Saturday, 11 May 2013

A Note On Conservation Of Endangered Species

Last Sunday after reading a piece in the China Post about an apparently endangered species of turtle  (yellow-margined box turtles) having been poached from Feitsui reservoir, I wondered what values could be honestly met by conservation of endangered animal species and what methods I might purpose for this without having to invoke the usual Statist "solutions".

Why Conserve Endangered Species?

Aside from the aesthetic values to be gained by the conservation of some endangered species of animals (i.e. those whose physical characteristics render them consonant with existing aesthetic categories, e.g. leopards, pandas, elephants etc), there is also a more abstract claim about the importance of conserving biodiversity. This claim is that loss of species may lead to global ecosystem collapse which in turn may have high human costs such as the collapse of fisheries or the loss of staple crops. However the sheer scale of this claim about biodiversity and global ecosystem collapse necessarily subsumes much uncertainty about the variety of consequences that may occur at far lesser orders of magnitude; for example, the trophic cascade effects of apex predators occur in some ecosystems, but are comparatively absent (pdf) in many others. To take that floating abstract claim about the importance of biodiversity generally as the basis on which to conserve any particular vulnerable or endangered species is simply risible: not all species of animals or plants are equally consequential for the ecosystems in which they are found.

In a letter to the Taipei Times published on Wednesday, Flora Faun wrote:
"Only recently have conservationists around the world realized that a sense of pride may be an underused tool in preserving endangered species and ecosystems."
To pass over (for the moment) FF's proposed use of emotions as "tools", it is certainly true that pride may be both a consequence and motivation for efforts to conserve some endangered species. Yet how genuine this sense of pride may be, is another matter. In some cases, there may be a genuine sense of pride at having helped to conserve an endangered species whose extinction really would have immediate and obvious ecological consequences, but not all cases will be like this. In those cases the values toward which conservation efforts may be honestly purposed are more likely to be aesthetic values, such as those of the Fairy Pitta bird-watchers in Taiwan's Yunlin county who opposed the construction of Hushan reservoir. In cases such as this, where a vulnerable species whose systemic importance to the ecosystem may only be slight, there may be a temptation to make an unwarranted connection between efforts to prevent the destruction of this particular species' habitat to the floating abstraction of the importance of conserving biodiversity in general, irrespective of costs:
"Because every green measure, every conservation effort and all the little economies we could make in our daily lives, may look insignificant if we choose to look at the big picture. On the other hand, if we view that big picture as millions of little choices made by people just like us, that's how we can come to understand why it's our own choices that are so important."
This attitude toward conservation appears to elevate the value of biodiversity in the abstract (hence "every conservation effort") to the central organizing principle of a romantic movement. As an attitude toward conservation, it appears to be entirely independent of actual knowledge of ecology or concern for the economic demands of social life, for it seems to require conservation efforts without regard to their efficacy or economic costs.

Returning to aesthetic values, there are many cases of species whose conservation status is of "least concern", but from whom more people can derive aesthetic value than from endangered species. In my own case, I especially enjoy photographing the large birds of prey that live in and around Taiwan's mountains and reservoirs, and yet far from being endangered all of these birds have a conservation status of "least concern". They may not be rare in an ecological sense, but given that I live day-to-day in a city, my encounters with them depend entirely on how often I can drive out to the reservoirs (which lately has not been often at all). Moreover, I don't enjoy photographing the birds merely because they are birds of prey and look "cool", but also because photographing them demands considerable patience, luck and some skill. In terms of aesthetic experience, there is all the difference in the world between merely looking at a good picture of an eagle somebody else took, and actually succeeding in taking a good picture of one of those eagles yourself.

To the extent that other people are like me in regarding certain types of animals as more aesthetically appealling than others, then efforts to persuade others to join in with work to conserve endangered species might benefit more from exploring and emphasizing a variety of aesthetic values to be had from encounters with these species (how to do this may be an under-explored question), and less from overemphasizing the quasi-religious commitment to biodiversity irrespective of ecology.

How To Conserve Endangered Species?

Rather than the Statist approach of proposing "national parks" within which most forms of human activity are to be strictly excluded by a government agency, there are a variety of other methods for conserving endangered species that are consistent with an ethics of individual freedom.

One of the most obvious methods is to purchase an area of land that approximates, as closely as possible, the habitat(s) of the species to be conserved and to then use property-rights enforcement mechanisms as tools for conservation. In theory this would eliminate much of the habitat threat that human constructions pose and would also enable the court prosecution of poachers (or other techniques of dissuasion). The practical difficulty with this is the effective relegation of property-rights to the status of permissions. Because the polities of democratic governments have elected parties that insist on "balancing" the rights of the individual against "the public interest", there can be no security in adopting this approach whilst the interests and power of the State remain unchallenged; the land purchased for conservation of species may simply be stolen "expropriated" by the government and handed over to a third party for development - with or without compensation.

Yet the case of the endangered yellow-margin box turtles at Feitsui reservoir is interesting in that their natural habitat is already an area of land administered by a State appointed agency to run the massive public-works project that is the reservoir. Feitsui reservoir is distinct from Taiwan's other reservoirs in that it is not a tourist site, and the public are largely excluded from visiting it (this is a problem I myself will have to solve too at some point). My understanding of the situation however is that this exclusionary policy is largely enforced only in the vicinity of the reservoir's dam and that it is still entirely possible for people to visit the middle and back-end of the reservoir, which is presumably where the poachers are able to lay their traps.

Clearly, the privatization of Taiwan's second largest reservoir (and the one that provides the bulk of Taipei city's water supply) is somewhat unlikely. However, another approach, one which seems to have saved the American Bison from extinction, might be animal husbandry. After all, if the Chinese market for these turtles is for their consumption, then it makes much more long-term economic sense for the sellers in Taiwan to prolong the duration of the market by conserving the turtles and selling them in lower numbers, at higher prices. This approach would have to focus on establishing something approximating a formal property rights system among the poachers to a certain number of the turtles each. This system would have to be organized by marking out designated areas along the reservoir where property-rights holders could raise their turtles in a semi-captive state, perhaps using especially thick fishing nets with weights and buoys to create artificial pens within which the turtles could breed and be fed. If such a system could be made to work in practice, then it would mean that the poachers-turned-property-holders would have ample incentive not only to conserve the turtles but to profit from doing so.

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