The challenge of conversations in conservation: Social Media a breeding ground for trolls and bad behaviour

I guess if I was asked to define myself, I would say I am a wildlife ecologist, for want of a better term.  The reason I became an ecologist is because I have always been intrigued by wild animals, but more importantly how they fit in the bigger system, and how these systems function.  As I have grown older my interest has more and more turned to how we can help ecosystems either stay healthy, or improve their health.  As a species we have changed and adapted landscapes to suit our own purposes, this has led to the extinction of species and caused enormous changes to the stability of what natural ecosystems we have left.  We need to do something to change this, and in the light of climate change, we need to do something now.

So why am I writing this post?  Recently, I have been incredibly saddened to see myself and fellow scientists routinely attacked in social media for voicing views around the need to proactively manage species and ecosystems to improve conservation outcomes.  One of the great things about social media has been the mainstreaming of conversations between experts and the public.  It has been really good from both perspectives, but…..

So, here is a small sample of comments I have recently received (very much edited to remove the venom) and a few of my thoughts.

We are to blame! Until you manage human population growth we should do nothing

As pointed out above, I agree, as a species we have had a ridiculous impact on the planet.  We should indeed be working towards ways of reducing our impact on the environment, limiting the spread of our cities etc.

I am however, a wildlife ecologist, so my capacity to personally shape the management of humans is well beyond me.  What I do know, is that if we leave ecosystems to run their own course until we “manage” human growth and expansion, we will lose species.  Lots of them.  So, I am of the view we need to be doing both things at the same time, yes we need to be better at managing human impacts, but we also need to be managing the threats that compromise ecosystem stability at the same time.

All animals are amazing, including cats and foxes, and you should not “manage” these wonderful creatures

I am constantly amazed by animals. I have always been fascinated by them. And in fact, the reason I am what I am is because of these factors. Unfortunately, I am well aware of the impact species introduced to Australia (and yes I have been told I am one of these, and I should leave), are having on ecosystems. Predation by foxes and cats are both recognised as major threatening processes within Australian ecosystems. When we choose to make a decision to not manage them, we are making a decision to consign other species to extinction.  So this becomes a value judgement, would you prefer cats and foxes or native species?  The argument that cats and foxes need to eat, and are just doing what cats do is exactly the problem. Cats and foxes eat our wildlife, and many of our native species are not capable of responding to this increased predation pressure.

Effectively, many ecosystems are on the edge (due to human impacts), the addition of cats and foxes are pushing species in those systems to a point of extinction. So, yes, I do support the management of foxes and cats to reduce the impact they have on native species.  This does, however, need to be strategic, effective and targeted at reducing impact.

cat-and-bird-in-the-grampians

A feral cat in the Grampians National Park carrying a bird it recently caught. This is in a high conservation priority area of the park.


 

Native species can not be overabundant, they have looked after themselves for thousands of years.

The concept of density regulation has been around for a very long time in ecology. Species respond to changes in resources both positively and negatively. Human activity has definitely favoured some species whilst negatively impacting the majority. Some of our native herbivores can fit into the situation where they have been benefitted positively by the interface between natural areas and agriculture or urbanisation. Technically they are not overabundant, they are just tracking resources.  The problem comes however, when the resource levels decline sharply with droughts.  We do see massive natural mortality. In some countries, populations of native herbivores are managed to limit the upward spike of their population to reduce the impact of the inevitable downward movement.

kangaroos-in-the-grampians

Eastern grey kangaroos at the interface between the Grampians National Park and agriculture.


 

We need a discourse about science informed conservation 

There is no doubt in my mind that we need to be proactive in managing the threats to our native species and the ecosystems that support them. I have a personal view that our priority should be in favour of native species over species exotic to Australia. I find the argument of letting cats and foxes be cats and foxes in our native ecosystems extremely distressing. Effectively we are favouring these two species over the entire suite of native species they impact.

We do need a discourse between science and the public, and social media is no doubt a fertile ground for discussion.  But we need to keep it civil.  The constant trolling by individuals is not healthy for debate, or frankly the mental health of the people who are being trolled. The increase in activists trolling and attacking people is only going to lead to people deciding not to communicate ideas through social media. At the end of the day we all lose.

P.S. I am not a vegan or an animal activist. Contrary to a number of recent tweets to me, I do not think this makes me a bad person.