The Case for Compassionate Conservation


As a master’s student studying the behavior of jumping spiders, Liv Baker came to realize that conservation biology wasn’t interested in animal behavior. “They were so focused on ecosystems, biodiversity and genes that they weren’t even trying to understand the behavior of the species,” she explains. “I was really interested in the intersection of animal behavior and conservation, applying individual variations to conservation interventions.”

By the time she pursued her Ph.D., she had found a few like-minded critics who were developing a new field called “compassionate conservation.”

Now a researcher, conservation behaviorist, college professor, consultant, activist and expert in wild animal welfare, Dr. Baker has studied jumping spiders, kangaroo rats, chacma baboons, eastern gray kangaroos, pigs and Asian elephants. She recently visited Maui as a guest speaker in the monthly Vegetarian Society of Hawaii lecture series, sharing historical and professional insights to make the case for compassionate conservation.

If you have not heard of “compassionate conservation,” you may be forgiven. The field, which merges animal welfare and conservation, is only about a decade old. 

“Compassionate conservation came about to rethink the science of saving animals,” notes Dr. Baker.  Its four core principles are help or do no harm; individuals matter; use good labels or no labels; and foster co-existence.

Dr. Baker believes that although well-intentioned, many traditional conservation interventions have been scientifically invalid, unsuccessful and have contributed to animal suffering.  Using misguided interventions and pejorative labels such as “pest,” “vermin,” “non-native,” “invasive,” “introduced species” and “common,” conservationists have picked winners and losers among species, with disastrous results for the vilified animals.

Voices in the Wilderness

Dr. Baker notes that historically, a few people have spoken on behalf of animals. For example, in 1928 American naturalist and writer Henry Beston wrote brilliantly about human attitudes toward animals: “We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”  

Several decades later, Howard Zahniser, an American environmental activist and primary author of the 1964 Wilderness Act, envisioned wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a member of the natural community, a wanderer who visits but does not remain ...” 

Photo by Marek Novotny

Photo by Marek Novotny

Sadly, observes Dr. Baker, this vision of pristine wilderness is not reality. “All habitats are impacted by human behavior in some way. We’re talking about urban sprawl, suburban development, pollution, cars, roads, the re-routing of water to major dams, deforestation, desertification, runoff from agriculture, over-exploitation, etc.  This leads to greater human interaction and conflict.  More often than not, the other animals are the losers.” Rising temperatures, of course, are also destroying habitats.

The conservation movement, which arose out of a concern for the loss of wilderness, has generally excluded animal-friendly perspectives. “Conservation focused larger collectives, like population overall, ecosystem health and genetic diversity,” explains Dr. Baker. “It explicitly did not focus on individuals. Animal welfare science, on the other hand, emerged to protect animals and individuals. Individuals and social groups matter, too, particularly if you want to achieve some of your conservation goals. 

“Compassionate conservation attempts to be greater than the sum of these parts. If you take animal welfare science and conservation biology -- thinking about species, populations, ecosystems, genetic diversity, individuals, families, neighbors and culture -- this all leads into what I call ‘etho-ecological success’ that has an inherent ethical foundation. 

“Compassionate conservation believes that, like humans, all animals want appropriate shelter, safety, nutrition and the freedom to make choices.  Physical health intertwines with psychological health. Social environment matters.  Having friends matters. Having individuals around you that can buffer you against challenges matters.”

Compassionate Conservation in Action

Challenging conventional conservation methodology and practices is an important part of compassionate conservation. For example, compassionate conservationists are:

  • advocating the banning of the cruel but common practice of hot iron branding of sea lions. What are the health and behavioral impacts?  Do interventions that cause animal suffering impact the validity of behavioral data? 

  • rethinking the translocation of animals, a highly stressful and disorienting experience that can result in many deaths.

  • promoting the rehabilitation of wildlife, traditionally downplayed or ignored by mainstream conservationists. 

  • opposing lethal measures and deploying contraception and other alternatives to the culling, killing and poisoning of animals labelled as “predators” or “pests.” 

  • questioning the role of zoos and other captive organizations.  A wonderful precedent occurred in 2004, when, realizing that elephants could not live decent lives in its facility, the Detroit Zoo made the bold and controversial decision to send its elephants to sanctuaries.

  • re-examining some of conservation’s conventional wisdom. Compassionate conservationists reject negative labels like “pests,” instead focusing on animals’ ecological function and intrinsic value. For example, rather than viewing Australian camels as pests, compassionate conservationists focus on how they help re-vegetate the desert in the outback.

  • restoring wildness and reintroducing predators to help stabilize ecosystems.


(Photo from the Mahoots Elephant Foundation website.)

The busy Dr. Baker wears many hats, and one of them is serving as research director for the Mahouts Elephant Foundation. She points out that more Asian elephants in Thailand exist in captivity than in the wild. The lives of captive elephants are bleak and joyless, and conservationists have long ignored the plight of these magnificent animals.

The work of the Mahouts Elephant Foundation offers an excellent example of compassionate conservation in action. Deploying the three R’s – rescue, rehabilitation and rewilding -- compassionate conservationists have rescued mistreated elephants and placed them in natural habitats, where they are now enjoying lives worth living.  

Eric Baizer