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This is a Draft Amnesty Week draft. It may not be polished, up to my usual standards, fully thought through, or fully fact-checked. 

Commenting and feedback guidelines: 

This is an article, written over a couple months in late 2022, which ended up not being published. I wouldn't have published it without the nudge of Draft Amnesty Week, because I'm not inclined to redraft it, and I had to redact a name for someone who didn't want to be mentioned without looking over the draft. Fire away! (But be nice, as usual)

Jaguars reenter Iberá

Green-winged macaws that have grown up in captivity are too weak and naive to survive in the wild. In 2015, the conservation group Rewild Argentina released their first batch of seven macaws into Iberá National Park. They had to recapture the birds the next day[1]. Iberá is a large wetland in Argentina’s Corrientes province. The macaws quickly became stuck in the sticky flooded ground, unable to take off. After a rest back in captivity, the birds were re-released. Within 5 days, two of the birds, whose lifespan in captivity is 60-80 years, were killed by wildcats.

After this incident, Rewild Argentina hired a trainer to teach them to avoid predators. In the training drill, the trainer encourages a cat or a falcon to attack an embalmed macaw, while macaw distress calls are played through a speaker. Next time they are released, the macaws aren’t quite so naive.

Nearby, in El Impenetrable Park, conservationists from the same organisation raise and train predators that they want the macaws to avoid. Rewild Argentina plans to reintroduce species that were killed or driven out of Iberá over the past century by cattle ranching and over-hunting— including the jaguar. Legally, the group couldn’t import the jaguar from neighbouring countries, so they had to produce their own. Their first group came from Tania, a female jaguar from a local zoo and Quramta, a wild jaguar. Finding Quaramta was a stroke of luck.

In El Impenetrable, the jaguar aren’t locally extinct, as they were in Iberá, but they are extremely rare. Quaramta was located after he left a single footprint by a river bank. Quaramta and Tania’s cubs were raised in a thirty hectare enclosure, out of the reach of humans. Sebastián Di Martino, the conservation director, told me that if the cubs were raised by humans, then they would seek humans out when they were hungry. To train them to hunt for themselves, conservationists captured and released live prey into the enclosure, including nine-banded armadillo, caiman aligator, feral pigs and capybara. The training was a success. As of this year, one of Qaramta and Tania's cubs, Arami[2], has given birth in the wild.

Two formidable cubs born of wild Jaguar parents (press release from Rewilding Argentina)

Rewild Argentina’s project is hard. It involves legislative wrangling with governments, an ongoing campaign to ingratiate the locals, and after all that, the deaths of their charges, sometimes at the hands of each other. Why are they doing it?

The last few centuries of land use drastically changed the ecosystem of Iberá. Cattle ranchers routinely burned down vegetation to make room for their cows, and locals hunted jaguar and other animals for skins to sell to wealthy europeans. Among the species driven to local extinction were giant anteaters which grew up to 8 feet long; bristly, pig-like collared peccaries; and the aforementioned green-winged macaws. Now, the land is occupied by capybara, previously the prey of the jaguar. Presently, they have nothing to fear. Di Martino told me that “if you go out, the capybara are grazing by hundreds all day. They are not afraid of anything. All they do is eat, and eat”.

The late Doug Tompkins[3] and his wife Kristine Tompkins use their philanthropy to restore wilderness. In 1999, they paid for the Conservation Land Trust to buy 1500km2 of private land within the Iberá nature reserve. This land was later gifted to the Argentinian government to form the Iberá national park, with the agreement that Tompkin’s Conservation, and later Rewild Argentina, could complete their reintroduction projects.

A quote from Doug on the Tomkin’s conservation website states that their foundation “places its highest priority in restoring the evolutionary process”. In Iberá, this means returning the species that existed before the hunting and ranching, and coaxing them into fulfilling the same ecological roles that they had before. If this is done correctly, then populations would be able to survive without the input of conservationists, leaving the ecosystem, in Di Martino’s words “complete and fully functional”.

This process is sometimes called rewilding. Rewilding can mean many things; as one of its academic proponents laments on this topic “empirical studies are few whereas essays and opinion pieces predominate”. And yet, it is a concept which leads conservation efforts around the world. In Iberá, the conservationists are following a process called “trophic rewilding”. When top predators, are removed from the food chain, it can cause a 'trophic cascade'. With the predator no longer around, the size of the prey species' population increases, or their behaviour changes. Like the free-roaming capybara, they act less carefully, extending their habitat to areas that would previously have been too dangerous for them. This puts strain on the food source that the prey relies on. The loss of the predator ‘cascades’ down through the ecosystem, and the resultant over-grazing can totally change its shape.

