The Rise of the Liberal Conservationist
I confess that this sort of follows on my earlier post about social attitudes of beauty, although with a significant slant towards conservation. I can definitely admit to being a keen conservation enthusiast. I strongly believe in preserving the ecosystems of the world, giving them the best chance to continue to thrive and adapt. However, the extents of our efforts to preserve the biodiversity found on our planet today is no doubt shaped by our own superficial attitudes. I will, of course, illustrate my point with two pictures. Without ANY information on their biology or ecosystem roles, have a think about which one you’d want to save if you had limited resources:
Yeah, I figured it’d probably be a no-brainer. The Naked Mole Rat, right? Right?! No? Darn. Ten years of psychic school all for nothing. With the exception of a few people, I’m sure everyone went for the Giant Panda. And why not? It looks cute…look at it, just lazing about on the tree! In contrast, the Naked Mole rat looks like it could do some serious damage with those sharp teeth.
Actually, the panda’s much more likely to want to harm you than the mole rat. I recall my A2-Level Biology teacher recounting tales of panda keepers with missing limbs, thanks to the black and white Chinese bears. Actually, she also told the class once how we find pandas cute because of how low their eyes are on their forehead and their big eyes…just like human babies! It’s what’s called a ‘superstimuli’. But even that aside, without knowing ANYTHING about these species (which a relatively small amount of people really do), most people would choose to save the panda.
And THAT is incredibly worrying.
The Lament of the Conservative Conservationist
The WWF (World Wildlife Federation) have the panda as their flagship species. When you see a black and white panda logo, chances are you’ll instantly think of the WWF (no, not the wrestling TV programme). The WWF, and other charities big and small, appeal to our natural sense of sympathy by showing us images of incredibly adorable pandas. They then bombard us with all the problems the pandas are facing: low population numbers, deforestation causing habitat fragmentation and destruction, other human impacts…etc etc.
Now, I’m not saying that we SHOULDN’T save the panda. I’m ambivalent on the matter. But I will confess that I find the panda a biological oddity. It really seems to me that they are evolutionary awkward. Why? Well, a few reasons, really…
- Female pandas are only able to conceive around 2-3 days a year. That’s between 48-72 hours annually! Holy moly.
- Pandas are EXTREMELY fussy maters. I make no comment on whether it’s males or females: chances are it’s both, though don’t take my word for it. I can hear the guys reading this almost scream at the injustice. FUSSY MALES? It’s almost an oxymoron!
- Evolutionary, they are carnivores. Functionally, they are herbivores. Herbivores without a means to digest cellulose, which is a significant component of plant matter. They have to eat loads of bamboo to meet their energy requirements. Rarely, they’ll eat some small rodents.
The above three main points confuse me when I think about why the panda still survives in the world today. Chances are, it’s largely thanks to our doing as human beings. Now, before we give ourselves a hearty pat on the back for saving these adorably wuvvy duvvy cutey wooty animal, we need to ask ourselves what the benefits would be. Looking at the panda in isolation, ok they help disperse seeds in the forests…but apart from that, they seem a functional evolutionary dead-end to me. The WWF’s website notes how conserving pandas would mean actually conserving the rest of the diverse ecosystem that it inhabits. It’s an interesting and debated conservation approach: by saving a species high up the food chain, for example a top predator like lions Africa, you have to conserve everything around it. After all, the ‘top dog’ of the food chain only survives because everything under it survives: take them away and the top dog becomes the starving dog becomes the dog-you-think-is-playing-dead-but-really-isn’t.
That does flag up an interesting issue for me though. Is saving the panda actually less about saving the species itself and more about conserving the ecosystem around it? It could be that, conservation charities like the WFF, by using the guise of focusing on ‘beautiful’ or ‘cute’ species like the panda, are actually focusing on preserving the species that we don’t hear or know about. Or I may just be talking complete rubbish and they do want to save an animal that eats so much bamboo it spends the rest of its time sleeping and has loads of problems ‘in the sack’.
