Posts Tagged Conservation
Governments in Australia and internationally are coming round to the idea of taking a ‘triage approach’ to conservation, according to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED). This involves agencies focusing available resources on saving as many endangered species as possible, rather than trying to save fewer ‘living dead’ species.
| A male superb parrot; this species is listed as threatened in Victoria and vulnerable in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales. The entire population may only be a few thousand birds.
Credit: Ron Knight
The concept of saving more species for the same cost, or triage, was proposed to the Australian Federal Government in 1999 by Professor Hugh Possingham, now Director of CEED.
Prof. Possingham says the NSW, Tasmanian and New Zealand governments have all adopted versions of conservation triage, and the Queensland and US governments are considering it.
‘Conservation triage is still a sensitive topic because it forces people to acknowledge that we don’t have enough resources to save all threatened species; that choices have to be made, even though we may not like making them,’ he says.
‘In an age of catastrophic decline in the Earth’s and Australia’s biodiversity, we need to acknowledge that the resources we are currently devoting to conservation are not going to save everything.
‘If that’s the case, you have to take a decision what you are going to save – and which species will most repay your efforts to save them. Otherwise you end up spending scarce resource on species you cannot save – and have too little left to save those you probably could have rescued.’
Associate Professor Michael McCarthy, deputy director of CEED, rejects the claims of some environmental groups that adopting a triage policy ‘makes extinction acceptable’.
‘It certainly doesn’t,’ Dr McCarthy says. ‘Instead it forces us to ask: can we save this animal? How much will it cost to do so? How important is it to its ecosystem? And does the community care enough about it to help in the fight to save it?
‘Importantly, triage is not about letting the most endangered species go extinct, it is wisely choosing those species which have the best chance of recovery, rationally accounting for cost and chance of success. The most threatened species may well be the ones that receive most investment.’
Dr McCarthy says triage forces society to acknowledge it is better to save the things it can, rather than devote scarce resources to those it cannot.
‘It also makes the decision about what to save a more public one, which requires society to take greater responsibility for it, instead of decisions being taken behind closed doors.’
Prof. Possingham says that, at a time of limited government funding for conservation, the public will have to shoulder a greater load if it cares about preserving species for its grandchildren.
‘We have some great examples where the community has rallied round to save particular species – an example is the public effort in southern Queensland to save the Richmond birdwing butterfly by replanting the native vines that it feeds and depends on,’ he says.
‘At the moment, governments don’t tell us which species they are not funding – only the ones they are,’ he notes. ‘Under triage you publish the priority funding tables, and the community can then decide where to help.
Given that we are in the season for wishful thinking it seems appropriate that I should come up with a wish of my own. After all the time I have spent banging on about how zoos are doing it all wrong it is about time I made a few suggestions outlining how zoos could be doing it right. So, my wish is for my ideal zoo.
As I have said before, I am not against zoos per se, just the concept of zoos as entertainment rather than conservation centres. In order to avoid my future wrath I have devised a series of criteria that zoos must satisfy to be considered “ideal”. These are the Bunny Criteria. After all, what’s the point of devising standards if you can’t name them after yourself in order to achieve some level of immortality (although, as Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my films. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”)?
- The zoo must be a non-profit organisation. As long as zoos are forced to pander to the public and the almighty dollar they will always risk putting money before animal welfare and conservation. This can be achieved through wealthy patrons/owners or government sponsorship e.g. White Oak Plantation/White Oak Conservation Center (http://www.gilmanfoundation.org/whiteOak/, http://wocenter.org/) and the Lubee Bat Conservancy (http://www.batconservancy.org/), both in Florida and both closed to the general public.
- With so many endangered species in the world and so few zoo places the zoo must focus on maintaining these species with no, or an absolute minimum, of non-endangered species e.g. the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (http://www.durrell.org/) on Jersey Island.
- Zoos must have excellent education programs ranging from intelligently designed play areas for children e.g. Copenhagen zoo (http://uk.zoo.dk/VisitZoo.aspx) to structured classroom activities for school children to guided presentations within the zoo (presentations that do not include anyone patting tigers or other inmates) e.g. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (http://www.desertmuseum.org/).
- Zoos must be connected to in situ conservation programs by releasing captive bred species to the wild, assisting with habitat management and encouraging visitors to adopt conservation related activities.
