George Schaller on reconciliation ecology as a way to save big cats


OK, he doesn’t quite use the phrase “reconciliation ecology”, but this is exactly the approach George Schaller describes as the only solution to saving the world’s big cats, in his sidebar to the latest National Geographic feature article on tigers.

George Schaller is a truly iconic hero to wildlife biologists, especially of my generation. Well before discovering the excitement of evolutionary ecology (and its heroes like MacArthur and the Grants), I was enthralled by Schaller’s The Deer and the Tiger, a classic account of the very first studies of the tiger and its prey conducted by him in India. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one of my classmates (in the first batch of the brand new Wildlife Sciences Masters program at the Wildlife Institute of India) who read that book multiple times, cover to cover, and really wanted to follow in his footsteps. Some did, and continue to work with big cats and other charismatic wildlife; I got sidetracked upon discovering the broader domains of evolutionary and ecological theory, and the hidden wonders of less charismatic species such as leaf warblers. Yes, I did write a polemic against the overemphasis on conserving tigers while neglecting the “lesser” species; in today’s parlance, you could say I was advocating on behalf of the 99% of the species which don’t get as much love as the warm-n-fuzzy, cuddly/fierce charismatic mammals. I love the big cats too, and count my few encounters with wild tigers among the highlights of my life – but, my main point was, and remains, the imbalance in conservation priorities. I have in recent years expanded my thinking to develop the broader approach of reconciliation ecology, of finding ways to conserve all of biodiversity not merely within remote protected areas, but across the real context of our human-dominated planet, while improving the lives of people who share a disproportionate burden from our protected areas. As Schaller illustrates in this thoughtful piece, that exclusive “reservation ecology” approach has failed even the most charismatic of megafauna, our beloved tigers and their sister big cats. Here’s how he describes his own move towards reconciliation ecology:

When I began fieldwork, it was with the aim not only of studying a species but also of promoting its safety within a protected area. Both such efforts remain essential. But I have had to change my mind-set. Most countries now lack the space to set aside large new areas to support a population of, let us say, 200 snow leopards or tigers. Most existing reserves are small, able to sustain only a few of the great cats—and these may become extinct due to inbreeding, disease, or some accidental event. And as ecosystems shift with climate change, animals will have to adapt, migrate, or die.

So how does one go about protecting big cats, which need space (and, don’t forget, meat)?

Instead of focusing just on discrete, isolated protected areas, conservation has enlarged its vision to manage whole landscapes. The goal is to create a mosaic of core areas without people or development where a leopard or jaguar can breed in peace and security. Such core areas are connected by corridors of viable habitat to enable a cat to travel from one safety zone to another. The remaining area of a landscape is designated for human use.

Easier said than done, of course. While we can paint idyllic pictures of reconciled landscapes with tigers and cattle and peasants living in harmony, the reality of implementing any action towards such an idyll are daunting. Schaller reminds us that the real big hurdle is political will, for:

In the final analysis, conservation is politics—and politics is killing the big cats

Given the failures of the more punitive bureaucratic approaches used so far to protect the big cats, let’s try alternatives:

I wonder if a positive approach might be more effective: Pay communities to maintain healthy great cat populations. After all, it is painfully clear that good science and good laws do not necessarily result in effective conservation. Communities must be directly involved as full partners in conservation by contributing their knowledge, insights, and skills. Aware of this, I have in recent years focused less on detailed science, something I enjoy most, and more on conservation. I have tried to become a combination of educator, diplomat, social anthropologist, and naturalist—an ecological missionary, balancing knowledge and action.

Schaller goes on to write (you really should read the essay in its entirety):

Our greatest challenge is to instill national commitments to save the great cats. It’s everyone’s task. Communities need incentives to share their land with such predators. Benefits need to be based on moral values as well as on economic ones. The jaguar is a representative of the sun, the protector of all that lives among indigenous societies of Latin America; the tiger in China was an emissary of heaven and in Hindu India a force for good; and Buddhism stresses respect, love, and compassion for all living beings. Conservation is based on moral values, not scientific ones, on beauty, ethics, and religion, without which it cannot sustain itself.

That last sentence could be part of a manifesto for reconciliation ecology, a reminder to us wildlife biologists of the broader context within which we must place our endeavors to conserve biodiversity.


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