Trophic rewilding is the idea that by replacing the top predator, the ecosystem will be able to return to its previous equilibrium, and the over-grazing will end. With the plants left to grow, the ecosystem will slowly be restored to something like its pre-human-influence state. Perhaps this would fulfil Tompkins’ hope of restoring the evolutionary process.  

Di Martino told me that he hoped to create an “ecology of fear” through the reintroduction of jaguar. This ecological concept became popular when it was used to describe the effect of the reintroduction of wolves on the deer in yosemite. It refers to the change in behaviour in prey species when some of its previous grazing environments become unsafe. In Iberá, capybara wander about mostly unhindered by predation. Before the reintroductions, they shared Iberá with two species of fox, caiman alligators, and a few species of rare bird. Di Martino hopes that with the addition of the jaguar, the capybara will be forced to graze down by the water, where they are less exposed, and that in turn, this will allow the grasslands to grow. A casualty of this change is of course, the capybara. Not only will they be killed and eaten by the jaguar, but, if the “ecology of fear” works, they will spend more of their time in a state of heightened anxiety.

The reintroduction of predators isn’t the world’s most pressing ethical problem. The total number of these projects is still relatively small. The main threat to wild animals, even in this time of intense climactic change, remains human overuse; Overfishing, overhunting, depleting of animal populations. But the questions that reintroductions raise make us reflect on our duties to wild animals in general. When we intervene in an ecosystem so directly, aren’t we partially responsible for the suffering caused by predation?

The badness of predation

“If we were able to create a world, would we create a world in which a certain proportion of the beings, in order to be able to survive, had to rip apart and devour others?  No. That seems a pretty bad plan for a world.”

Jeff McMahan is the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He believes that the world is made worse by the existence of predation. In his view, if we could eliminate predation from the wild, without causing harm to individual predators, then we should.

When explaining his argument to me, McMahan called it simple, “to the point of being simplistic”. In a nutshell, it runs: suffering is bad, predation causes suffering, therefore, predation is bad.

It isn’t difficult to establish the idea that suffering is bad. We feel this intimately when we are suffering, and we can feel it with the same strength when our friends, or our pets suffer. If we see the inside of a factory farm, most of us become viscerally aware that other animals can suffer too.

We also care when we see an animal suffering in the wild. As McMahan writes: “If one were to happen upon a young animal that was about to be captured and slowly devoured alive, piece by piece, by a predator, one’s impulse would be to frighten off the predator, if possible.”[4]

Predation clearly causes suffering, through painful killing, through animals being eaten alive, through the frequent fear and stress that prey animals experience in the “ecology of fear”. If we also care about the loss of worthwhile or positive experience, then it is also bad when a happy animal dies before its time due to predation. For these reasons, predation is bad. If we take this argument on its face, and if the capybara are living worthwhile lives, then releasing the jaguar was a terrible mistake; a step back into a more violent past.

A Capybara presumably not suffering in Iberá, with it's dimunitive friend, the "Cattle Tyrant". Link

This problem is larger than Iberá. The scale of suffering in nature is massive. A 2019 review of 1,114 individual studies suggested that for mammals, amphibians and reptiles, an average 55%[5] of deaths come from predation. Besides predation there are other painful causes of death and suffering that affect animals living in the wild. Burdensome parasites, disease, untreated injury, deaths from hunting and starvation. But predation is a particularly stark example, especially when we are choosing to introduce the predator. There isn’t just suffering here, but also an injustice. When looking at an isolated act of predation, it seems clear that the predator, who will kill or consume hundreds of other animals, derives only limited benefit (a full stomach, a break before they need to hunt again), while the prey endures often intense suffering, and loss of life.

Sometimes the worst thing about the death of the prey isn’t the direct suffeirng of the kill, but the life they couldn’t live. In 1978, in a region of Brazil called Matto Grosso, scientists observed the killing of capybara by jaguar[6]. In one indicative example, they describe an adult female jaguar stalking a capybara by a riverbank: “a capybara sat about two meters from the water’s edge while a female jaguar approached at a walk, screened by a bush. When 15m from her prey, she broke into a trot. Suddenly aware of its danger the capybara bolted for deep water. However, the jaguar grabbed it within 4m, in 15cm of water, and killed it with deep bites in the throat and the back of the head”. These bites were typical, and very precise. An adult jaguar knows exactly where to bite to kill capybara quickly and efficiently, puncturing the brain. For the capybara, there is a short burst of fear and pain, but the process doesn’t last long.

