Science Writing, A Genre That Keeps Improving, Is The Best Way To Explain A Conservation Paradox

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Eric Nyquist

Two years of working in southern Chile taught me just enough about the complexity of this particular issue (among the many complex issues in our practice)to appreciate the article below by Emma Marris, who we already knew to be provocative, enough that she could challenge Bill McKibben two minutes into her TED talk, and does so convincingly. The primary reason I appreciate this article, is the same reason this platform has showcased the best of this genre of writers over the years. Scientists, translated into regular language we non-scientists can understand:

When Conservationists Kill Lots (and Lots) of Animals

Invasive species are sometimes trapped, poisoned, and shot in large numbers to save native species from extinction. Some scientists say the bloodshed isn’t worth it.

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Eric Nyquist

The desert of south-central Australia is crenellated with sandstone hills in shades of ivory, crimson, and apricot. The ground is littered with dead trees and tree limbs, big hunks of transparent mica, dried cow dung, and thousands of stone spearheads and blades made by the Aboriginal people who lived here for tens of thousands of years—and live here still. Around the few water holes are the doglike tracks of dingoes, wild canines that were brought to Australia thousands of years ago and are now the country’s top predators.

I have come to the Evelyn Downs ranch, on the famously remote highway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, to meet Arian Wallach, a conservationist who thinks there is too much killing in conservation. Wallach has come to this massive 888-square-mile ranch because it is one of the few places in Australia where people aren’t actively killing wild animals. Tough, outback Herefords share the landscape with kangaroos, wild horses, wild donkeys, camels, emus, cats, foxes, native rodents, dingoes, and very large antediluvian-looking reptiles called perenties. Of the animals on this list, dingoes, cats, foxes, horses, camels, and donkeys are all killed in large numbers throughout Australia—but not here. Wallach has convinced the owners to experiment with a more hands-off approach.

For a few days, I’m joining Wallach and her team as they kick off a season of fieldwork. Accompanying her are Adam O’Neill, her partner and scientific collaborator, and two of her students: Erick Lundgren, an American who is studying feral donkeys, and Eamonn Wooster, an Australian who has an image of his study species, a red fox, tattooed on his leg.

On our way into the ranch, we stop at a water hole to check its level. Across the sunken puddle, a buff-colored donkey with an elegant neck stripe trots down the slope to drink. Then a larger, darker donkey shows up and pulls rank, braying and snorting and claiming the right to drink for itself. The researchers watch, rapt.

Donkeys were imported into Australia in the late-19th and early-20th century from Spain, Mexico, India, Sumatra, and Mauritius as pack animals. Some escaped, some were lost, and some were simply released into the desert when they were replaced by machines. The latest government estimate, from 2011, puts the feral-donkey population of Australia at five million. From a traditional conservation perspective, they’re less than worthless because they are non-native and contribute to overgrazing. Agents employed by ranchers, national parks, and state governments frequently shoot them from helicopters.

Read the whole article here.

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