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)?

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

A fascinating post. Have you considered the implications in relation to the transloction of the flying-foxes? Where does the "something has to die" conclusion fit in to that? I assume theere's some consequences of moving them to other colonies where they'll be competing for scarce resources?

As Collins points out in the linked article "biodiversity managers will have to think hard about not only what management actions are possible, but also which ones are acceptable ethically."

Tim Entwisle said...

Thanks for feedback. Yes absolutely correct about the flying foxes and the Public Environment Report had to address where they would go and possible impacts on the new habitat. In this case the relocation is to save the habitat (Royal Botanic Gardens) rather than the translocated species but it has to be done in a way that does not unreasonably impact on the translocated species survival and the places it moves to.

The ethics of moving the flying foxes is very much on my mind, as you would expect, and part of my role here is to explain why the botanic garden needs to survive, why this isn't possible with the flying foxes in current numbers, why alternatives haven't worked and what the likely scenarios are when we relocate. One of the problems we have, I think, is getting people to think through the ethics from a botanic garden and plant perspective - they get stuck on the animals being pollinators and seed dispersers, but exclude the values of the botanic gardens. But that's a whole new posting I suspect.

Anonymous said...

I would certainly be interested in a post from you examining the relatively ethical merits because I think you'd have a hard time coming up with a credible arguement that the translocation of the bats from the Gardens is justified on ethical grounds. I understand some of your other arguements but from an ethical perspective, your original post seems to suggest that you'd be on very shaky grounds.

Perhaps people get caught up with the ecological services that the bats provide because they think that this is something that's been under-emphasised to date? But regardless, I'm not sure how you'd work it into your arguments unless you go down the track of suggesting that the bats ecological services are limited and therefore the translocation is more ethically justifiable than it would be if they provided a different/more important service.

All the best....

Tim Entwisle said...

The values of the botanic gardens include the science that saves plants and habitats (in short and long term), the inspiration and education for visitors that does the same (and this includes the animals when they are compatible with the survival of the gardens), and the intrinsic values of each of the trees (heritage, science, conservation and amenity).

This is all apart for cultural and social values similar to art galleries and opera houses, and the heritage/history of the 194 year-old entity itself.

If we can relocate an animal species having a negative impact on these values without having significant impact on the survival of the animal as a species that seems a resonable thing to do. Some have argued that even if it had an impact of some kind on the animal species that might be balanced against the importance of the botanic gardens, but our proposal is to save the botanic garden from further damage and do it in safe way for the flying foxes.

Many people undervalue plants generally compared to animals, and some people find it difficult to appreciate the values of a botanic garden landscape compared to natural forest - they are different but worth preserving for different reason.

As I was highlighting in my original posting, it's about looking at all the impacts of changing/manipulating a habitat and thinking through the consequences at both ends. This we have certainly done, whether or not everyone agrees with our conclusions.

Anonymous said...

Very well put but surely the matter of whether the translocation has a significant impact on the survival of the animal as a species is different from the ethical discussion.

If the translocation causes or contributes to the death of "something" (and I'd assume that the most likely "something" would be a flying fox) that's unlikely to have a significant impact on the survival of the species but it still creates an ethical issue.

If the translocation will (or is likely to) cause or contribute to the death of something, probably a bat, then I'm still not clear on what would be put forward as the justification for that.

storm said...

Of course, nothing actually has to die.

The RBG could adapt by planting advanced roost trees. The Gardens wouldn't be the Gardens they are now, they would be different, but not dead. A changed path, not an ending.

It appears to me considerably easier for humans to adapt to the natural world, rather than asking the natural world to adapt to us as our species traditionally has. This path would have the ethical advantage of minimising the human impact on a world already struggling with our needs and wants.


With regards to your suggestion that people get stuck on the animals being pollinators etc, have you considered that people might have simply weighted the same information differently to you? As you say, life is complex and people are no less so.

regards
storm

Tim Entwisle said...

Yes planting new roost trees would change the botanic garden significantly and if the numbers of flying foxes still peaked at above 22,000 each year we couldn't grow a lot of the things we can now. I think suggesting we just change the planting palette demeans the values and uses of the botanic garden. We are always adding new plantings and the Gardens does change over the years but it has themes, heritage and ideas that carry on beyond our generations. It isn't 'just a park' and it isn't just a 'collection of trees' - that's were I think the case is sometimes oversimplified.

And we (humans) have already built a city and parks here so the habitat is altered. Apart from the contempary importance of the botanic garden it has importance like a heritage house or cultural icon (which it is). Also what we have argued is that the species will continue to survive without having part of the Sydney population camped in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

And yes I agree other people are weighting the information differently to me.

