Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXXI

11 04 2022

Now that the Australian election has been called for next month, here are a few cartoon reminders of the state of environmental politics in this country (hint: they’re abysmal). I’ve surpassed my normal 6 cartoons/post here in this second set for 2022 because, well, our lives depend on the outcome of 21 May. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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The sixth mass extinction is happening now, and it doesn’t look good for us

2 03 2022

Mounting evidence is pointing to the world having entered a sixth mass extinction. If the current rate of extinction continues we could lose most species by 2200. The implication for human health and wellbeing is dire, but not inevitable.

In the timeline of fossil evidence going right back to the first inkling of any life on Earth — over 3.5 billion years ago — almost 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. That means that as species evolve over time — a process known as ‘speciation’ — they replace other species that go extinct.

Extinctions and speciations do not happen at uniform rates through time; instead, they tend to occur in large pulses interspersed by long periods of relative stability. These extinction pulses are what scientists refer to as mass extinction events.

The Cambrian explosion was a burst of speciation some 540 million years ago. Since then, at least five mass extinction events have been identified in the fossil record (and probably scores of smaller ones). Arguably the most infamous of these was when a giant asteroid smashed into Earth about 66 million years ago in what is now the Gulf of Mexico. The collision vapourised species immediately within the blast zone. Later, species were killed off by climate change arising from pulverised particulates suspended in the atmosphere, as well as intense volcano activity stimulated by the buckling of the Earth’s crust from the asteroid’s impact. Together, about 76 percent of all species around at the time went extinct, of which the disappearance of the dinosaurs is most well-known. But dinosaurs didn’t disappear altogether — the survivors just evolved into birds.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXX

16 02 2022

Here is the first set of biodiversity cartoons for 2022. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Neo-colonialist attitudes ignoring poachernomics will ensure more extinctions

14 01 2022

No matter most people’s best intentions, poaching of species in Sub-Saharan Africa for horn and ivory continues unabated. Despite decades of policies, restrictions, interventions, protections, and incentives, many species of elephant and rhino are still hurtling toward extinction primarily because of poaching.

Clearly, we’re doing something heinously wrong.

Collectively, we have to take a long, hard look in the conservation mirror and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Why haven’t we been able to put any real dent in the illegal trade of poached elephant ivory and rhino horn? How many millions (billions?) of dollars have we spent seemingly to little avail? Why haven’t trade bans and intensive security measures done the trick?

The reasons are many, but they boil down to two main culprits:

  1. neo-colonialist sentiments driven by the best intentions of mainly overseas NGOs have inadvertently created the ideal conditions for the poaching economy — what we term poachernomics — to thrive by ensuring the continued restriction of legal supply of wildlife products; and
  2. shutting off conservation areas to local people and directing the bulk of ecotourism profits away from source communities have maintained steady poaching incentives in the absence of other non-destructive livelihoods.

In our new paper — Dismantling the poachernomics of the illegal wildlife trade (led by Enrico Di Minin of the Universities of Helsinki and KwaZulu-Natal, and co-authored by Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes of the University of Oxford, Jeanetta Selier of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, Maxi Louis of the Namibian Association of Community-Based Natural Resources Management Support Organizations, and me) — published quietly in late 2021, we describe how poachernomics works, and why our efforts to incapacitate it have been so ineffectual.

First, what is poachernomics?

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Influential conservation papers of 2021

5 01 2022

Following my annual tradition, I present the retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of 2021 as assessed by experts in Faculty Opinions (formerly known as F1000). These are in no particular order. See previous years’ lists here: 2020, 201920182017201620152014, and 2013.

Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change — “… confirms what the sparse forest inventory has suggested, that climate change and land-use change is driving Amazonian ecosystems toward carbon sinks. … the research team provides a robust estimate of the carbon dynamics of one of the world’s most important ecosystems and provides insights into the role of land use change and potentials for mitigating direct carbon losses in the future.

