One of Australia’s leading coral reef scientists is seen breaking down in tears at the decline of the Great Barrier Reef during a new Sir David Attenborough documentary to be released globally on Friday evening.
Prof Terry Hughes is recounting three coral bleaching monitoring missions in 2016, 2017 and 2020 when he says: “It’s a job I hoped I would never have to do because it’s actually very confronting …” before tears cut him short.
The emotional scene comes during the new Netflix documentary, Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet, and shows the toll the demise of the planet’s natural places is having on some of the people who study them.
The film visits scientists working on melting ice, the degradation of the Amazon, and the loss of biodiversity, and looks at a 2019/2020 “summer from hell” for Australia that featured unprecedented bushfires and the most widespread bleaching of corals ever recorded on the Great Barrier reef.
The 70-minute film features another Australian scientist, Dr Daniella Teixeira, walking through a blackened landscape where she was working to conserve endangered glossy black cockatoos.
“There’s no sign of any wildlife at all,” says Teixeira, with footage of twisted and burnt animals and trees turned to charcoal. “There’s nothing left.”
The documentary, fronted by Attenborough, is centred on the research of Swedish scientist Prof Johan Rockström, whose work looks at the concept of tipping points and boundaries in different systems around the planet, such as the polar regions, the Earth’s biodiversity and the climate.
Hughes has become a high-profile scientific figure in Australia for his research on the complex impacts of global heating on the world’s biggest reef system and his monitoring flights to document mass bleaching.
“In big thermal extremes like we’ve been seeing during mass bleaching events in recent decades [corals] can actually die very very quickly. They cook,” he says in the documentary.
Hughes told the Guardian that “if anything I think the emotional response has lessened over time” and that the 2016 bleaching event in the north of the reef “was the most confronting”.
“But it’s still deeply saddening,” he said.
He said Rockström’s research, which he has collaborated on, was “simple and powerful” and showed how the world was on a “trajectory that is not sustainable”.
“You can easily transgress a tipping point and not notice it for a couple of decades,” he said, adding he thought the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere had probably reached a tipping point for coral reefs in the 1980s.
Hughes, of James Cook University’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said the black summer bushfires and coral bleaching “points to Australia’s vulnerability”.
In the documentary, Attenborough says: “We are heading for a future where the Great Barrier Reef is a coral graveyard.”
He describes Australia’s 2019/20 summer as “a summer from hell, fuelled by record-breaking temperatures and drought”.
Texeira, from the University of Queensland, is filmed in February 2020 returning to sites on Kangaroo Island off the South Australian coast where she was studying endangered glossy black cockatoos.
She finds one of the nests erected to help the birds on a fallen tree with an iron plate around the trunk to stop possums climbing up and attacking the young.
With the iron buckled from the heat and the nest melted, Texeira says: “They weren’t enough to save them.”
She told the Guardian: “There are days when I still get overwhelmed. At the end of the day, we’re humans and we have emotions.”
She had been visiting the island for four years and the fires had come just as she was completing her PhD.
“I have come out the other side now but it has really made me more focused on the urgency of the problems and how we as scientists can make changes now.”
Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet is available on Netflix on 4 June
This study of the economics of biodiversity loss sets out how the current model by which money flows from rich, developed nations into schemes to enhance and protect nature in poorer nations can exacerbate the problem.
Investment in activities like large-scale agriculture and resource extraction, it points out, continue to drive the destruction of natural habitats.
The gap, the researchers say, “between those who live with the environmental consequences of [resource] extraction and those who benefit from financing these developments”, is widening.
“In 2019, 50 of the world’s largest banks underwrote more than $2.6 trillion into industries known to be the drivers of biodiversity loss, an amount equivalent to Canada’s gross domestic product,” the report states.
Making things worse?
There are a number of international schemes designed to protect nature that this report deems “ineffective and underfunded”.
It points specifically to a UN programme that was designed to pay communities that live in valuable, biodiverse forests for “actions that prevent forest loss or degradation”. Essentially, it pays those communities in credits for activities that protect the forest.
In some cases, these market-driven schemes can do more harm than good.
One study of a scheme in Costa Rica, which was designed to incentivise tree-planting, revealed that it had subsidised commercial forestry, resulting in more “plantation forests” of a single non-native tree species used in the production of wooden shipping pallets.
“We need a broader rethink about how the rules of the economy are driving the sixth extinction,” said Dr Jessica Dempsey from the University of British Columbia, Canada, a researcher on the report.
