Bald eagles and the conservationist dilemma

Firstly, welcome back, esteemed (quite possibly non-existent) readership of this blog that I wish to neglect no longer. Not having blogged in a while, I ask for your patience while I get back into the groove.

Since I’ve last posted on here, my understanding of the wildlife issues I rant about has gained a certain depth, as I am now one semester into a Master’s degree in Conservation. That being said, anything written here is still very much based on personal opinions and subjective reflection, though I do hope to make it all more scientifically sound as I go along.

One debate I have come across time and time again  in recent months is the question of what conservationists should be protecting, and why. It should come as no surprise that there is a disproportionate amount of time and money spent on efforts to save cute, fluffy, majestic, or otherwise charismatic species. The prime example here is the panda, emblematic for many of the environmental movement as a whole, courtesy of the WWF (the World Wide Fund for Nature, that is, not the organization formerly known as World Wrestling Federation).

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But this preoccupation with charismatic species has evoked strong criticism from many in the conservation community. Chris Packham, a UK conservationist and TV presenter, thinks of panda conservation as a giant waste of money that would be better spent on other species, calling the species unfit for survival and doomed to extinction despite our best efforts. Seemingly enjoying his role as the new enfant terrible of conservation, he later went on to criticize tiger conservation projects as wasteful and unsuccessful, urging people to stop donating money towards saving the world’s largest cat.

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The general argument made by Packham and many other commentators is that we should start being realistic about what we can and cannot conserve, and that it is ethically questionable to focus all this attention on what they see as lost causes when there are so many other species that urgently need our help. This is a fair argument. Just because certain species might not capture the public’s imagination the way pandas, tigers, rhinos, elephants, gorillas, and other charismatic megafauna do, this does not mean we should ignore them, especially given the questionable success rate of some of these high profile species. That being said, I am not sure that encouraging people to stop donating towards certain causes is the right message to send. Rather, potential donors should be encouraged to research the organizations they wish to donate to, and the conservation issues faced by the species of interest. In light of the growing awareness of animal welfare and conservation issues among China’s younger generation, charities engaged in exposing wildlife crime and educating the public should be supported now more than ever, and it is a sheer fact that charismatic species are more effective at convincing people to do so.

The latter point is crucial to remember. In a world governed by absolute rationality and informed solely by objective fact, our conservation priorities would probably look somewhat different. However, we live in a world in which One Direction, a band that can objectively be described as terrible, came out of 2013 as the world’s most successful recording artists, i.e., a not so perfect world. Misplaced musical snobbery aside,  the bottom line is that popular opinion matters, and conservation organizations cannot ignore this. I recently came across an article questioning the legitimacy of bald eagle conservation despite its huge success, arguing that the iconic birds are, genetically speaking, much more average than they look, and that money would be better spent on evolutionarily distinct species like the endangered Philippine eagle (see below).

Philippine Eagle "Mindanao" is seen inside a Philippine Eagle compound in Davao city

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention at this point that I am somewhat obsessed with bald eagles, perhaps a result of the etymology of my name in combination with my questionable love for symbols of American patriotism. That being said, I do get the underlying argument made by this article and agree with it to a certain extent. However, it ignores crucial real world issues. For one, a “complementary method for optimizing future resource allocation for bird conservation” implies that there is a single pool of money from which funds are allocated to all conservation projects worldwide, which is obviously not the case, as pointed out in the article by Steve Zack from the Wildlife Conservation Society. It would be hard to convince the American taxpayer, for instance, that the money used to fund state and federal conservation agencies is going towards protecting a species at the other end of the world. Similarly, NGOs need to appeal to their donor base, which is likely to be more supportive of species they have an actual chance of seeing themselves. Most importantly, however, I believe it is crucial to inspire in people a sense of awe and appreciation of wildlife, and to reverse the trend of alienation from the natural world, a malady likely to get worse as more and more people move to cities to spend most of their daily lives surrounded by man-made structures. What better way of achieving this than to make sure the natural world around us is as rich, diverse, and exciting as it can be? Unlike the panda, bald eagle recovery is one of the few big success stories in conservation, and should be used to inspire people to take further action to protect nature and its inhabitants. Before anyone rightfully points out that I do not live in America, this example can easily be applied to the UK as well, where sea eagles have successfully been reintroduced to Scotland, a project I am in favour of expanding to the rest of the island. Dismissing bald eagles as “average” and not genetically distinct enough, scientifically accurate as it may be, ultimately does a disservice to conservation, as it fails to take into account the human element. Our planet’s diversity can only be safeguarded with the support of the wider population. While science should underpin these efforts, it alone cannot do the job. Getting people excited about bald eagles may very well sow the seeds of a wider appreciation of nature, and the ripple effect of this underlying change in perspective might very well eventually reach the Philippine eagle.

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