Opinionista Dian Spear 14 October 2020

The fuss over Karoo lions and Cape baboons – conservation versus emotion

The recent outcry over the shooting of seven escapee lions from Karoo National Park, and the relocation of a Kommetjie baboon, highlights the schism between conservation managers and animal rights activists. But there are times in conservation management when the sacrifice of a few individuals saves many; when inaction that is based on compassion for the few, stymies the achievement of conservation outcomes.

Yet again, South African conservation management is under fire for enraging citizens. However, the call for more compassionate treatment of animals is not only a local phenomenon. Globally, groups concerned about animal rights are wanting animals to be managed more compassionately, using approaches that prioritise the value of individuals and do no harm. However, this is not always practical, especially when conservation managers need to make decisions on dealing with “problem animals” based on compassion for other beings, including humans.

In the management of the lions that escaped from Karoo National Park, and the raiding Kommetjie baboon given the name “Kataza” — now relocated to Tokai — there was a risk that humans could be harmed. So why is there so much human-human conflict over the management of our wildlife?

Michael Manfredo, an expert in human-wildlife conflict from Colorado, has noticed changes in the way people view wildlife in the developing world. In a recent paper in the journal Biological Conservation, he writes about a shift from what he calls dominion over wildlife to mutualism, which is characterised by social affiliation and caring beliefs, and the idea that animals should be treated in a similar way to humans.

His research largely attributes this shift to societies living more separately from nature than our ancestors did. Most people living in urban societies do not face the risks of wild animals or experience the damage they can cause, and they have never experienced keeping or killing animals for food. 

As a consequence, the relationship between urbanised societies and nature has changed because of this disconnection and a lack of direct interactions with animals, both for their utility but also as a source of disruption. 

People who consider animals deserving of treatment more equal to humans have also been found to have higher income and education levels than those who do not.

As many groups of society do not view animals as harmful, they do not see a need to persecute them, perhaps with the exception of some animals, such as mosquitoes, which cause annoyance in urban areas. Consequently, there has been a shift from wanting to have dominion over animals to seeing them as an extension of society. 

Another attribute of societies with more empathy for animals is their tendency to anthropomorphise them, which is the tendency to ascribe animals with human attributes or personalities.

In Cape Town, some people see baboons as part of their extended social circle, and lions are generally revered as majestic and intelligent animals. They have also had the good fortune of positive publicity from documentaries and films, such as The Lion King

The perception of animals having similar personalities and feelings to humans stirs up the emotion we see from groups denouncing conservation management. This means that there is a growing trend in people not accepting certain ways of managing animals. 

This shift in values conflicts with traditional wildlife management approaches, as we have seen in Cape Town with baboons and in the Karoo with lions. Lethal control of nuisance animals is no longer accepted by sections of society.  

However, a group of more than 30 ecologists, including some South Africans, has co-authored a perspectives paper voicing concerns that if this way of thinking is pursued, it could undermine the ability of conservation authorities to achieve conservation goals. In particular, the group is concerned about limitations to management interventions that are vital for maintaining some aspects of biodiversity — such as the control of invasive species and translocation of species to maintain genetic diversity — being seen as unethical.

In response, social scientists have suggested that they are missing the point of the need to consider these values in conservation management, particularly because so many people have them. 

In another paper, some of the same ecologists raise concerns over the subjectivity of empathy, the human tendency to be more empathetic to the loss of an identified individual than a large-scale loss of life, and the risk of inflexible moral rules that can lead to inaction in our current era of unprecedented species loss: the anthropocene.

The potential for empathy to favour familiar and charismatic species, and react more strongly to identified individuals than a large-scale loss of life, means that the approach can lead to the fate of many species not being considered. There are times in conservation management when the sacrifice of a few individuals saves many, and in these cases, inaction based on compassion for the few, stymies the achievement of conservation outcomes.

Although emotions have been recognised by some scientists as having a potentially useful role in highlighting ethical issues, there are also decision-making tools recommended to deal with situations that are particularly emotionally charged. And some of these tools can be used to shed light on issues that might not have been considered by some of the parties involved.

For example, decision analysis considers the validity of the premises of an argument. It was used in a study by lion ecologists from Oxford University to consider the ethics of tolerating lion hunting based on the assumption that it enables habitat conservation, and they found that this argument does not hold in all localities. 

Another tool that has been used to understand different perspectives of conservation conflict is grid group cultural theory, which considers the different typologies of human culture based on the level of affiliation between individuals and the prescriptiveness of norms, and it divides society into groups, such as those characterised by fatalism, autonomy, hierarchy, individualism and egalitarianism.

Regardless of the viewpoint of conservation managers towards wildlife, it is clear that society is composed of a variety of views and goals when it comes to wildlife, making it essential to understand these views and communicate conservation management interventions in a way that takes these views into account and provides an understanding of the situation and reasons for decisions.

Although the empathy angle might be making conservation management more complicated, it does have a positive contribution to make: it can encourage pro-environmental behaviour and motivate individual action. 

For example, if the proponents of compassionate conservation are eating plant-based diets, then they are reducing water use, agricultural land use and their carbon footprints — which ultimately benefits wildlife. DM

Dr Dian Spear is a freelance science communicator with a PhD in Zoology from Stellenbosch University and experience working on, conducting research and publishing scientific papers in the fields of biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation.


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All Comments 3

  • Good grief. Among other problems in this piece, is the absence of any reference to the law, which arose out of a Constitutional Court case which says that animals have to be treated as though they have the same types of feelings as humans. The court recognised the sentience of animals. It suggests that animal rights people have got not only moral authority on how they want the animals treated — but legal authority too. This is apparently not recognised in this piece. While the piece is interesting — it seems very far removed intellectually and emotionally from those who would want to see the baboon brought back to Kommetjie and the hard line views of the conservationists. It seeks to find a path between these views so far from the reality of the views of the groups as to render them pointless.

  • In my view this is an excellent article as it highlights the real difficulties faced by environmental wardens. Too often scientifically unsound emotions have a disproportionate influence on conservation strategies. Like most of us I am appalled by cruelty and the over-exploitation of any of nature’s bounty but sadly I realise that we cannot have 7.5billion people living amicably with other organisms, there is just not enough space. Personally I feel we should focus on the humans but this is obviously not a popular view so how do we strike a compromise? Sustainable utilisation is the only lasting answer and sustainability demands conservation and management. Squeamishness and anthropomorphism will not cut it. Ask the farmer whose sheep are preyed upon by the lions or the parents whose two-year-old is savaged by the baboon how they think the wild life should be managed not the vegan or anti-hunting activist who is parading a protest placard through the centre of Cape Town.

  • Good grief, what happened to common sense? If animals are to be given the same rights as humans they should have to obey the same laws as humans, not raid homes belonging to others, nor commit grievous bodily harm etc. We are losing all common sense… sadly so many with good intentions do immense harm.


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