This isn’t always the case. The method doesn’t always succeed, especially for younger jaguar. Then, they have to resort to suffocating the prey, biting their neck closed until they die, prolonging the suffering. The hunting practices the scientists observed also seemed quite wasteful– because of an abundance of prey, two of the eleven kills they inspected were left without the jaguar consuming a single bite.

In McMahan’s idea of utopia, this kind of killing would never happen. He stresses that there is little we can do today to achieve the end of eliminating predation. If we began to remove predators from ecosystems, we would be causing great harm to those predators, and also to other members of their ecosystem, through the trophic cascade effects outlined above. McMahan’s hope is that in the future, we will have a better understanding of ecosystems and genetics. We will develop technologies that allow us to painlessly sterilise predator species when we know that their removal won’t cause harm, or perhaps even more speculatively, we could genetically engineer predator species to become herbivores.

When I asked Sebastián Di Martino whether he worried for the capybara who will be prey to the jaguar, he replied: “of course it's not good for the individual capybara that is being eaten, but we cannot do anything about it. That is nature.” In philosophy, you can dismiss this kind of explanation by calling it a "naturalistic fallacy". In other words, you cannot get from a description of the way things are, to the conclusion that they are good, without an argument. In this case though, I don't think that would be fair.

Philosophers have attempted to discredit arguments by showing that they lead to the conclusion that predation is wrong. For example, the late 19th century philosopher David George Ritchie, responding to arguments for animal rights, wrote “Must we not put to death blackbirds and thrushes because they feed on worms, or (if capital punishment offends our humanitarianism) starve them slowly by permanent captivity and vegetarian diet?”[7]. This shows that there is a strong intuition, one that these philosophers didn't even think needed spelling out, that we can't apply our usual obligations to prevent harm to the domain of nature. There are a few ways of making sense of this.

One is the idea that ecology is so complex that we cannot be confident of making the world better through interventions[8]. Di Martino's statement that "we can't do anything about it" might reflect this idea. Many philosophers writing in the late 20th century, (Peter Singer and others) shared this view. Around this time, when the argument over our obligations to wild animals began in earnest, it was necessary for the author to state that, even if we do have some obligation to help them - because they suffer, or because it is us that harmed them - of course, there is nothing that we can do. The knock-on effects to different species might undo any good that we do. Though we may find it impossible not to help an animal in direct suffering, we shouldn't make any systematic interventions to attempt to make their lives better.

This isn't enough to explain the objection though. For one thing, McMahan agrees. When I asked him if his views on wild animal ethics had changed his responses to any projects that exist today, his answer was— basically no. We don't have the technology or the knowledge to make the major interventions into the structure of ecosystems that we would need to make to eliminate predation. If we are to intervene, he writes: "We have to do it with extreme epistemic and scientific modesty and caution”. But this doesn't mean that his argument is mere philosophical chatter; for McMahan, this means that we should put resources into developing this knowledge and capability, and when we have it, we should act.

Of course, Rethink Argentina's project is also intervening in an ecosystem in ways that will have unpredictable effects. The team used population viability analysis (PVA) techniques to model the population of their reintroduced animals[9], up to 100 years in the future. But these models show different possible paths, not predictions. The team hopes that the jaguar will have an affect on the landscape through creating an ecology of fear, but they can't be too confident of this. They rely on analogies to other ecosystems, like the relationship between puma and guanaco[10] in patagonia. The science of this interaction is still young, so the results may surprise them.  

The idea that 'it is nature' often means something deeper than just unpredictability. There is an intuition that nature, and the animals in it (including predators) are on their own course, which we shouldn't interrupt. When I spoke to conservationists, they often referred to this idea. Marc Bekoff, a conservationist and expert in animal behaviour, spoke of the bear’s interest in living as a bear, the deer’s in living like a deer. The implication was that we should value animals being able to live in the way that they would when left unimpeded by humans, in the habitat they evolved in. The conservationist [redacted] told me that he liked the idea of reintroducing Lynx to areas where deer lived, because "deer currently don't live a natural life. They're more sedentary. Lynx will allow them to live the life they've evolved to live". Later, I'll go more deeply into the conservationist's worldview, but for now, we just need to consider which of an animals interests we are more qualified to judge— whether they are better off living the way that they do in nature, or whether they would rather suffer less?

