Archive December 2012

Reflecting on wildlife rehabilitation II - Wayne Linklater Dec 20

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– did Happy-feet’s visit increase support for conservation?

You are sick, tired, and thousands of miles from home. Swimming, you pull up yourself up on a beach for a rest. Within hours you are surrounding by hairless primates who stare and take photographs. Within days you become their poster-child for the conservation of your species, the southern Ocean and Antarctica. Shake your tail feather – apparently the planet’s future rides on your performance.

The emperor penguin ‘Happy-feet’ on Peka Peka beach, June 2011. Source: Ross Giblin, The Dominion Post.

The most compelling argument for Happy-feet’s rehab was his potential as a conservation ambassador for the biodiversity and environment of the southern oceans (cf. reasons of animal welfare or survival of his species).

Some expected the attention by media, politicians, and the wider public to generate greater support for the conservation of emperor penguin, the southern Ocean, and Antarctica because it may ‘raise awareness’. We should consider this expectation a scientific hypothesis that needs to be tested with evidence.

Wellington Zoo and Department of Conservation representatives claimed improvements in “public awareness about wildlife” or “conservation issues around the world”. Forest & Bird described Happy-feet’s rehab as “priceless publicity for wildlife”.

They might be right, at least for a short time, although there is no evidence that after such events people retain an improved awareness of wildlife conservation – no one has measured it. More importantly however, we need to ask ‘Is there any evidence that raised awareness, even if it occurs, increases our support for conservation?’ If it didn’t, greater awareness has no value.

Unfortunately, greater awareness seldom changes our behaviour. How many of us read or watched news today of tragedy somewhere and did nothing – most of us. You and I are aware daily of the many tragedies in New Zealand and around the world – violence, famine, injustice – that might benefit from our dollar or action. Have we donated or taken action? The media makes greater awareness possible – at least temporarily – but it seldom changes our behaviour. Our intransigence despite awareness also raises doubts about whether conservation awareness translates into conservation behaviour.

Measuring the conservation benefits of Happy-feet’s rehab would be complicated, but some fortuitous, albeit rudimentary, measures are available. For example, if we were to auction mementoes of Happy-feet the money raised for conservation would be a measure of how useful Happy-feet’s rehab was, especially when it is compared to the cost of his rehabilitation. The costs should be less than funds raised.

The mounted statuette of Happy-feet’s foot and media promotion of its auction: Saturday 9th June 2012, The Dominion Post.

This happened and the costs and funds raised can be compared. A 17 cm high mould of Happy-feet’s foot on an eight by nine cm base was made and sold on Trade Me. The statuette was auctioned to support The Million Dollar Mouse Project - a remarkable and important private conservation effort to eradicate mice from the Antipodes Islands 800 km southeast of Bluff. Mice threaten the Antipodes Is. extraordinary diversity of plants and animals.

Media coverage before the event announced the auction on Trade Me. Bidding was reported to reach $113 but the foot sculpture was withdrawn from sale. The statue was reportedly sold later for $833.

We can use numbers like this as a comparative measure of the value of Happy-feet’s rehabilitation because it is an estimate of the NZ public’s “willingness-to-pay” for conservation in the southern ocean. Happy-feet may have raised awareness, but he generated a willingness to pay just $833 for southern ocean conservation.

Happy feet cost over $30,000 to rehabilitate (an estimate not including the costs of infrastructure, expertise and labour etc.). Do the math. Was investing in Happy-feet the right decision? Or could we have invested our donations and the resources of our public institutions – like zoos and government departments of conservation – more profitably into other environmental projects. I think so. I think the evidence supports this conclusion.

Despite the media attention, raised awareness was unable to generate a return for the conservation of the southern ocean approaching the costs of Happy-feet’s rehab. Indeed, the financial return appears to have been trivial. We should not be surprised. We may be made aware, but this seldom translates into action. Perhaps, there were other donations made for conservation in the southern ocean that can also be directly attributed to the rehabilitation of Happy-feet. If there were I would like to hear of them – send me them in your comments and I will verify and tally the amounts. I like pie, even humble pie – surprise me.

At this time with the evidence we have, rehabilitating Happy-feet appears to have been a waste of resources and time if it is evaluated as a exercsie in helping to conserve the species and habitats of the southern Ocean and Antarctica. This should not discourage us, however. Rather it is just the evidence we need to decide next time to allocate our enthusiasm, emotion and science to other projects much more likely to benefit conservation.

Happy feet should have been euthanized when it was clear he was not going to survive and the culmination of our institutions and expertise invested in other conservation projects with greater benefit.


Conservation, Zoos and Elephant - Wayne Linklater Dec 11

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Elephant in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, South Africa. Photo credit: Chris Kelly.