“We need to take a hard look at things like tax and intellectual property policy, and even entire ideas that guide how the global economy works – like what it means for governments to be ‘financially responsible’ when austerity has such a poor track record of delivering good environmental outcomes.”
The explosion in the fourth reactor at the nuclear power plant in April, 26, 1986 left swathes of Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus badly contaminated and led to the creation of a no man’s land within a 30-kilometre (19-mile) radius of the station.
Dozens of villages and towns were evacuated, turning the area into a giant reserve unprecedented in Europe by its size.
More than three decades after the incident there has been an influx of visitors to the area, spurring officials to seek official status — and protection — from UNESCO.
– A ‘unique’ chance to save biodiversity –
Since the disaster, the area has become a haven for elk, wolves — and the stocky endangered breed of wild horse native to Asia, Przewalski’s horse.
“Paradoxically, this is a unique opportunity to preserve biodiversity,” Vyshnevsky said.
Under the right conditions, the Ukrainian herd could eventually increase to 300 or even 500 animals, said Sergiy Zhyla, Senior Researcher, Chernobyl Biosphere Reserve.
Researchers at the Prague zoo participating in the conservation efforts now say the global population of Przewalski’s horses has grown to some 2,700.Play VideoWild horses flourish in Chernobyl 35 years after explosionClick to expand
Following the success in Chernobyl, there is discussion over introducing other endangered species to Ukraine’s zone.
Vyshnevsky sees one potential candidate in the European bison — which already roams over the border in Belarus — and discussions are currently underway with the World Wildlife Fund, a global environmental NGO.
“We’ll be able to recreate the landscape that was here before humans began intensely exploiting the region,” he said.
The scientists said in a Chatham House briefing that they found links between the live-animal market in Wuhan, where people first fell ill, and regions where bats had viruses.Apes At San Diego Zoo Receive COVID-19 Vaccinehttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.446.1_en.html#goog_1418780697
Peter Daszak, a zoologist and president of EcoHealth Alliance, which works to prevent pandemics, said: “There was a conduit from Wuhan to the provinces in South China, where the closest relative viruses to [the coronavirus] are found in bats.”
Dr Daszak said the wildlife trade was the most likely explanation of how Covid-19 arrived in Wuhan.
The WHO scientists and their Chinese counterparts considered the most likely explanation was that the virus crossed into domesticated or farmed animals, he added.Please enter your email addressPlease enter a valid email addressPlease enter a valid email addressSIGN UPI would like to be emailed about offers, events and updates from The Independent.Read our privacy notice
The world will find out “fairly soon, within the next few years” what started the pandemic, he predicted. It typically takes many years to pinpoint the animal reservoir of outbreaks.
Marion Koopmans, head of viroscience at University Medical Centre Rotterdam, said they visited the three laboratories closest to the Huanan market in Wuhan, and scrutinised their protocols and research, among other issues.about:blankabout:blankhttps://bd45e420140dbb8b103b0796f2feb7dd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlhttps://bd45e420140dbb8b103b0796f2feb7dd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlSkip in 5about:blank✕Skip in 5about:blank
“We concluded that it’s extremely unlikely there was a lab incident,” she said.
Dr Daszak called for the threat of pandemics to be treated with the same seriousness as terrorism after the 9/11 attacks. and working out where the next ones are going to come from and what it might be, whereas we do that with hurricanes and typhoons and all the rest of it,” hesaid.
He added: “After 9/11, we put in place a mechanism to track every single phone call into the US, and the minute there’s a rumour on the web or on these phone calls of an attack, the network is disrupted prior to the attack.
“That’s the kind of change or shift in thinking we need for pandemics, I believe.”
Dr Daszak said: “Let’s look at where wildlife are interacting with livestock and people, and see what is out there and try and find out what threats could emerge in future.”
Conservationists also worry that contamination from the test drilling could affect wildlife in the vicinity—elephants, Temminck’s ground pangolins, African wild dogs, martial eagles—and in the UNESCO-recognized Okavango Delta some 160 miles downstream.
ReconAfrica spokesperson Claire Preece told National Geographic in October 2020 that drill cuttings would “be managed in lined pits.” She also said that “ReconAfrica follows Namibian regulations and policies as well as international best practices.” According to Namibian law, the company must “control the flow and prevent the waste, escape or spilling” of petroleum, drilling fluid, water or any other substance from the well.
In the company’s video, no lining is visible.
Namibian journalist John Grobler, who visited the site on January 23, confirmed to National Geographic that the reserve pit was unlined and had liquid pooling in it.
