What is Compassionate Conservation?

Matt Chew has written another guest post for Million Trees about the International Compassionate Conservation Conference that recently took place in Australia, where he gave a presentation.  Dr. Chew is a faculty member of Arizona State University’s Center for Biology and Society and an instructor in the ASU School of Life Sciences.  He has written two popular posts for the Million Trees blog about the “restoration” industry and about the controversial projects that are eradicating tamarisk trees.

Arian Wallach, Dingo for Biodiversity Project

I was introduced to compassionate conservation by one of its proponents, Arian Wallach.  Dr. Wallach is the Project Director of the Dingo for Biodiversity Project in Australia.  Dingoes were the top predators of smaller animals in Australia for about 5,000 years until Europeans introduced new predators in the 19th century.  Colonists to Australia have been killing dingoes since they arrived because dingoes are also predators of their sheep. 

Eradicating top predators has serious consequences for the entire ecosystem.  In the case of dingoes, smaller predators introduced by colonists have taken that role and are now the target of poisonous campaigns to eradicate them.  For example, Australia recently made a commitment to kill 5 million cats with poison.  Killing dingoes has put Australia on the killing treadmill. 

We have examples in the United States of similar cascading effects of killing top predators.  When wolves and bears were killed in some of our national parks, populations of grazing animals such as deer and elk exploded.  Vegetation was browsed to death and ultimately the grazing animals were without sufficient food.

Dr. Chew tells us that defending top predators is one of several tenets of compassionate conservation.  Two important themes emerge from his description of the conference:

  • Traditional conservation tends to focus on the preservation of a species, sometimes at the expense of individual members of that species. Compassionate conservation invites us to re-evaluate that emphasis, to also take the lives of individual animals into consideration.  In an extremely individualistic society such as America, this would seem an entirely appropriate approach to conservation.
  • Modern methods of conservation tend to focus primarily on rare animals, sometimes at the expense of common animals. Common animals are often blamed for the fate of rare animals.  Shooting barred owls based on the belief that endangered spotted owls will benefit is an example of such projects. 

These are ethical questions that deserve our thoughtful consideration and Dr. Chew’s guest post invites us to think deeply about them.

Million Trees

The third International Compassionate Conservation Conference took place in Australia last November. Over 100 pre-registrants represented thirteen countries of current residence. Every occupied continent and a few archipelagoes were accounted for. Nearly half of the roster bore “Doctor” or “Professor” credentials. About two-thirds were Australian, one-sixth from the USA, and the remainder distributed in single digits. The final tally, including walk-in registrants, has not been compiled.

Some Background

Traditional resource conservationists and animal welfare advocates celebrate separate histories and espouse distinct philosophies. In a given circumstance their views may coincide, but they more often conflict. Sometimes it’s a mix of both. Professionals in either discipline are more attuned and (perhaps) committed to the distinctions than are members of the general public. Some advocates on both sides are more confrontational than others. Given all that, it may be unsurprising that the concept of compassionate conservation arose in the unique context of a British charity organized by the starring actors of the 1966 film Born Free. The predicament of Elsa the lioness they helped publicize provided a unique nexus of predator conservation and captive animal welfare to build on.  Their Born Free Foundation , which at one point actually trademarked the term “Compassionate Conservation” has helped underwrite three meetings: a symposium in Oxford, U.K. (2010); a conference in Vancouver, British Columbia (2015), and the most recent conference in Leura, New South Wales.

Leura, Australia

The latter two events were co-sponsored and organized by the Centre for Compassionate Conservation (Centre) at the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS). The Centre was founded in 2013 by UTS conservation biologist Dr. Daniel Ramp, who continues as its Director. His unusual goal, succinctly (indeed, laconically) stated, is “to better conserve nature by protecting the welfare of individual animals in captivity and in the wild.” The Centre currently lists a core management team of five, plus six affiliated researchers. Five conference attendees identified themselves as Centre Ph.D. candidates, and another as an unspecified Centre student. Before organizing the Centre, Daniel and most of his present colleagues comprised something called THINKK, focused more narrowly on ethical kangaroo conservation. Coincidentally, a documentary film emerging from that effort just opened in selected U.S. theaters.