- Zoo enclosures must meet certain minimum standards, which are already in place in many countries and administered through organisations such as ZAA, AZA, etc. However, the old adage of the bigger the better certainly applies when it comes to zoo enclosures. Every effort must be made to hold animals in a natural environment, in natural groups and fed a natural diet. If this cannot be done satisfactorily then the animal has no place in the zoo e.g. elephants in small urban zoos, polar bears in Australia, gorillas in Canada, etc.
- Zoos should focus primarily, if not exclusively, on local fauna and maintain as much of the local natural environment as possible in order to encourage visitors to enjoy and conserve that environment and the species contained therein e.g. Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve in Canberra (http://www.tidbinbilla.com.au/). Too many problems occur in zoos because of an inability to adequately duplicate an animal’s natural environment. The further from home that animal is the greater these problems will be.
There they are, The Bunny Criteria. No doubt there is plenty of room for improvement as it is hard to be dogmatic about these sorts of things. If a species is not local but endangered with an in situ conservation program e.g. the Mauritius kestrel, should it be maintained in a zoo? Yes. If a species is local and not yet endangered but can be used in the zoo to highlight environmental issues e.g. koala and habitat fragmentation, should it be kept in a zoo? Probably. If a species is not local and not endangered but has a high profile thatis used to bring visitors through the gate e.g. elephant, should it be in the zoo? No.
I am happy for animals to live in zoos as long as their welfare remains paramount and their presence realistically facilitates their conservation, rather than visitor entertainment. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that breeding one elephant every couple of years even comes close to satisfying this criterion.
Dr. F. Bunny
From Scientific American at http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/2013/12/10/tourists-iguanas-diarrhea/.
Hop on over to the photo-sharing site Flickr and you’ll find dozens of photos and videos of people eagerly feeding grapes to hungry iguanas on the beaches of the Bahamas. It looks like great fun and the iguanas obviously go crazy for the fruit, which is usually fed to the lizards on the ends of long sticks. There’s just one problem with this activity: the food is making the iguanas sick. Health conditions arising from the grapes and other foods that iguanas do not normally eat in the wild include diarrhea, high blood sugar and cholesterol as well as lowered levels of potassium and a high level of parasitic infections. All of these problems “could have deleterious effects on long-term fitness and population stability,” according to Charles Knapp, director of conservation and research at Chicago’s John G. Shedd Aquarium and the lead author of a new study of the iguanas published last week in Conservation Physiology.
Bahamian rock iguanas (Cyclura cychlura) live on the islands of Andros and Exuma and several small nearby cays in the island chain. Although not technically endangered, they are considered vulnerable to extinction, with a total wild population of fewer than 5,000 individuals. That count covers the entire species, which also includes three subspecies, two of which are endangered and one of which is critically endangered.
As Knapp and his fellow researchers wrote in the paper, the feeding of wildlife is “an increasingly popular yet under-studied tourism-related activity” that is often sanctioned and encouraged for both marine and terrestrial animals. Sometimes that is beneficial, providing the animals with access to low-stress nutrition and humans with a positive conservation experience. Other times, however, feeding wildlife can cause problems, especially if it includes items from outside of their native diets. Consequences can include nutritional imbalances, obesity or behavior changes that have harmful long-term effects.
Knapp and his team wanted to find out if the hundreds of weekly tourists visiting iguana habitats were having a positive or negative effect on the animals’ health. They traveled to the islands in 2010 and 2012 and examined iguanas that interact with tourists as well as those in more isolated locations. They found that both groups of iguanas appeared the same externally but the tourist-fed iguanas—especially the more aggressive males—showed signs of nutritional imbalance. Many had diarrhea, all of them carried parasites and their blood showed abnormal levels of calcium, glucose, potassium and uric acid. The tourist-fed males also had aberrant amounts of cholesterol, copper, magnesium and other nutrients. The paper links the high-sugar, low-potassium levels to the grapes, Ground beef and other animal proteins could be causing the high cholesterol and uric acid levels found in the iguanas. (The iguanas are normally herbivorous.)
Tourists aren’t the primary threat to Bahamian rock iguanas, however. The species faces habitat loss due to construction, dangerous feral animals such as goats, collection for pet trade and illegal hunting. (They’re the only iguana species still caught for food.) Those threats aren’t going away anytime soon.
