Interview with Dr Liv Baker

Dr Liv Baker is a research fellow at the Centre for Compassionate Conservation at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. In this article she expresses her views on compassionate conservation, with a focus on individual animal welfare and perils of wildlife translocations… “we need to achieve a more systematic integration of animal welfare science and conservation biology. Concern for the individual needs to become an indelible element of all conservation practices”.

1. To date the alliance of animal conservation, behaviour and welfare has been rare, why do you think this is?

It’s true, the presence of animal welfare has been - and continues to be - slow to emerge in the fields of animal behaviour and conservation. In general, scientific fields become entrenched in their own paradigms and are slow to find common ground. And there has been a long-standing approach to scientific inquiry that has further impacted the welfare of animals. Effectively, science has been concerned with what can be observed and measured; also it has tended to eschew an ethical basis. This has meant that psychological aspects of animals such as cognition, emotions and even personality have fallen outside the scope of science. So, there is a fair bit of inertia to overcome to have the concerns of animals penetrate not just conservation biology, but the biological sciences overall.

More proximately, while conservation biology and animal welfare science share a guiding ethic of the protection of animals, the fundamental objectives of these fields have been shaped by different concerns. Animal welfare is concerned with the individual, whereas conservation biology has historically focused on the health of populations, species and overall ecosystem biodiversity. Recent changes in our understanding of human activity on wildlife, including the intensification of conservation programs, have necessitated a re-evaluation of this distinction.

2. Currently translocations are key management practices in conservation. Many translocation programmes are unsuccessful do you think this is partially due to the stress the individual animals endure?

In a word, yes. Wildlife translocation involves the deliberate capture and release of free-ranging animals from one area to another. Translocation is likely the most common conservation practice used to combat loss of species and habitat. Despite the global popularity of the practice, its outcomes have been notoriously dismal.

Typical translocations involve some combination of stressors, such as captivity, marking, monitoring, transport and handling, in addition to environmental and social disturbance. Although animals have evolved a repertoire of behavioural and physiological coping mechanisms to manage challenges throughout their lives, translocation stressors - particularly in combination - can compromise these mechanisms. This has the potential to affect foraging, navigation, reproduction and predator avoidance. If this is the case, translocations threaten individual welfare and actually conflict with the conservation goals of the practice. Being able to pinpoint sources of stress, and knowing how to effectively measure stress for translocated animals, therefore, has great importance for animal conservation and welfare.

3. For your PhD research you explored the welfare concerns centred on the management of endangered species. What impact would you like your research to have?

There are scant examples from the translocation literature where consideration at the individual level has been put into practice. Because of this lack, my research has focused on understanding the differential stress effects of the translocation process on individuals. Ultimately, the aim of my dissertation was to provide a scientific foundation on which the animal welfare and conservation concerns of translocation biology can be addressed. Such a foundation should help increase survival, as we are better able to anticipate and reduce the negative impact of stressors on the individuals involved.

Beyond the impact I hope my research has on future translocation practice, we need to achieve a more systematic integration of animal welfare science and conservation biology. Concern for the individual needs to become an indelible element of all conservation practices.

4. What role do you think animal sentience research should have in conservation practices?

Awareness of animal sentience should be at the heart of all animal-related research. Certainly, conservation - and animal welfare science for that matter - is no exception. It’s easy as an advocate of animals to level criticism at research where the harms to animals are more obvious. But when a field has the aim of saving species, as in conservation, those harms are often overlooked. For the animal, however, the intention of the research has no bearing on its welfare; that it feels and perceives the insult is what matters. Given that conservation initiatives, such as translocations, rely on the survival of sometimes just a few animals, the field can only benefit from the research that humanely elucidates their perceptual world.

Interestingly, the perceptual world of non-human animals is not a new area of research for biologists; in fact, it’s seeing a re-emergence in what is called sensory ecology. While many of its studies currently smack of the mechanistic and value-free approach of modern science, there exists an inherent correspondence with animal sentience research. 


* Any views or opinions represented in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee, and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of World Animal Protection.