Ethics of Wildlife Management and Conservation: What Should We Try to Protect?

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Ethics of Wildlife Management and Conservation: What Should We Try to Protect?

What should we protect when managing and conserving wildlife? There's no single answer. Competing values, and different prioritizations of values create ethical dilemmas and disagreements.

Expanding human demands on land, sea and fresh water, along with the impacts of climate change, have made the conservation and management of wild areas and wild animals a top priority. But there are many different reasons for thinking that such conservation is important, and these reasons can shape conservation policies in different ways. Here we'll explore some of the different underlying values that can direct conservation policy, and explain how they can create ethical dilemmas and disagreements.

Wild animals have always been a critical resource for human beings. Historically, food, fur, and leather were key to human survival — more recently, wildlife has assumed high economic and cultural significance. Wild animals provide entertainment in circuses, zoos, and wildlife parks, they form a central attraction in international tourism, and they are key members of ecosystems on which humans rely for vital services. Equally, wild animals can be seen as threatening to human beings; for instance, they can be sources of new human diseases (zoonotics), and they can damage or consume human crops. What matters here, whether as resource or threat, is how useful — or otherwise — wildlife is to human beings. Environmental ethicists often call this instrumental value.

In modern debates about wildlife, however, other values have become increasingly important. One focus is on animal welfare — the wellbeing of individual wild animals (e.g., in terms of animals' flourishing, or suffering). There are also concerns about protecting species or populations of wild animals, about protecting the ecosystems of which wild animals form a part, and about protecting wild nature itself (Sandøe & Christiansen 2008). The wellbeing of individual animals matters less where species, ecosystems, or wild nature is emphasized — indeed, painful predation may be understood as promoting ecosystem health, or as applying the right kind of selective pressure on a species as a whole.

Although the idea of "wildlife" is usually taken to mean animals not bred or controlled by humans, increasingly, wild animals are not just left alone to live their own lives (Gamborg et al. 2010). In response to pressures on wild animals and their habitats, a nature and wildlife protection movement has grown over the last two centuries. Often this protection has taken the form of active wildlife management, where some species are controlled as part of a policy to promote the success of other species.

This raises key questions about the responsibilities we have to wild animals. What should we try to protect? How should we balance different, potentially conflicting, values such as nature protection and individual animal welfare? First, we'll give an overview of wildlife management values central to these debates. Then we'll outline five different possible ethical perspectives through which it is possible to think about wildlife management and conservation.

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