“From an environmental aspect this is grossly unacceptable, and from a social aspect [it] is reckless and disgraceful,” says Jan Arkert, a consulting engineering geologist based in Uniondale, South Africa, who has worked for decades on drilling-related projects. “The communities are totally dependent on groundwater for domestic and agricultural purposes, and any contamination to the aquifer will be all but impossible to contain and clean up.”
Video: Radioactive contamination (AFP)
Arkert says that if the company chose to line the pit now, after drilling has started, it would be complicated. It would involve multiple steps, including removing the waste already there and disposing of it at a suitable facility, preparing the underlying gravel layer to ensure it won’t puncture the liner, and then installing the liner itself, which might have to be imported. Each step, Arkert says, is time consuming and likely would take at least three to four weeks.
“It looks to me like drilling fluids from the rig are being discharged into the unlined reserve pit,” says Matt Totten, Jr., a former exploration geologist for the oil and gas industry who has worked on projects in the United States, after he examined ReconAfrica’s video and still images. “Notice the dark brown discolored areas in the pond next to the rig where drilling fluids would be discharged.”
After reviewing another aerial video from drill site published by the German news program VOX on March 4, Totten confirmed that the now very full pit still “appears unlined and likely filled with a mixture of rainwater and drilling fluids.”
ReconAfrica did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its reserve pit.
To get permission from the Namibian government to drill exploratory wells, ReconAfrica had to do an assessment of their environmental impacts. The company’s resulting report referred to a waste “pond” and noted that it would “scrape all waste that has collected in the pond and dispose of these and the pond lining at a suitable site.”
Arkert, who joined a Zoom conference on oil and gas development in Africa on February 17 hosted by the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers, asked Scot Evans, the CEO of ReconAfrica, why the company didn’t line the pit.
Evans didn’t answer the question directly but said that in Canada the fluid “is used as fertilizer.” He added, “We are going to have a little experiment when we are done with the local [agriculture] people to introduce fertilizers to the community.”
According to Arkert, that answer “can only be described as bizarre,” because Evans is referring only to the drill fluid. But what’s particularly dangerous are naturally occurring compounds such as benzene, ethylene, toluene, and zylene, as well as radioactive water, which come to the surface if petroleum is discovered. The “brew that is stored in the unlined containment pond will be a cocktail of toxic liquid waste, fit only for disposal in a hazardous landfill site,” Arkert says.
Other experts agree. Water coming up the well when drilling into oil and gas formations “is typically saline, contains oil and grease, and can contain toxic organic and inorganic compounds, and naturally occurring radioactive materials,” says Surina Esterhuyse, a geohydrologist with the University of the Free State, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Some of those chemicals have been proven to cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive disorders in people, according to a 2016 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Ahailstorm in South Texas. Tornadoes in Tennessee. Wildfires across the West. A barrage of Gulf Coast hurricanes. Those are among the record 22 weather and climate disasters that each topped $1 billion in damages last year in the United States.
In all, the price tag for 2020 hit a whopping $95 billion — and that’s just in the United States. Reinsurance firm Swiss Re put global economic losses at $175 billion last year, including $32 billion for floods in China and $13 billion in damages from Cyclone Amphan across India and Bangladesh.
The worst news? Our profligate burning of fossil fuels means we’re in store for more.
“You can’t attribute any particular storm to climate change, but what we do know is that climate change tips the odds of making many of these events more severe,” says Bruce Stein, chief scientist and associate vice president at the National Wildlife Federation.
While experts tabulate the economic losses — homes destroyed, crops ruined, businesses shuttered — ecosystems and wildlife can also sustain damage that’s harder to quantify.
Many plants and wildlife evolved with and have adapted to dealing with large-scale disturbances, but we’re beginning to see “megadisturbances” at levels beyond what we saw in the past, says Stein.
And that can take a toll. Extreme weather can kill animals directly — or indirectly, like by destroying food sources, contaminating water or altering habitat, forcing a species to move into areas where there may be more competition, fewer resources or a greater risk of predation.
“What we begin to find when you get some of these mega disturbances is that it’s beyond the ability of a species — or their adaptive capacity — to bounce back,” says Stein.
The effects of climate change on the natural world are being felt at two speeds. One is more gradual, referred to by scientists as “ramping” — shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels. The second is quick, like extreme weather events.
Both are problematic, says Sean Maxwell, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science. But, he adds, “I think the changes to acute events have the greatest potential to devastate local populations or ecosystems, and the impacts of these events are often more difficult to plan for or avoid.”