In a press release Knapp said that it’s unrealistic to expect tourists to stop feeding the iguanas. “Instead,” he suggested, “wildlife managers could approach manufacturers of pelleted iguana foods and request specially formulated food to mitigate the impact of unhealthy food. Tour operators could offer or sell such pellets to their clients, which would provide a more nutritionally balanced diet and reduce non-selective ingestion of sand on wet fruit.” Done right, the authors suggest, tourism could actually benefit the iguanas and give them the nutrition and safety they need in order to boost their populations. That’s a worthy goal we’re sure the iguanas can get behind, even if it means fewer grapes.
Photo: Iguana reaching for grapes by Chris Dixon via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license
Zoos are not really all that bad and the main reason I criticise them is that I care and want them to harness their powers for good, rather than evil. Unfortunately they fall victim to the same issues that plague all of us, the need to make money to survive.
However imperfect they may be, zoos still occupy an important position in the world. While I have spent most of my career in zoos I have never actually seen myself as a “zoo vet” but rather a “wildlife vet” who worked in a zoo. Working in zoos has given me the opportunity to treat and rehabilitate injured wildlife, investigate disease outbreaks in wildlife, and embark on research projects to improve the health and welfare of the creatures we share the planet with. As wild animals do not have owners they do not have anyone to pay for these services, which are subsidised by zoos.
For better or worse, zoos are at least making an effort to understand and breed endangered wildlife with a view to hopefully returning it to its ecosystem. Consequently they are an enormous repository of knowledge and expertise when it comes to the biology, husbandry and health of the world’s fauna.
They are also making an effort to address the myriad issues that have contributed to species becoming endangered in the first place, such as promoting sustainable palm oil production and labelling (http://www.cmzoo.org/conservation/palmOilCrisis/resourceKit.asp), encouraging the use of toilet paper made from recycled paper (http://www.zoo.org.au/fighting-extinction/conservation-campaigns/wipe-for-wildlife-campaign), funding the training of Wildlife Protection Units to prevent illegal wildlife related activities in Sumatra (http://www.perthzoo.wa.gov.au/act/wildlife-conservation-action/success-stories/protecting-sumatras-wildlife/), and providing indigenous communities in Kenya with alternative forms of income to alleviate some of the pressures on local wildlife (http://www.zoo.org.au/fighting-extinction/conservation-campaigns/beads-for-wildlife-campaign).
All reputable zoos have education programs because everyone understands the important role the next generation must play in moving the planet into a sustainable future.
It would be nice to think that a trip to the zoo encourages people to embark on some form of previously unthought-of conservation activity but, as we have seen, this can be notoriously difficult to prove. Still, all the ancillary activities which a visit to the zoo subsidises should be justification enough for the zoo’s existence. Unfortunately zoos often fund their projects by entertaining visitors in ways which potentially undermine those conservation messages. As long as that continues it is necessary to provide constructive criticism in order to bring them back onto the right path.
Dr. F. Bunny
Lou Reed (Sick Of You, from the album “New York”)
Enough of this self-indulgent nonsense. I am a wildlife vet, so it’s time I started banging on about zoos again.
In my opinion there are three ways to experience wild animals: in the wild, in a zoo, on TV. It seems obvious to me that the best way is the wild way. How could anything beat the experience of seeing a lion wandering about the savannah doing its thing? Even local fauna like kangaroos and wombats are so much more exciting when seen in the wild. I think part of it is the unpredictability, never knowing what you are going to see or what it is going to do. I remember taking my aunt and uncle to Healesville Sanctuary to give them a dose of Australian wildlife. We spent the day looking at kangaroos, koalas and Tasmanian devils. On our drive home they spotted a mob of wild kangaroos and made me stop the car so they could take pictures of them. They got much closer and took much better photos of the Sanctuary kangaroos but were a lot more excited about the wild ones. Of course we can’t all visit polar bears on their ice floes, jaguars in the Amazon or Przewalski horses in the Gobi desert.
This is where David Attenborough and his cohorts step in to dazzle us with astonishing images of wildlife doing its thing in the wild, without the need for passports, visas, water purification tablets or huge wads of cash. Through the magic of television we can gain a much more detailed, intimate and lasting view of the world around us, one that we can rewind and re-watch at our convenience.
Which brings us to option three. Does the experience of seeing something up close and personal, despite the fact that it is bored, pacing or overweight, leave a lasting positive impression that justifies placing it into that environment in the first place? Are we better off seeing a polar bear on TV or not at all? Although I speak from a privileged position, having worked with wild animals all my life, I believe so.
