The Importance of Ethics in Conservation Biology:
Let's Be Ethicists not Ostriches
EPO Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder CO 80309-0334 USA
Marc.Bekoff@Colorado.edu; www.ethologicalethics.org; http://literati.net/Bekoff
Am I preaching to the choir?
There can be no question that ethics is an essential component in animal conservation biology. For that matter,
ethics is very important in all conservation projects, including those that deal with botanical, aquatic, atmospheric,
and inanimate environs. As I write this short piece I find myself asking isn't this so obvious that you're merely preaching to the choir? Well, yes and no. Some people seem (perhaps unintentionally) to ignore ethical issues and hope they will disappear if they play "ostrich." The origin of this essay stems from a recent issue of this journal (July/August
2001) that dealt with carnivore con-servation. I wrote the editor to mention my surprise that there was no essay devoted to ethical issues among the excellent contributions on this very important topic.
Here, I am concerned solely with projects that center on animals, beings who also are stakeholders in conservation
efforts. The multi-dimensional, multi-level, and interdisciplinary problems with which most conservation projects are faced are very difficult, serious, and contentious, and often demand immediate attention and quick solutions. In our haste and in the frenzy of trying to put out fires before they spread (rarely before they start), and some would correctly
claim that the fires spread metastatically as do many cancers, we often overlook the basic ethical principles by which most of us operate daily. These ideals include principles such as:
-do no intentional harm,
-respect all life,
-treat all individuals with com-passion, and
-step lightly into the lives of other beings, bodies of water, air, and landscapes.
Surely, these principles are politically correct, but they are also ethically and ecologically correct. They
demand deep reflection and should be the foundation from which all conservation projects begin. They alsoraise very difficult issues that easily cause people to get angry and insult one another, and mandate that we ultimately
develop guidelines for adjudicating competing and conflicting agendas, even if all parties really do have
the best interests of animals in mind. There clearly is no universal agreement on just what are the "best interests."
Very few people cause intentional harm in their efforts to restore or recreate ecosystems and to maintain or
to increase biodiversity. The other three ideals are easily overridden either because they get lost in the
shuffle or because they are too difficult to adhere to with any degree of consistency. Indeed, in some cases
while it clearly is not one's intention to cause harm to other animal beings, the very design of some studies, or
perhaps the very reality of some conservation efforts, means that inevitably some animals will die or suffer.
So, for example, is it permissible to begin a reintroduction project when it is estimated and accepted that 50%
of the translocated animals will die? This was the acceptable standard for attempts to reintroduce Canadian
lynx into southwestern Colorado (Kloor 1999; Scott et al. 1999; Bekoff 2001). Is it permissable to subject
naive prey to introduced novel preda-tors? Is it acceptable to do a project in which a non-prey species (e.g.,
coyotes in Yellowstone) will be killed by the reintroduction of a competitor (e.g., gray wolves)?
What happens in both locations when individuals are moved from one place to another? To my knowledge,
there have been no follow-up studies in areas from which individuals have been removed to determine
the effects on the remaining animals the integrity of their social system and on the integrity of the
ecological community that remains. Are we violating one ecosystem to restore or recreate another? Is there
any net gain?
While we recognize the fragility of the complex webs in most ecosystems, in many instances we do not try
to understand just how delicate they are. The assumption is that we are doing no harm in the areas from which
animals are removed, but we really do not know this. I fully realize that these are difficult questions with many
implications about what we value. But, the questions will not disappear if we ignore them. Surely, we can do better
in providing solid answers.