Organic and conservation agriculture promote ecosystem multifunctionality — “… a very clear insight into the trade-offs between the different ecosystem services and indicate that yield and product quality are lower in organic systems compared to conventional systems, yet organic systems have higher economic performance due to higher product prices and subsidies.

Biodiversity of coral reef cryptobiota shuffles but does not decline under the combined stressors of ocean warming and acidification — “… even with similar richness, community function is very likely to be perturbed by ocean warming/acidification with unpredictable impacts on economically important species such as fish and corals.

Local conditions magnify coral loss after marine heatwaves — “… show that climate-induced coral loss is greater in areas with elevated seaweed abundance and elevated sea urchin densities, both of which commonly result from local overfishing … effective local management can synergize with global efforts to mitigate climate change and help coral reefs survive the Anthropocene.

Large ecosystem-scale effects of restoration fail to mitigate impacts of land-use legacies in longleaf pine savannas — “… while restoration can have major benefits in longleaf savannas, land-use legacies have clear effects on many aspects of the ecosystem.

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Fancy a pangolin infected with coronavirus? Apparently, many people do

30 12 2021

The logic of money contradicts the logic of species conservation and human health. As illegal trade has driven pangolins to near extinction, their hunting and market value has kept increasing ― even when we have known that they act as coronavirus reservoirs in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) in a monsoon forest (Sumba Island, Indonesia). With adult weights up to 10 kg and body lengths around half a metre, these animals are mostly solitary and nocturnal, feed on ants and termites, and love tree climbing using bark hollows to shelter and give birth to singletons. The species occurs across mainland and islands of South East Asia, and became ‘Endangered’ in 2008 and ‘Critically Endangered’ in 2014, following a 80% decline in the last 20 years due to hunting and poaching. It has been the most heavily trafficked Asian species, and the IUCN’s assessment states: “… the incentives for harvesting and illegally trading in the species are universally high based on the high financial value of pangolin parts and derivatives”. Captive breeding is unlikely to deter wild collection because (among other reasons) farming costs are high (more so on a large scale) and, even if the species could be traded legally, wild versus farmed pangolin products and individuals are difficult to distinguish (23). Photo courtesy of Michael Pitts

Urbanites are attracted to exotic species, materials, and places. Our purchasing power seems to give us the right to buy any ‘object’ that we can pay for, no matter how exotic the object might be. In such a capitalist rationale, it is no surprise that > 150 thousand illegal cargos with wild animals and plants have been confiscated in 149 countries over the last two decades, moving some 6000 species from one place of the planet to another (1).

Social networks show people interacting with all kinds of fauna, creating the illusion that any animal can become a pet (2). And there’s a multi-$billion market of wildlife for a diverse array of uses including collecting, food, ornamentation, leisure, clothing and medicine (3-5). The paradox is that the rarer a species is, the higher its market value runs and the more lucrative selling it turns out to be, leading to more exploitation and rocketing extinction risk (6).

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An eye on the past: a view to the future

29 11 2021

originally published in Brave Minds, Flinders University’s research-news publication (text by David Sly)

Clues to understanding human interactions with global ecosystems already exist. The challenge is to read them more accurately so we can design the best path forward for a world beset by species extinctions and the repercussions of global warming.

This is the puzzle being solved by Professor Corey Bradshaw, head of the Global Ecology Lab at Flinders University. By developing complex computer modelling and steering a vast international cohort of collaborators, he is developing research that can influence environmental policy — from reconstructing the past to revealing insights of the future.

As an ecologist, he aims both to reconstruct and project how ecosystems adapt, how they are maintained, and how they change. Human intervention is pivotal to this understanding, so Professor Bradshaw casts his gaze back to when humans first entered a landscape – and this has helped construct an entirely fresh view of how Aboriginal people first came to Australia, up to 75,000 years ago.

Two recent papers he co-authored — ‘Stochastic models support rapid peopling of Late Pleistocene Sahul‘, published in Nature Communications, and ‘Landscape rules predict optimal super-highways for the first peopling of Sahul‘ published in Nature Human Behaviour — showed where, how and when Indigenous Australians first settled in Sahul, which is the combined mega-continent that joined Australia with New Guinea in the Pleistocene era, when sea levels were lower than today.