Maxwell was the lead author of a 2018 study published in the journal Diversity and Distributions that examined how changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and climate events affected wildlife. The researchers looked at 519 studies of ecological responses to extreme events — including cyclones, droughts, floods, and heat and cold waves — that took place from 1941 to 2015. They found that the response was negative 57% of the time. (And in those instances where species benefited, they were mostly invasive species.)
“Some of the negative responses we found were quite concerning, including more than 100 cases of dramatic population declines and 31 cases of local population extinction following an extreme event,” says Maxwell. “Populations of critically endangered bird species in Hawai’i, such as the palia, have been annihilated due to drought, and populations of lizard species have been wiped out due to cyclones in the Bahamas.”
Plant species, the researchers found, had the highest number of negative responses to extreme events, followed by reptiles and amphibians.
“Collectively, the studies in our review suggest that extreme weather and climate events have profound implications for species and ecosystem management,” the researchers concluded.
The Most Vulnerable
Species that are already threatened or endangered are of course especially at risk.
Take the Attwater prairie chicken. A million of these birds once ranged across the prairies of Texas and Louisiana.
Today fewer than 100 remain in the wild and scientists have sought to bolster their populations with captive breeding programs. But when Hurricane Harvey walloped Texas with 130-mile-per-hour winds and record rainfall in 2017, the birds were right in harm’s way.
“The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge tracked 29 individual birds, mostly hens. Post-hurricane, staff confirmed only five of them still alive,” Texas Climate News reported. “The hurricane also killed roughly 80% of a prairie chicken population on private property in Goliad County.”
Other species with limited ranges, like those on islands, also face big threats.
“If a species is well distributed, then if one part of its range gets hit, there’s the ability for it to recover,” says Stein. “But if essentially all its eggs are in one basket, and that particular place gets hit by one of these big disturbances, that’s when you have a real concern.”
In 2017 Hurricane Maria cut the population of just 200 Puerto Rican parrots in half. The year before, Hurricane Matthew was believed to have wiped out the last Bahama nuthatches (Sitta insularis). It took two years before a few of the birds were found — and then Hurricane Dorian struck in 2019, making their survival unlikely, according to Diana Bell, a professor of conservation biology at the University of East Anglia.
“In fact, Dorian may have not only sealed the fate of the nuthatch but also severely impacted other birds endemic to these islands, particularly the Bahama warbler and the Abaco parrot,” Bell wrote in an essay for The Conversation. “Also known as the Bahama Amazon parrot, this subspecies uniquely nests in limestone cavities on the ground which are likely to have been flooded by the storm surge.”
The risk to wildlife from extreme storms can be compounded by the ramping effects of climate change, too.
“If you have increasingly severe hurricanes where you’ve also got sea-level rise essentially providing a higher lodge point for the storm surge, then you start seeing impacts beyond the historical record,” says Stein.
In other places, extreme weather is an extra blow to species already struggling with other environmental pressures, like habitat loss, invasive species or pollution.
Last year the world watched in horror as land-use management, climate change and drought helped push Australia’s bushfires to a terrifying new level, killing 34 people and burning 37,500 square miles.
A study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution found that the fire impacted the critical habitat of 832 native species, with 70 species losing more than 30% of their natural range. Twenty-one of those were already at risk of extinction.
Those that survived could find themselves hard-pressed in future climate disasters. “Multiple extreme events are likely to act in synergistic ways to exacerbate risk of species’ extinction,” wrote Maxwell and the other researchers of the 2018 study.
Australia already has one of the highest extinction rates, and the wildfires could limit the capacity of some species to recover — like the endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart and the long-footed potoroo — and threaten others. Australia’s record blazes last year could push the number of endangered species in the country up by 19%, the study in Nature Ecology and Evolution found.
When Hurricane Irma sacked the Florida Keys in 2017, the storm tossed boats ashore, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and left a trail of debris across the islands.
It also endangered one of the region’s beloved endemic species, the tiny Key deer, which today primarily live on Big Pine Key. Some deer were killed in the storm, and surviving animals faced threats to their already limited freshwater supply as the storm surge dumped saline ocean water into freshwater pools.
Island residents responded the way folks often do after a disaster — they offered help to their neighbors.
“What you saw during and shortly after Irma is that these Key deer were coming up to houses looking for fresh water,” says Stein. “And people were putting out kiddie pools of water for them.”
