Conservation Behavior Is Here to Stay


Animal Behavior and Wildlife Conservation. Festa-Bianchet, M., and M. Apollonio, editors. 2003. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 389 pp. $70.00 (hardcover). ISBN 1–55963–958–X. $35.50 (paperback). ISBN 1–55963–959–8.

There is no doubt that the rapidly emerging field of conservation behavior is one of the most important and dynamic areas of inquiry in the general discipline of conservation biology. Animal Behavior and Wildlife Conservation continues in the fine tradition of other recent books and essays on conservation behavior (e.g., Clemmons & Bucholz 1997; Caro 1998; Sutherland 1998, 2002; Cowlishaw & Dunbar 2000; Gosling & Sutherland 2000; Berger et al. 2001; Knight 2001). We often hear laments that if we only had known this or that about the behavior or behavioral ecology of the animals under consideration, a project might have taken a different turn and been more successful. Of course, as many case studies show, this is not always so, but it does not mean we should not be collecting these comparative data.

We also hear about the importance of individual animals and how the success of a given project turned on taking into account individual differences in behavior among conspecifics. A wolf isn't a wolf isn't a wolf; and the same goes for many other taxa, ranging from insects to fish to birds. This message is well expressed by the editors of this volume:

The study of animal behavior is most usefully applied to the conservation and management of populations because it both identifies and provides ways to deal with a key characteristic of animals: they are not all alike. Individual differences in age, sex, size, aggressiveness, learning ability, past experience, heterozygosity, and a myriad of other variables can all affect how an animal reacts to a given situation and may determine the success or failure of a management strategy or a conservation initiative. Conservation of animal populations thus often depends on meeting the challenge of how to incorporate individual differences in wildlife management. The importance of individual differences in behavior in wildlife conservation is a central theme of this book. (pp. 5–6).

Some of the other variables considered in this book include behavioral development, individual quality (Table 16.1 offers an excellent summary of “traits considered as potential indexes of individual quality in animals, with their stated or implied cause of variation”), life-history strategies, demography, community biology and behavior, mating strategies, sexual selection, sexual conflict, sex ratios, hermaphrodism, speciation, space use, territorial behavior, dispersal, edge effects, migration, behavioral responses to translocation, fragmentation, urbanization, intensive agriculture, infanticide, predation, sociality, vigilance, foraging, models, and the effects of sport and trophy hunting. There is no consideration of what happens in areas from which animals are taken, which in my view is a major omission in these sorts of studies. Two very important messages are that we need to be careful about generalizing from one species to another because of interspecific variability, and, less obviously, even within the same species there are geographical differences that require us to pay attention to local details.

An encyclopedic literature is covered in the case studies considered in the five major sections and 17 chapters of Animal Behavior and Wildlife Conservation. These sections include “Why Animal Behavior is Important for Conservation”; “Resource-Use Strategies in Space and Time”; “Wildlife Management” (with much information about the effects of sport hunting on large mammals); “Genetic Diversity and Individual Differences”; and “Conclusion.” The editing is impeccable. This book is truly comparative in the spirit of early ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Karl von Frisch in that a wide variety of species is considered, not only the proverbial attention-getting charismatic megafauna. It is impossible to summarize all the essays, but they are all readable, and the summaries at the end of each help readers see the major points of concern. Section introductions by the editors also are very useful for framing what is to follow.

Students of behavior know how difficult it can be to conduct a detailed study of what individual animals do in myriad circumstances. This is especially so for free-ranging animals. It is often difficult to identify individuals and to follow them, and detailed behavioral data can take a long time to collect. And, even when detailed behavioral data are amassed, it can be difficult to define how a variety of social and ecological factors influence the expression of different behavior patterns. It has always been the case that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, and dead ends can be met when causal links are not established. Thus, one reason behavioral data often are not used is not because they are deemed irrelevant but because it can take a good deal of time to collect the needed information. So one of the problems that is faced by people confronted with solving practical problems now rather than later is how to balance the tension between a sense of urgency with the patience needed to conduct reliable and often long-term studies of behavior. Quick fixes often do not work. Nonetheless, if enough data are collected to allow assessment of general trends in behavior and if these trends are repeatable in different studies, then this information can be used to make management decisions. The question of when we know enough to move forward and make a decision depends on assessing the reliability of a database; in many instances, even without knowledge of everything there is to know, reasonable decisions have been made.

Animal Behavior and Wildlife Conservation is rich in important messages. I found four particularly interesting.

