Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Drawing a line between conservation and animal welfare

14 March, 2013 - 09:05 -- John Burton
An orphan Orang-utan in the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

Conservation and animal welfare are two subjects that are often linked (at least in the human mind). They are in fact two very distinct issues.

This was brought home to me on reading the current issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine (April 2013). A feature on ‘conservation heroes’, concluded that a person whose specialist area was animal welfare was the number one hero. Remarkable and admirable though her achievements are, they have relatively little to do with conservation.

Animal welfare is largely an issue about cruelty. While I always take welfare into consideration when reviewing World Land Trust’s conservation programmes and priorities, I am also very clear that conservation and welfare are separate issues, and can even be conflicting.

The thorny question of reintroductions is a case in point. For while it may be better for the welfare of captive animals that they be reintroduced back into the wild, actually reintroducing them may have a negative impact on conservation efforts to save existing wild populations of the same species.

In the same magazine, an article about a film on Orang-utan reintroductions states: “Releasing captive apes… into protected sections of rainforest may be the species’ only hope.” Not only is this not true at present, it is also contrary to what most conservationists believe.

There are still thousands of orang-utans in the wild, and releasing captive animals should only be done where there is no possibility of them coming into contact with natural populations, mainly because of the risk of introducing diseases. However carefully the captives are screened, there will always remain a risk of unknown diseases being carried.

In 2009 World Land Trust organised a symposium at the Linnaean Society, followed by another at the Royal Geographical Society to discuss these issues.

Although there was no absolute unanimity, the overwhelming majority of conservationists were against reintroductions. It was also very clear that reintroduction is a costly alternative to conserving wild populations. 

I firmly believe that in terms of cost effectiveness, WLT’s support for wildlife corridors and extending protected areas, is far superior to releasing captive animals. And the approach has the added benefit of conserving whole habitats and thousands of species.

I would even go so far as to suggest that all captive animals should be sterilised, and that they should be used for zoos – which at present often breed captive Orang-utans and claim it as part of a conservation programme.

But to return to where I began, it is critical that we distinguish between programmes that focus on animal welfare and those that have significant conservation benefits. All too often these issues are muddled, in order to raise funds: welfare charities claim conservation benefits, while conservation projects use images of fluffy animals to play on the emotions.


Submitted by Nick Pharazyn on

Hi John

I completely agree with you here. To be honest, I actually find it very frustrating that so much of what you describe here is going on in Indonesia.. there are a large number of Orangutan charities and many seem to focus very heavily on rescuing and reintroducing them to the wild. This is very expensive and yet as you say, these are individual animals.. compare that to saving wild Orangutan populations with that sort of money and you can preserve an entire ecosystem. Seems kinda like a no-brainer to me!

I think that this sort of application of considered, critical thinking is absolutely vital for the contemporary conservation movement - after all, conservation globally is woefully under-resourced, so we really can't afford to use huge amounts of money so inefficiently.

Here's another one I have observed, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it:

There are some enormous reforestation projects planned and that have been attempted in the past in tropical nations. But the idea of going out and manually planting trees over areas of up to 100,000 ha. is really unrealistic and almost crazy to me. It's just too much work to be done manually - I've seen a reforestation project take shape here in an island in Wellington harbour (Matiu/Somes) over an area of just 25 hectares - that alone took the planting of 250,000 native trees and 20 years of hard volunteer labour to pull off. The Kalimantan Forest and Climate Partnership (KFCP) project in Central Kalimantan for example was meant to re-flood 200,000 hectares of drained peat swamp and plant 50 million trees - it was a dismal failure for many reasons, one of the biggest of which it is almost impossible to do reforestation by planting trees on such a scale.

Then if you look at the Colombian Andes, there was a paper published in the journal PLoS One late last year that concluded that more than 100,000 ha. was gained between 2001 and 2010 as forests regenerated naturally on abandoned marginal agricultural land. That didn't cost anything. Thus, a much better approach to reforestation on this scale seems to be to simply facilitate the natural processes that drive ecological succession through to a return to a climax forest community so that, essentially, nature does the work for you - plant small stands of trees with seeds easily dispersed by birds and bats (materials) and encourage birds and bats with things like bat boxes (labour).

Small scale reforestation is all well and good but another point here is that I don't think there is any point in reforesting large areas of land in countries where huge areas of primary forest are being annihilated in nearby provinces. It's analogous to a group of firefighters building a new town of pre-fab buildings (planting a new forest) while at the same time across a river, a huge, out-of-control fire is consuming and utterly destroying an old historic town full of heritage buildings (biodiverse primary forest).

Submitted by john on

I agree with what Nick has written.

And to a very large extent avoiding deforestation is WLT's priority. However, two factors come into play: first, the general public just love the idea of tree planting (and not just the public - many corporations as well). And they are prepared to put up significant funds. And the second is that there are good reasons for doing some reforestation - particularly in corridors. Natural re-gen is not always the best way. I have just returned from Armenia, where natural regeneration simply does not occur, because there are no parent trees anymore; sometimes assisted regeneration is also possible. Best of all is the way we do it - I would say that wouldn't I? - and that is to use all the different methods, making sure they are appropriate to the situation.

John Burton

Very interesting and timely article - the growing international and interdisciplinary field called Compassionate Conservation deals with topics and issues like this - see, for example: --

Bookmark and Share

Read about us

  • News Online
  • RSS
  • eBulletin
  • Green Diary
  • Printed Newsletter

Contact Us

Tel: +44 (0)1986 874422

Follow us

Follow on Facebook  Follow on Twitter  Follow on Linkedin  Follow on GooglePlus  Follow on YouTube