As we will see, if we accept that we should do what we can to reduce suffering in the wild, the path forwards, even in Iberá, isn't clear. There is a long distance between the utopian dream of a world without predation, and the best we can do for wild animals today.

Predation, in the real world

When I first spoke to a researcher in wild animal welfare —Simon Eckerström Liedholm from the Wild Animal Initiative (WAI)— I was met with a perspective even more cautious and nuanced than my engagement with the ethics had led me to expect. When asked about his opinion on predation, he seemed ready to correct for hasty moral arguments; “I can think of many ways to produce a world without predators” he said, “including a universe without life”.

We have to start, he said, by considering the “counterfactual”. What would the ecosystem actually look like with and without predators? In the above section, I focused on describing the costs of predation to the individual, and explained the view that predation wouldn’t happen in a perfect world. But our world isn’t perfect— we are in a world of complex ecosystems, with many species to consider in each case.  

Another WAI researcher, Luke Hecht, showed me the outline of a general approach to assessing welfare effects of adding predators to an ecosystem. You would need to work out the average welfare of the individuals already in the ecosystem, over the course of their life. Then, you would measure the sum of the averages[11] before and after the addition of the new species. Ideally you would do this by introducing the predator within smaller corralled areas, so that less animals would be harmed if the reintroduction did end up being harmful.

This isn’t what Rewild Argentina did. They modelled the projected populations of the species that they introduced, but with the aim of creating a functioning ecosystem that they could step back from, not ensuring that it would be a happy one.

Perhaps this is because they assume that wild animals living the lives that they evolved to live will have broadly positive welfare. This is the impression that I got from speaking with conservationists. This differs from the opinion fairly common within the effective altruism community, that the balance of suffering and pleasure in nature leans towards suffering. Which of these opinions is true matters greatly. In the context of Iberá, if the capybara have lives that are so full of suffering that they aren’t worth living, then predation may actually reduce the suffering in the ecosystem.[12] 

Within effective altruism, arguments over the general level of welfare in nature have been mostly theoretical[13]. But this doesn’t have to be the case forever. I spoke with Heather Browning, a philosophy lecturer at Southampton University. Browning works on the philosophy of animal welfare, especially arguments about its measurement. Incidentally, she has a more positive view of general welfare[14], partially because of her 15 years of experience working in zoos. At the zoo, Browning observed animals enjoying various aspects of their lives, from obviously good activities like eating and mating, to exercising agency and exploring new things. Browning argues that we shouldn’t make decisions about wild animal welfare until we have figured out a way to measure it accurately. In the future, she hopes that we will develop a total welfare measure, based on a better science of consciousness, and clear biological markers.

But we don’t need a perfect welfare measure in order to make better decisions. In the Iberá case, we couldn’t realistically model the whole ecosystem. This would involve settling questions like “do invertebrates suffer?”, understanding all the population changes that would occur because of the introductions, from bugs up. Most welfare measures that currently exist require intimate knowledge of each species being assessed, the kind that you get from zoos, extensive observation in the wild, or in raising animals on farms. Clearly this isn’t feasible for every insect living in Iberá. But it is possible for capybara.

Because of a successful appeal to the pope in 1784, capybara is not classified as a red meat and therefore can be eaten during lent. This creates a demand for capybara across south america, which farmers from countries like Venezuala and Brazil have stepped in to supply. Failed attempts to farm capybara in the 70s and 80s led to knowledge about the conditions in which capybara thrive. If capybara don’t have access to bodies of water to play and bathe in, they develop skin conditions[15]. Worse— if capybara aren’t kept in social arrangements of their own choosing, internal fighting and killing can occur. The females in a group of capybara are generally related, and raise their children in common. If an outsider female is introduced, even if she seems comfortable with the group, she is liable to kill the children of the group’s females. We know then, that capybara will be happier with access to water, and will suffer if outsiders are introduced to their group.

File:Capivara(Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris).jpg
Photo from here.

We don’t just have to gesture at the possible welfare effects on the capybara. Researchers from Argentinian universities spent the dry seasons of 2018 and 2019 studying two populations of capybara, one living in the Brazilian Pantanal, an area with 6.7 jaguar per 100 km2 and one living in Iberá, before the jaguar were fully introduced. In Iberá, there are on average 15 capybara every square kilometre. In the Pantanal, there are only 7.  

