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.
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.