a sub-species.”

This statement is essentially asking us to explicitly weigh the value of this sub-species* population. Different people have different values and so will answer differently as to which side of the fence they sit on. Regardless as to which side you sit upon, I think it is important to acknowledge the different perspectives and not to assume that one or other is necessarily morally superior to the other. It may be that in the future such questions are resolved with the same clarity as other moral questions, in much the same way that slavery, once an accepted part of life, is now regarded as barbarous. But for now there is not such a universality of views, and basic pragmatism requires us to recognise that, however strongly held may be our views, we need to be able to talk to and engage with others who do not see things the same way.

Moreover if we are to properly answer this question we need to ground our arguments properly. Exactly how much biodiversity does a sub-species represent? Many other species and sub-species of beetles and microscopic organisms which we do not even know about are going extinct every day with destruction of precious, highly diverse habitats such as tropical rainforests. Just because the whales are mammals does that make them somehow more special?

Of course such arguments are in themselves not a reason to do nothing. If it was going to be easy or cheap to save the whales we might reasonably conclude that we should do it anyway. But it appears that saving these particular whales could be very expensive. Think of all the other sub-species we could potentially save with the money that it would cost to save these whales!

This all might seem a bit cold and calculating in comparison to the moral simplicity of other stances, but the reality is that we live in a resource-constrained world, and conservation organisations are having to determine their priorities in this way all the time. I just hope that when it comes time to weigh my soul such calculations will not feature on the negative side of the ledger.

* I am not sure whether, strictly speaking, the Western Grey Whale is a full sub-species or some other taxonomic category. Depending upon ones values, determination of such might be critical to answering the specific question this blog post poses, but is not relevant to the wider issues I raise.

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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