Professor Bradshaw and colleagues identified and tested more than 125 billion possible pathways using rigorous computational analysis in the largest movement-simulation project ever attempted, with the pathways compared to the oldest known archaeological sites as a means of distinguishing the most likely routes.

The study revealed that the first Indigenous people not only survived but thrived in harsh environments, providing further evidence of the capacity and resilience of the ancestors of Indigenous people, and suggests large, well-organised groups were able to navigate tough terrain.

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Citizens meet coral gardening

12 10 2021

It is possible to cultivate corals in the sea like growing a nursery of trees to restore a burned forest. Cultivated corals grow faster than wild corals and can be outplanted to increase the healthy area of damaged reefs. Incorporated in projects of citizen science and ecotourism, this activity promotes environmental awareness about coral reefs, the marine ecosystem that is both the most biodiverse and the most threatened by global change.

When I finished by undergraduate studies in the 1980s, I met several top Spanish marine biologists to prospect my first job ever in academia. In all one-to-one interviews I had, I was asked what my interests were. And when I described that I wanted to study ways of modifying impacted marine ecosystems to restore their biodiversity, a well-known professor judged that my proposition was an inviable form of jardinería marina (marine gardening) ― those words made me feel embarrassed and have remained vivid in my professional imagination since. Neither the expert nor the young researcher knew at the time that we were actually talking about ecological restoration, a discipline that was being formalised exactly then by botanists in their pledge to recover pre-European conditions for North American grasslands (1).

Aspects of coral gardening. The photos show (top) a diver scraping off (with the aid of a toothbrush) algae, sponges and parasites that compete for light and nutrients with the coral fragments under cultivation along suspended ropes (Cousin Island, Seychelles), (middle) coral outplantings in the Gulf of Eliat (Red Sea) hosting a diverse community of fish that clean off the biofouling for free (21), and (bottom) a donor colony farmed off Onna (Okinawa, Japan) (12). Photos courtesy of Luca Saponari (Cousin), Buki Rinkevich (Eliat) and Yoshimi Higa / Onna Village Fishery Cooperative.

Today, the term coral gardening encompasses the suite of methods to cultivate corals (tiny colonial jellyfish with an external skeleton and a carnivorous diet) and to outplant them into the wild to boost the growth of coral reefs following perturbations (2). In the face of the decline of coral reefs globally, due to the combination of climate change, pollution, and overfishing (3), this type of mariculture has gathered momentum in the last three decades and is currently being applied to more than 100 coral species in all the main reefs of our seas and oceans (4-6).

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Avoiding a ghastly future — The Science Show

1 10 2021

Just thought I’d share the audio of an interview I did with the famous Robyn Williams of ABC Radio National‘s The Science Show.

I’d be surprised if any Australians with even a passing interest in science could claim not to have listened to the Science Show before, and I suspect a fair mob of people overseas would be in the same boat.

It was a real privilege to talk with Robyn about our work on the ghastly future, and as always, the production value is outstanding.

Thank you, Robyn and the ABC.

Listen below, or link to the interview directly.

Video explainer — nasty alien species in Australia

15 09 2021

You know you’ve made it to the big time in Australia when Behind The News does a story on your research. Practically every kid in Australia watches the show at some point during their school years.

Although this was produced last month, I thought I’d post the entire 4-minute video here for your viewing pleasure.

When you popularise your research story for kids, it really gets the message across well.

Thank you, Natasha and BTN for this opportunity.

The very worn slur of “neo-Malthusian”

7 09 2021

After the rather astounding response to our Ghastly Future paper published in January this year (> 443,000 views and counting; 61 citations and counting), we received a Commentary that was rather critical of our article.

