Morality and its Role in Wildlife Management

Management concerned with the conservation of biodiversity has a long history of lethal removal use. Lethal removal includes the adoption of management measures (e.g., direct shooting, poisoned baits) through which to control and cull animal populations. This tool can be particularly cost-effective and efficient, and it is adopted worldwide. Nonetheless, its use is becoming increasingly the topic of controversial debate, and the catalyst for highly polarised discussions. Management strategies envisaging its adoption seem to be increasingly opposed by the public, wildlife professionals and scientists1.

Generally, the distinction between hunting for subsistence/sport or population control/culling lays in the motivations behind these activities. Specifically, the latter type refers to the killing of animal populations for biodiversity conservation purposes (e.g., removing invasive species) or for the mitigation of human-wildlife conflict through the removal of problem individuals (e.g., individuals damaging human activities or threatening local livelihoods).

Especially when management concerns charismatic species, such as large-bodied mammals, opinions may be particularly polarised on the extent to which using lethal removal would be justified and acceptable. Specifically, when scientific evidence on the effectiveness of lethal removal is scant and inconclusive, and alternative management options are available, wildlife professionals, scientists and managers may be increasingly opposed to its adoption2.

Agreement values among 505 participants (wildlife professionals) on when it would be acceptable to use lethal removal for the management of large carnivore populations. Larger bubble size indicates less consensus. Figure Credits: 1

In the 1990s, the influential social scientists Ronald Inglehart advanced a theory of Materialist/Post-Materialist value shift in modern society to explain why people are increasingly caring about nature and the environment3. His theory may be extended to also embrace the issue of why the public and scientific opinion is increasingly shifting away from a laissez-fair approach for the use of lethal removal in wildlife conservation.

A recent (2011) portrait of Prof Ronald Inglehart. Image credits:

In his theory, Inglehart proposed that economic development elevates people from basic human “material” needs (e.g., security, shelter, food) to higher-order psychological needs (e.g., self-expression, environmentalism). As the global economy improves, we may be heading towards a global shift to a post-materialist society where morality will hold an increasing role, next to science, in how we choose to manage wildlife.

This is likely to generate increasing tension between stakeholders and decision-makers holding conflicting value-positions on how to best intervene for wildlife management and conservation. Such tension is likely going to be difficult to handle, and it may hinder effective management if left unaddressed. This may represent an increasing issue for effective biodiversity conservation in the forthcoming decades.

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  1. Lute, M.L., Carter, N.H., López-Bao, J.V. and Linnell, J.D., 2018. Conservation professionals agree on challenges to coexisting with large carnivores but not on solutions. Biological conservation, 218, pp.223-232
  2. Donfrancesco, V. et al. 2019. Unravelling the scientific debate on how to address wolf-dog hybridization in Europe. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 7.
  3. Inglehart, R. and Baker, W.E., 2000. Modernization, cultural change, and the persistence of traditional values. American sociological review, pp.19-51.

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