The researchers stood on 1.5m tall ladders, watching capybara groups through their cameras. They recorded the proportion of time that the group members spent being vigilant– looking out for threats– and foraging for food. If they noticed the capybara group noticing them, the researchers left, and returned another day. They found that, in general, the Iberán caybara spent just as long being vigilant as those in the pantanal (an average of 14% vs 13% of their time). However, the Panatanal capybara spent a larger proportion of their time foraging (62% vs 40%). The researchers thought that this may be because the Pantanal capybara spend their time alternating between periods of safety and heightened danger. When they are safe, they forage more vigorously, to make up for lost time when they are threatened.

The Iberán capybara were less prepared for predation by big cats. The researchers performed a short-term vigilance test by playing jaguar sounds through a speaker, and later playing macaw sounds as a control. They observed that both groups would heighten their vigilance for a time after the jaguar sound, but the Iberán group spent just as long being extra vigilant after the macaw sounds played– they didn’t differentiate between the risks.

The researchers performed one more test. Not all welfare measures are species specific. Measuring the quantity of glucocorticoids in animal waste can be used as an indicator of stress. Browning noted that this measure is imperfect (it is produced during good excitement– sex and play– as well as bad excitement– fear and anxiety). For a rough estimate of endemic stress, the researchers collected and tested capybara excrement, measuring the levels of glucocorticoids. They would have expected that the capybara living in an area with jaguar would have had higher stress levels. To their surprise, they found no statistically relevant difference between the levels in the two locations. They proposed a few explanations for this. Perhaps the capybara were more stressed when they had predators, but also more stressed when they live in larger groups. Perhaps the capybara in the pantanal had adjusted to a higher level of danger, and regulated their stress levels. Overall, we don’t know. But from this research, there were no clear flags that life without predation is less stressful for capybara.  

We can use this information to suggest some conditional answers to the question— will the reintroduction of jaguar make life worse for the capybara? We can suppose that the population will fall once the predator is introduced— the population in Iberá is double that of the pantanal. So we can expect the total welfare to go as low as about half of its current size, but, presuming that the stress levels don’t change, the average welfare to remain about the same.

This is where philosophy comes back into the picture. If you care about the total welfare of populations, then (focusing only on the jaguar and capybara interaction) reducing the total welfare is bad. If you care about the average welfare, then whether adding predators is good or not would depend on the welfare of the predator. If the jaguar are better off than the capybara, then even if they are outnumbered 100 to 1, as they are in the pantanal, they will bump up the average welfare to higher than it was before they were introduced.

Alongside discussion of ideal populations, we still have to deal with the direct suffering costs. To transition to this new ecosystem, and to maintain it, many capybara will die in the jaws of jaguar. At least 111 capybara have been eaten by jaguar in Iberá so far, 62% of their diet[16]. Often, this will be relatively painless and efficient. Sometimes, it will involve minutes of suffocation. If, as we have been assuming based on observations, the capybara were living worthwhile lives, then these killings will have cause a large loss of welfare to the individuals.

Neither the philosophy, nor the empirics are decisive here. The study is of limited size, and hasn’t been replicated (though there are plans to repeat it later, to see the effect of the jaguar reintroductions on the capybara in Iberá). It doesn’t explore the amount of time that the capybara spend in positive activities, like play, and mating. It doesn’t explore the impacts of negative competition between groups. We have a way to go on wild animal welfare measurement, and even if this study was focused on measuring welfare, it wouldn’t be able to give us a very fine grained answer. The philosophy is also inconclusive. Even if we agree that welfare is our priority, our views on ideal populations will determine our reaction to the reintroduction. We would care the most if we are concerned with the loss of the life the capybara could have lived, and the total welfare of populations, and the least if we only care about the suffering caused during the killing, and the average welfare of populations. These questions aren’t easy to resolve.

If you only care about welfare– you probably wouldn’t reintroduce the jaguar until there were better measures of wild animal wellbeing. Purely on welfare grounds, we are left uncertain of whether the reintroduction of jaguar (not to mention the other species setting up home in Iberá) will be a neutral action, or something to lament. But this project is going ahead, and it is going ahead for ethical reasons. Why? What exactly are the ethics of conservation, that to some, justify the risk of increased suffering?

The world according to conservationists

Conservationists come at the decision from a different starting place, with a set of motivations that aren’t primarily focused on suffering.

