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Children’s Tales for Courageous Conservation

Children’s Tales for Courageous Conservation

Bedtime fables often teach young children about morals, hope, or love. But what can The Magic Pudding story teach us about conservation?

Institute for Applied Ecology Adjunct Professor Peter Bridgewater uses The Magic Pudding as a metaphor for our conservation efforts. He likens the Puddings secret recipe to the holy grail of conservation science, and encourages managers and policy makers to stop focusing on individual species and be visionaries for landscape-scale conservation.

Father reading story to child

Why is The Magic Pudding a good analogy for conservation?

The Magic Pudding is a great metaphor for current conservation efforts globally. You can think of the Pudding as a properly functioning ecosystem where no matter how often it is eaten, it always seems to be the same! The Chef’s secret recipe represents functioning conservation science, while the Pudding owners and thieves represent society at large who all want a piece of the Pudding.  

Can we treat the natural world like a Magic Pudding?

No, we can’t. Our biggest problem is society’s view that the natural world is a Magic Pudding that can be cut into repeatedly with no negative effects. Unlike the Chef we don’t have the secret recipe. Yes, we know some of the ingredients, but we haven’t been able to put it all together.

As a result, Managers focus overly on individual “ingredients” to the detriment of overall conservation. We need to be brave and stop focusing on fine details and see conservation as a broader recipe or canvas; then ask ourselves what this big picture should look like.

What do you mean by brave?

Ecologists and policy makers need to let go of the 1960’s view of conservation. A view where we fence off an area and “preserve pristine habitat”, count the number of species left, and label some of them as endangered.

We need to be brave enough to recognise that we won’t conserve pristine habitat. Rather it will be new habitat, with different and equally important ecology. If we manage this habitat effectively then species conservation will flow from it. And yes, some of these species will be different from those originally there, but that’s inevitable in a world influenced by human development and climate change.

Will better science help?

Yes and no. Of course, better science will help improve our understanding of our natural world, but we need to dispense with philately. By philately I mean we must stop collecting facts and ideas without any vision of what to do with them. It is not necessary to know exactly how many species are endangered or threatened. Rather, we need to know what the overall problems are and find ways to deal with them and their drivers. Both problems and their solutions are only resolvable at landscape scale. Just counting species and watching them fade off into the distance is not in itself helpful.

My paper provides a metaphoric interpretation of The Magic Pudding story, where the Chef is the keeper of ecological and conservation science. To make a Magic Pudding the Chef understands the need to bring together a range of ingredients, in our case knowledge from social sciences, ecological sciences and indigenous and local understandings. This is a formula that practitioners in each of those areas are yet to discover and perfect. We need practitioners who are prepared to cross disciplinary boundaries, and promote interactions with different world views at the landscape scale.

We need to rediscover ecology as a holistic integrating science, not a reductionist science, dominated by numbers and models.

Does this include killing for conservation?

Protection and conservation are by no means the same thing, but the words are often used interchangeably. Targeted killing can certainly help some threatened species, but killing without proper context is not a plan for conservation.

Rewilding could be included in this biocultural context. The typical form of rewilding is to reintroduce large carnivores that in turn kill herbivores that may be out of balance in the ecosystem. In that sense, rewilding is killing for conservation, but at a human distance – a morally “safer” position for many conservationists. Rewilding should not, however, be seen as “giving back” – it is another way of promoting potentially irreversible change in our ecosystems, at a time when global change is creating the templates for new ecosystems.

In the NSW, ACT, and Victorian alpine regions the call to cull brumbies to save alpine wetlands from trampling and other damaging effects was extremely controversial with animal welfare advocates and traditional bush communities, who lined up against conservationists. Here the pro-horse parties are focusing on the individual species, while entire ecosystems are in danger at a broader scale.

How does our legal framework fit into this?

Our legal framework is a time-consuming and complicated beast. It moves far too slowly compared to our ever-changing natural environment. Federal Acts are painful to administer through the states, and work in absolutes – which is incompatible with ecology.  

In The Magic Pudding the Pudding owners were really trying to influence the thieves and the law. They discovered that legal frameworks are incapable of swift response, and often take more in time and resources than they give back.

What is the way forward?

It is important we change our emphasis from protection to conservation at a landscape-scale. Threatened species are a symptom of management failures and therefore should not be treated as an issue in themselves. By focusing too much on them we’re missing the chance to promote a more holistic, effective, and creative paradigm for nature conservation.

We need to combine conservation biology and ecological science, within a political framing. To do this we need to understand how national laws, governmental processes, and policy work together, and use the science-policy interface much more effectively. It is also crucial we use policy instruments, as they are more flexible and can achieve results more quickly and effectively.

Ultimately, we have to walk forward together, but slowly, and keep our focus at the right scale. And this will include killing for conservation, we can’t shy away from that.

*** Professor Peter Bridgewater’s article: The killing of the Magic Pudding Chef and the consequences for conservation, is published in Australian Zoologist. ***