Anonymous said...

You're probably right that the species will survive the loss of the Gardens. But from what I've read now, the total population is around 400,000 so the 20,000 that you have roosting there represents 5% of that total. So you'd have to expect that the loss of that camp would have some detrimental impact on them (significant or otherwise).

I'd still like to hear your arguements about the ethics of the translocation though.

If a bat dies as a consequence of the project, is that ethically acceptable?

Tim Entwisle said...

Our aim and intent (as in our applications) is to not cause the death of any flying fox as a result of our relocation actions. Flying foxes die all the time of course, for a variety of reasons, but our clear goal is to not cause harm during the relocation.

Whether it is ethically acceptable for a bat to die as a consequence of saving the botanical collection is a different question. My impression is that different people weigh up the values, ethics and evidence differently and would have different answers to this question.

It's not appropriate I theorise about that other than to say my intent is to not harm the flying foxes and to protect the Botanic Garden. It's my view we can do both.

I'll leave this topic now for a while but happy to accept further comments from anyone.

Anonymous said...

Of course you're right that different people would make a different assessment of the ethics and it would be inappropriate for us to theorise on those.

At one extreme, you're going to have people that could find an ethical justification for killing all the bats (and not just the ones in the Botanical Gardens!). You clearly don't fall into that category.

At the other end of the scale, you're going to have people who would take the position that the death of a single animal as a result of the translocation would be ethically unacceptable especially if the death was avoidable and/or caused prolonged suffering through, for example, starvation. Although that would be an extreme stance to take, it has some validity.

But theorising about other peoples ethical judgements wasn't the question. Making a personal ethical assessment of a valid "what if?" scenario doesn't require any theorising about other peoples ethical stance whether they be extreme or moderate.

I do absolutely accept that your intent is not to cause harm but there seem to be so many variables in play that incidental harm (which may not be significant in terms of the survival of the species but is likely to be significant to the individual animal that suffers in some way) seems to be inevitable.

I understand that the dispersal was called off this year but a large number of animals were fitted with identification tags of some kind anyway.

Have there been any follow up reports on the health/disposition of those animals?

Tim Entwisle said...

The researchers are tracking all reports on tagged and banded animals, and doing their own monitoring over the next few months. All this data will inform and influence further tagging/banding and the eventual relocation. As far as I know the data hasn't been analysed in detail yet but will be provided in reports to the licencing agencies. I will be encouraging/requesting peer-review publication and we'll post results on our site in due course.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully that will contribute to a better understanding of the population movements which seems to be an area where there is little certainty at the moment. Although perhaps their reactions to translocation shouldn't be expected to be the same as their reactions to normal factors so their movements might be quite different when dispersed?

Why did you make the decision to not go ahead this year after the effort of tagging/banding?

Tim Entwisle said...

We called off the relocation when we couldn't fit enough radio and satellite transmitters in time to allow enough weeks for the relocation during our approve time window. The reason we couldn't fit enough was due to the late start and to female flying foxes being generally under the weight needed to carry these devices. It's thought the low weights were due to food shortages this year and our various advisory committees would have also given us views on any impact our relocation would have had if we'd been able to tag enough animals. Whenever we do the relocation we'll have to use all the available evidence to determine timing and we'll use our wildlife experts.

I better take a break from this posting for a while but if you have any further questions do send them through to the Botanic Gardens and I can get our Wildlife Officer to assist. Good to chat about this issue and thanks for your thoughtful responses.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time out to have this discussion, I know you must be busy.

Having looked at some of the documentation (and there is a lot of it!) on the Commonwealth government site relating to the relocation, it does look like some of the conditions that authorities placed on the project do prevent you from executing parts of the translocation proposal that you had planned because they determined that they WERE likely to have a significant impact on the species. I guess that just further highlights the complexity of projects of this nature. Their experts and your experts appear to not be of the same mind as to the impact of, for example, disturbing animals that are pregnant or nursing.

It is a concern for the species that the animals this year were in poor condition, perhaps as you have suggested because of food shortages. I imagine that given the choice, you would have preferred to have not delayed for another year. I understand from a colleague of mine who works with one of the local wildlife care organisations that the number of malnourished bats that have come into care, or been found dead, in Sydney in the last few months is far and away the highest number they have recorded in years. I think they also believe that the high incidence of malnourishment was to do with food shortages. My colleague thought that at least a couple of animals that were carrying electronic tracking devices had been found dead. For them to have met that fate even under "normal" conditions (ie without their being the additional impacts from a translocation) can't be a good sign.

Perhaps next year will be different...

Again, thank you for your time