Charismatic megafauna are impossible to resist caring about. Charismatic microfauna, or flora, less so. Yet more than two decades of experience in Costa Rica have taught us to appreciate the latter more than we did before. That is a function of science leading the way in conservation efforts in this small country, followed by a new form of tourism that we have been working in since the mid-1990s. That new form leveraged the skills of biologists as guides who provide interpretive experiences in the rainforest and other ecosystems, making a walk in the woods that much more interesting. So this story below catches my attention. It focuses on another small pioneering country that I have long studied from afar, admired, but not yet visited. Thanks to Brandon Keim and his colleagues at Yale Environment 360, for this story that motivates me to make that visit:
Some scientists and ethicists are criticizing traditional conservation strategies, which they say focus on saving valued species while discounting the lives of less charismatic animals. Will these advocates of “compassionate conservation” point the way to new approaches, or are they simply being naïve?
Volunteers for New Zealand’s Predator Free by 2050 campaign in front of predator traps, which are available for the public to borrow. NEW ZEALAND DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION
At a moment of best-selling animal intelligence books and headlines about songbird language and grieving elephants, it’s easy to forget that nonhuman minds were until recently considered — by most serious-minded scientists, anyway — to be quite simple.
Well into this millennium, animal consciousness was regularly dismissed as either nonexistent or profoundly dissimilar to our own. Animals were considered “conscious in the sense of being under stimulus control,” as the famed psychologist B.F. Skinner opined so neatly in 1974, expressing a conventional wisdom that dated to the zoological musings of Aristotle. The notion of animals as thinking, feeling beings was relegated to the edges of serious discourse.
Signs opposing New Zealand’s use of landscape-scale poisoning campaigns to eradicate non-native predators, such as rats and weasels. ELI DUKE/FLICKR
Those days are past, buried by an avalanche of scientific findings and history-of-science critiques. More people than ever worry about the welfare of farmed animals; pets are practically citizens; and wild animals too are increasingly regarded as beings with whom people share fundamental aspects of inner life. Yet in some places, that mind-denying legacy survives — including, say a small but vocal number of scientists, ethicists, and animal welfare activists, in conservation. In their eyes, the discipline devoted to protecting Earth’s life has a certain blind spot to the animals themselves.
“Conservation essentially developed in an era in which animals were automatons,” says Arian Wallach, an ecologist at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia. “There was a revolution in the recognition of sentience across the animal world,” and “conservation is only now coming to grips with the fact that this happened.”
Wallach identifies as a “compassionate conservationist,” the name taken by those critics of conservation’s tendency to focus on species and populations without much considering the well-being of individual animals and the ethical issues involved. “A compassionate conservation approach,” Wallach and others write in a recent Conservation Biology essay, “aims to safeguard Earth’s biological diversity while retaining a commitment to treating individuals with respect and concern for their well-being.”
The implication might raise some hackles — few conservationists would consider themselves uncompassionate. As a historical critique of conservation’s framing, though, it rings true. “Conservation is engaged in the protection of the integrity and continuity of natural processes, not the welfare of individuals,” wrote biologist Michael Soulé, who is generally credited with founding the scientific discipline of conservation biology, in his seminal 1985 essay “What is Conservation Biology?”
Soulé’s way of thinking, says environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott, was not unusual. It dovetailed with the hunting-focused wildlife management that formed conservation’s foundations in the early 20th century. So long as populations thrived, individuals merited little formal recognition. Neither did Aldo Leopold’s influential land ethic, with its call to view nature as “a community to which we belong,” spare much thought for individual animals. They don’t even appear in this decade’s so-called “New Conservation” debates over weighing the value of protected areas and human economic well-being in making conservation decisions.
Individual animals have instead been the province of animal welfare and, more recently, the related academic field of human-animal studies. Conservation stayed, in Soulé’s words, “conceptually distinct.” But as Callicott notes, “Now these two mutually exclusive lines of thinking about ethics beyond humans are converging in compassionate conservation. “It’s new and uncharted territory.”
The first rules of this territory: to do no harm, and to acknowledge the value of every individual’s life. Central to the movement is a deep dismay at the practice of killing some animals to help others; it doesn’t seem coincidental that many compassionate conservationists hail from Australia, a place where — along with nearby New Zealand and the region’s small islands — killing historically non-native mammals plays an outsized role in conservation…