Dear Conservation Conservatives: please prioritise your efforts according to common sense and not just ‘because it looks cute’. Loads of people found ‘Hit-Girl’ from the movie ‘Kick-Ass’ cute…and she could kill you before you even knew what was going on.
More Than Skin Deep: The Functional Approach
While I’m not completely dismissing the ‘top predator’ conservation approach, I find it distinctly worrying that superficial notions of beauty are shaping conservation efforts. Using a trite analogy, I shudder to think of the scenario where we only save the Kim Kardashians and the Jersey/Geordie Shore cast members of the natural world. I shudder even more to think of a world where we allow for the extinctions of the Stephen Hawkings, the Bill Gates, the Alan Turings, the…well, you get the idea. I just picked three names off the top of my head but there are many more. I’d hate to live in that world…especially as I hate Keeping Up With The Kardashians and the bloody ‘Shore’ programmes.
I argue for a more ‘functional approach’ to be adopted in conservation efforts. I’m not saying that this functional approach isn’t already adopted…just not nearly enough. By ‘functional’, I mean what a species actually does in an ecosystem: its role in shaping its environment. The benefits of such an approach are numerous, chiefly amongst them being that we’ll actually be able to drive research into ecology and behaviour of species we believe to be functional: understanding these crucial areas will put us in a much better position to help to conserve them.
The other intrinsic beauty of functional approaches in conservation is that the animals we target as conservational priorities help to shape their environment for other animals. That is, this approach would still provide the synergistic conservational successes for other species as in the ‘top dog’ approach. I’m also not advocating we stop conserving species we find ‘pretty’ or ‘cute’: just that it’s probably a smart idea to allocate resources on them according to their ecosystem function. For example, most people finds elephants cute…but they also have an important function as ‘ecosystem engineers’. By going about their daily routines – pulling grass and knocking down trees – they actually change the physical properties of the land to benefit other species. Their dung is also a great fertiliser for seeds that they hardly digest…allowing them to be assist in the life cycles of certain plants.
I’m also careful not to provide too many examples of ‘ugly but important’ species which aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. Because that isn’t the point. I think it’s more striking to say that we actually don’t KNOW about the ecology, and thus functional importance, of loads and loads and loads (and loads) of species. Actually, on that topic, we’ve really only described a small proportion of the estimated number of species on the planet. If that doesn’t put it into perspective, I’m not sure I know what will. Maybe this picture of Tard, the grumpy cat?
Changing Attitudes, Changing World
Conservationists are here to conserve the world. Conservatives are here to, largely, conserve their own attitudes and beliefs. I argue that there is a resounding dissonance when you try to combine both. Conservation science is ever evolving, ready to pounce into action to generate new research that helps us to increase our understanding of the natural world that we are so feverishly trying to protect. We really cannot benefit from conservative and socially misguided attitudes dominating the conservation agenda. This means that we really need to gear up and challenge our own archaic, conservative views. And there are many – the conservatives amongst us, of course – who cry blood at the thought of change. I will also be as bold as to say that I only use ‘conservative’ to mean the conservative paradigm and not the political use of the word. Political agendas should never, ever dictate conservation efforts: only scientific studies and research should shape the efforts to protect the natural splendour of this Earth.
And I ask you to consider this: without change, you would be dead. Evolution is change, life is change. Take away change and you take away the very basis of life. As we change our attitudes and the paradigms that we adopt, we change the world – for better, or for worse. And now, more than ever, we need to apply positive and progressive paradigms to conservation science. The application of this thought needs to go more than skin deep, lest we let our ecosystem become overrun with the Kardashians and the Paris Hiltons of the animal world.
After all, isn’t that enough incentive to liberalise the conservation agenda?
I dedicate this post to Jenny Mark, a close friend and MSc graduate in Conservation Science. I’ve had many intellectually stimulating talks with Jenny on the subject and our continued friendship and talks have been the basis and inspiration of this post. I hope this post does your passion justice, Jenny!
~ by tazjagdev on March 1, 2013.
Posted in Social Commentary