When Michel E. Soulé, biologist, was founding the field of conservation biology, he called it a “crisis discipline”[17]. He compared it to cancer biology, a discipline which brings together expertise from various fields, immunology, pharmacology, virology, and unites them to achieve a specific goal— the understanding and treatment of cancer. Conservation biology is similar in its calling upon a range of professional expertise (in genetics, animal physiology, population biology), but also in its normative status; it is united by the a moral goal, “to provide principles and tools for preserving biological diversity”.

The real uniting force in conservation is its urgency. The IUCN records nine hundred species that have gone extinct in the last five hundred years, and that’s likely to be a massive underestimate. The current speed of extinctions is a hundred to a thousand times higher than earth’s baseline extinction rate[18]. In latin america and the tropics, wildlife populations have fallen by an average of 95%[19] since 1970. Around ¼  of mammal species, 1/7 bird species and ⅖ amphibians are facing a higher than 10% chance of extinction this century[20].


But how morally important is this urgency? If we want to compare the importance of wild animal welfare with conservation priorities, we need to understand what drives both.

Doug and Kristine Tompkins were friends with Aarne Næss, a Norwegian mountain climber and philosopher, whose writings are often referenced by Soulé. They mention Næss as inspiration on their website[21], and the line I quoted earlier about “restoring the evolutionary process” is in line with his philosophy. Næss was the co-founder of a movement called “deep ecology”[22], a response to what he deemed “shallow” approaches to conservation; those that prioritised actions which would bring benefits to humans. In his “platform of deep ecology”, written with another philosopher, George Sessions, he writes that “Abundance and diversity of life forms are values in-themselves and contribute to the flourishing of human and non-human life on earth”[23]. Returning species to Iberá increases their abundance, and restores ecological diversity to the ecosystem (over the long run, as long as the populations survive and establish relationships as expected). Soulé gave a more science-focused account of the ethics of conservation in his seminal What is Conservation Biology? He wrote that conservation biologists believed four normative statements, including the claim that “evolution is good”. Doug’s argument for this claim echoes Soulés— all the value that we see in wilderness come from evolution, so we should respect the process.

Earlier in the article, McMahan asserted that suffering is bad. You can’t really argue for this claim; either you agree, or you don’t. When people do argue about claims like this, their arguments are designed to show you that really you do care— only, you haven’t noticed. Arguments for the value of nature, the intrinsic value of species, or the intrinsic value of biodiversity, are the same. On his claim “diversity of organisms is good”, Soulé writes that "such a statement cannot be tested or proven". When I asked conservationists why they cared about biodiversity, they didn’t have philosophical arguments ready. They were used to speaking to people who took it for granted that there was something of value in nature, even if they disagreed on methods for protecting it. Marc Bekoff put it best. When I asked him to explain why biodiversity mattered, he responded: “to be honest with you, I would be shocked if anybody said that it didn't matter [...] I've never talked to anybody ever who would have marginalized biodiversity.”

Heather Browning told me that she also feels strongly about the diversity of species. She doesn’t like the idea of a world with no orangutans, or leaf insects. But when she examines the intuition, she realises that she doesn’t feel the same for mosquitos. This suggests to her that the intuition is fallible; we can’t turn the feeling into the rule ‘never cause a decrease in biodiversity’ because we wouldn’t want to apply it in all cases. If she is right, it also suggests that we don’t value biodiversity intrinsically. If we don’t value it unconditionally, we must value it for some further reason— like its impact on our health or its beauty.

Næss and Soulé both knew that their arguments wouldn’t convince everyone, or even describe all the reasons that conservationists cared. The urgency of their movement was enough for them to make a coalition with a broad range of interests[24]. In the present, conservationists often mention the intrinsic value of biodiversity as a motivation alongside a range of others.

When I spoke to Di Martino about the motivations behind Rewild Argentina’s project, he began with ideas similar to Næss and Soulé— “we respect all forms of life” he said. He expressed that he didn’t consider himself “at the top of nature”. Partially, the animals are being brought back for their own benefit. But in the rest of the conversation, he focused on effects that the reintroductions would have on humans, both directly, through the impact the increased tourism would have on the local economy, and more indirectly, through the effect on climate. In our conversation, he was animated when explaining the more everyday, human impacts of the project. Bringing environmental tourism to the area is giving better paid jobs to men and women alike, freeing men from the exploitative ranching industry and women from a life with few options outside of the home. A local town, for years known only as Concepción, now proudly goes by its full name, Concepción del Yaguareté Corá— conception, a place where they have jaguar.

