This is this idea that we either do this or something that we love dies – what might be referred to as ‘conservation at the barrel of a gun’.
Here’s another collection of quotes from the feedback to Kim Hill again – the last one most notably being from one of New Zealand’s foremost conservation biologists:
‘By accepting many introduced species we also have to accept the loss of many of our unique native species’
‘…if we accept the presence of introduced predators like rats, stoats, and possums, then we must say goodbye to NZ native birds, bats, lizards’
‘The choice is simple – we save our most distinctive and valued species, OR we feed them to rats, stoats, etc’
But is all this hyperbole really true? I don’t think so. No, we can actually preserve most of our more iconic species in much smaller areas than they used to inhabit as we have very successful shown in many offshore and mainland island settings already.
I do also recognise the retort to that, however, which is that we’re not going to be able to keep all our native biodiversity as it was 800 years ago. And this is a point where I’d have to agree actually.
Sure, we probably aren’t going to be able to keep everything as it was in the past and, yes, this is going to involve extinctions. But I think we also need to be talking more about the notion of extinction itself and what it actually means today, because, while ‘extinction’ is a really dirty word in conservation, it’s also an important part of evolution.
Is change permissible?
Palaeontologists, of course, remind us that most of the species that have ever lived are now extinct, so extinction is in many ways just a fact of life. But people don’t take issue with extinction I’m told, just with human-induced extinction; with faster rates than the background ‘natural’ rate (whatever that is). So it’s fundamentally about our unease with causing it rather than the notion of extinction itself.
Maybe that’s understandable, but in order for ecosystems to adapt to changed conditions there needs to be a degree of extinction on many levels – whether it be genes, varieties, species or ecosystems.
The idea that humanity could change and expand on such unprecedented levels but that a human-exclusive nature itself could, concurrently, remain static, or even relatively static, reflects a potential naiveté in restoration thinking. Further, the notion that the rate of change in nature can be agreeably manipulated, where necessary, by humans also hints at a kind of arrogance.
Maybe our ecosystems are going to need to change now and, yes, maybe that change is going to involve some extinctions. Maybe as we come to realise how little of our ecosystems are completely within our control we may have to become clearer about which species we’re saving and why those species. Most of our conservation work in New Zealand involves saving birds and yet they are probably one of the more minor components of our biodiversity.
At present we’re often just blinding pushing on under the understanding that we need to save everything and keep everything as it was in the past. It’s like we have this big sign up all the time that reads ‘No Extinctions Allowed’. Change? Sure, we’ll allow change. But extinction? No, unacceptable.
I think there seems to be too little self-reflection there both on our enormous technical limitations and on the fact that some degree of extinction is in many ways now necessary for our ecosystems to adapt to the changed conditions we have brought about.
Featured image: Invasives must go! © Cartoon Movement. Used with permission.