A historical look at our perceptions of rarity and value
In 1980, Alastair Gunn explored the depths of environmental ethics with a simple question: ‘Why should we care about rare species?’. Today, over 35 years later, this question sounds all but rhetorical. Rare species are no rarity in our lives – we admire their beauty and cherish their intrinsic value; we advocate for their protection and donate money for their conservation. Most of all, we go to great lengths to encounter them in the wild and document this experience.
Birds, with their great diversity of shapes, colours and behavior, have always been in the spotlight. Nowhere is this avian fascination as strong and evident as in the UK. With almost as many birdwatchers as there are birds, the UK represents the perfect study area to examine the interactions between the two groups. Here, I will share my observations on our obsession with rare species, in particular birds, and discuss them in the context of effective conservation management. I will reflect on my personal experience as an avid bird enthusiast and will bring forward questions on ethics, motives and unintended consequences. It is my hope that my thoughts are not interpreted as accusations, for I too jumped a fence in pursuit of a short-eared owl yesterday, but as an alternative perspective, one which I had not considered prior to taking the Conservation Science course.
From birding to twitching: wildlife observation to the extreme
Observing birds in their natural habitat brings us joy and inspiration, whilst simultaneously enriching our ecological knowledge. Better than spending hours contemplating and admiring birds is only partaking in the very same activity, but with eyes set on rare birds. Rare species bring excitement into our mundane lives, they give us a sense of personal achievement and overall make our natural encounters feel special. I have spent many winters watching over a dam, with fingers frozen on my camera, waiting for a white-tailed eagle to fly in. Although I have yet to see the eagle in real life, I know that when I do, it will indeed be special. The air will be cold and dry; the sun will break through the gloomy clouds just as the eagle clinches onto the resisting fish; beams of light will reflect onto the water droplets splashing around the hunt scene and give it a magical glow.
With Scotland supporting a growing population of white-tailed eagles, seeing them in the wild is an achievable dream. The encounter, however, might not be as serene as I had imagined it to be. For wherever there is an eagle, there are also tens, sometimes even hundreds, of people with cameras, binoculars and scopes pointed at it. The sounds of quick shutter speeds break the silence and soon the eagle flies to the opposite side of the lake. It is very probable that there, another group of birdwatchers impatiently awaits its arrival.
Modern technologies facilitate bird tracking – there are numerous twitter accounts dedicated to rare bird alerts. Exhausted long distance migrants, often blown off course, present the opportunity for a ‘lifer’ – a species we see for the first time in our lives. Its unexpected arrival marks the start of another migration – birdwatchers from all around the UK pack their gear and flock to the location of the peculiar sighting. This is where bird watching turns into ‘twitching’ – the hot pursuit of rare species. As our lists of observed species grow and the competition toughens, it is easy to lose track of what was our original motivation for going out in the field. Was it a desire to win (a non-existing prize), the pressure of having to see new species every year, the stress of chasing them and the disappointment of missing them? When did birds, once the heralds of serenity and inspiration, become mere numbers on a list? Modern bird watching has a problem. Decades of conservation campaigns have succeeded – we now care about rare species. A controversial phenomenon has, however, slowly crept in amidst the beautiful photos, sighting alerts and donation campaigns – we now care about rare species too much.
The problems of using rare species as sales reps for conservation
Raising awareness (and money) is one of the pillars of conservation. With funding often lacking, receiving donations and engaging volunteers is often the only way to implement conservation plans. Conservation relies on people caring and believing that protecting species is important. As a nation of birdwatchers and twitchers, it comes naturally to us to be more affectionate towards rare birds. Our fascination with avian rarity readily translates into a willingness to support nature reserves and NGOs. Rare species have and continue to serve as sales reps for conservation, but are they shifting away the focus from the bigger problems? Should we be focusing on increasing the populations of rare species, or on maintaining overall ecosystem health and integrity? What happens to rare species once they are no longer considered rare (and exciting)? How do we decide which species’ conservation to prioritise and is rarity a valid criterion? While rarity has been shown to correlate with risk of extinction, there is also evidence that once a species is publically declared as rare or threatened, its value on the black market increases, therefore pushing people to exploit it even more. The same principal applies to bird watching – our fascination with rare species could be pushing them to become even rarer.
The controversial relationship between wildlife observation and conservation
Earlier this year, a Northern Hawk owl attracted the attention of many birdwatchers and photographers in rural Washington. The sighting, unusual for the area, had an upsetting outcome – allegations of trespassing, violation of the land owner’s rights of privacy, and the owl hanging dead from a tree branch. We are pushing the limits of what is acceptable, or ethical, in the name of seeing a rare bird or getting the perfect shot. NGOs have urged photographers to keep their distance and avoid disturbance to birds. In answer to the growing concern over the negative effects of nature photography, a separate branch, conservation photography, has been distinguished. The International League of Conservation Photographers promotes photography as a means to raise awareness, enrich scientific knowledge and support conservation practices, without causing damage to ecosystems. Ethical conservation photography is gaining popularity and people are increasingly more cautious when observing wild species.
Nonetheless, many practices, whose effects have not yet been properly assessed, continue. Raptors are often baited – with one Singapore photographer going as far as stuffing fish with Styrofoam, so that it floats on the water surface and attracts an endangered sea eagle. Getting too close to breeding colonies can push adults to abandon their nests. Following birds in winter will cause them to expend valuable energy on escaping from people, as opposed to using it to find food. Migrants, blown off course, are already confused enough, without cameras and viewing scopes constantly pointed at them. Finally, our fascination with rare species means that little attention is given to common ones – ecosystems ought to be monitored as a whole, and a focus on a subset of species can lead to declining population trends of common species unnoticed, until they too are classified as rare.
By Gergana Daskalova, alumna of the 2015 Cons. Sci. Class