Well, Copenhagen Zoo is back in the news; a few weeks after killing a giraffe and feeding it to some lions, it went and killed some of those same lions. It hasn’t achieved as much attention yet, presumably because people are rather preoccupied with wars brewing in Eastern Europe and missing airliners, but give it time. I’m not gong to go into the ethics and reasons behind why a zoo might want to, well, manage its stock. Plenty of ink was spilt when the giraffe was killed, and those that were interested into why a zoo filled with people who love animals and put up with low wages to help them might do something that seems to go against that have had many chances to do so. Those that don’t care and just wanted to get angry also had their opportunity, and it is unlikely that any amount of explanations would have any effect anyway. If the whole thing passed you by then Mother Jones did a good piece on why zoos sometimes have to kill individuals for the good of the species. Personally, I think it’s a crying shame that it happens, but the reasoning is sound, if difficult to explain to people with little background in the field. Like much of conservation, its the best of a bunch of bad options.

That said, my arguments from here on will not be assuming that. Let’s assume that it wasn’t justified (I’m sure several of you won’t need to make that leap!). This morning I opened up my iPad, read the Guardian and saw that four lions were killed without reason by a zoo. My reaction would be pretty much the same. Sad and all, but does it really matter? There was a story this morning that did make my blood freeze, and it had nothing to do with four big cats biting the bullet. No, its the news that the European Union has approved the sale of diclofenac within its borders.

For those that don’t remember, diclofenac is the veterinary drug that just about wiped vultures out completely in Asia. The drug that turned the White-rumped Vulture from the “most abundant large bird of prey in the world” in 1985 to a species that is critically endangered. The elimination of vultures had its own knock on effects, such as the increase in feral dogs (now that there was more meat available for them) and corresponding increase in rabies.

This story didn’t break today, by the way. The story I linked to is dated to three weeks ago. I try and keep up with conservation news, but I didn’t see it till I saw Birdlife retweeting it (for probably the thousandth time) on Twitter. This story is of huge importance, but somehow I’ve managed not to see hide or hair of it for the last three weeks. Yet I managed to learn about four lions from several sources today. Which is, basically, the point of today’s rant (I’d say story, but really, its a rant).

In a way, it isn’t surprising that stories can get buried. We live in a world of information over-saturation. I follow quite a few people on Twitter, a mix of friends, comic book professionals that I complain to about my favourite comic book characters, and bird and conservation people, who I either support or tweak depending on my mood. I don’t check it too often, because I have actual things to do, but when I do I am confronted with a massive number of conservation and bird (as well as other) problems that the world faces. This can be a very good thing, for example bring my late ass up to date on the EU’s idiotic attitude to diclofenac. But to get to that story, well, lets say there are a lot other stories to wade through.

The internet is great at collecting information, but it is at best so-so at working out what’s actually important. (It’s also worth noting it can be decidedly ropey at working out what is actually true at times). To really get a story out there it needs to go viral, like the story about that giraffe did. Several companies have become very good at working out what constitutes “clickbait”, identifying the types of stories that draw people in and giving them a suitably enticing headline. You know the kind. “You won’t believe what happens when this big city banker meets a little girl”.

Working out what’s important is important too. It’s all very well saying every animal life matters, or every conservation issue matters. That doesn’t translate into action if the money and resources aren’t there to act on such ideas. And, I’m afraid to say, they aren’t. Simply reblogging or retweeting every cause isn’t actually the same as acting (sorry makeupless selfie takers!).

One of the most alarming stories I read this week was about the call to rationalise the allocation of conservation dollars in Australia, shifting the focus from protecting endangered species to protecting habitats. Efforts to protect some of the most vulnerable species would be redirected to better protecting the larger swathe of species held in important habitat.  Is it best to spend a million dollars to save a single parrot in Tasmania or a large chunk of rainforest? The argument is as compelling as it is cold and horrifying.

We hopefully aren’t yet at a place where this kind of decision making becomes commonplace, but the fact remains that there are more conservation problems that there is money, or time, to fix them. And not just these resources, we also have a limited amount of interest that we can assume from the public to effect change. It would be nice if more people cared more about these issues, but at the same time it isn’t like the world is short of things to worry and care about besides conservation.

We can, and should, fight to increase the resources spent on conversation. Regardless of whether we succeed in that, there will still need to be choices, in some cases terrible choices, made in the years to come. To make the best choices we need better conversations about how best to spend what we have. We need to establish what matters, and get that out there. Losing Europe’s vultures would matter a great deal. Losing a few non-breeding lions in zoos a great deal less.

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Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.