30 Days of Experiencing Nature: Day 11- The Conservationist’s Dilemma

A healthy garden is a blessing for amateurs and professionals alike. It is such a joy to see the fruits of our labor unfold in front of us. Each day, I smile as the food I am growing gets one step closer to our dinner plates. It’s magical and uplifting.

But there is a dilemma gardeners have, a curse, if you will. And conservationists will understand this problem because they suffer it as well.

The gardener’s dilemma is when they plant more than they can sustainably grow, and they have to cull some of the extras which are taking up space. It kills me to get rid of them. But if I don’t make room for what I can sustainably grow, then all the plants will die, and that would be worse.

If planting too many seeds causes such heartache, why would you plant so many in the first place?

Because it’s unlikely all seeds will make it to become seedlings. And even if they do make it that far, it’s not guaranteed they will make it further. If we only plant what we absolutely need, we may lose valuable produce from some not thriving.

So, I plant more than I need. And I have a very full garden of different squash. My problem is two-fold. What if I get rid of my extras and suddenly my main plants kick the bucket? And what if I got rid of a spaghetti squash I like, and instead I’m growing a volunteer summer squash or acorn, which are nice and all but I’d rather have the spaghetti or delicata squash.

Zoo conservationists and in-situ conservationists understand the dilemma well. It’s done all the time in managing fragile ecosystems and endangered species.

A few years ago, Swaziland made headlines when they sold eighteen elephants to US zoos. They were going to cull some of the herd to help maintain a healthy ecosystem for rhinos and other endangered species, as well as the elephants. When given a limited amount of space and protection from poachers, elephants prospered but began eating all the vegetation and destroying the environment, leaving it less suitable for all the other species. The land couldn’t sustain the large herd anymore.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think there has to be a better way to manage elephants and endangered species than culling them every few years. Zoos are helping with developing one solution- vasectomy for bulls. It’s a dangerously complicated procedure, but has been completed a few times in the field.

I also want to say I don’t actually agree with zoos stepping in every time to save a select few elephants. This practice only encourages Swaziland to continue their management as is, without trying to progress to better measures without resorting to culling the herd.

But culling is going to a future for not just elephants, but hundreds of other wildlife in human managed sanctuaries and reserves. The land can only sustain so many lives. No one animal is more important to an ecosystem than another. There has to be a balance.

The way we are heading with human-wildlife conflicts, poaching, and habitat destruction, most wildlife will be managed by humans in one capacity or another, and not long after that, culling is going to be a huge management topic, and something we are likely to see more of in the future.

I don’t like it, but unless we change our environment and our habits completely, we will have to maintain a smaller, healthy population of animals in the space they are given or we will say goodbye to all the animals, because none will survive.

Zoos have gotten flack for similar reasons. I’ll be honest and frank, yes, zoos do sometimes overbreed certain animals. But not for money and profit. That’s ridiculous.

Zoos do overbreed some animals because it’s not a guarantee the offspring will make it to adulthood. While zoos do have a higher success rate for reproduction than the wild, it still isn’t 100%. Complications can occur during pregnancy, during birth, in the first year. The baby could get sick. We don’t know.

So, if there are two or three candidates suitable for a breeding program, it’s likely the Species Survival Program specialists will recommend all the candidates reproduce, rather than pick just one.

The breeding program isn’t just for the continuation of a species, either. It’s actually good welfare for the parents. Elephants and cetaceans are highly controversial, but they are also very social, and raising offspring together is very good for all the animals, not just the parents.

But then you have stories like several years ago with Marius, the giraffe from Denmark. Marius was a young male who just happened to be born at the wrong time to the wrong parents. His genes were way over-represented, and it was decided to euthanize the young bull. Why did the zoo breed the mom if her offspring’s genes weren’t valuable or necessary? Because what if something happened to Marius’ siblings? What if  had waited to breed the mom and when they needed offspring, she couldn’t reproduce.

Again, don’t get me wrong, I strongly feel there was another way to handle the situation. But the backlash also targeted zoos for breeding animals in the first place, and I totally understand why there is a need for breeding.

Why do we go overboard if we don’t want to get rid of any? It’s the dilemma I faced this weekend as I pulled out fifteen squash plants.

No, it wasn’t an elephant or a giraffe. But I’m a conservationist, and even though it’s necessary, it was still painful.

Get rid of a few so many can survive. Lose some so the whole can thrive. It’s a tough situation, and I’m glad I’m only dealing with the plants. My conscious can’t take more than that.


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