Following Australia’s bushfires last year, the country’s government jumped to the aid of wildlife by dropping 4,000 pounds of carrots and sweet potatoes to starving brush-tailed rock-wallabies who lost their food source in the blazes.
“There’s a lot of things that we can do to help human communities as well as wildlife after these acute disturbances,” says Stein.
But beyond immediate food and water relief, there’s a much bigger task ahead: reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address the ongoing dangers of climate change and the ability of ecosystems to adapt. Key deer, for example, also face a long-term threat to their drinking water supply from rising seas, something no number of kiddie pools can repair. And more severe hurricanes are likely in their future, too.
“As climate change continues to ensure extreme climate and weather events are more and more common, we now need to act to ensure species have the best chance to survive,” says Maxwell. “Wherever possible, high-quality and intact habitat areas should be retained, as these are the places where species are most resilient to increasing exposure to extreme events.”
If such intact habitat doesn’t exist, ecological restoration efforts can be used to help species adapt, his study found.
And the more we know, the better.
“Incorporating extreme events into climate change vulnerability assessments and adaptation plans will be challenging,” the researchers of the 2018 paper concluded. “But by doing so we have a greater chance of arriving at conservation interventions that truly address the full range of climate change impacts.”
And that could give more species a fighting chance in a changing climate.
As principal deputy director of FWS, Williams will oversee a federal agency tasked with managing wildlife and habitat across the country, and in charge of more than 150 million acres of land in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The agency also administers the Endangered Species Act.
At FWP, Williams was at the helm of fishing and hunting policy in Montana. That agency also guides how the state deals with federally-protected species like grizzly bears, bull trout and Canada lynx, andother thorny wildlife issues such as managing the spread of chronic wasting disease and brucellosis.
Williams was the first female director of Montana FWP. She was appointed to that position in 2017 by former governor Steve Bullock. On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte nominated the agency’s new director — Hank Worsech, a 17-year FWP employee who most recently served as license bureau chief.
After Trump’s sell off, the Arctic Refuge gets a reprieve
Just hours after being sworn into office, President Biden took a number of monumental actions to protect public lands, address the climate crisis and combat systemic racism, including an executive order that places a moratorium on all oil and gas activity in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
This occurred only one day after the previous administration issued leases for drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain in a rushed, flawed and likely illegal process.
Biden’s action was met with great enthusiasm, particularly by many Gwich’in and Iñupiat peoples who have depended on and protected the refuge for thousands of years and rely on the caribou and other resources in the refuge to sustain their communities and cultures.
“Mashi’ choo, President Biden,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “The Gwich’in Nation is grateful to the president for his commitment to protecting sacred lands and the Gwich’in way of life.”
The executive order also reinstated President Obama’s withdrawal of most of the Arctic Ocean and parts of the Bering Sea from oil and gas drilling—an order that had been reversed by the Trump administration. Protecting offshore areas from the threat of a major oil spill benefits not only marine species such as fish, seals and bowhead whales, but the coastlines of sensitive lands like the Arctic Refuge, too.
We are grateful to President Biden for his commitment to protect the refuge, address the climate crisis and respect the human rights of Indigenous peoples. We are also grateful to the millions of people who made today’s announcement possible by putting the climate and social justice first. This action is a result of years of advocacy from people across the United States, including members and supporters of The Wilderness Society, who refused to stay silent as oil corporations and their friends sought to put drilling rigs in the Arctic Refuge.
This action is a result of years of advocacy from people across the United States, including members and supporters of The Wilderness Society.
This does not mean the fight to protect the Arctic Refuge and the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd is over. The moratorium is temporary. But it’s a huge first step in Biden’s plan to review the legality of the Jan. 6 Arctic Refuge lease sale and the issuance of leases to the winning bidders.
We will continue to work with our Gwich’in and Iñupiat partners—as well as the Biden administration and our allies in the Congress and the conservation community—as we explore all options for ensuring that drilling never occurs on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. We’ll also keep putting pressure on corporations like banks and insurers.
But today we rest, raise a glass and celebrate a new day for the Arctic.
By: Jessica Bridgers | Reading time: 4 minutesAdvocates are asking the United Nations to consider the role of animals in their COVID-19 recovery policies. They fear the return to ‘business as usual’ could lead to another deadly pandemic. Almost as soon as it became clear that our societies and economic systems would not continue as normal through the COVID-19 pandemic, calls to “Build back better” and even to “Build forward” began to grow louder and more urgent across the world.
But even as the policies to achieve this “build back” are being proposed, debated, and implemented, the root causes of the pandemic lack full recognition, muting the ability of these policies to prevent history from repeating itself, perhaps with an even more deadly pandemic, in the future.