A Malthusian slur

We have finally published a Response to the Commentary, which is now available online (accepted version) in Frontiers in Conservation Science. Given that it is published under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY), I can repost the Response here:

In their comment on our paper Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future, Bluwstein et al.2 attempt to contravene our exposé of the enormous challenges facing the entire human population from a rapidly degrading global environment. While we broadly agree with the need for multi-disciplinary solutions, and we worry deeply about the inequality of those who pay the costs of biodiversity loss and ecological collapse, we feel obligated to correct misconceptions and incorrect statements that Bluwstein et al.2 made about our original article.

After incorrectly assuming that our message implied the existence of “one science” and a “united scientific community”, the final paragraph of their comment contradicts their own charge by calling for the scientific community to “… stand in solidarity”. Of course, there is no “one science” — we never made such a claim. Science is by its nature necessarily untidy because it is a bottom-up process driven by different individuals, cultures, perspectives, and goals. But it is solid at the core. Scientific confluence is reached by curiosity, rigorous testing of assumptions, and search for contradictions, leading to many — sometimes counter-intuitive or even conflicting — insights about how the world works. There is no one body of scientific knowledge, even though there is good chance that disagreements are eventually resolved by updated, better evidence, although perhaps too slowly. That was, in fact, a main message of our original article — that obligatory specialisation of disparate scientific fields, embedded within a highly unequal and complex socio-cultural-economic framework, reduces the capacity of society to appreciate, measure, and potentially counter the complexity of its interacting existential challenges. We agree that scientists play a role in political struggles, but we never claimed, as Bluwstein et al.2 contended, that such struggles can be “… reduced to science-led processes of positive change”. Indeed, this is exactly the reason our paper emphasized the political impotence surrounding the required responses. We obviously recognize the essential role social scientists play in creating solutions to avoid a ghastly future. Science can only provide the best available evidence that individuals and policymakers can elect to use to inform their decisions. 

We certainly recognise that there is no single policy or polity capable of addressing compounding and mounting problems, and we agree that that there is no “universal understanding of the intertwined socio-ecological challenges we face”. Bluwstein et al.2 claimed that we had suggested scientific messaging alone can “… adequately communicate to the public how socio-ecological crises should be addressed”. We did not state or imply such ideas of unilateral scientific power anywhere in our article. Indeed, the point of framing our message as pertaining to a complex adaptive system means that we cannot, and should not, work towards a single goal. Instead, humanity will be more successful tackling challenges simultaneously and from multiple perspectives, by exploiting manifold institutions, technologies, approaches, and governances to match the complexity of the predicament we are attempting to resolve.

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It’s a tough time for young conservation scientists

24 08 2021

Sure, it’s a tough time for everyone, isn’t it? But it’s a lot worse for the already disadvantaged, and it’s only going to go downhill from here. I suppose that most people who read this blog can certainly think of myriad ways they are, in fact, still privileged and very fortunate (I know that I am).

Nonetheless, quite a few of us I suspect are rather ground down by the onslaught of bad news, some of which I’ve been responsible for perpetuating myself. Add lock downs, dwindling job security, and the prospect of dying tragically due to lung infection, many have become exasperated.

I once wrote that being a conservation scientist is a particularly depressing job, because in our case, knowledge is a source of despair. But as I’ve shifted my focus from ‘preventing disaster’ to trying to lessen the degree of future shittyness, I find it easier to get out of bed in the morning.

What can we do in addition to shifting our focus to making the future a little less shitty than it could otherwise be? I have a few tips that you might find useful:

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXVII

13 08 2021

Here is the fourth set of biodiversity cartoons for 2021. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Pest plants and animals cost Australia around $25 billion a year — and it will get worse

2 08 2021

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University and Andrew Hoskins, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Shamefully, Australia has one of the highest extinction rates in the world.
And the number one threat to our species is invasive or “alien” plants and animals.

But invasive species don’t just cause extinctions and biodiversity loss – they also create a serious economic burden. Our research, published today, reveals invasive species have cost the Australian economy at least A$390 billion in the last 60 years alone.

Our paper – the most detailed assessment of its type ever published in this country – also reveals feral cats are the worst invasive species in terms of total costs, followed by rabbits and fire ants.

Without urgent action, Australia will continue to lose billions of dollars every year on invasive species.