Alloying animal welfare advocates and conservationists this way requires effort.  Alloying them into a fully coherent interest group is unlikely. Conservationists, including conservation biologists, are rarely concerned with the comfort or fates of individual organisms. For example, the Society for Conservation Biology is “dedicated to advancing the science and practice of conserving Earth’s biological diversity”. It emphasizes populations, species, biotic communities and other aggregations rather than individual organisms. This view accommodates Darwinian natural selection and economic sustainability of recreational and commercial exploitation, including so-called ecosystem services. Except where the population of some species is approaching zero and every extant individual contributes substantially to its genetic diversity, whether any of them are particularly well off beyond their ability to breed or produce gametes for propagation purposes is a subsidiary concern. By contrast, animal welfare begins with sentient organisms and recognizes fewer aggregate or emergent properties. Strictly speaking, to welfare advocates, preserving a species or population is secondary to protecting individuals from experiencing pain or suffering, especially that related to human actions or influences.

California Condor with tracking tags on wings

Logically extended, the difference between conservation and compassion can be illustrated by the California condor recovery effort. Condors incapable of breeding are useless to conservation biologists other than for public relations purposes. Any “display” animal is subject to the particular dangers inherent in repeated transportation and public contact. Presented as an example or representative of the taxon Gymnogyps californianus it nevertheless becomes a named or nicknamed individual entity in the minds of the people who “meet” it.  Once transferred permanently for display to (e.g.) a zoo, the welfare of a named, non-breeding condor takes on a significance that it never had before. Should it fall ill, hundreds or thousands of people will fret. Should it die unexpectedly, they will mourn and hold its keepers responsible. Meanwhile, potential breeding condors may be released to cope with hazards of “wild” survival their captive counterparts never face. The processes of breeding contribute further stresses and risks. The value of a display condor is tallied in goodwill and monetary contributions. The value of a breeder is tallied in viable offspring, much as the value of a laying hen is tallied in eggs produced. The contentment of a named bird is judged differently from that of a numbered one. Should “recovery” succeed, individual condors will someday become as anonymous as turkey vultures, their welfare officially unmonitored. With all that in mind, a compassionate conservation conference is necessarily a coalition exercise. A stable, hybrid entity like the UTS Centre remains exceptional.

In the Event

The three-day Leura schedule included ten presentation sessions, a poster session and six workshops. Each presentation session opened with a half-hour keynote talk from an invited speaker followed by a series of shorter contributions.


Australian waterfall

Presentation sessions were organized around conservation ethics (2); novel ecosystems (2); animal welfare science and issues (2); laws and policies; agriculture and wildlife, predator-friendly ranching and finally “cultivating compassion”. Keynote speakers (six men, four women) came from the USA (5), Australia (3), Malaysia (1) and the UK (1). Nine are university faculty or affiliates; two represent independent conservation NGOs (yes, we turned it up to 11). Few of us can comfortably label ourselves without hyphenating. Our credentials include (alphabetically) Animal Science, Conservation Biology, Ecology, English, Environmental Ethics, Environmental Science, Ethnography, Evolutionary Biology, History, Humanities, Law, Natural Resources, Philosophy, Wildlife Biology, and Zoology and doubtless some that I overlooked. Our keynote talks ranged from practical legal and management case studies to aspirational exhortations. That may not be a defensible continuum, but it will have to do.

A conference program with abstracts is available for download here. Since there were about sixty presentations over two and a half days, I can hardly even list them, much less say anything pithy about more than a few. Their diversity made for an intense, eclectic, even exhausting experience. The general quality of presentations struck me as higher than the average at many more traditional, disciplinary conferences. Perhaps it takes “more” of something or another to survive the rigors of interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary work.

What I can do is highlight a couple of impressive research projects of particular interest to Million Trees followers in the western U.S.  In his keynote address, Conservation as creative diplomacy: Raven and tortoise futures in the Mojave Desert, University of New South Wales Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Thom van Dooren looked at “new technology” attempts to dissuade the big black birds from preying on juvenile, endangered reptiles. Artificial tortoises conceived as the equivalent to exploding, joke cigars featured heavily in this thought-provoking and entertaining analysis. Understanding introduced megafauna in the Anthropocene: Wild donkeys as ecosystem engineers in the Sonoran Desert by Arizona State University graduate turned Centre Ph.D. candidate Erick Lundgren showed how “feral” burros in western Arizona create water sources used by “native” wildlife by digging down to shallow aquifers in dry washes. Photos and infrared video made the case for this completely new and gratifying application of the term “ass holes” and discussion of the demonstrable positive effects of “alien” animals. An early presentation of Erick’s findings can be viewed here.


