Conserving species: captivity versus nature?

By Tibor Hartel

I recently read a BBC News paper about viewpoints of scientists regarding the maintenance of panda – a species of which persistence highly depends on expensive holding facilities. According to some scientists, species with similar fate are (i) expensive and resources are limited and (ii) have little to no chance to live in natural environment in the future (they depends therefore on technology and money). In such conditions, many researchers argued that giving up maintaining such species may be a solution.

This is an interesting topic for debate, both for non-academics and academics. Certainly, we have feelings toward these, many time’s ‘cute’ animals. And in most of cases, indeed, human impact is the main factor driving them in (the threshold) of extinction. It is therefore socially acceptable to feel sorry for these animals and make lobby to do everything in order to save them – even if it is about keeping them (especially those which are what the majority of us perceive ‘beautiful’, ‘cute’) in captivity.

Below I highlight three points regarding this aspect, while drinking my morning coffee (my excuse). Consider these as invitation for a debate or if not, just thinking about this – increasingly actual – issue.

First, I see the captive maintenance of species somehow like a forced maintenance of a human organ in a lab (kidney, heart or whatever that can be). Completely out of a wider context (ecological or anatomical) and with a virtually zero possibility to reintroduce species (organ) in a natural system (body) may indeed be a bit inefficient investment. Species have ecological functions and organs have anatomical (physiological) functions.

Second, for general public (which is more and more disconnected from nature, and basically experience nature in zoo’s and / or TV) it may represent an easy and preferred solution e.g. when is about arguing about further human expansion in natural environments. Somehow in the line of this: ‘We could allocate money to maintain species in captivity, as it is with panda. And make the highway too. In this way it may be good for wildlife and people as well’. I heard even worse arguments than this from various people.

Third, it is not only about maintaining individuals of species. It is not about maintaining the phenotype (i.e. the apparatus, the body). The body is what we see, and we love. This body is maintained by a whole set of genes. This unseen program makes individuals and populations adaptable in (ever?) changing world and ultimately maintains the species. Populations may collapse e.g. because of loss of genetic diversity. So: to really maintain a species we should maintain the whole arsenal of ecological and evolutionary factors which maintained its populations viable. By maintaining landscapes and habitats unfragmented.

I feel good to see that people tend to be more and more sensitive toward species loss. And in various countries movements for animal rights start to be frequent. This is good, I welcome such maniphestations (of course, I can also be critical about them but this is not the point now). It would be nice to channel this increasing ‘societal energy’ for saving animals to habitats and whole landscapes. Because wildlife can be saved and maintained only together with, and not separately from, natural context.

4 thoughts on “Conserving species: captivity versus nature?

  1. A couple of thoughts.

    First, it is reasonable to ask under what circumstances captive breeding is needed, how do we effectively integrate captive breeding with effective habitat restoration, and how do we avoid the “captive breeding answer” wherever possible? Captive breeding is not an ideal solution, but it is an option that has to be kept on the table for use in some circumstances.

    As such I am a little concerned that this “captive versus nature” focus is potentially setting up a false dichotomy. Captive breeding programs are not in opposition to habitat preservation, except perhaps in some very extreme circumstances (but see point below). The whole focus of many captive breeding programs is on buying time, retaining options, with the aim of eventual reintroduction. Reintroduction is pointless in the absence of suitable habitat and the removal of threatening processes. As such captive breeding programs can readily be used as focal points for raising funding for habitat restoration, habitat preservation, or threat alleviation, as well as for revising relevant destructive policies. Helping to make sure such mutual benefits happen, is a productive focus. Pitting “captive” against “nature”, I think, less so.

    Second, I think we have to be very aware of the importance “framing”, and wilfully allowing others to do it for us. For instance, the BBC source article reminds me of Lomborg’s devious framing ‘either we fight poverty or we mitigate against climate change’. Such framing is a very effective way of causing distructive conflicts between ideas and idealists that don’t need to be in conflict, all the while distracting attention away from the destructive causal processes that need our unity to be countered effectively….not to mention the fact that other far more bountiful, morally questionable, and wasteful policies whose funding demands challenging.

    For instance, instead of pitting one tool in the conservation toolbox against another, is it not more relevant to ask…What could U.S. conservationists have achieved with the $5000 dollars that was being used every second in 2008 to fund the Iraq war?

    Or how many effective conservation programs could be funded with the 9 billion dollars that was lost or unaccounted during Iraq’s reconstruction…

    My point being is that captive breeding programs only take funding away/distract from habitat restoration if we chose to play it as a zero-sum game.

    It isn’t, unless we allow it to be.

    Just a thought…

  2. Dear Tibor Hartel,
    I would like to contribute an example of successful captive breeding on a completely benign and not famous species: the Campbell Island Teal.
    The Campbell Island Teal is a flightless duck thats endemic to an island south of NZ. It was almost extinct in the wild due to the introduction of rats on Campbell Island. In the 80s the remaining specimen were all transferred into captivity where only one female bred. (Ironically, they called her Daisy – nothing one would associate with any kind of breeding ;-)). A couple of years back I was able to visit the Mt. Bruce Wildlife Centre in NZ where the breeding program took place. The breeding program was so successful that the DoC was able to release some birds on a predator free island where they formed a self-sustaining population. The species has later been reintroduced to the rat freed Campbell Island where it flourishes nowadays and has recently been recategorized as being endangered (down from critically endangered). OK, the incredible genetic bottleneck makes me a bit nervous, but at the moment everything seems to be well for the Campbell Island Teal – as a result of captive breeding. Your third concern aims in that direction, but I would argue that the loss of genetic diversity has very species specific consequences. Using the loss of genetic diversity as an argument against captive breeding programs just seems wrong to me. It implies that we fully understand what loss of genetic diversity does in each species – which we simply dont.
    Other, more famous, species that could be reintroduced into the wild after captive breeding are the Przwalsky horse and the Oryx. But like the Panda, those would have probably not become extinct in captivity due their beauty and fame. The Campbell Island Teal might be considered as beautiful and it certainly is cute (well, chicklets usually are) but public awareness did not help saving it – its distribution is so limited that nobody outside NZ knows about it and, to be honest, its just not as cool as a flightless parrot or a Kiwi. Nevertheless, it directly benefited from the experience gathered in other captive breeding programs.
    For other species it will probably take a lot longer than a couple of decades to get reintroduced into the wild, some species might never get back there. As long as there are breeding programs with species the general public is attracted to, there will also be money for those that are not cute or famous.
    Finally I would strongly argue for captive breeding, or to use your organ-analogy: if you consider captive breeding as being the time and the ice-box that an organ needs to be transferred from a donor to a recipient – does it still seem to be a bad idea?

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