Frighteningly, resurgent ivory demand threatens elephant with extinction over large areas of their range. It is a world-war for wildlife on a massive scale. Governments, conservation agencies and private landowners are mobilised across Africa and Asia spending enormous amounts of money to protect elephant. I hope they win the war so that our children can live in a world with big, magnificent animals.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand…

Auckland Zoo is hoping to import two elephants at a cost of about $3.2 million. Franklin Zoo is trying to raise $1.45 million to send an ex-circus elephant which recently killed its keeper to a sanctuary in the USA.

Hamilton’s Gully Restoration Program to bring wildlife back into the city cost just $65,000 but its budget was cut by $20,000 earlier this year, although only 1.6% of Hamilton’s ecological district remains in native vegetation.

Zealandia, New Zealand’s first fenced mainland biodiversity sanctuary, needs just $700,000 a year to continue to protect and advance the biodiversity gains of Wellington City, but has been under severe budgetary scrutiny.YouTube Preview Image

Ironically, Wellington and Hamilton City’s ecological restoration projects cost less each year than sending Hamilton’s single elephant to the USA. The $4.65 million to import two elephant and export another would support the annual operating costs of six Zealandias and 67 large-scale biodiversity restoration projects by communities, like Hamilton’s Gully Restoration.

Imagine it – a mainland wildlife sanctuary and city-wide ecological restoration project in every major city and large town in New Zealand bringing the forests and birds back to our cities and our grandchildren.

At least 2788 New Zealand species are threatened with extinction. New Zealand has one of the world’s worst records of habitat loss and species extinction. We could reverse that trend by protecting and restoring habitat, but we are limited by a lack of funds.

The cost of importing and exporting three elephant compared with expenditure by community groups and government to protect and restore New Zealand’s native plants and animals.

The cost of shipping just three elephant is also as large as the annual biodiversity and biosecurity budgets of Auckland City and Wellington Regional Council to protect and enhance native ecosystems on land, in our rivers, estuaries and along our coasts, and prevent the spread of invasive pests that threaten our nation’s economy (see graph above).

The $4.65 million for just three elephants is also almost half as much as the Department of Conservation’s $10 million NZ Biodiversity Fund supporting biodiversity protection by landowners and communities nationwide.

Zoos make claims that elephants are important conservation advocates but the war for elephant is largely someone else’s war. We should not pretend to fight the world war for wildlife in trivial ways in our zoos while losing battles at home – like sending troops to a defend a country on the other side of the world while another threatens our own shores and families.

New Zealand’s biodiversity problems cannot be addressed by more elephants in zoos, but might be with ecological restoration and conservation advocacy based on native habitat and species in the places we live, work and play.

Our priorities for conservation advocacy could be better addressed by community restoration projects like Auckland’s Kaipatiki Project or Hamilton’s Gully Restoration, and mainland wildlife sanctuaries like Zealandia in Wellington. Instead of donating funds to move zoo elephants, consider donating to protect NZ Sea Lion or Maui’s Dolphin, eradicate mice on the Antipodes Islands (the Million Dollar Mouse Project), or plant the banks of your local stream with native vegetation for our native birds, reptiles, and fish.

Elephant are magnificent, but so is waking up to the call of kokako, summers swimming in clean beaches and rivers, or watching a Hector’s dolphin crest a wave. Only the last three, however, are unique to New Zealand. Keeping elephants in NZ does not make economic or conservation sense.

In a future post I will evaluate the reasons given by Zoos for having elephant in NZ and seek evidence for their claims.

Pesky varmints - Wayne Linklater Dec 04


Pesky varmints – not a cartoon, not a dream, but a real-life nightmare in New Zealand.

“Did you know New Zealand has a pest problem?”

New Zealand is waking up from a nightmare to discover it is real. At least 2788 New Zealand species are threatened with extinction. Our iconic native species and their habitats are in trouble because they are being eaten by introduced pests. Cats, rats, possums, stoats and several others are a leading reason why New Zealand has one of the world’s worst records of native species extinction.

We should displace our nightmare with a dream. It is fun to dream and share our dreams. Our Department of Conservation (DoC) is dreaming…

“By 2050, an environment where small mammal pests are no longer a threat to the security of New Zealand’s indigenous biota, or condition of ecosystem services.”

On Monday and Tuesday this week, DoC invited 50 science and technical experts to dream with it in a two-day workshop – Towards 2050: A Pest Summit for New Zealand. They wanted new ideas, crazy ideas.

We began by reminding ourselves on how far we have already come. The group constructed a timeline of progress – discoveries, innovation, and successes in the war on exotic predators – to remind us how past dreamers have overcome apparently intractable problems. We are the product of dreamers and achievers. We can dream and achieve again towards even greater innovation and success.

Calls for advances in surveillance were supported by the forum – the application and effectiveness of pest control technologies advances only as fast as we are able to better detect pests and evaluate their threat. The development of super-lures for vertebrate pests – attracting them to traps in greater numbers and over greater distances – like our pheromone traps for insects, was also supported. We have aspirations to achieve a technological pied-piper. Biological control – a catch-all for a diverse grab-bag of new bio-technologies also, inevitably, received support for its deep, albeit complex, promise.

