My latest critique of conservation in New Zealand received a largely positive response, especially from others who think empathy with wildlife an important ethic. It was a busy week and so, unfortunately, I haven’t yet responded to all who telephoned and wrote. But the article also received some negative comments, especially from people who identify themselves as conservationist or conservation scientists.
This has also been true for some of my other recent weblog posts and newspaper articles. Particularly disliked were my articles debating the introduction of kaka to Wellington City, or Predator-free 2050.
Conservationists appear particularly unsettled when policy and practice is critiqued by a fellow conservationist.
Amongst the thoughtful and interesting comments, thank you, were also many in which accused me of writing “nonsense“ (but then declined my invitation to a public debate) or betraying the conservation cause. Some wrote that I did not deserve my position as a conservation scientist or being an out-of-touch, ‘ivory tower‘ academic (other responses from conservationists were even less charitable and degenerated into personal attacks – it serves no useful purpose to consider those).
These comments betray an intolerance of different opinions. They also imply the expectation that someone cannot be critical while also contributing to progress.
But, of course, the opposite is true. Progress cannot occur without critique. We need conservationists to be critical of what they think and do (as well as being critical of their, so-called, adversaries).
The importance of public discourse, including critique
The view by some conservationists, conscious or otherwise, that critique of conservation is bad, is not good for conservation.
I am concerned also that there not be a significant number of scientists who ride the gravy-train of government research and conservation policy (e.g., Predator-free 2050) without some introspection and extrospective discourse about it. The public depends on our diverse professional opinions being aired and that those not be restrained or corruptable.
There is, particularly, a role for university scientists in this since their academic freedoms are protected by law. Critique and debate are fundamental to my academic role. It is constructive to provoke debate of alternative perspectives, to shine some light on widely unknown or unpopular ideas.
Since many responses to my articles were directed personally, here are three examples of why my critiques are consistent with advances in conservation practice.
Invasive species management
Our ability to eradicate rats to protect vulnerable biodiversity is poor because we are still using foods to lure rats to poisonous baits, traps and detection devices. In February this year my research team lodged a provisional patent application for a suite of long-life chemical lures for rats. Our new lures are much better at catching rats than anything else currently used and, because they are not perishable, they could substantially reduce the costs of pest-control operations.
Our new lures were developed using funds from the Dept. of Conservation (DOC) and the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). They promise to make rat control and eradication possible at a greater scale. I am a critic of the Predator-free 2050 policy and prepared to debate it but also contributing significantly to the tools that improve our ability to protect biodiversity.
Reconciling domestic cats with biodiversity
Reducing the impact of domestic cats on wildlife requires that we understand and reach agreement with cat owners – the majority of New Zealand households. Understanding what cat owners will, and will not, support is critical to making progress.
Last year the Wellington City Council, with a large number of organisations, instituted a cat policy for the city, which included requiring that cats be identity microchipped. The council’s confidence in this policy originated from information shared by my research team in a report to the New Zealand Veterinary Association and the New Zealand Companion Animals Trust (who funded the study).
We had surveyed cat owners at veterinary clinics and had discovered that 85% of cat-owners thought micro-chipping their cats would be acceptable. The submissions to WCC’s new by-law turned out to be similarly supportive. Our research informed policy development, making change possible.
I have been critical of conservationists’ being adversarial with other people (e.g., cat owners) and my so work finds consensus pathways through the controversy towards solutions.
Living with kaka better
Conservationists are currently very concerned that artificial foods are causing disease amongst Wellington City’s kaka. They want, therefore, to discourage residents from feeding kaka.
This summer I supported a group of five post-graduate students to survey Wellington City residents about kaka. They found resident’s reports of property damage by kaka to be associated with resident’s also feeding them. The more kaka are fed the greater damage they do.
Our data, therefore, might convince neighbourhoods not to feed kaka. I have been critical of introduction of kaka to Wellington City, but the research I do is part of the solution too.
These are just three of several conservation research and learning projects that I lead in Wellington. I have conservation research projects in southern Africa, southeast Asia and North America too. This is what ‘ivory tower’ academics in universities do.
Avoiding mistakes, new ideas, faster progress
These scientific contributions to conservation policy and practice happened even as I also wrote critically about them.
Am I a traitor to the conservation cause? Out-of-touch? Do I write nonsense? You decide. But, importantly, it is clear that my critique is consistent with also helping to advance conservation.
You can be a part of the solution as well as debate progress. Indeed, it is better that way. Major mistakes and unfruitful directions will be avoided, and new and useful ideas will surface. Without critique, mistakes are more likely and progress is slower.
I have heard it said that art critics cannot be artists. Whether this is true is a debate for another time, but it is certainly not true of science. Scientists need to be science critics. Conservation scientists need to be critics of conservation and conservation science.