Feral cats are Australia’s costliest invasive species. Source: Adobe Stock/240188862

Huge economic burden

Invasive species are those not native to a particular ecosystem. They are introduced either by accident or on purpose and become pests.

Some costs involve direct damage to agriculture, such as insects or fungi destroying fruit. Other examples include measures to control invasive species like feral cats and cane toads, such as paying field staff and buying fuel, ammunition, traps and poisons.

Our previous research put the global cost of invasive species at A$1.7 trillion. But this is most certainly a gross underestimate because so many data are missing.

Read more:
Attack of the alien invaders: pest plants and animals leave a frightening $1.7 trillion bill

As a wealthy nation, Australia has accumulated more reliable cost data than most other regions. These costs have increased exponentially over time – up to sixfold each decade since the 1970s.

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‘Living’ figures

8 07 2021

Have you ever constructed a database and then published the findings, only to realise that after the time elapsed your database is already obsolete?

This is the reality of scientific information today. There are so many of us doing so many things that information accumulates substantially in months, if not weeks. If you’re a geneticist, this probably happens for many datasets on the order of days.

While our general databasing capacity worldwide has improved enormously over the last decade with the transition to fully online and web-capable interactivity, the world of scientific publication still generally lags behind the tech. But there is a better way to communicate dynamic, evolving database results to the public.

Enter the ‘living figure’, which is a simple-enough concept where a published figure remains dynamic as its underlying database is updated.

We have, in fact, just published such a living figure based on our paper earlier this year where we reported the global costs of invasive species.

That paper was published based on version 1 of the InvaCost database, but a mere three months after publication, InvaCost is already at version 4.

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… some (models) are useful

8 06 2021

As someone who writes a lot of models — many for applied questions in conservation management (e.g., harvest quotas, eradication targets, minimum viable population sizes, etc.), and supervises people writing even more of them, I’ve had many different experiences with their uptake and implementation by management authorities.

Some of those experiences have involved catastrophic failures to influence any management or policy. One particularly painful memory relates to a model we wrote to assist with optimising approaches to eradicate (or at least, reduce the densities of) feral animals in Kakadu National Park. We even wrote the bloody thing in Visual Basic (horrible coding language) so people could run the module in Excel. As far as I’m aware, no one ever used it.

Others have been accepted more readily, such as a shark-harvest model, which (I think, but have no evidence to support) has been used to justify fishing quotas, and one we’ve done recently for the eradication of feral pigs on Kangaroo Island (as yet unpublished) has led directly to increased funding to the agency responsible for the programme.

According to Altmetrics (and the online tool I developed to get paper-level Altmetric information quickly), only 3 of the 16 of what I’d call my most ‘applied modelling’ papers have been cited in policy documents:

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXVI

29 05 2021

Here is the third set of biodiversity cartoons for 2021. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Killing (feral) cats quickly (and efficiently)

20 05 2021

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a paper led by Kathryn Venning (KV) that was derived from her Honours work in the lab. Although she’s well into her PhD on an entirely different topic, I’m overjoyed that she persevered and saw this work to publication.

Here, killa, killa, killa, killa …

As you probably already know, feral cats are a huge problem in Australia. The are probably the primary reason Australia leads the world in mammal extinctions in particular, and largely the reason so many re-introduction attempts of threatened marsupials fail miserably only after a few years.

Feral cats occupy every habitat in the country, from the high tropics to the deserts, and from the mountains to the sea. They adapt to the cold just as easily as they adapt to the extreme heat, and they can eat just about anything that moves, from invertebrates to the carcases of much larger animals that they scavenge.

Cats are Australia’s bane, but you can’t help but be at least a little impressed with their resilience.

Still, we have to try our best to get rid of them where we can, or at least reduce their densities to the point where their ecological damage is limited.

Typically, the only efficient and cost-effective way to do that is via lethal control, but by using various means. These can include direct shooting, trapping, aerial poison-baiting, and a new ‘smart’ method of targeted poison delivery via a prototype device known as a Felixer™️. The latter are particularly useful for passive control in areas where ground-shooting access is difficult.

