Emotional reactions to the culling of pest animals like brumbies, deer and goats are bolstering a movement that has been accused of threatening to worsen the extinction crisis.
A group of University of Newcastle researchers have raised serious concerns about the emergence of this movement, which is called "compassionate conservation".
Dr Kaya Klop-Toker, a researcher with University of Newcastle's Conservation Biology Research Group, said compassionate conservation was "a potential threat".
"If it was integrated into policy, it could affect a lot of conservation actions," Dr Klop-Toker said.
The compassionate conservation movement, advocated by University of Technology Sydney (UTS) academics, "aims to unify animal welfare and conservation science".
It argues that conservation actions should be "founded first and foremost on empathy and compassion".
"It is an academic-based ideal that has a lot of similar viewpoints to animal rights groups," Dr Klop-Toker said.
This ideal is also felt generally among people who argue against the culling of animals such as brumbies and kangaroos, along with those who remain ignorant and oblivious of the harm caused by domestic cats.
The brumbies in the snowy mountains are a case in point. Native species that have survived for millions of years have declined because they haven't adapted to the hooves of horses and deer.
The NSW government runs a "passive trapping and removal" control program for wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park in NSW, while the Victorian government culls, rehomes or removes them from the Victorian Alps.
The Newcastle-based researchers, who published an academic paper on compassionate conservation in May, believe that if was adopted "the culling of invasive species would cease, leading to the rapid extinction of more vulnerable native species".
The UTS Centre for Compassionate Conservation has been touted as the first centre in the world that "explicitly focuses on improving the welfare of wild animals using a compassionate conservation approach".
The centre has argued that its approach represents "a paradigm shift by incorporating ethics and animal welfare into contemporary conservation practice to improve conservation outcomes".
It believes all wildlife has "intrinsic value" whether it is common, rare or native.
The compassionate conservation movement followed the ethos of "do no harm and all individual animals matter".
Dr Klop-Toker said this detracts from actions that can be taken to prevent the decline of native species. For example, the culling of invasive species that destroy native flora and fauna.
"I think when you're dealing with animals, it's always important to have a level of compassion and be humane in everything you do," she said.
"I just don't believe the compassionate conservation ideal is in line with general conservation goals."
A key concern is that the movement could take hold and "lead to species extinctions".
"If there's a lessening of invasive species management, there would be direct extinctions due to greater invasive species impact," she said.
If the compassionate conservation movement was taken to an extreme level, it could "impact almost all forms of current conservation management".
This could theoretically lead to fewer captive breeding programs because the animals involved suffer some stress in these programs.
"And there might even be a reduction of threatened species management."
Dr Klop-Toker said compassion and empathy may seem important to conservation. That is, if humans feel strongly about species, they're more likely to want to protect them.
However, emotion comes with strong evolutionary biases. One of these biases is that people feel more empathy for animals they are familiar with and relate to.
"This bias is evident in the battle over feral horses in national parks," Dr Klop-Toker said.
"There is public backlash over the culling of brumbies, yet there is no such response to the removal of feral pigs, despite both species having similarly negative impacts on protected habitats."
Cane toads are another example.
"Nobody's sad about killing cane toads," she said.
"Frogs are my specialist species, I love all frogs. But even if you have compassion for frogs, you can still see the threat of cane toads."
On the south coast, some people oppose deer culls despite the damage they cause.
Cats and foxes are another example. Some people love them, some hate them.
Dr Klop-Toker said cats and foxes were "invasive predators" that had caused the extinction of many vertebrate species worldwide.
In Australia, feral and domestic cats kill millions of native animals every year.
There's also a psychological bias that those who run charities know well. The tragic death of an individual human or animal can cause strong emotions.
But as the number of deaths rise, our emotions don't rise at an equivalent level. Apathy and disinterest set in. Deaths can become statistics. This is known as psychic numbing.
It's also been described as "the more people die, the less we care". This has been experienced during the pandemic.
Dr Klop-Toker said there were "strong reasons in our evolutionary history why our emotions act like they do".
"But humans are so successful because we do also have that ability for logical and rational thinking.
"We should all have empathy for animals, but we need that logic and science driving the actions we take towards conservation."
The University of Newcastle research paper advocates for reason, logic and science in conservation, especially from decision makers.
Life In Decline
A key message from the Newcastle researchers is that "species are declining at an unprecedented rate in human history".
"This is caused by human activity. We really need to raise awareness of the impacts that are happening to species, not just because of climate change but because of habitat clearing, invasive species and disease.
"We're in desperate need to make sure conservation actions are helping species and preventing extinctions."
Dr Klop-Toker said at least a quarter of the world's assessed species were now at risk of extinction.
These trends are particularly bad in Australia, which has one of the world's worst extinction records and the world's highest rate of mammal extinctions.
The Newcastle researchers' academic paper said the need for conservation science "stems from estimates suggesting that up to 50 per cent of all species on the planet will disappear within the next 50 years".
This would contribute to poverty and starvation and "reset the course of evolution on this planet".
Conservation scientists believe that preserving the diversity of life is crucial because all living beings are interconnected. Biodiversity sustains ecosystems, which sustains life.
Biodiversity provides humans with health, social and economic benefits. Without it, life would become dystopian and apocalyptic.
A major concern among conservationists is that many people seem unable to grasp the consequences of ecosystem collapse and the notion of the biosphere sustaining life.
"I think a lot of the general public aren't aware of the extent of the threat, especially to wildlife," Dr Klop-Toker said.
"A lot of people have a pretty good general idea that the environment is in trouble - that there's devastation happening."
She recalled a memorable graph on the amount of media on climate change over the last several decades and "how that has exponentially increased".
"But the amount of media on species extinction has stayed the same, even though extinctions and declines are still occurring.
"I think the general public aren't aware as they potentially should be of how badly wildlife is doing."
The academic paper states that empathy has its place in "fostering pro-environmental attitudes among the general public".
"It can act as a strong motivator of individual-level action. The person who sees koalas burning in bushfires is suddenly motivated to write to their local politician to demand action on climate change. This is a good thing."
But the system fails when conservation-related information is "politically manipulated to precisely tap our emotional systems".
This can drive scant resources toward species receiving "more attention than they deserve" [whales are one example] because they "tap the evolutionary biases of our empathic systems".
The UTS centre was contacted for comment.
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