Now that we are close to the approval of a vaccine, it appears that the circulation of COVID-19 in mink on European fur farms has contributed to the emergence of new variants of the virus. Some worry that these variants will reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines currently in development, underscoring how our intransigence in addressing our relationship with animals continues to put us at risk.
“Today we stand at a crossroads,” writes Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE in the foreword of The Animals’ Manifesto, a new joint-manifesto from 150 animal and environmental protection agencies calling for the inclusion of animal welfare in COVID-19 recovery policies.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is still affecting almost all countries of the world,” writes Goodall. “How shocking to realize that we brought this on ourselves.Through our disrespect of the natural world, and our disrespect of animals.”THE ANIMALS’ MANIFESTO
In The Animals’ Manifesto, over 150 organizations across the globe are calling on world leaders, international institutions, political parties, and stakeholders to assess the direction of current COVID-19 response efforts, realign these with the glaring need for transformative change, and finally address humanity’s exploitation of animals. Specifically, the organizations are calling for:Steps to incorporate One Health and One Welfare into policies. One Health recognizes the linkages between human, animal, and environmental health, while One Welfare extends this concept to other aspects of wellbeing, such as food security, livelihoods, and humane treatment. Incorporating a One Welfare approach is key to ensuring an equitable, sustainable, and humane future. Concrete politics and actions that transform farming systems, change food consumption habits, end the unnecessary exploitation of wildlife, increase vaccine development efficiencies, and ensure the wellbeing of animals in communities—such as companion animals and working equines. Visionary, prudent, and necessarily bold leadership by global institutions at the center of the COVID-19 response, including the UN General Assembly, the UN Environmental Programme, the UN Development Programme, and international financial institutions. To read the full manifesto, click here. While COVID-19 should have been a clarion call to fully address our broken relationship with animals and chart a new course forward, many global institutions are still sidestepping the issue.
Last week, the UN General Assembly hosted a Special Session on COVID-19. The Concept Note and Program circulated in a letter by the President of the General Assembly (PGA) stated that the two-day event will allow stakeholders to reflect on COVID-19 response thus far and “forge a united, coordinated, and people-centered path forward,” yet the word “animal” did not appear even once in the PGA’s letter.
In other policy frameworks, rather than work towards a socially just end to the commercial trade of wildlife, policymakers are calling simply to make the wildlife trade “safe.” And international financial institutions like the International Finance Corporation are continuing to funnel millions of dollars into intensive pig farms in countries like China, where the CDC is already monitoring a new group of swine flu viruses that have “pandemic potential.”
“Will we continue with ‘business as usual’ or, shall we choose to get together and develop a new relationship with the natural world?”
Moral panics emerge when people perceive an existential threat to themselves, society or the environment. When in the grip of a moral panic, the ability to think clearly and act responsibly is compromised. While the moral panic over cats arises from valid concerns over threats to native species, it obscures the real driver: humanity’s exploitative treatment of the natural world. Crucially, errors of scientific reasoning also underwrite this false crisis.
THE (SHAKY) CASE AGAINST CATS — Conservationists and the media often claim that cats are a main contributor to a mass extinction, a catastrophic loss of species due to human activities, like habitat degradation and the killing of wildlife.
As an interdisciplinary team of scientists and ethicists studying animals in conservation, we examined this claim and found it wanting. It is true that like any other predator, cats can suppress the populations of their prey. Yet the extent of this effect is ecologically complex.
FAULTY SCIENTIFIC REASONING — In our most recent publication in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.
Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.
Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined “results” onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when ecological context is ignored. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.
WHAT’S NEXT — So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?
First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.
Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.
Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Yet there are many options to consider. Protecting apex predators and their habitat is fundamental to enabling threatened species to coexist with cats. In some cases, people may choose to segregate domestic cats from vulnerable wildlife: for instance, with catios where cats can enjoy the outdoors while being kept apart from wildlife. In other cases, unhomed cats may be managed with trap-neuter-return programs and sanctuaries.
Finally, contrary to the framing of some scientists and journalists, the dispute over cats is not primarily about the science. Rather, it evokes an ongoing debate over the ethics that ought to guide humanity’s relationship with other animals and nature.
This is the root of the moral panic over cats: the struggle to move beyond treating other beings with domination and control, toward fostering a relationship rooted in compassion and justice.
Joann Lindenmayer, DVM, MPH is an associate professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University and contributed to this article.