Effective conservation governance relies on people listening to the science. But it also means scientists listening to the community.
My interest in conservation centres on what we call “conservation conflicts”. Back in 2015, I undertook a research project looking at great white shark drum-line programs in Western Australia, which were taking place as a precaution against attacks on humans. In that situation the science was clear – shark culls were an ineffective way of safeguarding beach-goers, and were also a conservation risk. I thought that as a lawyer I might offer a unique perspective by taking that science and building a policy that might be universally applied – that I might help decision-makers where these kinds of human-wildlife conflicts exist.
But it very quickly became clear that this wasn’t so easy – that decisions like this are complex and nuanced. And unlike the shark drum-line case, the ways that we use science often doesn’t take into account the complexity and individuality of these kinds of situations.
The governance of conservation conflicts needs to rely on good governance principles, and for this, laws need to be socially acceptable so that they are complied with and enforceable. Social acceptability is a tricky thing in a conflict situation, especially as the conflicts are usually based on different deeply held values of the conflicting groups. Science has a role to play in this governance, but it’s often not as easy as “following the science”. Sometimes, the science also needs to follow the people.
Look at the controversy surrounding brumbies in Kosciusko National Park – a similar conflict scenario. There’s a lot of anger from conservation scientists about the horses’ destruction of this landscape, and they are very clear in their opinion about what should happen to those horses: they should be culled or removed. Clearly, horses make it more difficult for native plants to grow in particular areas, but conservation scientists generally have a perspective on what a native landscape should look like, and what “naturalness” is.
This view is a value proposition, and like all value propositions, needs to be considered in context.
I understand the anger about the lack of management of brumbies in a national park. But there’s a whole ratio of held values and attitudes across society that need to be considered and balanced, and science is one aspect of that. There are also animal welfare interests, deep and long-held connections with animals (we live in multispecies communities), and not all perspectives relate to the basis of conservation science – that a thing is good if it benefits the ecosystem.
The dingoes on K’gari (Fraser Island) are another interesting case study because it’s not just about environmental conservation – it’s again also about public safety. Dingoes and people conflict on K’gari on a regular basis. A dingo management plan was in the process of being drafted in 2001 when dingoes killed a nine-year-old boy, Clinton Gage, and people are still injured regularly. So how do we deal with this?
Again, conservation science has a very particular perspective, and that is built into the law about what a natural landscape should look like – and this view is embedded into the World Heritage Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity, two of the international treaties relevant to the management of K’gari.
The conservation values built into those legal instruments is predicated on the concept of naturalness occurring in a particular way. And that results in the suggestion that we need to implement separation between dingoes and people, to maintain naturalness to fix this problem. So we need to have fences, and we need to make sure that dingoes don’t interact with people. The theory suggests that attraction leads to habituation, which leads to increased interaction, which leads to dingo aggression when dingoes don’t get what they have been conditioned to expect.
Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service do an amazing job educating people about staying away and making sure that they don’t feed dingoes, and that we shouldn’t engage with them, and it’s a fine management perspective. But it’s not working. We’re still having issues because people don’t comply with the management policy, and do things like feed Cheezels to dingoes, for example.
It doesn’t consider the historical relationship that existed between dingoes and people on the island and how that historical relationship is completely different to how we are now trying to manage the dingoes. It doesn’t consider the complexity of the relationship that the Butchulla people, K’gari’s Traditional Owners, have had with the dingoes on the island for a very long time. They had camp dingoes, they protected their dingoes, and they had a relationship with them. And foresters also had this mutual relationship with dingoes.
But then K’gari got listed as a World Heritage conservation area, and suddenly we had to have separation, and shift the relationship. We can’t consider different management options – feeding stations for dingoes, for example, or pup training – because these ecological science perspectives are embedded into legal documents.
What if we studied the potential effectiveness of these options? Why should they be excluded because they don’t fit the theoretical basis of conservation and maintaining wilderness?
The theoretical base of conservation science as it is taught today goes back to Aldo Leopold and his book A Sand County Almanack. Leopold’s theory predicates that the ecosystem is the top of the hierarchy of decision-making – that what’s good for the ecosystem is good for the whole. Humans are marginally below that, then individual animals, then individual species below that again, unless they serve a particular role in the ecosystem, in which case they’re also placed at the top. But this is just one theoretical perspective.
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An anthropocentric perspective says that people are at the top of the hierarchy, and that everything falls under that. And then you have animal welfare perspectives that say the individual sentient animal has to be given priority, and that everything else falls under that. We have these different theoretical bases that people hold on to, so that when you have a situation of human-wildlife conflict, it actually becomes a people-people conflict.
The next big thing in conservation management has to be decision-making that stretches across these kinds of boundaries. It’s people thinking outside of what they’ve been trained to do, and work within a “peace politic” that seeks to bring different perspectives together to learn from each other and come up with a suitable solution that works for conservation but is also governable.
Pandemic management is a good example. Most policies view pandemics as a public health issue. This prioritises management that focuses on people, for example, ensuring that masks and PPE are stockpiled, that we have the ability to get vaccines developed quickly, and we have the ability to make people stay in their homes etc.
But 70% of pandemics in the last century have been passed from animals to people. Clearly, pandemics are not just a public health issue. It’s an animal issue. It’s an environmental issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s a social issue. It’s a matter of justice.
These are different factors that have not been considered in how we deal with pandemics and how we can try to prevent them. It’s only now that we’re starting to see the folly in this, and have begun looking at these big problems from a multidisciplinary perspective.
We’re only now looking at the initial drivers of pandemics – and not just the disease passing from animals to people, but asking why there is an increase in diseases. And we’re discovering it’s because of conservation conflicts: land-use changes, land clearing, climate change – all of these factors are affecting and increasing the rate of zoonotic spillover.
Any conservation problem involves conflicts in held values, and many result in isolated disciplinary answers. If we are to effectively govern these types of problems, we need to move beyond the limited perspectives we are each taught in our disciplinary boundaries. If we’re looking at pandemic prevention, we’ve got to include all of those things, not just one aspect. And if we’re looking at human-wildlife conflicts, science would do well to consider wildlife and people in their conservation plans.
Dr Katie Woolaston is an inter-disciplinary researcher, lawyer and Senior Lecturer at Queensland University of Technology. Her research is focused on international and domestic wildlife law and the regulation of the human-wildlife relationship.