Viewpoint: The Secret to Wildlife Conservation May Be the ‘Animal Agency’ Approach: Giving Creatures a Role in Their Own Preservation | The edge

From Indian leopards to New England deer, wild animals live in cities and suburbs, and protecting them – and humans – means not viewing them as things to be managed

Human-induced pressures on the environment, such as climate change and deforestation, are bringing wildlife into greater contact with human society, from deer in Massachusetts to rhesus macaques in India to wolves. in Europe and hyenas in Ethiopia. While roaming urban and suburban areas, these wild animals develop a complex behavior that adapts to their surroundings in ways humans neither want nor expect – birds singing higher to beat traffic noise, lizards that evolve to run on smooth walls rather than coarse branches.

I myself experienced an example of this when I conducted research on urban leopards in India. Sanjay Gandhi National Park, located in Mumbai, is home to an abnormally high density of leopards. These large predators regularly roam the busy streets of Mumbai, a city home to more than 20 million people, breaking into buildings, crossing highways and preying on domestic animals. These high densities and behaviors deviate from the common image of leopards as solitary and highly territorial animals, and suggest that leopards in Mumbai have adapted their habitat requirements and social structures to take advantage of resources. of the urban and suburban environment.

In this context, wildlife managers and conservationists must constantly find new ways to protect wild animals while minimizing conflict with humans. In a recent study published in Conservation Biologymy co-authors and I argue that, to be successful, we must consider animals agency—we need to recognize animals as complex beings, whose individuality and sociability influence their relationships with humans. Instead of treating wildlife as objects to be managed, we can look at animal behaviors, let their actions, personalities, group decisions, and relationships with humans inform better ways to help preserve their populations. In this way, animals can be seen as partners in their own conservation.

Many studies have shown that animals already have free will. In other words, wild animals can adapt and influence human activities and behavior due to their sensitivity, individuality and even cultures. For example, female bottlenose dolphins have had long-lasting and complex relationships with fishermen in Brazil, and individual dolphins have socially learned cooperative foraging tactics that benefit both dolphins and humans. In parts of Bulgaria, brown bears and humans have learned to live together by developing relationships of mutual trust and respect through repeated, conflict-free and peaceful encounters.

In the context of conservation, this means that animals already actively influence and participate in conservation and management outcomes, and do so in ways that constantly reshape the landscapes, cultures and histories that humans and wildlife share. . Throughout history, various communities have recognized the action of animals and incorporated it into their way of managing wildlife. For example, in the Arctic, the recognition of the personality of marine mammals is an important principle of the Inuit communities of Nunavik who have managed beluga whale populations sustainably for generations.

Only a few Western conservationists really consider the animal agency. But those who do have seen promising results: from leveraging beaver involvement in watershed management to allowing gulls to show them where they prefer to nest in urban areas of the Netherlands.

In our research, we reviewed over 190 studies of different wildlife conservation and management practices, examining the assumptions behind each approach and its outcomes. We then considered findings from fields that share an interest in understanding the complexity of animals, their relationships to their environment and to humans, and how these dynamics can and should shape the humane treatment of nonhuman animals.

In our article, we explain how protecting the cultural and social systems of species is essential to their survival. Considering animals as active participants in the development of conservation policies encourages us to better understand and represent animal perspectives, interests and rights. It can also augment existing and emerging practices that incorporate facets of animal agency, such as ecological justice, which calls us to recognize that animals have the same right to space and resources as humans.

Although engaging with the animal agency does not mean easily solving ecologically, politically and culturally burdensome conservation challenges, it is a necessary step forward to address the continuing loss of global biodiversity.

Émilie Edelblutte is a geographer and PhD student at Boston University in Earth and Environment. She is also a member of the BU Global Development Policy Center’s Land Use and Livelihoods Initiative and a research assistant for a National Science Foundation-funded project on suburban deer management.

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