My post last week where I defended game hunting as a conservation tool has, unaccountably, encountered a certain amount of push back. Who would have thought that a post defending hunting game in general would have not been universally acclaimed? The nature of the criticisms it received were varied, varying from identifying valid oversights of mine to people I’d be prepared to wage money hadn’t read a damn word I wrote, and actually some of the points demand longer answers than I have time to deal with in the run up to Christmas.  I will address two of them in the new year, namely, “Is hunting moral at all?” (something I explicitly placed to one side but now see I have to address) and more importantly a deeper examination of how economics can cause and provide conservation problems and solutions.

One area I reflected on this week as I absorbed some of this feedback was the disparity of opinion on this issue among people who are essentially on the same side. Most of the people debating this issue are for conservation, they are against wild areas being destroyed and wild species being threatened with extinction. In the past I have attributed some of this conflict to differences between the conservation mindset and that of animal rights/animal welfare. I still think that distinction is important, but it isn’t sufficient to explain what is going on here. I wonder instead if this is actually about the difference between advocacy and action, and about the way things ‘should’ be.

The way things should be is a very powerful motivating factor in human lives. It is very natural condition to look at something going wrong and imagine what should be happening instead. A hungry child should be fed. And embattled minority should be protected. Dogs should not be used to hunt foxes. A decaying manor house should be restored. Heathens should be converted.  People with different sexualities should be accepted as such. A stifled economy should be deregulated. We may all have wildly differing views on how the world can be made a better place, but our ability to imagine a better world is universal.

People that are interested in conservation are all about the should – conservation’s raison d’être is the people perceiving that we should protect species and ecosystems, we should not allow them to be lost to extinction. It’s a powerful motivator that has attracted millions of people from all around the world to devote time and money to protect these resources. You simply couldn’t have conservation without the should.

Should lends itself to advocacy, a crucial aspect of conservation. To advocate for nature you need to be able to clearly articulate what is going wrong and how things should be instead. I’ll refer you to Charlie’s impassioned essay against game hunting again, and you can see what I’m talking about. It’s more about animal rights than conservation (although to be fair a lot of the hunting Charlie opposes, like bird hunting in the Mediterranean  or Gamebird shooting in the UK does have a strong conservation interest too) but essentially he lays out the issue as he sees it and then offers the should – a world without animals being threatened by hunting in it.

There’s something missing, however, the how. Having decided to conserve species and save them from extinction, how do you go about doing it? Not every individual an organisation in conservation is involved equally in the how, and not everyone in the should. Greenpeace is more about advocating the should, the RSPB is a lot more hands on and interested in the how. So it isn’t wrong to be the advocate, so long as you don’t become too disconnected from how the work actually gets done.

The problem with the how is that it is, in a word, messy. It’s all very well to advocate the should that tigers should not be poached from a reserve in India. Then you get down on the ground in that reserve and things become a lot more complicated. The tigers keep wandering out of their reserve and taking cattle from nearby villages, taking what little these already poor people have. Poaching one of those tigers would bring enough money for one of those villagers t buy medicine for his sick kid. The budget for reserves is tight this year, and this reserve only has a small number of tigers, and it might make more sense to apportion the budget to protect the tigers in a larger reserve with less farmland around it and give up on this reserve. Perhaps it would be better to move the tigers to that bigger reserve, or maybe a zoo. At any rate, regardless of the should that tigers should be allowed to live in their reserve, in the absence of limitless money it isn’t going to happen.

Those tasked with working out and implementing the how are stuck with difficult decisions and a great deal of compromise, then. Not a great deal unlike politicians then, who can go into office with nothing but the loftiest if ambitions and then find that to get anything done they have to make the kind of compromises that infuriate the people back home. But the how is results driven, you either save stuff or you don’t. Which tends to concentrate the mind towards solutions that, you know, work. The most noble of intentions can lead to the worst of hells is you don’t have an effective how. By way of example form the world of politics, what could possibly be wrong with deposing a murderous monster of dictator and replacing him with a free and fair democracy? We all know the answer to that – not thinking at all about the how – how on earth you actually do that – and causing a civil war that has killed hundreds of millions.