Poster of Non-Nativist Landcare

For readers unfamiliar with poster sessions, the basic idea is to summarize a project, argument or proposal in the minimum necessary words and graphics to convey the important ideas. Posters can be perused at the convenience of conference-goers, and (as in this case) can be strategically hung in proximity to coffee and snacks; but a period is usually specified for poster authors to literally stand by their work and answer questions. What constitutes a poster is evolving rapidly. Mechanically pasted-up arrangements have been superseded by single, large format prints, which in turn may soon give way to looped or even user-navigable videos on flat screen displays. Only a handful of posters were presented at Leura. One included a description of low-disturbance riparian revegetation techniques; another explained a new proposal to legally protect captive whales, porpoises and dolphins in the U.S.A.; a third took data-driven issue with Argentina’s official over(?)-emphasis on lethally suppressing European rabbit populations; and the fourth combined a poster with a video loop to demonstrate the surprising calmness of red foxes living in proximity to dingoes, their only wild predators.


Befitting a gaggle of academics, three of the six workshops initiated collaborations meant to produce papers for peer-reviewed publication. “Welfare in the wild” focuses on the challenges of assessing the condition of free-living wild animals, a necessity for practical compassionate conservation. “The Australian Wildcat Project” seeks to reframe feral cats as wild animals and find “compassionate and effective solutions” that supersede traditional (and ineffectual) lethal culling.  “Transforming wildlife management policies” envisions a compassionate alternative to the present Australian Pest Animal Strategy.

For attendees not leashed to the “publish or perish” treadmill, “A framework for human-wildlife health and coexistence in Asia” built on the related presentation session to propose guidelines for further research and development. “Predator friendly ranching skills and technologies” demonstrated an array of time-tested, new and proposed methods for keeping livestock without resorting to lethal predator control. “Bringing ethics into conservation with argument analysis” offered an introduction to rhetorical and logical analysis of the claims underlying conservation decision-making.


Banksia in Australia

On July 31, 1947, Aldo Leopold finalized a paragraph that appeared about seven eighths of the way through his introduction to a proposed book of essays. It began “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” There, Leopold styled himself as “the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well, and does not want to be told otherwise”. Perhaps ironically, less than nine months later (at age 61) he succumbed to heart failure aggravated by the exertion of fighting a grass fire, leaving the still unpublished anthology in other hands. Nearly two decades on, editors transplanted the paragraph into the much-revised text of a Leopold essay titled “The Round River” for re-publication by Oxford University Press, where his overwrought sentiment blossomed into a gnostic axiom of conservation biology.

Practically anyone could recognize an injured animal. Only Leopold, selected colleagues and their presumptive heirs could diagnose the arcane injuries of populations, species, communities or ecosystems. The welfare of an organism didn’t “amount to a hill of beans” next to the integrity of the greater collective. It was a more than convenient fit into the value system of academic biology, where individuals are traditionally considered mere examples of taxa, available for collection, experimentation, or “scientific” interference pretty much at will.

As a group, biologists have likely devised more (and more esoteric) ways than anyone else to kill, injure or discomfit organisms. Way back in 1865, physiologist Claude Bernard, fountainhead of the indispensable idea of homeostasis, reflected, “the science of life…is a superb and dazzlingly lighted hall which may be reached only by passing through a long and ghastly kitchen.” Recipes beyond his darkest dreams have since been tested there. In that regard, conservation biology is unexceptional. Conservation biology in practice consists largely of subsidizing the (Darwinian) fitness of too-rare species by forcibly taxing that of too-common ones. The move from culinary to macroeconomic metaphors indicates only that we are now cooking on a vast, institutional scale. Both figuratively and literally, conservation biologists break a lot of eggs in service of making too-rare species more common and supposedly too-common ones more rare. Consistent with basic economic wisdom, individuals of scarce species are more highly valued than those of common species. But much of biology is still concerned with examining formerly living objects to find out what experimenting on them accomplished. The drafters of laws like the U.S. Endangered Species Act made “experimental, nonessential” individuals or populations available for scientific “take”. At best, such exceptions allow for research that might stave of extinction. At worst, they provide cover for otherwise anathema activities like “scientific whaling.”

What will become of compassionate conservation? I can’t answer that question. Its advent represents an interesting cross-pollination among otherwise ramifying points of view. I’m sympathetic to the basic aims of its proponents. My own work wasn’t really conceived to abet them; but if it does, I say “well and good.” There’s more than enough casually rationalized cruelty in the world already. 

Matt Chew