Compassionate Conservation

There is a revolution going on in conservation, and it is toward compassion and the recovery of natural processes (Bekoff 2013; Ramp & Bekoff 2015). Killing one species in order to save another in the name of conservation has always raised ethical questions.  To help restore threatened populations caused by human activities is a noble goal. But to harm sentient beings in achieving that goal is a serious matter. And to penalize them for our misdeeds is unjust (Vucetich & Nelson 2007).

With evidence of low efficacy, insufficient monitoring, and deleterious unintended consequences while using lethal means to attain conservation goals (Warburton & Norton 2009; Carroll 2011; Davis et al. 2011), scientists are increasingly calling for restraint in using lethal methods.

Non-lethal methods have proven to be very effective recently, and have succeeded where poison, den fumigation, traps, and guns had failed (Wallach et al. 2015).  Non-lethal methods are also appealing to the general public, because most people don’t like to see wildlife being harmed.

Compassionate conservation is relevant to animal welfare. It is also relevant to the individual and not only the population and species that conservation biology and practice have historically focused on. Compassionate conservation aims to improve animal welfare and conservation outcome at the same time.

Predators are also at the forefront of the compassionate revolution in conservation. The idea of using predators for conservation is nothing new (Leopold 1949). Recently, it has proven to work, and beautifully so. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 resulted in a revitalized ecosystem, improving the health, abundance and diversity of wildlife in Yellowstone. Even the rivers and streams have benefited.

Apex predators such as wolves exert a top-down regulation toward their preys, suppressing population irruptions. And their preys in turn regulate their own preys, and so on. That’s how predators manage to regulate and benefit the entire ecosystems.

It is now widely acknowledged that apex predators provide vital ecological functions, and their recovery is revolutionizing conservation (Ripple et al. 2014; Chapron et al. 2014).

Conservation has a long history of  killing one species in order to save another. However, wildlife system dynamics is complex and often involves multiple species. The outcome of human intervention through killing one species can be very unpredictable, and sometimes have unintended or perverse outcomes (Billing and Harding 2000, Norbury et al. 2002), such as the reduction of one species releases another to cause equivalent or worse impacts.

There is also evidence of low efficacy. For instance, an intensive 9-year wolf cull to save declining woodland caribou in Canada failed to provide a long-term solution (Hervieux et al. 2014).

Despite the dismal results, lethal methods are still widely used in conservation, and millions of animals are being harmed each year globally. It is time to consider compassionate conservation which promises to deliver win-win situations, of good conservation outcomes and animal welfare at the same time.


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