He also made claims about the impact of the Iberá project on the climate crisis. These claims are hard to quantify. If the ecology of fear works, and capybara are driven further towards rivers, more plants could grow. This would result in more sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, into organic compounds. But is this the most important outcome of the project, or does this have more in common with a car park which gets its green credentials by erecting a beehive? Scientists sometimes argue that the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are intricately linked. In a recent article on nature’s[25] comment section, a collection of researchers published a plea to further investigate the links between biodiversity and climate change[26]. They pointed out that though there are studies on a range of instances of biodiversity, in general “the details of the intricate feedback loops between biodiversity decline and climate change are astonishingly under-studied”. They make the case that climate scientists and ecologists should pursue a joint agenda, but until now, the two disciplined have been overly siloed. This means that Iberá’s effect on the climate is still speculative.

The motivation for conservation can come from a deeply intuited philosophical basis– the intrinsic value of biodiversity– but in reality, projects that go ahead are often win-wins. Alongside rebuilding an area of nature which the Tompkins think of as having intrinsic value, Rewild Argentina is already bringing tourists into the area, and improving the livelihoods of the people that live there. They are bringing back animals that people want to see, and perhaps doing something for the climate along the way.

How does welfare fit into the conservationist’s picture? How do you get from the idea that capybara has intrinsic value, to the act of introducing a predator to eat it? When I asked Di Martino about the suffering of wild animals, he talked about the care that his team gives to animals in transit to the Iberá, or before they are fed to the jaguar. As the project develops, he explained, the focus of the work moves from the individual animal (and their welfare), to the population level (is the population of pampas deer growing or declining?), and finally, to the ecosystem (is the local flora recovering?). Whenever I pushed a question on animal suffering, he would respond that this was the way of nature, or this was the role of the prey species.

Soulé also felt this way. In his paper, he wrote that  “Although disease and suffering in animals are unpleasant, and, perhaps, regrettable, biologists recognize that conservation is engaged in the protection of the integrity and continuity of natural processes, not the welfare of individuals [...] evolution, as it occurs in nature, could not proceed without the suffering inseparable from hunger, disease, and predation” .

Not all conservationists share this view. "Compassionate conservation" is an approach to conservation which aims to take the individual animal seriously, throughout the entire process. At the third international compassionate conservation conference, Professor Ngaio Beausoleil, a researcher whose work straddles animal welfare and conservation, convened a workshop. The participants were academics and practitioners who wanted to see greater collaboration between animal welfare research and conservation. They argued that conservation focuses too much on "fitness", or the chances of a population surviving in its ecosystem, and not on "feelings", or the animal's experiences of their life.

Marc Bekoff, who edited a book on compassionate conservation,  spoke to me from colorado, where conservationists want to reintroduce wolves. Bekoff was keen to share his concern about this project. As a conservationist, he would be happy if wolves were brought back. But as a compassionate conservationist, he is concerned that the team bringing them in knows little about wolf behaviour, and might be hurting the groups that they take the wolves from. He’s watched this happen in colorado before, where the during the first attempt at Lynx reintroduction in the year 2000. “It was very clear from the start that the proper ecology studies about food abundance had not been done. It was predictable that the early animals that were dumped would die, and the first four died of starvation.” Bekoff wants a conservation movement that has “first, do no harm” and “every individual counts” as its mantras. He is happy to see new conservation projects being done, as long as they do their best to treat the animals with respect.

The Wild Animal Institute, in contrast, would rather that many present projects weren’t done until we know more about the welfare effects. From this perspective, initiatives like introducing the jaguar, done without a focus on welfare, are a moral roll of the dice. But since the conservationists are acting anyway, WAI researchers see conservation as an opportunity to develop better welfare science, collecting real-world data on welfare impacts. As the field of Welfare Biology develops, and we gain a better understanding of wild animal welfare, perhaps conservationists will find it easier, maybe even natural, to take welfare into account.


  1. ^

    Reference is on the temporarily offline, conservation evidence website. 

  2. ^
  3. ^

     Co-founder of North Face and Espirit.

  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^

     A 1978 observational study on Jaguar predation of Capybara

  7. ^

     (Ritchie 2002, 109–110)

  8. ^

     such as culling a parasite species, allowing a predator to go extinct, or distributing contraceptives to shrink a starving herbivore population

  9. ^

     For example, the modelling of the giant anteater’s population, using a decade of post-release data 

  10. ^

     Picture a llama with a closer haircut.