The Iraq War was a demonstration of the most dangerous and beguiling aspect of the should – the belief that what should be is so obvious that a nudge will make it so. Invade… I’m sorry, liberate Iraq and we’ll be welcomed with flowers and democracy will spring forth. Teach only abstinence and teenagers won’t have sex and get pregnant. Ban mind altering drugs and people won’t take them. Kill a president/religious leader/bunch of unfortunate random people and the masses will miraculously agree with you and join your cause. The world continuously disappoints in this respect, yet people keep falling for this idea.

Partly this is because it is easy to advocate without having to implement. All it takes to write an impassioned essay (or diatribe) is a keyboard, a screen and a rather good bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (to be clear, this is me we are talking about). It’s a dangerous place to be. As part of the feedback I received for last week’s post  I had two comments that explicitly expressed distaste for one of the premises I put forward, namely that in order to protect wildlife you needed to employ economics and actually put a dollar (or yen or Euro or whatever) value on it in order to protect it. I quote:

my personal dislike of the concept of (unsustainable) expanding economies and that nothing can be important if we don’t put an economic value on it.

I hear you. I really do. I, personally, deeply believe that wild places and wildlife have an existence value that should be respected. Thing is, I also live in a world that patently doesn’t think the way I do. Scarcely a day goes by where I don’t shake my head at the fact that economic need, or greed, has trashed some wild place or another or threatened some species or another. And I live in a prosperous first world nation! And here’s the thing, I don’t even blame most of the people who don’t value the existence of these things. Because most of them are poor people in marginal circumstances who are prepared to do what it takes to keep themselves and the people they love going. Honestly, in the same position, who can genuinely claim they would be different. I can’t.

A vision of the how the world should be is worse than useless if you have no effective way of getting there. And therein my quarrel with those that oppose game hunting in Africa. The conservation value of hunting in Africa is a reality. As I said last week, more land is protected in Africa for game hunting than is protected in national parks. This may not be the way it should be, but it is the way it is. If you want to sell me a future with no game hunting, you need to sell me a should with more than just no hunting. You need to sell me a should that shows me how that land remains protected. You need to sell me a should that shows me how other areas funded by hunting now continue to be funded. Funded, remember, in the world we live in right now, were austerity is biting those least able to cope in first world nations and disease and crippling poverty still hobble the third world nations I am speaking of. Where are we in the west going to find the millions needed when funding for schools, libraries and our own wild places is being slashed? Or are we expecting to shift the burden onto nations that can barely keep their people fed? Let me know how you think that will work.

An example of this from outside hunting – Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park. Most people in the environmental movement would support the notion that the park should not be drilled for the vast reserves of oil inside it, and were therefore delighted when the government offered to set the oil in that park aside from the oil industry the country is economically dependent upon. In exchange for leaving 400 million tonnes of carbon in the ground the government hoped to attract foreign funding, a kind of offset for developed countries to invest it. A novel approach that people hoped would work. But it didn’t. The fund barely attracted any money. It’s all very well to say we should be investing money in these kinds of schemes, it doesn’t follow that we will. You could say the governments of these species rich but capital poor countries should turn down money they need to list their people out of poverty (as Ecuador is trying to do with its oil money), but that isn’t very fair.

The reason why people who have to deal with the how have latched onto game hunting is because it provides a solution. It may not be the preferred solution for many, but it works. In exchange for a handful of wildebeest, oryx, impala, buffalo and kudu, not to mention the occasional lion, enormous areas of wilderness and all the species they contain are set aside and protected.

Those tasked with the how need the should. Without the should, there is no reason to do the how, and without a clear picture of why you are doing something it is too easy to lose sight of the objective. Besides, we need people to dream big. But dreaming big doesn’t entitle you to ignore the way things are. And a  disconnect between those that do and those that advocate is not a good state of affairs. When advocating for a world as you think it should be, you must think about how the world is and how you might realistically get there. Realistically being the important word, and perhaps the most difficult. The motivation for doing something is not, and has never been, the map of how to actually getting something done. Should is not the solution.

I’m not saying that we couldn’t conserve Africa’s wild places and species without hunting, and the money hunting brings. I’m saying that if we are going to advocate that we need a serious conversation about how we might do that without making things much much worse for African wildlife. It’s hardly an unreasonable request.

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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.