And so, upon graduation, I tagged along with my ornithology professor, who had been commissioned to complete an environmental impact assessment which required avian field surveys in rural central New Mexico. I was very excited.
At 3:00 AM in the dead of winter my professor arrived at my house, and we began driving south toward our study site near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Marked by a large cottonwood tree on the side of an irrigation ditch in what many people would consider “the middle of nowhere,” we would spend much of the day quantifying any of the bird species using this area, with a particular focus on sandhill cranes.
In the car, my professor told me that one of his students was studying sandhill crane vocalizations, and asked if it was okay if we stopped by a hunter check station to get some specimens for the study later in the day. I paused. “That’s fine, but why will there be cranes at the check station?” I asked.
“Because people hunt cranes,” he responded. Not knowing what to say, I sat silently, contemplating this new and disturbing piece of knowledge.
Finally we arrived at our study site. We piled out of the car into the single digit, frigid air, clamoring to ready our range finders, compasses, and binoculars. Then we waited. Slowly a pink light began to glow on one side of the sky, and a few moments later, without warning, we heard the first trumpet of a crane. And then more, and finally the sky filled with them as they made their daily commute from the shallow frozen waters they sleep in at night, to the agricultural fields and mesas where they spend their days browsing for food.
I was in awe, but not for long, as we were bustling to record the direction of their flight and estimate how many cranes were flying overhead. That’s when the first gun shots rang out. Hunters, nestled into little coves all around us, had been waiting for the cranes as well, but with less benevolent intentions. The irony of counting the cranes at the very moment hunters were picking them off was not lost on me.
Later that afternoon, I was stuck with the unhappy task of interviewing the hunters as they came in with their kills, and with measuring and determining the age and sex of the cranes, so that the game and fish department could determine the appropriate bag limits for the rest of the season. One such hunter told me blatantly that he wounded two cranes which he did not retrieve, and then asked if the crane he did manage to bring in set any records. Indeed in setting bag limits, game agencies take into account that for every crane hunted and counted, at least one other is wounded or killed that is not retrieved. As many readers may imagine, it was difficult for me to contain my shock and disgust. I spent the drive home wondering how I had gotten myself into this mess and what exactly was this cold, calculating, “science of conservation,” where it’s acceptable to use a species in any way so long as the population remains intact, another ironic concept which I’ll get to shortly.
It was around this time that I read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. A figurehead of ecology, father of modern conservation, and sweetheart of sportsmen everywhere, Aldo Leopold was a man of his time. But he was also a visionary. Leopold was one of the first to recognize the importance of predators to ecosystems, and he explains this revelation in his heartrending story of his first and last wolf hunt. At a time when state after state in the United States extirpated its wolves and grizzly bears, Leopold realized the error of conservation and sportsmens’ ways, saying “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.”
However, it is the following passage about the killing of the last grizzly in the southwestern United States that has stuck with me over the years. It comes to my mind each time conservationists step in to remove an “invasive” species, or cull “overpopulated” animals, or to issue permits for the sport hunting of charismatic megafauna in order to raise funds for even more “conservation,” whether that means the wolves and mountain lions of the western U.S., where I call home, or the Cecils, elephants, and rhinos of Africa:
“We forest officers, who acquiesced in the extinguishment of the bear, knew a local rancher who had plowed up a dagger engraved with the name of one of Coronado’s captains. We spoke harshly of the Spaniards who, in their zeal for gold and converts, had needlessly extinguished the native Indians. It did not occur to us that we, too, were the captains of an invasion too sure of its own righteousness.”
I often wonder what Leopold would think of modern day conservation. The world has been incensed by the killing of Cecil the lion, and his death brings into sharp focus many unsavory aspects of modern day conservation, which is, at times, an invasion too sure of its own righteousness. Co-opted by a “sustainable use” philosophy, conservation programs often work to maximize the profits of game management agencies by raffling off the rights to hunt certain species and individuals. Hunters are in many cases still allowed to import their “trophies” back to their home countries. All this, under the auspices of “best available science” and a perceived pragmatism that accepts that some individuals must be killed to save the species as a whole. We can’t afford to save the species otherwise, they claim.
While I once had both my feet planted in the world of “conservation,” the more I thought about it, the less sense it made. Here’s why:
What are we "conserving," why, and at what cost?
The most fundamental definition of evolution is “change over time.” The world we live in has been a world in flux since long before we arrived. Indeed, without changes to the environment and concomitant changes in early hominids, we would not have arrived at all.
We have done a lot of damage. But the problem I have with conserving and restoring as the concepts are applied in practice, is that our point in time and population sizes to conserve are arbitrarily chosen, and rarely do conservationists stop to consider what costs they incur in order to maintain an arbitrary status quo. They see a species, they count how many there are, or, perhaps extrapolate how many might once have been (at some arbitrarily determined date), and then they work to make sure that there is no change in that population. When rats arrive on tropical islands, they scurry to remove them, one and all, in order to save the birds on that island. But why do they not consider the fact that, the birds, once, long ago, arrived and populated the island too, perhaps driving to extinction insects or plants that we never even knew existed. But regardless, conservationists are hell-bent on ensuring that the birds’ population sizes neither increase nor decrease, without examining the cost of doing so, not only in resources, but also in the suffering they bring to the “invasive” population.
This is not to say that we should not be concerned about the unnecessary changes we as a species are causing, but to point out that many of our retroactive solutions may not be borne of a completely rational basis, and that we would benefit from considering more closely our motives and weighing the costs, particularly when animals are placed in crosshairs that they can’t possibly consent to.
Individuals don’t matter to the conservation of the species.