  11. ^

     For now, I’m assuming what philosophers in the field of population ethics call a “total view”. This is the view that the better population is the one with the greater total amount of welfare, as opposed, for example, to the better average welfare.

  12. ^

     We should note that this wouldn’t prove McMahan wrong. Cage-free farmed chickens may suffer less than caged ones, but that doesn’t mean that in the ideal world, we wouldn’t totally abolish chicken farming. Likewise, in our world, predation might be an improvement, even if in the distant future, we would be better off abolishing it.

  13. ^

     For example, Brian Tomasik argues that suffering dominates in nature. Most animals alive are very short-lived. For example, a female giant pacific octopus will hatch around 50,000 young. Only a few of these will survive to reproduce themselves— all the others will die, primarily of starvation or predation. Tomasik makes a simple argument; he would trade years of his life not to suffer the death of an animal in the wild; most animals in the wild don’t live years, so they couldn’t possibly make up for it; therefore most animals in the wild lead lives not worth living. This has the striking conclusion for Tomasik that less wilderness would be good, if it meant less suffering animal life.

  14. ^

     Which you can read about here

  15. ^

     We didn’t have to learn this from farming. More recently, researchers in Japan have observed the effects of bathing in hot springs on captive capybara. This research led to the knowledge that narrowed eyes are associated with calm and pleasure in capybara. The photos from this research were so cute that they went viral.

  16. ^

     Author's correspondence with Sebastián Di Martino

  17. ^

     In his 1985 “What is Conservation Biology?”

  18. ^
  19. ^

     Not a weighted percentage. For more, see OWID LPI

  20. ^
  21. ^


  22. ^

     Later, in 1990, Doug Tompkins would establish the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

  23. ^

     This is from a version of the platform cited in his talk, ‘will the defenders of nature please rise’

  24. ^

     Soulé once wrote: “Although we have varying philosophies, we share a faith in ourselves, as a species and as individuals, that we are equal to the challenge [...] we join together in professional alliance, in the service of each other, but also in the service of the less articulate members of our evolutionary tree” (Soulé 1987:4–5)”

  25. ^

     The leading scientific journal

  26. ^





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Executive summary: The reintroduction of predators like jaguars into ecosystems like Iberá National Park raises ethical questions about the suffering caused by predation and whether we have obligations to prevent it, balanced against conservationist goals of restoring biodiversity and ecological processes.

Key points:

  1. Predation causes suffering to prey animals through painful killing, being eaten alive, and chronic fear/stress, suggesting we may have obligations to prevent it from a utilitarian perspective focused on reducing suffering.
  2. However, conservationists argue for the intrinsic value of biodiversity and restoring evolutionary processes, which predation is a part of, prioritizing these goals over individual animal welfare.
  3. Empirical research on the welfare impacts of predator reintroductions like measuring stress levels in prey species can help inform these ethical tradeoffs, but current evidence is limited and inconclusive.
  4. Conservationists acknowledge individual suffering but view it as an unavoidable part of nature, focusing more on population and ecosystem levels, while some advocate for "compassionate conservation" prioritizing individual welfare.
  5. Improving measurement of wild animal welfare and developing interventions to reduce suffering without harming ecosystems could help resolve these tensions between utilitarian and conservationist ethics.
  6. Projects like Iberá's predator reintroductions represent opportunities to study welfare impacts and develop frameworks for navigating these difficult ethical issues going forward.



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This is great!

This was such a good article. It changed my mind about conservationists - I had no idea they were so into the value of evolution in and by itself and at the expense of welfare of both animals and humans. Your post really opened up my mind to a new perspective on this. And I really like how you social science style talked to all these different people to really push them on their beliefs and motivations. And it feels EA related and shows the complexities involved in wild animal suffering. Great job and thanks! 

Wonderful post ! I think this is a good exemplar of how predation related RWAS thought should be presented, and I'm incredibly glad you delved into the conservationists' worldview.

There is still a pending question in my mind, however, that has to do with the "One Health" perspective that healthy ecosystems have a positive benefit on human health. I guess there are some interventions that actually maximize health benefit while minimizing animal suffering (we know those in animal farming, namely not doing it), and if anything, this could favor specific rewilding projects while discarding the ones that are only motivated by a conservationist aesthetic.

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