Wildlife: treasure or pest? | University of Oxford
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OSB archive

Wildlife: treasure or pest?

Pete Wilton

This week our fickle attitude to the wildlife around us was highlighted in two stories: one about the reintroduction of beavers to the US, the other about a proposed cull of grey squirrels in the UK.

In both cases, it seems, the line between a wildlife treasure that must be saved and an animal pest that must be eliminated is perilously narrow: become too successful as a species and you'll become an expensive inconvenience for humans - the lesson is: 'stay rare and we'll care!'

I think part of the problem is that we've failed to accept that, in a world where space and resources are at a premium, saving wildlife always comes at a cost.

This cost is more obvious in places such as Africa where, as highlighted by work by Oxford scientists on a beehive fence to deter elephants, coming up with solutions that enable wild animals and humans to coexist is often a matter of life or death for both parties - with elephants at risk of being shot and local people at risk of losing the crops they need to survive.

In countries such as the UK and the US humans have the upper hand having, over thousands of years, transformed much of the landscape - and its ecosystems - in a way that is convenient for us and getting annoyed with the animal 'pests' that dare to change it to suit themselves.

Maybe we could learn something from the efforts in Africa about how understanding animal behaviour can help us change the way we do things so that animals and people can get along.

For instance: what would scare away a beaver from building dams where we don't want them to? What should be eating grey squirrels but isn't? (probably because we haven't given such predators the space and resources to survive).

Perhaps, instead of blacklisting some species as 'pests', we need an animal version of détente in which we agree the zones of influence we're willing to give up to wildlife and be honest about the price we're willing to pay for biodiversity in our own backyard.