A live Felixer™️ deployed on Kangaroo Island (photo: CJA Bradshaw 2020)

A few years back the federal government committed what might seem like a sizeable amount of money to ‘eradicate’ cats from Australia. Yeah, good luck with that, although the money has been allocated to several places where cat reduction and perhaps even eradication is feasible. Namely, on islands.

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One trillion dollars!

1 04 2021

Or thereabouts.

Let’s step back to 2015. In a former life when I was at another institution, I had the immense fortune and pleasure to spend six months on sabbatical in a little village just south of Paris working with my friend and colleague, Franck Courchamp, at Université Paris-Sud (now Université Paris-Saclay).

Sure, I felt a bit jammy living there with my daughter in a beautiful house just down the street from two mouth-watering pâtisseries and three different open marchés. We ate well. We picked mushrooms on the weekends or visited local châteaux. We went into the city and visited overwhelmingly beautiful museums at our leisure. We drank good champagne (well, I did, not my eight-year old). We had communal raclettes.

But of course, I was primarily there to do research with Franck and his lab, despite the obvious perks.

While I busied myself with several tasks while there, one of our main outputs was to put together the world’s first global database of the costs of invasive insects, which we subsequently published in 2016.

But that was only the beginning. With funding that started off the process with insects, Franck persevered and hired postdocs and took on more students to build the most comprehensive database of all invasive species ever compiled — InvaCost.

I cannot stress enough how massive an undertaking this was. It’s not simply a big list of all the cost estimates in existence, it’s also a detailed assessment of cost reliability, standardisation, and contextualisation. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do this myself.

While the database itself has already been published, today we are pleased to announce the publication in Nature of the main results — High and rising economic costs of biological invasions worldwide — led by Christophe Diagne (one of the nicest people I’ve ever met), and co-authored by Boris Leroy, Anne-Charlotte Vaissière, Rodolphe Gozlan, David Roiz, Ivan Jarić, Jean-Michel Salles, me, and Franck Courchamp (of course).

Herein we described how the economic costs of invasive alien species accumulated since 1970 are tremendous, and that they have been steadily increasing over time.

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Conservation paradox – the pros and cons of recreational hunting

20 02 2021
The recovery of species such as mountain zebra (Equus zebra) was partly supported by the economic benefits generated by trophy hunting. © Dr Hayley Clements

Through the leadership of my long-time friend and collaborator, Enrico Di Minin of the Helsinki Lab of Interdisciplinary Conservation Science, as well as the co-leadership of my (now) new colleague, Dr Hayley Clements, I’m pleased to report our new paper in One Earth — ‘Consequences of recreational hunting for biodiversity conservation and livelihoods‘.

My father was a hunter, and by proxy so was I when I was a lad. I wasn’t really a ‘good’ hunter in the sense that I rarely bagged my quarry, but during my childhood not only did I fail to question the morality of recreational hunting, I really thought that in fact it was by and large an important cultural endeavour.

It’s interesting how conditioned we become as children, for I couldn’t possibly conceive of hunting a wild, indigenous species for my own personal satisfaction now. I find the process not only morally and ethically reprehensible, I also think that most species don’t need the extra stress in an already environmentally stressed world.

I admit that I do shoot invasive European rabbits and foxes on my small farm from time to time — to reduce the grazing and browsing pressure on my trees from the former, and the predation pressure on the chooks from the latter. Of course, we eat the rabbits, but I tend just to bury the foxes. My dual perspective on the general issue of hunting in a way mirrors the two sides of the recreational hunting issue we report in our latest paper.

Wild boar (Sus scrofus). Photo: Valentin Panzirsch, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT, via Wikimedia Commons

I want to be clear here that our paper focuses exclusively on recreational hunting, and especially the hunting of charismatic species for their trophies. The activity is more than just a little controversial, for it raises many ethical and moral concerns at the very least. Yet, recreational hunting is frequently suggested as a way to conserve nature and support local people’s livelihoods. 

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