Using advances in social science to mobilise massive public action and support surged in discussions but failed to be supported at the finish line. We should not be surprised, however, that a room largely of technical and science experts trained at least a generation ago, did not ‘get’ social science. Ironically, all attendees had to do to understand why new tools in socio-psychological science are so important was to reflect on the workshop itself. It applied a soft technology to generating consensus and harnessing creativity amongst us – an example of how far social science has come in understanding how to get the best from people. Nevertheless, scientists did ‘get’ the need for social science to assist in the implementation of other new tools. With time I expect social science will be viewed more strongly as a solution itself to our pest problems.

Aspirations also inspired a pushback by those concerned not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. A consensus on this point too was achieved – we are not exploiting or coordinating current tools as effectively as we might. Some went so far as to prescribe new or remodelled institutions for better application of existing tools – as if NZ science organisations and scientists haven’t already had enough of institutional restructuring. It is also strange that the room full of scientists thought a top-down approach more effective than mobilising the wider populace – I suspect we are institutionalised.

New search and destroy technologies in security and military with pest animal control applications?

Early enthusiasms about automated pest search-and-destroy robotics, nanotechnology or drones – aerial or terrestrial – faded. Perhaps a bridge too far? Maybe these technologies might be soon adapted from other industries – military and security – anyway. The importance of new baits and toxins received acknowledgement but limited conceptual development.

Universities were under-represented in the room, although they are the nation’s most inter-disciplinary research organisations with aspirational and ‘blue-sky’ research agendas. They contributed just seven of the attendees and half of NZ’s eight universities were not represented at all. Radical innovation is less likely to be achieved by asking scientists already involved in pest management to be creative. The workshop should have brought both the naïve and experienced together into the same room.

The supported outcomes of the workshop lack detail. We are promised that DoC Science will now form workshops for each of these ideas to embellish them towards real research, although how research would be funded remains ambiguous. We made a strong start. But it is a long, expensive road to 2050. A strong finish is required.


Reflecting on ‘Happy-feet’ and wildlife rehabilitation - Wayne Linklater Dec 01


It is a magnificent feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie when we rescue, rehabilitate (rehab) and release a wild animal back to its home – the culmination of a considerable emotional, community, and scientific (largely veterinary) investment. Many of us not involved admire the people who rescue and rehab wild animals.

We assume that wildlife rehab is as good for wildlife as our feelings about it and the people involved. It is certain that sometimes it is – but not always. Experts debate the evidence for how often wildlife rehab is good and under what circumstances it is the right thing to do. Some suspect wildlife rehab is only rarely useful. Others devote their careers to it.

When researchers from Deakin University asked 134 bird experts from Australia and New Zealand what they thought were the most pressing conservation priorities, bird rescue and rehab did not even make the list of their 29 priorities [1].

Opinions however, even from experts, are less important than evidence. Our decisions in wildlife conservation, just as they are in other professions, like medicine, law or engineering, must be based on evidence to make sure we do the best we can with the resources we have. Evidence is gathered to answer questions and test hypotheses scientifically about the costs and benefits of rehabilitating wildlife. Like an accountant, we must balance the ledger of costs and benefits to ensure that there is a net good from the rehab effort. Where evidence is scant, we must gather it.

The emperor penguin ‘Happy-feet’ on Peka Peka beach, June 2011. Source: Ross Giblin, The Dominion Post.

Resolving the debate about wildlife rehab’s usefulness will either help us do it better or cause us to allocate our energy and resources to different conservation projects where we can achieve more. The emperor penguin, known as ‘Happy-feet’, who washed up on Peka Peka beach last year, rehabilitated at Wellington Zoo, and released into the southern Ocean north of Campbell Island, is a lesson in wildlife rehab and its usefulness.

‘Happy-feet’ came and went quickly in a flurry of excitement, intense media attention, business opportunism, and a little controversy.  The interest and attention have subsided but the important questions raised by the penguins arrival, rehab, release and disappearance remain to be answered.  With the benefit of hindsight, can we evaluate what were the benefits, if any, of investing in the penguin’s rehab and release? Does the evidence indicate that the investment in the penguin was the best way to spend our wildlife dollar? Was capitalising on community enthusiasm for Happy-feet the best way to engage the public in wildlife conservation?

The animal’s welfare and the conservation of its species or environment were the three reasons offered for rehabilitating Happy-feet. Over the next few weeks I will evaluate the evidence for each of these outcomes in turn – beginning in two weeks with claims that his rehabilitation increased support for conservation, particularly of Antarctica and the southern Ocean.

If another single, unusual, and unwell animal arrives in our midst, what would we do the same or differently?



1          Miller, K. K. & Weston, M. A. Towards a set of priorities for bird conservation and research in Australia: the perceptions of ornithologists. Emu 109, 67-74 (2009).


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