How to Save a Species in Theory

Agency reports claim a million species are at risk of extinction. The handful of conservation success stories are overwhelmed by news of continued logging activities and wetland drainage. Backward environmental policies remain the norm. But the psychologists tell us to be positive! The doom-and-gloom approach doesn’t work apparently. The passengers on the titanic don’t like to be informed how cold the water is going to be. It really puts a downer on the party atmosphere. If you are looking to curry favor with the masses, you will fare much better if you sell the myriad benefits ecosystems provide, or extol the majesty of nature. We live in the age of spin after all.

One of my favorite positive terms in conservation is ‘adaptive management’. It is reminiscent of Orwellian newspeak. What it really means is that we have no idea what we are doing, so it will take a few goes before we get it right. Conservation is a crisis discipline. Many species have already disappeared. Many management decisions are implemented so belatedly as to be redundant. Whilst it is true that we haven’t figured everything out yet (spoiler alert, we never will), it is also true that inaction is no longer an option. It hasn’t been for some time. Adaptive management accommodates learning on the fly; as we improve our understanding of the natural systems we are hoping to save, we refine our management practices accordingly. Adaptive management is an exercise in humility.

The early years of sea turtle conservation were a complete disaster. Although well-intentioned, efforts were at best futile, and at worst destructive. Our first seemingly sensible idea was to recover eggs from nests to incubate in controlled conditions, in the hope of increasing hatching success / reducing nest predation. Sea turtles however, like many reptiles as we now know, exhibit temperature-dependent sex determination. We were unwittingly creating and releasing nothing but males, and it doesn’t take a scientist to work out where that situation will lead: total sausage-fest. On discovering this SNAFU, we adapted our management, whereby fencing to protect nests in situ is now the dominant practice. A step in the  right direction, but it is time to adapt again.

Turtles are long lived, and females can lay hundreds of eggs each year. Thus there is a lot of redundancy built into the life-cycle. Mass mortality of young does not jeopardize the health of the population appreciably, and indeed the natural history of these animals is specifically designed to accommodate lots of eggs/hatchlings being eaten. As mammals with very low reproductive outputs and high offspring survival, we struggle to reconcile the idea that juveniles are dispensable. But in sea turtles, as well as haddock, toads, and oak trees,  this is the case. These species can afford catastrophic reproductive failure; they assume it is going to happen, and hence lay thousands, sometime millions of eggs in their lifetime.

The Achilles heel of such ultra-fecund animals is often increases in adult mortality. In the case of sea turtles, the real reason for their decline was too many mature females colliding with boat propellers, or getting tangled in fishing nets. For every female that dies of unnatural causes, you lose perhaps 50 years of egg-laying potential. Moms are precious. For the same reason, an oak tree is far more integral to the forest than any acorn. For species with this kind of life history, conservation will get the most bang for its buck if it can target older individuals. Unfortunately in the case of sea turtles, beaches are much easier to access than the open ocean; turtle-excluder devices have been introduced to some modern fishing practices, but the emphasis of conservation efforts remains largely on nests and hatchlings.

The cuteness of baby turtles undoubtedly also plays a role in this bias. Members of the public are willing to volunteer to help the babies, and even if hatchlings are released to their certain death, and no discernible improvement to the population occurs, it makes people feel good about themselves. Attitudes are difficult to change, but the success of conservation needs to be taken more seriously. All the baby sea turtles in the world will scarcely make a dent on population recovery; we have known this since the 1980s, but the word is still not out. Perhaps it is our fault, scientists’ fault, for not better communicating our theoretical understanding of life-histories to the public. Regardless, forty years of ineffectual management is not something we can afford for every species on the brink of extinction. If we don’t improve, conservation successes will appear nothing more than a speck – a small leathery shell cast adrift amidst an ocean of failure. But like I said, we’re told we need to be positive.

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