Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards: Impediments (Part 1) can be read here.
Wildlife conservation has great importance to the terrestrial and sea environment and those that are beholden to it for food, clothing, and business. However active conservation carries with it a set of moral obligations both to us and to the species and ecosystems that are affected by any action taken against or in the interest of the environment.
There are also a number of risks and costs associated with the objectives of conservation and it is the moral responsibility of the citizens of the region and the world to ascertain the long-term effectiveness of conservation, its impact on our future as well as the regional environment, the ability to provide food and culture to future generations, and many other details that may change over time, impacting our original goals and the final outcome of conservation projects.
In some cases wildlife conservation projects may take decades and even extend beyond a single human generation. With little or no pay not many people are willing to devote so many years of their life to an undertaking that might see dramatically different organizational structures and goals over the course of various presidencies, environmental administrations, and changing environmental variables. All of these aspects detract from the ability to perceive and actualize the ultimate objectives of the project and make it harder to show the merits of conservation efforts to a world that wants an immediate return on its investment.
Moral Dilemma of Saving Specific Species
Specialization and adaptation play a significant role in the long-term success of a species. However some species are so well adapted to specific environments that after millions of years of evolution they’re unable to adapt to a changing climate or environment significantly different than the one they evolved in. This presents a difficult moral choice for humans to make: let a species naturally die out or spend resources, time, and effort preserving the species so that we might learn about the species’ struggle to survive. With this knowledge we might learn more about genetics, sexual selection based on long-term/environmental variables, habitat change and destruction, and even the effects of inbreeding due to population decline.
There is another moral dilemma however, this one involving which species to save in an interconnected framework of species each dependent upon another to keep the ecosystem balanced. An example of this is the African Elephant which can destroy habitats suitable for Cheetah by allowing saplings in a field to grow into a forest. But Elephants can also create a hunting ground for Cheetah who need clear, open fields where they can use their speed to their advantage in catching prey. In order to create these habitats Elephants can topple enormous trees for hectares around depriving smaller animals, especially birds, a place to nest or escape to safety. If this is the natural order of things, and by all accounts it is, then removing the elephant from the ecosystem risks changing the habits of the birds and other animals that have evolved to adapt to such situations. In these cases overpopulation of certain avian species can lead to a decimation of snakes and woodland rodents, further cause imbalances within the ecosystem. Ultimately there may not currently be funds to protect all the species in this interconnected environment and the deciding factor in which species gets saved is either the NGO or a local or national government providing funding for projects specific to that species.
Food supply for humans is another factor affected by our morals and one that affects not just terrestrial farming, but also the fishing industry. In 2011 the world depended upon more than 83 million tons of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans pulled from the sea, roughly 60% of total fish production. With so much food coming from the wild rather than being farmed over-fishing and poaching of Tuna, Swordfish, and Sea Turtles can have devastating impacts on our long-term food supply as well as the environment’s ability to sustain its resources that we rely so heavily upon. These aquatic creatures also prey on certain species of Jellyfish and a drop in predators may be one reason that some Jellyfish populations appear to be on the rise.
There is also a trade-off between conserving one species or another, particularly with keystone species: wildlife that can disproportionately affect their local ecosystem Humans spend significant resources on the conservation of Lion, Leopard, and other well-known species, but less on species that aren’t as valuable to their environment or aren’t as well understood, such as the Pangolin. Other wildlife, such as the Giant Panda, are conserved because of their popular status in the media, as well as the Cheetah, even though both species seem to be incapable of thriving without human intervention. The Cheetah in particular seems to be at a genetic dead-end not wholly related to human interference with habitat destruction and genetic isolation thought to have started roughly 12,000 years ago.
Invasive species provide another aspect of conservation and ecology to take into account. In environments largely untouched by foreign plants even a single invasive plant species can cause significant problems to the balance of the local ecosystem. Non-native plants may be immune to defense mechanisms of native plants, preventing the reproduction of the native species. These invasive plants can also have harmful effects on the wildlife populations by presenting an inedible or dangerous food source to animals that may eat strange plants out of desperation.
Similarly, the unsolicited introduction of a wildlife species to an area large or small can have huge consequences on the local food chain and off-set the population of other species. In some cases this can result in vermin moving closer to human dwellings, causing property damage and increasing the spread of disease among humans and their pets. It can even affect crop yields as rodents or insects driven away from their original habitat devour our agricultural crops.
High upfront costs may also be associated with saving wildlife and some of this comes from taxpayer dollars — sometimes from countries that don’t even natively have the species being saved. In many cases funding comes down to whether a group of people believe it’s worth spending public funds to save wildlife or to preserve the natural beauty, and ecology, of the region. This can turn into a popularity contest where keystone species such as the Elephant receives much more consideration for funding than do less attractive species, such as Hyena and Vultures, that prevent disease and remove waste from the local environment.
Money ear-marked or set aside by local or government projects offer another point of contention. If renovating a beach to provide a long-term nesting location for sea turtles also improves property values of beach-front real estate is this a fair use of public funds? On the other hand should insurance and government aid to repair damage done to coastal properties by storms and natural disasters also allow funding to go towards wildlife conservation projects with overlapping goals?
Ideally monetary investment in a healthy environment should have a long-term payoff. But the benefits may be hard to realize for small communities or those dependent on a strong tourist economy to provide even basic income. In these situations it’s essential for the national government or non-governmental organizations to provide funding where local communities cannot. But the choice of how this is achieved and who benefits the most — the wildlife or the people — may get lost in between. Without important considerations of our moral obligations and moral desires we’ll have increasing difficulty finding balancing environmental aspects and our goals.