Predator Reintroduction: Is Rewilding Worth It?
Occasionally sighted in the rugged forests of Siberia, Asia, and Europe, the Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx) is a medium-sized wildcat with an interesting future. While most populations are stable, conservationists are working to reintroduce the species to areas of the British and Scottish Isles, a region where the lynx went extinct over a millennia ago. Such a process is commonly known as predator reintroduction. The tactic has become popularized within the “Rewilding Movement,” an arm of environmentalism interested in restoring and protecting historical processes in ecosystems. While some conservationists believe that the reintroduction of large predators can promote biodiversity, others consider the tactic to be environmentally dangerous, arguing that ecosystems may have re-adapted to synchronicity during the species’ absence. Nonetheless, in the case of the Eurasian Lynx, it seems likely the species will be reintroduced in the UK in the coming years. The benefits for eco-tourism, plantation management, and biodiversity seem to outweigh the concerns of sheep predation from farmers. Some questions still need to be answered by researchers before authorities in the UK allow the reintroduction, yet one key question has been completely ignored in the debate: Will the reintroduction of lynxes improve the welfare of the animals in the wild?
Historically seldom discussed in environmental ethics, the welfare of animals in the wild is now an emerging topic. Indeed, concerns about animal welfare in invasive research techniques (such as trapping and experimentation) and pest species management (like baiting, shooting, and biological controls) have long been established. Now, a new area of environmental ethics is quickly growing. The field of welfare biology asks what the lives of individual animals are like, rather than merely being concerned over species success. From the outset, it seems difficult to be able to consider the welfare of animals without a great deal of anthropomorphizing. For example, how can we possibly know what other animals want or enjoy? How can we even start to understand what it is like living as a deer or as a lynx? And if we were to try and improve an animal’s wellbeing, would that mean we were inappropriately interfering with their life?
But, it can seem callous not to help animals in their time of need. Many people and organizations assist animals back to health after injuries. This happens both at domesticated animal shelters and at wildlife rehabilitation centers. If it is ethical to be concerned about the welfare of animals within both human societies and natural ecosystems, why would such a concern not be part of a discussion about reintroducing predators?
Due to the complexity of processes and diversity of species within natural environments, more research is required in this field to know answers to most questions of wild animal suffering, or even the right questions to ask. However, it is not impossible to assign some simple conclusions about wild animal welfare in the case of the reintroduction of lynxes in British and Scottish Isles.
So let’s look at this particular situation of predator reintroduction in terms of animal welfare:
The Eurasian Lynxes:
Lynxes are set to be captured and relocated from Central Europe to the United Kingdom. Relocation might be somewhat stressful and uncomfortable for the Lynxes, especially when arriving in their new, alien home. But, this trauma might only affect the relocated lynxes and not later generations. Presumably, in the UK, lynx population would increase over time due to the abundance of prey like Roe Deer, and lack of higher predators such as wolves or bears. Given this, it seems likely in the short term at least that many lynxes would live to maturity (up to 15 years of age) before succumbing to disease or old age. Female lynxes would give birth to 1 to 4 kittens, and these kittens would have a high death rate, with approximately 50% dying in the first year.
The welfare considerations for lynxes are:
- discomfort during relocation (short term)
- increase to a higher population of lynxes due to plentiful deer, also thereby an increase in the number kittens perishing from high death rate (long-term)
- adult lynxes expected to die from disease or old age rather than predation from higher predators (long term)
The Roe Deer:
Generations of deer have lived across the Isles with no predatory problems, albeit from infrequent human hunting. It could be expected that the sudden introduction of a new species (particularly a predator) would cause the deer some discomfort or anxiety. As main prey of the lynx, Roe Deer welfare is of particular importance to this reintroduction scenario. Without the lynxes, mature Roe Deer live about 10 years before dying from disease or starvation; but now predation will be added into the equation. What’s worse for the deer? Predation by a lynx, a hunter who kills prey by choking at the throat or causing suffocation, or dying from disease or starvation? With the introduction of lynxes, deer numbers seem likely to diminish in the short term. Female deer give birth to 1 to 2 fawns annually, and a lower population means fewer of these fawns dying from disease or starvation at a young age.
The welfare considerations for the Roe Deer are:
- a change in anxiety and stress levels from the reintroduction of lynxes (long term)
- death by predation from lynx (long term)
-a reduction in population due to predation, leading to a decrease in the number of fawns perishing at a young age (long term)
Roe Deer and Eurasian Lynxes might be the most directly impacted by the reintroduction, but other animals need to be considered. The most visible impacts might be increased sheep, bird, and small mammal predation. It may be that for sheep, controlled stunning and slaughter in abattoirs produce less suffering than being predated upon by the lynx. But for the sheep, neither really seems to be an ideal welfare outcome. For the other wild animals, the situation is complex. These animals are currently likely to die from disease or starvation instead of being preyed upon. As with deer, it’s currently difficult to know which is worse from a welfare perspective. Again, the lynx may also reduce the numbers of these animals, thereby reducing the number of individuals perishing during childhood. Perhaps less obviously, such an introduction could also impact the lives of much smaller animals, like insects. Given the enormous numbers of bugs in the wild, this might be a serious ethical concern. But, it’s extremely difficult to speculate what the impact of the reintroduction of the lynxes would be on insects, as well as other animals relying on insects as food.
The welfare considerations for other animals are
- the infrequent predation of sheep
- the infrequent predation of other smaller mammals and birds
- the possibility of an increase or decrease in insects
Unpicking the welfare impact of rewilding, as seen in the example above, is complex and difficult, although not totally impossible. Challenging questions need to be answered: What animal lives are worth living? What is the worst way for an animal to die? How conscious are different animals such as insects? Nonetheless, it is no doubt important for people to start considering wild animal welfare in such reintroductions. Many organizations and governments are increasingly interested in reintroducing species, for both ecotourism and environmental reasons. In Australia for example, the New South Wales government is set to reintroduce up to 10 species in a project worth over $40 million. Many other projects on other continents seem to have high levels of funding alongside strong public support. It seems that reintroduction of species will continue to be a popular tactic of the future for both governments and conservationists, thereby making it all the more important to include concerns of wild animal welfare in the consultation process.
Reintroducing predators is largely justified in order to increase the number of species within an environment and to restore natural process of the past. It’s clear the rewilding of the lynxes into the British and Scottish Isles will succeed on both of these tenets of rewilding. What isn’t clear is the impact it will have on the welfare of animals within the environment. It is time we consider the welfare of the individual animals when considering reintroducing predators, and make decisions that best steward nature for the animals who make it their home.