I’ve heard this time and again, and it’s a funny concept to me. In class after class, the basics of natural selection were drilled into my brain. Natural selection works on the level of the individual, not the species. The individual, with its unique set of genes, and in many species, set of learned skills, is what determines the survival and reproduction of that individual, and thus the species, in a given environmental context. Natural selection is the bedrock of our understanding of ecology, and yet, conservationists ignore the basic tenets of this foundation when they undertake modern conservation efforts. Suddenly, when charged with “managing” species, conservationists arbitrarily decide that some individuals can be picked off periodically without effect on the population at large. Furthermore, hunters tend to pick the healthiest and biggest animals, whereas natural selection removes the weakest and sickest. Thankfully, this concept is slowly changing for some species, like dolphins, who are now known to possess culture, and where conservationists are being asked to consider the fact that each individual is important to the species at large.
Conservationists rely on the best available science, as known within the conservation journals and the circles conservationists confine themselves to.
Another dogma of species management is “best available science.” I’ve seen “best available science” used to defend horrific hunting contests on coyotes in my home state and much of the western United States. In the policy arena, many conservationists hesitate to get involved with, and legislators laugh off, attempts to ban such contests because the “best available science” says that coyote populations are not in any way threatened, and that there is not even reason to place a bag limit on hunting them. The “best available science” says these animals can be hunted to any degree without consequence.
We see the same with sport hunting in Africa. “Best available science” (often cherry-picked to begin with) says that auctioning off permits each year for threatened and endangered species will not affect their overall population, and will bring in extra funds for further conservation. And so, Dallas Safari Club, incidentally a new member of the IUCN, the organization that determines a species’ endangered status, auctions off the rights to hunt rhinos for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and some defend the rights of U.S. dentists and other wealthy hunters to continue sports hunting for the sake of conservation.
But, if conservationists dared to learn from other scientists who also study animals, and if they too dared to question their own shaky suppositions, like I did on my day with the cranes, they may well realize that they are not in fact following all the best science available to them.
Best available science now tells us that many animals are sentient, capable of feeling pain and suffering in a way similar to humans. Scientists who study animal sentience have now signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness which confirms that many nonhuman animals, including all mammals, birds, and octopuses, are in fact sentient.*
If we’re really going to rely on best available science, science is telling us that these animals that conservationists so coldly count and calculate suffer greatly at the hands of their hunters, so shouldn’t conservationists and policymakers incorporate that knowledge into their decisions based on “best available science”?
Scientific hubris toward "Ethics"
Suggest to a conservationist that commonly accepted conservation practices such as removal of “invasive” species, culling “overpopulations,” or allowing a “legal and highly-regulated hunt” may not always be ethical, given what science tells us about these animals’ ability to suffer, and you will get an eye roll, if not a sneer. “Don’t get sentimental,” you’ll likely be told
And yet, experience tells us that science decoupled from ethics can have horrific consequences, just one example being the Tuskagee studies on syphilis. Start digging deeper and you’ll find many occasions where balancing science with even a sprinkling of ethics would have prevented numerous atrocities.
And yet, conservationists are not devoid of ethics. In fact, Leopold’s ecological framework is often referred to as a “conservation ethic.” It is just that the values are misplaced. As I’ve explored above, the obsession with population stability and denigration of the importance of the individual animal are fairly arbitrary concepts, and not at all consistent with ecological realities. Yet the population is the unit that conservationists imbue with value and believe should be protected in their working ethical framework. They are not so logical and calculating as they would have the world believe, and their inability to critically evaluate where they are ascribing value and why has indeed made them captains of an invasion too sure of its own righteousness.
If science tells us that an animal has the capacity to suffer, and we have taken the management of these animals into our own hands, then we have the ethical duty to fairly consider how our actions negatively affect these individual animals. Populations don’t suffer, animals do.
These concepts and misconceptions that have been incorporated under the guise of conservation are ravaging wildlife worldwide. Cecil, as beloved as he is to a world where many have only known him in death, is a symptom of a wider and much more integral problem of modern conservation. The same concepts above, propagated by conservation NGOs (to which many well-meaning animal-lovers funnel their money) and wildlife management agencies, belie numerous travesties, from Cecil’s death, to providing cover to a canned hunting industry where animals are bred to be shot while appropriating conservation and sustainable use language, and even to the poaching of a mountain lion in my home state which was facilitated by none other than the chairman of the game department himself, and everywhere in between.
We cannot stand by while conservationists take the helm of this 21st century invasion. Recently, Mozambique received funding from the World Bank with the intention of encouraging sport hunting, and the World Wildlife Fund (also known as the WorldWide Fund for Nature) was consulted during the scoping process and is supportive of sport hunting in Mozambique and elsewhere, despite reports that show sport hunting does not have nearly the economic benefits so often claimed of it. This concept of sacrificing animals for the perceived good of the species has got to stop.
It is time for a new conservation ethic, one which truly takes into account the best available science, incorporating the science of animal sentience and welfare into conservation science. We need to start a dialogue where ethics can take its rightful place alongside science and policy, in order to guide determinations of what and who is valuable and what and who is in need of conserving. Modern day conservation is outdated. The conservation of tomorrow is one where animal welfare is intrinsic to conservation policy, where “trophies” can no longer be taken, let alone transported by air. Let’s hope that if anything positive can come from Cecil’s death, it is the planting of a seed for the conservation of tomorrow. And let’s hope that the conservation of tomorrow does not come too late, lest someone, hundreds of years from now, unearth a hunting bow, and wonder how conservationists so needlessly extinguished the very wildlife they claimed to protect.
*An earlier version of this post was not clear that the Cambridge Declaration states that many nonhuman animals in addition to all mammals, birds, and octopuses are in fact sentient.