Governments across the world endorse wildlife culling also on the premises that it can help conserve species by building wildlife tolerance amongst local people and discouraging poaching. Nonetheless, to date this assumption remains largely unfounded, as science is yet to provide us with a more definite answer.
Biodiversity conservation is a goal which many countries are aiming to achieve – at least on paper – as most have now signed international treaties and developed their own specific national laws. However, the means through which to achieve such goal remain arbitrary and can include the use of culling as a management tool.
Many rural communities associate hunting activities with deep cultural and social values, therefore from their perspectives bans on this tool may infringe on their wellbeing and violate their rights. Furthermore, wildlife can impact on the livelihood of local people, for instance by destroying their crops or eating their livestock. Such issues can lead people to poaching.
Similarly, when local people are excluded from decision-making processes, feel marginalised by management, or perceive that urban authorities are imposing hunting bans on them, urban-rural tensions and conflicts may become exacerbated and in turn foster poaching activity1.
On these bases, management plans for problematic species, such as large carnivores, tend to include annual quotas to cull populations. In some circumstances, hunting fees can also be re-distributed to local communities therefore monetising wildlife and incentivising local people to protect it rather than poach it.
The Wildlife Management Matrix is a conceptual diagram of public acceptance for lethal control options for predators, ranging from protective to exploitative. As perceptions of wildlife population and risk of human-wildlife conflict increase, public acceptance for more exploitative management options increases. Credits: Olson et al., 2014 https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12141
The use of culling as a management tool in conservation remains nevertheless a controversial approach, increasingly criticised by scientists and the wider public, especially as societal values appear to be gradually shifting and embracing aspects of animal rights’ views, such as recognising the intrinsic value of individual animals.
The scientific knowledge currently available fails to inform management effectively on the potential of government-endorsed culls to actually reduce poaching rates.
A neat example of this tangled situation is the management of wolves, which are recovering in many parts of the world, such as Europe2, and although they are often listed as a protected species can still be legally hunted in some regions.
A 2016 paper3published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, drew a lot of attention, as it suggested that legal culls of wolves were likely resulting in increased, rather than lower, poaching levels in Wisconsin and Michigan, U.S. The authors G. Chapron and A. Treves, two notorious carnivore experts, say “liberalizing wolf culling may [send] a negative message about the value of wolves or acceptability of poaching. Our results suggest that granting management flexibility for endangered species to address illegal behaviour may instead promote such behaviour.”
The paper has since been cited 73 times (according to Google Scholar), but it has also been criticised by multiple authors, who mostly thought that Chapron and Treves rather forced their conclusion. A first critique argues that the authors lacked transparency in sharing their data and made a biased and selective use of the literature in order to support their claim4.
Two other papers5,6, also published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, criticise Chapron and Treves for failing to provide empirical support to their conclusion, as they “only showed a marginal association between policy change allowing [culling] and reduction in expected wolf population growth”.
Nonetheless, Chapron and Treves contested the idea of a biased selection of the literature and argued that even though they lack the statistical support to state with a high level of certainty that culling policy slowed wolf population growth (through increased poaching activity) rather than boosting it, the burden of proof in carnivore management should be with having to justify the killing of wolves and not with justifying hunting bans7. “We believe that an overlooked aspect in the broad context of carnivore conservation and management relates to the burden of proof. Should a policy be implemented until proven harmful or held until proven harmless? Should burden of proof be different according to the hypothesis tested? We are criticized for supporting a hypothesis that has a 17% probability of being wrong. However, evaluating the hypothesis that culling reduces poaching indicates it has an 83% probability of being wrong. We think that rejecting our conclusion must in turn imply rejecting the latter conclusion even more forcefully.” The authors reply to the critics.
Meanwhile, a new study9published this month by carnivore expert O. Liberg and six coauthors in Biological Conservation suggests that in Sweden allowing wolf culling may in fact decrease poaching rates. “Our results indicate that legal culling may have some dampening effect on large carnivore poaching. We acknowledge that this is a controversial issue and we believe the discussion on this multi-sided topic is likely to be continued and hope that our study will stimulate further research on the relation between legal culling and poaching” the authors of the study conclude.
Disappearance rate of paired territorial wolves, number of territories used as proxy for population size, number of legally killed wolves and average parental inbreeding for wolves in Sweden, 2000/01–2016/17. On the X-axis, 2001 stands for 2000/2001, etc. Credits: 9
To date, the question remains unsettled, whilst more research is being conducted to provide managers with more concrete answers and clearer guidance. Social studies would be particularly useful in this context. Local/rural perceptions are likely to be better understood through engaging and talking directly with people rather than through analysing secondary ecological or biological data and drawing stretched conclusion solely based on them.
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- Redpath, S.M., Young, J., Evely, A., Adams, W.M., Sutherland, W.J., Whitehouse, A., Amar, A., Lambert, R.A., Linnell, J.D., Watt, A. and Gutierrez, R.J., 2013. Understanding and managing conservation conflicts. Trends in ecology & evolution, 28(2), pp.100-109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2012.08.021
- Chapron, G., Kaczensky, P., Linnell, J.D., von Arx, M., Huber, D., Andrén, H., López-Bao, J.V., Adamec, M., Álvares, F., Anders, O. and Balčiauskas, L., 2014. Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes. science, 346(6216), pp.1517-1519. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1257553
- Chapron, G. and Treves, A., 2016. Blood does not buy goodwill: allowing culling increases poaching of a large carnivore. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 283(1830), p.20152939. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2015.2939
- Stien, A., 2017. Blood may buy goodwill: no evidence for a positive relationship between legal culling and poaching in Wisconsin. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284(1867), p.20170267.https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.0267
- Olson, E.R., Crimmins, S.M., Beyer Jr, D.E., MacNulty, D.R., Patterson, B.R., Rudolph, B.A., Wydeven, A.P. and Van Deelen, T.R., 2017. Flawed analysis and unconvincing interpretation: a comment on Chapron and Treves 2016. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284(1867), p.20170273. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.0273
- Pepin, K.M., Kay, S.L. and Davis, A.J., 2017. Comment on:‘Blood does not buy goodwill: allowing culling increases poaching of a large carnivore’. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284(1851), p.20161459. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.1459
- Chapron, G. and Treves, A., 2017. Reply to comments by Olson et al. 2017 and Stien 2017. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284(1867), p.20171743. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.1743
- Chapron, G. and Treves, A., 2017. Reply to comment by Pepin et al. 2017. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284(1851), p.20162571. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.2571
- Liberg, O., Suutarinen, J., Åkesson, M., Andrén, H., Wabakken, P., Wikenros, C. and Sand, H., 2020. Poaching-related disappearance rate of wolves in Sweden was positively related to population size and negatively to legal culling. Biological Conservation, 243, p.108456. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108456