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Is science being used to make important decisions in wildlife management? Well…yes and no.
Scientific information is part of the process in making decisions, but emotions run high when more prominent creatures are involved and judgments become clouded. Science tends to be foremost when dealing with say… fish, but animals that stir childhood attachments such as lions turn simple conservation matters into heated political issues. Looking back at a few examples, we find inconsistencies. In one instance sound science is the defining factor behind difficult decisions and in the next, political interests sometimes takes the wheel, sending science to the back seat.
First up, the black rhino. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the black rhinoceros is an endangered species. Black rhinos have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1980 and are offered the maximum protection under the Act. However, in 2013 an American hunter was allowed to hunt a black rhinoceros in Namibia and import it into the United States. The FWS allowed the importation because they recognized, “the role that well-managed, limited sport hunting plays in contributing to the long-term survival and recovery of the black rhino.” SCI Foundation commended the FWS for basing this politically sensitive decision on science.
Science demonstrated that the take of the old, post-reproductive black rhinoceros males enhance the entire species. When a hunter removes an old bull, younger males start breeding, the social hierarchy of the heard develops, and a quarter of a million dollars gets invested into rhinoceros conservation. Yes, hunters pay that much to hunt honored species such as the black rhino.
Next up, and also from Africa, is the elephant. Elephants are listed as a threatened species, and the FWS recently banned all elephant imports from Zimbabwe. Such decisions that have huge ramifications to Zimbabwe’s tourism industry, elephant conservation efforts, and local communities should certainly be based on science. But in this case, the FWS based this decision on subjective information and a lack of science according to their own public notification. However, the lack of science was due to the lack of effort invested in looking and asking for it until the exact day the ban was put in place.
If you didn’t already know, elephant conservation is largely funded by elephant hunting in Zimbabwe, and most elephant hunters come from the U.S. That means when FWS tried to curb trafficking of elephant ivory and stop poaching, the well intentioned import suspension created a disincentive for hunters to go to Zimbabwe. Now, Zimbabwe is losing money from cancelled elephant hunts that would normally have funded antipoaching patrols. People who are not aware of this, or choose not to believe it, continuously pressure the FWS to suspend elephant imports, to block hunting at all costs. This type of situation is what punts science to the curb and places conservation in to the hands of those with the greater emotional pull, not the greater expertise.
On the home front, white-tail deer, polar bear, woodcock and many other species are well managed and thriving because science is at the foundation of all their management plans and policies. Non-profit organizations, FWS, universities and representatives from for-profit industries, like energy, work with state governments and biologists to create and implement science-based management plans.
The basic framework of science-based management is to ensure the sustainability of wildlife and natural resources to benefit future generations. One of Safari Club International Foundation’s goals is to advance science-based management of wildlife worldwide. Although science alone cannot be used to make every decision, it should be part of the decision making process. If political interests drive decisions, wildlife conservationists will lose out. Uninformed decisions lead to unintended consequences. Science-based management is important for responsible sustainable-use of species and habitats and a necessity for conservation.
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