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COLLECTIVE AGENCY: Can species have ‘agency’ in their own conservation?

We can find plenty of examples of animals and humans actually learning from one another in a pretty rich way. And that is a mark against the top-down nature of some conservation programs that don’t look to animals for direction.

CLAIRE HAMLETT: Animals have individual personalities, can adapt to changing conditions, and can make decisions based on social learning in ways that shape shared human-wildlife spaces. That means they can play an active influence in their own conservation, argues a new paper published in Conservation Biology. According to the authors, wildlife conservation and management could improve the outcomes of interventions such as translocations, reintroductions and resolving human-wildlife conflicts by explicitly acknowledging these traits — described as “animal agency.”

“Animal agency is an emerging way of seeing animals as ‘helpers’ in their own conservation efforts,” says Matthew Hayek, assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University and the paper’s senior author. “Rather than working against their own idiosyncratic behaviors, conservationists are paying attention to individual animals’ quirks, seeing differences between small groups, and increasingly working with them and achieving better outcomes.”

But according to the paper, wildlife conservation management usually overlooks the concept of animal agency and prioritizes, as the authors put it, “metrics that treat animals primarily as quantifiable stock.” To understand this gap, the authors reviewed 190 published evaluations of policies and programs and identified three underlying assumptions that may undermine their results.

First, the policies presuppose that animals from the same species all “behave uniformly” and that behavior mostly remains the same in different contexts. Second, they assume that animals will revert to an “idealized state of wildness” when they are placed in appropriate wild habitats. Third, the policies conceive of relationships between humans and wildlife in a narrowly biological or economical way and downplay cultural relationships between humans and animals.

But animals are not mathematical formulae that provide the same answer every time. If they deviate from wildlife managers’ assumptions, they can inadvertently undermine human-established conservation goals. The paper lays out several documented cases where animals acted in unanticipated ways, demonstrating their agency and thwarting management efforts in the process…

Philosopher Eva Meijer wrote in the 2016 book Animal Ethics in the Age of Humans, “illustrate[s] how we can experiment with interspecies decision-making … When conflicts arise, there needs to be communication [between species] about who can live where.” Without the agency-based methods of conservationists, culling as a management strategy might have prevailed and undermined efforts to preserve dwindling gull populations…

This kind of approach can save not just individual animals but whole animal communities. In the United Kingdom, the success of vaccinating badgers against bovine tuberculosis as an alternative to culling requires engaging with their agency — something I’ve experienced as a badger vaccination volunteer for the past two years… A more famous example occurred in the Dutch city of Leiden in 2014, where conservationists saved gulls from a proposed cull by helping the city implement measures to change the behavior of both humans and birds…

These examples show some of the possibilities for integrating the concept of animal agency into wildlife management — but also the challenges. Different aspects of animal agency — personality, social learning, adaptability, and relationship with humans — may be more or less relevant depending on the species and contexts, Hayek and his coauthors argue in their paper… “We can find plenty of examples of animals and humans actually learning from one another in a pretty rich way,” says Hayek. “And that is kind of a mark against the top-down nature of some conservation programs that don’t look to animals for direction”. SOURCE…


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