Living Among Beasts: Sharing the Burden of Conservation

African forest elephants populations are declining rapidly due to local human pressures. But is it fair to expect other humans to live among potential threats to their livelihood?

African forest elephants populations are declining rapidly due to local human pressures. But is it fair to expect other humans to live among potential threats to their livelihood? (Image Credit: Ray in Manila, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Some species of animal do a better job of capturing our attention than others. For many of us, the exotic nature of these animals is often the kicker. Think of the majesty of an elephant strolling across the savannah, or the romanticised stalk of the tiger through the jungle. Yet while the public ogles these creatures in the wild or at the local zoo and mourns the decline of their wild populations or the reported deaths of iconic individuals, we often ignore the harsh reality: that there are people who live in close proximity to these animals, to whom they represent a day-to-day threat. So how does our attitudes to charismatic species in places like Africa and Asia here need to shift, and where can we start?

Earlier this week, an excellent article by Nikki Rust explored whether or not the extinction of the tiger would really matter to humans. Rust spoke about the fact that whilst the west may be in awe of charismatic species like the tiger, for the people that live in the immediate vicinity of the species, it presents a very real threat.

It’s a topic that we in the Global North often gloss over when bemoaning the decline of species found in parts of the world that we have no tangible connection to. Large predators are often flagship species, the subject of wildlife documentaries, or the drivers of ecotourism. As such, it’s easy to rustle up sympathy or funding when populations start to edge towards extinction. Yet we don’t live near these creatures, and often forget that there are plenty of people who do. People who have to worry about their presence, whether it’s because of direct attacks on humans or predation on livestock.

The hypocrisy should be immediately obvious to anyone living in northern Europe. Reintroduction of bears, wolves and wolverines have been a hot topic since the 1970s, when politicians first made efforts to bring back large predators. The global argument has been played out on a more local scale, with people in urban areas arguing for the reintroduction and conservation of species like the wolf that were once native, whilst many in rural areas kindly point out the potential effects of having such predators nearby on their livelihoods.

I recently read Tim Flannery’s engaging “Europe: A Natural History”, and what struck me is that much of Europe presents potential rewilding territory for more species than we would initially think possible. Whilst the IUCN only refers to species that have died out in the last 200 to 300 years as candidates for reintroduction, this is a blip on an ecological timescale. Around 50,000 years ago the straight tusked-elephant (Paleoloxodon antiquus) died out on the European continent. They share many similar characteristics with the African forest elephant (and a fair bit of genetic material, courtesy of past hybridisation), a species that is suffering from the usual suspects – fragmentation and poaching. As Flannery writes:

Many find the prospect of elephants wandering the forests of Europe ridiculous, or even dangerous. Yet they accept that Africans must share their homes with the ponderous creatures. I think that we should take the long view and share the burden of conservation more equally.

The fact that they died out can be somewhat attributed* to the expansion of a human population at the time that had no penchant for conservation, nor a need to consider it. Two species of rhino, both probably filling similar ecological roles to modern rhinos, went extinct less than 40,000 years ago. Despite extensive fragmentation, there are patches of habitat in southern Europe (the most recent straight-tusked elephant populations were found in Spain) where similar species could potentially sustain small populations. After all, both the wisent (bison) and the musk ox essentially went extinct throughout Europe, and both are now back, with musk ox having repopulated Norway and the bison having been reintroduced most successfully to forests in Eastern Europe. Horses went extinct in America around 10,000 years ago, but their reintroduction by European settlers has seen them successfully repopulate much of that continent.

If those examples are going too far back for you, consider the fact that modern lions inhabited much of Europe over the last 10,000 years, spanning a range from Turkey to Spain. Human activity drove them back to Turkey, and they went extinct there roughly 300 years ago (what was that IUCN timeline again?). Perhaps rather than attacking poaching culture^ and calling on African regions to ensure the survival of Cecil’s kin, we should be examining the potential of lion conservation zones in their former habitat.

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Lions have only been extinct in Europe for around 300 years, just within the IUCN’s criteria for rewilding candidates.

Now to be clear, I’m NOT saying that we should automatically rewild lions, elephants and rhinos into Europe. Land cover has changed substantially since they died out, and it would be a difficult process. These are all potentially dangerous animals, and any rewilding would have to be carefully planned. Additionally, bringing back locally extinct species is a slippery slope. How far does one go? If someday scientists do succeed in genetically engineering extinct species, we can’t simply reintroduce them to ecosystems that have adapted to their absence.

But I do think that some current Western attitudes to populations of megafauna in continents like Africa and Asia need to change. We need to question whether we have the right to advise on conservation policy when we baulk at the possibility of even recently-extinct predators returning to our neck of the woods.

As Nikki Rust put it, “it raises the uncomfortable question of imperialism in nature. Who are we (in the Global North) to impose wildlife on poor communities and who are we to decide which species survive”. Conserving species is a worthy cause, but if we fail to take local human perspectives into account we run the risk of being counter-productive. Professor Willian Sutherland, author of the Conservation Handbook, wrote in a recent paper that conservation outcomes will be less durable when conservationists assert their interests to the detriment of others”.

And as a last, fairly catty thought, it’s easy to criticise the conservation efforts of other countries when you’ve already wiped out most of your own continent’s megafauna.

*A changing climate likely also had a hand in their extinction.

^Poaching is still the main cause of mortality for wolverines in parts of Europe.

You can find Nikki Rust’s article at the link below. I also highly recommend reading Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery.

https://www.biodiversity-revisited.earth/thought-piece-does-extinction-matter/

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