Monday, 4 October 2010
Move it or lose it - translocation means something has to die
Wearing fur. Letting your cat out at night. Dumping weeds in the bush. Driving an hummer (producing lots of greenhouse gases, melting polar ice, killing polar bears).
These things are clearly wrong. What about moving a gorilla, or a small marsupial or orchid, to a new place to live when its home is about to be destroyed? Feels good doesn’t it?
Life is not so simple. In fact it's because life is complex that moving a panda, a Tasmanian devil or a Wollemi pine to help it survive may not be for the greater good.
Similarly, bringing the mammoth or Tasmanian tiger back to life would be a fun thing to do, scientifically. Ethically it’s dubious, and one of the ethical dilemmas would be were to let them lose.
Do we release the mammoth just out of Berlin or London? What impacts will the tiger have Tasmanian plants and animals already under threat from human-induced changes such as land-clearing, invasive species and climate change. Will they displace (=kill) other species or interbreed with some and change the whole dynamics of the system (=killing again).
Let’s not beat around the bush, if we resusitate or move a species to save it, and it survives in the new location, it becomes an invasive species – a pest or a weed. This isn’t intrinsically a bad thing but it is an ethical dilemma.
Of course we can do a triage of some kind and decide whether we think the species is important enough to risk threatening the loss of other species. Do we look after the pretty species, the large furry ones, the ones that are useful to humans, that humans like, or species with the most evolutionary novelties (i.e. to hold on to as much genetic diversity as we can). All of these are reasonable reasons but it’s the other side of the equation that raises the more insidious ethical dilemma. What happens to the species living in the new habitat?
I remember, vaguely, from Peter Singer’s ‘An Ethical Life’ his parable about deciding whether to reroute a train onto a line that will result in death and mayhem somewhere out of sight versus a line that causes some smaller injury within our view. We would generally save the large number of people from death, theoretically.
He was arguing by analogy that while we will do something significant to help our family, friend or neighbour, we conveniently ignore the fact that by not giving significant financial contributions to help the poor and starving overseas we are in fact killing them, but out of our sight…
Moving a rare animal or plant into a new location raises the same kind of moral dilemma. It might feel good to save the orangutan but what if in time this displaced population eats our a rare plant species or outcompetes another mammal, reptile or insect. We may or may not care, but we should.
These were just a few thoughts I had this afternoon after reading this media release. Don't let anyone fool you, life is complex.
Image: What lengths woud we go to save this species, the Wollemi Pine (photo: Jaime Plaza)?