“Conservation theater” is the dubious practice of killing predators in the name of conservation
Many of us who wait in airport security lines have serious doubts about the effectiveness, the benefit, and the actual protection offered by the invasive procedures that we are required to endure. Our doubts become amplified when we read that dangerous and illegal items are regularly smuggled past the inspectors during government sanctioned tests. We have come to call this whole process “security theater” . It is all just a big show without any benefit or protection forthcoming.
The same can be said about the activities of many conservation workers who, while well meaning, don’t really conserve anything. Dr. Phillip A. Loring calls it “conservation theater”. Specifically he is speaking of the killing of predators in the name of conservation while the true culprit is mankind’s activities of habitat fragmentation. He says that “killing is a crude tool for orchestrating conservation theater“.
Much of conservation theater practices are based on human beings setting quotas. Many conservation practitioners perform calculations as they attempt to define expected results that should be forthcoming from some action. Hunting quotas are a common example. By some magic, our practitioners are able to compute how many elk need to be killed to maintain some defined ecological balance. Yet, for the last 20 years, systems science has shown that the actions of Nature’s ecosystems (which are complex systems driven the many interactions of many chaotic inter-dependencies ) cannot be predicted by mankind. There is no such thing as equilibrium or steady state in Nature. Yet our conservation practitioners incorporate reference points and targets that are based on human fabricated goals of equilibrium and steady state.
Mankind’s conservation theater is sometimes based on the idea of trying to prevent changes in Nature – an impossible task. But, the truth is that no ecosystem will exist unchanged over time. With or without mankind, change is normal in Nature. In the world of ecology, the only constant is change.
The surprising thing is that, while mankind cannot control Nature or manipulate a steady state, Nature has demonstrated her ability to come to her own equilibrium without the help of mankind. In fact, conservation theater and the meddling of mankind has often prevented Nature from achieving Her own equilibrium. A famous example of this important point is the Yellowstone wolves. In the early 1900s, our conservation practitioners (who were driven by wolf haters) decided to allow the extirpation (a fancy word for ” killing off”) of the Yellowstone wolves. Over the following years, big, unpredictable, and detrimental changes took place in the Yellowstone ecosystem due to this “conservation theater”. Around 1990, conservation practitioners relented and released wolves back into Yellowstone. The entire story is dramatic proof that Nature can take care of herself without mankind’s conservation theater. In addition, as shown by the Yellowstone wolf story, conservation theater can be destructive. The drama is aptly described in a wonderful video entitled “Lords of Nature“.
“I believe that if people are to develop new and transformative ways of living sustainably they need a metaphor that inspires not just restraint but creativity and innovation, a metaphor that casts people not as tragic destroyers but native and welcome participants in the natural order.”
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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.