  • 1One of the main areas that concern ethologists is the development (or ontogeny) of behavior. Along these lines, Norman-Owen Smith reports that young domestic sheep and goats accept novel foods more readily than do adults. He relates this to the way in which animals learn which foods are nutritious and which are poisonous and how “An animal's performance depends not only on what food it consumes but also on how efficiently it obtains these foods” (p. 104). Activities related to food—its acquisition and defense—are critical variables in many studies of conservation. This tidbit of information could be put to good use in many projects.
  • 2Behavioral analyses also make it clear that these sorts of studies can help resolve conflicting views. Berger and his colleagues note that although the notion of top-down regulation of communities by carnivores in terrestrial ecosystems has been controversial, their behavior analyses lend support to top-down regulation in the Jackson Hole area of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (p. 151). In Yellowstone Park there is evidence of an inverse relationship between wolf densities and elk abundance, along with associated increases in the height of aspen suckers as elk densities decline.
  • 3An interest in individual quality led Peter Arcese to study which individual Song Sparrows are most likely to contribute to the growth of wild and captive populations. His “results suggest that reliable indexes of individual quality in the song sparrow have relatively little influence on individual fitness as compared to extrinsic effects of weather, habitat, and enemies such as brood parasites and nest predators” (p. 293). Extrinsic effects—weather, habitat, enemies such as nest predators and brood parasites—seem to be more important than intrinsic effects such as breeding date and fecundity.
  • 4Scientists are interested in the generalizablity of results in a number of situations: among conspecifics, between closely and distantly related species, between different geographical areas, and in different combinations of these situations. In his concluding remarks (“Where Do We Go from Here?”) Festa-Bianchet notes that “numerous behavioral differences exist between the European and North American populations of several species, and that some of those differences maybe due to the greater impact of humans on evolution of European than of North American animals …” (p. 300). So care needs to be taken in comparing the results of comparative research, but these studies can help identify those factors that are more universal and those that are more local.

I would have liked to have seen more discussion of how our intervention creates new social milieus and habitats that then influence the animals with whom we are concerned. Do we really know the effects of our well-motivated activities? There is an ethical dimension to this question (e.g., Bekoff & Jamieson 1996; Cooper & Carling 1996; Bekoff 2001, 2002a, 2002b). It is in the best tradition of science to ask questions about ethics. Although people might disagree about which ethical principles should guide conservation efforts, it is likely that no one would disagree that ethics must be factored into all conservation projects. This might be frustrating and might require a delay in implementing a project, taking things more slowly, or not undertaking the project at all.

Ethics are broached generally with respect to human intervention (p. 27) and in the context of hunting (pp. 188 and 203). However, there are a number of questions that require careful consideration. These include: Why are we doing what we are doing? Are we doing what we are doing in the most humane way possible? Whose interests—ours or the animals—are being served? Should individuals be traded off for the good of their species? Should we leave things alone in certain instances? Why is a hands-on policy better than a hands-off policy? Should we try to restore species and then kill individuals when they wander out of the area in which they were placed or when they otherwise become “problems” animals? Should we be required to use behavioral information only to help individuals rather than to harm them? Are we “faking nature” (Elliot 1997)? These and other questions continually arise in my classes and at professional meetings, and an essay dealing directly with them would have filled out the book.

Some of the problems we face concerning the loss of biodiversity are truly daunting. It is easy to see why there is a sense of hopelessness. We have made many messes, some of which might be irreversible. How do we deal with the complexity of nature and the innumerable intricate and intimate webs of nature—and our own webs of destruction—when it is so difficult to deal with a single species? This book takes a giant step in our attempts to maintain biodiversity and learn more about the animals for whom we must assume responsible stewardship, and it exemplifies a caring attitude motivated first and foremost by a concern for the animals themselves, with as few remnants of anthropocentric domination as possible.

The importance of cooperation among scientists, land managers, elected officials, the media, and general audiences, all stakeholders in any conservation project, is also stressed in this book. Animals are also stakeholders in these efforts. The editors realize that we need to know about animal behavior and about our own; so many conservation problems are inextricably mixed up with social and political agendas. This message is also expressed by Berger et al.: “Restoration options steeped in biological principles will always be important and science will always play some needed role to further sort out ecological dynamics and pursue conservation gains. Yet, a more massive challenge awaits us all—to spread our messages widely, to shape public opinion, and, in doing so, bring government to action” (pp. 153–154).

In the words of Festa-Bianchet, “Two themes emerged repeatedly…: the importance of individual behavioral differences and the limited ability of animals to modify their behavior to deal with human-made alterations to their environment” (p. 300). He also notes “that the main contribution of animal behavior to conservation likely lies in improving the management of populations” (p. 299). Although some of the authors lament how information on behavior is infrequently used in conservation efforts, this book will change this trend. But it will not refute the correct claim made by these editors and many others that “human behavior plays a far greater role than animal behavior in both conservation and management” (p. 4).

Animal Behavior and Wildlife Conservation is a much-welcomed addition to the growing literature on the key role of animal behavior in the success or failure of many conservation projects. The editors have assembled an excellent volume that will surely have an influence on ongoing and new conservation projects. This rich book is a good choice for a seminar for advanced undergraduate and graduate students. Indeed, it should be required reading for anyone interested in the field of conservation behavior. Along with primary literature, I will use it in my critical-thinking class on behavior ecology and conservation biology.