Zoos quite emphatically state that they change people’s attitudes to conservation and wildlife, citing the only study to date to attempt to quantify this, a 2007 non-independent survey (strongly refuted by Marino et al (2010)) by Falk et al. Unfortunately many of the questions in this study were extremely nebulous and subjective asking visitors if they felt a stronger connection to nature as a result of their visit (57% said yes), if zoos had a role to play in conservation, education and animal care (42% said yes), and if the visitor had an elevated level of awareness of their own role in conservation as a result of their visit (54% said yes). The vast majority of visitors did not, however, increase their knowledge of ecological concepts. This was put down to the fact that zoo visitors have a higher than average ecological knowledge in the first place, which reinforces my belief that people who visit zoos are already conservation minded and the zoo is really only preaching to the converted.
The researchers did do some follow up work to determine if there were any long term effects associated with the zoo visit. Unfortunately they were only able to obtain responses from 14% of the visitors originally interviewed. Rather than asking them what they had actually done because of their visit to the zoo the researchers again asked nebulous and irrelevant questions. 42% of the respondents mentioned a particularly memorable animal they saw on their visit, 21% enjoyed the zoo grounds, 61% did confess to have learnt something after all, 76% said zoos were invested in conservation, and 66% said zoos played an important role in species preservation. But there is no mention of what any of these visitors actually did as a result of their visit. Surely that is the crux of the issue? Do zoos stimulate people to act for conservation in positive ways that justify displacing animals and housing them in conditions that cannot hope to replicate their wild environment, social structure or nutritional needs? Am I more likely to want to conserve the bored, depressed looking zoo polar bear or the TV polar bear leaping from ice floe to ice floe, hunting seals and rearing cubs?
Removing zoos and putting the money saved into in situ conservation programs does not mean we can no longer experience wildlife first hand. Recently I visited the Western Treatment Plant (http://www.melbournewater.com.au/whatwedo/treatsewage/wtp/Pages/Habitats-and-wildlife.aspx). This is the fancy name for Melbourne’s sewage farm. I spent six hours there bird watching and, ironically, saw many more bird species than I would in any zoo. This experience left me with a far more positive feeling about bird conservation than seeing the wing clipped, feather plucking versions in a zoo. True, it required a bit more effort and the species weren’t as spectacular as Andean condors or birds of paradise, but they were local species and, at the end of the day, aren’t we more likely to act and more likely to be effective in our actions when we attempt to conserve what is in our own backyard? Surely we will have a much greater impact on their future than we will ever have on the future of the orang-utan or gorilla, no matter how many palm oil friendly products we buy or mobile phones we recycle?
Dr. F. Bunny
Falk, J.H., Reinhard, E.M., Vernon, C.L., Bronnenkant, K., Deans, N.L., Heimlich, J.E. (2007) Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Silver Spring, MD.
Marino, L., Lilienfeld, S.O., Malamud, R., Nobis, N., Broglio, R. (2010) Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Study. Society and Animals 18:126-138.
In order to preserve the wildlife of the wilderness at all, some middle ground must be found between brutal and senseless slaughter and … unhealthy sentimentalism. (Theodore Roosevelt 1905)
We cannot win this battle to save our species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love. (Stephen Jay Gould, from an essay titled “This View of Life: Unenchanted Evening.” 1991)
These quotes highlight our main difficulty when it comes to “saving” wildlife: our relationship with other species. On the one hand we cannot treat them as a limitless resource or commodities to be used as we see fit because that will drive even more of them to extinction. However, we also cannot treat them as cute, fluffy, incredibly fragile toys that are either smothered by love and affection or locked in a cupboard because they are far too precious to play with.
The problem with both attitudes is that they separate us from the natural world. There still seems to exist a belief that we humans live our lives in one world while nature exists in a completely separate world and ne’er the twain shall meet. Going down the senseless exploitation road ignores the fact that we are all interdependent and that by destroying the natural world we will, eventually, destroy ourselves as well. The other path, that of locking nature up in preserves, also ignores the fact that we are dependent on it for our survival and that there is nothing wrong with utilising it, as long as we do it in a sustainable manner.
In this regard there is much we can learn from some traditional cultures that, while causing their own fair share of extinctions, did manage to use the world around them in a reasonably sustainable manner. They certainly did not lock their resources away for no one to use or cover them with a cloak of mawkish sentimentality. They did, however, devise means that prevented over harvesting, possibly one of the few times where religious superstitions actually caused some good in the world.
