animals social

Are Conservation Efforts Overlooking Animals’ Social Lives?

Jane Marsh - April 4, 2019

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Wildlife conservation isn’t a polarizing issue. Most would agree it’s necessary, and few would argue against it. As deforestation and other harmful practices continue to destroy and disturb ecosystems, it’s difficult to believe anyone would think we shouldn’t make an effort to preserve endangered species.

That said, the subject of wildlife conservation isn’t so simple. Even the best intentions can go wrong when conservationists don’t understand the subtleties of natural habitats. Specifically, conservationists cause more harm than good when they overlook animal social lives, a fundamental part of their existence.

When you hear “animal social lives,” you might imagine some rudimentary imitation of what you’re familiar with. After all, non-human animals don’t appear have spoken languages, complex tools or any system in place that allows them to lead the same kind of social lives we do. While this is true, it doesn’t capture the full picture.

A diverse range of species, including elephants, whales, chimpanzees and crows, all have developed unique cultures. Conservationists need to acknowledge and account for these cultures when they’re organizing conservation efforts. Otherwise, they might make decisions which are counterintuitive to their goals.

So what do the cultures of crows, elephants and other species look like? How should conservationists adapt their efforts, and where have they failed? These curious questions have fascinating answers, and we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about wildlife conservation and the social lives of animals.

Conservation and the Question of Cultural Diversity

Historically, scientists have hesitated to assign human emotions like grief and love to animals. Because we long believed they’re unable to grasp the nuanced concepts we, as humans, understand, we assumed they’re incapable of that kind of depth. Even so, more and more evidence has shown animals experience complex emotions.

As an example, researchers have noticed behaviors in non-human animals which reflect what we know as grief. Crows will gather around the corpse of one of their own for a short time before dispersing, and elephants display similar patterns. Other mammals like dolphins and baboons also mourn the deaths of their young.

While those examples only scratch the surface, they’re a firm reminder that animals’ social lives are very real. More than this, these social lives represent a challenge. Conservationists need to understand the cultures of animals and consider them when planning their projects.

“Beyond genes, knowledge is also an important currency for wildlife. As well as conserving genetic diversity, we must work toward maintaining cultural diversity within animal populations, as a reservoir for resilience and adaptation,” said Philippa Brakes, the lead author of a paper on the topic. So what does this mean?

How should conservationists address the subject of cultural diversity in different species? They have to refine their conservation strategies, and, to a certain degree, reframe their perception of the natural world. It isn’t a small task by any means, and it will prove crucial for wildlife conservation in 2019.

Practices That Show Promise for Conservation Efforts

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals organized a workshop in Parma, Italy, to discuss ways to improve their conservation methods. Experts pooled decades of experience to determine the best approach, and they devised recommendations for conservationists moving forward.

First, it’s critical to catalog the diversity of cultural behaviors within the animal kingdom. Beyond this, conservationists will also have to develop techniques to identify and protect individuals who represent keepers of vital animal social knowledge within their communities. New technologies will facilitate these projects.

As just one example, advanced cameras can track natural behaviors. In a practice known as “camera trapping,” researchers set up cameras and record animals as they move through their routines, gathering knowledge on their habits. The information they acquire will inform future strategies for improved conservation.

In a broader context, social media platforms create opportunities for conservationists to connect with the public. As they spread awareness for their projects, they’ll receive greater attention and donations from those who support their initiatives. This support will prove essential in the coming years.

Even with this optimistic outlook, wildlife conservation remains a complicated issue. While conservationists have adapted their approach and equipped themselves with modern technologies to further their mission, that mission has led to disputes and discords in other countries. What’s the reason for this friction?

Existing Problems for Wildlife Conservation Projects

When does conservation cause more harm than good? As mentioned earlier, the practice itself isn’t polarizing, but at the same time, it isn’t black and white. This type of oversimplification is evident in Western-style conservation efforts which position people as the enemy of animals and conservationists as “wildlife saviors.”

This “us-versus-them” mentality is damaging to conservation efforts. When rules and regulations criminalize communities in the region, it creates conflict between conservationists and locals. The conflict makes sense, seeing as how “people-free areas” have displaced millions of people worldwide.

Though conservationists still have to adjust their projects to animal cultures, problems still exist elsewhere. It’s critical to acknowledge the places where conservation should change, and attempt to reconcile the rights of humans and animals. Only then is there hope of restoring ecological harmony.

The Future of Wildlife Conservation

Animals’ social lives present a challenge for conservation organizations, but they also present an opportunity to grow, learn and discover. The animal kingdom is far more complex than we initially thought, and even in 2019, our understanding of wildlife continues to change. With this in mind, it’s exciting to speculate how wildlife conservation will change alongside it.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.