Tim Flannery cites an example in his book, “The Future Eaters”. Many moons ago in far north Queensland the indigenous Gugu-Yalandji people hunted tree kangaroos throughout the forest, except in sacred story places. Story places were off limits to people and acted as tree kangaroo reservoirs. When the reservoirs filled up animals dispersed into the surrounding areas where they could be hunted. A similar situation existed in New Guinea. When Europeans came along they replaced these local superstitions with Christian superstitions. The story places were now no longer sacred, people were no longer forbidden entry and the tree kangaroo population crashed. The story place myth was probably started by one of the world’s first conservationists, or at least someone with enough foresight to realise that if they did not devise a method to limit tree kangaroo hunting they would very soon become extinct.
Many years on we don’t appear to have made much progress. While some of us still adhere to religious superstitions about not eating pigs and shellfish, or cows being sacred, we seem incapable of grasping the scientific fact that if we kill all the tree kangaroos (substitute any species you like here) we will also not survive. It is a pity there were no religious myths about not killing passenger pigeons, dodos, moas, or quaggas, as appeals to science and logic do not appear to work.
Dr. F. Bunny
My family and I have just returned from a fantastic trip to the Philippines. While the scuba diving was superb everyone’s highlight was the 30 minutes we spent swimming with whale sharks. Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish. They can grow up to 40 feet long and weigh as much as 20 tons. Despite these impressive statistics they pose no danger to humans, being filter feeders that consume things like plankton, krill and fish eggs.
The small town of Oslob, on the island of Cebu, is where our amazing interaction took place (http://www.oslobwhalesharks.com). Whale sharks used to be regarded as pests, and were even killed by locals, as their presence interfered with their fishing activities. This has now changed with these massive fish pumping significant ecotourism dollars into the local economy. However, in order to ensure that the steady stream of tourists has something to snorkel with, the locals have begun feeding krill to the whale sharks. At this point the activity is regulated so that feeding and swimming only occur between 6 am and midday.
Ordinarily I am completely against the feeding of wildlife but, in this case, I might have to make an exception. One criticism that has been levelled at the activity is that it changes the whale shark’s behaviour inducing them to stay for the free food, instead of foraging far and wide, as they normally would. Up to 50 whale sharks have been identified by local researchers, but there were only three swimming about while we were there. A whale shark consumes between 0.5 and 3.0% of its bodyweight every two to three days. An adult whale shark needs to eat about 400 kg to fill its massive stomach (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_much_do_whale_sharks_eat). The ones we interacted with were possibly half grown, which still translates into 200 kg of food. I cannot see it being economically viable or physically possible to tip this much krill down their throats, which means that the whale sharks still need to forage to satiate themselves, and possibly come in for a free feed when they feel like a top up. The fact that the water was not boiling with whale sharks would seem to bear this out.
Unlike the junk food that is put out in bird feeders whale sharks are at least fed a natural diet, so there should hopefully not be any nutritional issues.
A recent Australian study found that tourism had no negative effects on the whale sharks’ behaviour (http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/breaking/15561889/whale-shark-tourism-harmless-report). Admittedly these whale sharks were not being fed.
However, if the alternative to feeding and ecotourism is spearing, then it is difficult not to endorse the current activities which, at the moment, appear to be reasonably well regulated. When I say we interacted with the whale sharks this is not strictly true as they appeared to completely ignore us, swimming where they wanted, and doing what they wanted when they wanted, as is your prerogative when you weigh several tons.
The locals’ view of whale sharks has certainly changed since this tourism venture began in December 2011. This is probably motivated more by self-interest than any inherent concern for the whale sharks or their conservation. It has certainly become very trendy for zoos in particular to promote their animal encounters as a way of encouraging conservation. An interaction with a whale shark (or koala, or gorilla, or seal) will make people more likely to care about their conservation, or so the rhetoric goes. But does it? Is there any real evidence to support the statement that animal interactions foster greater conservation outcomes? Or are the people who seek animal interactions more likely to join conservation organisations, donate money and plant trees anyway? I suspect the latter is more likely to be the case.
The fact that we are prepared to spend a considerable amount of money to swim with a large fish (or cuddle a koala, or see a gorilla, or kiss a seal) shows how isolated from the natural world we have become, and how we still see nature as entertainment, instead of a vital part of our existence. Not that I am any different because I got just as much of a buzz from my up close and personal experience as everyone else did.
Dr. F. Bunny