E.O. Wilson sidekick Thomas Lovejoy contributed to rationales for massacring some animals to save others
Thomas Eugene Lovejoy III, 80, on December 25, 2021 quietly died from pancreatic cancer in McLean, Virginia, just 24 hours before the death of E.O. Wilson, 92, in Burlington, Massachusetts.
Wilson thereby upstaged Lovejoy in death, as he had throughout the much less flamboyant Lovejoy’s life and career, during which Lovejoy first advanced several of the ideas about animals and ecology most closely associated with Wilson, whose best-selling books made them famous.
From World Wildlife Fund to World Bank
Not that Lovejoy lacked influence and professional distinction. Lovejoy directed the World Wildlife Fund U.S. conservation program from 1973 to 1987. Lovejoy held a similar position with the Smithsonian Institution from 1987 to 1998, and from 1999 to 2002 was chief biodiversity advisor to the president of the World Bank.
Lovejoy later chaired an advisory group on sustainability for the Inter-American Development Bank, was senior adviser to the president of the United Nations Foundation, chaired the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, and was a past president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the U.S. Man & Biosphere Program, and the Society for Conservation Biology.
Behind the scenes, in short, Lovejoy had clout comparable to Wilson’s, without bringing to the issues anywhere near the same media spotlight that Wilson did, or comparable baggage from previous controversies.
Lovejoy is credited with developing debt-for-nature trades, through which wealthy environmental organizations buy heavily discounted foreign debt, convert the money into the local currency, and use it to buy land for conservation use.
Such deals are often criticized as “neo-colonialism,” preventing developing nations from making use of natural resources. But debt-for-nature trades also enable impoverished governments to protect sensitive habitat, some of which attracts income from eco-tourism, while recovering from histories of foreign exchange deficit that inhibit investment in economic growth.
Founder of “conservation biology”
Not all of Lovejoy’s market-based approaches to conservation issues were as successful––not so much because he lacked understanding of market forces, as because––like Wilson––`he made fundamentally erroneous presumptions about ecology, based on the notion that islands, furnishing habitat to a limited number of species with little opportunity for shifting their range, are models for ever-changing mainland habitats.
Lovejoy, well ahead of Wilson, was instrumental in establishing “conservation biology” as a recognized academic field and branch of science, beginning by co-organizing the 1978 First International Conference on Research in Conservation Biology.
The other major organizer was Bruce A. Wilcox, whose 1985 essay “Conservation Strategy: The Effects of Fragmentation on Extinction” built upon ideas expounded by Wilson in The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967).
Predicting the apocalypse
Prominent as Lovejoy was within the conservation field, he appears to have most influenced public opinion and policy by predicting in 1980 that from ten to 20% of all species then alive would be extinct by 2020––a drum Wilson began banging in his book The Sixth Extinction (1997), albeit that Wilson was a bit more cautious in projecting a time frame for the predicted biological apocalypse.
Most recent among legions to spark a media frenzy with similar prophecies was the World Wildlife Fund Germany, which opened 2022 by warning that more than a million species could go extinct by 2032.
By way of evidence, the World Wildlife Fund German cited the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, including population assessments for 142,000 animal and plant species. About a third of those species are increasing in number, about a third are maintaining abundance, and about a third are in decline.
Of those species, about 40,000 are said to be “threatened with extinction,” which even in a worst-case scenario would be only 4% of a million.
Cruelly & catastrophically wrong
Both Lovejoy and Wilson, and legions of their disciples among other scientific and mass media pundits, including those at the World Wildlife Fund Germany, were and are cruelly and catastrophically wrong.
Over the years since 1980, and indeed throughout recorded history, to the extent that paleo-archaeology permits species counts, the numbers of identified species have exponentially increased.
The numbers of known extinctions have been dwarfed, especially within the present century, by the numbers of rediscoveries of species previously believed to have been extinct.
Rearrangements of abundance, not losses
Despite well-publicized declines of large, charismatic megafauna in the oceans and Southern Hemisphere, which amount to re-arrangements of relative abundance of species rather than net losses of species, total biodiversity has increased on every continent.
If, that is, one counts “non-native” species.
Which are the vast majority of species in most habitats.
Despite that reality, conservationists following the Lovejoy/Wilcox/Wilson prescriptions continue to unleash a bloodbath, wherever they can, evocative of funeral sacrifices to idols still imagined to be all-knowing gods, despite feet of clay and heads of stone.
Feral cats on Kangaroo Island
For instance, reported Megan Hughes for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation program ABC Rural on December 29, 2021, “Hundreds of feral cats have been removed from Kangaroo Island,” off the southern coast of Australia, “since the devastating 2020 fires.
“The pests,” alleged Hughes, “have been putting increased pressure on endangered species,” especially the mouse-like dunnart, a marsupial, “since the blaze tore through the western end of the island.”
Killing about 850 cats has been accomplished, according to Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife fauna ecologist Pat Hodgens, by using a trap called the Felixer which differentiates feral cats from native species based on the shape, the size, and also the speed and movement of feral cats.”
Cats, as identified by the Felixer, are sprayed with a toxic gel which kills them when they lick it off their fur.
A 2019 study entitled “Target specificity of the Felixer grooming ‘trap’”, co-authored by six Felixer enthusiasts and published by the Wildlife Society, established that the Felixer identifies cats with 82% accuracy.
Translation: 18% of the cats venturing near the Felixer survive, quite enough to rebuild the Kangaroo Island feral cat population within two years even if every cat on the island is sprayed at least once.
Meanwhile, the Felixer may have misidentified and killed more than 150 of the endangered marsupials it is supposedly protecting.
Fortunately for dunnarts, whose survival is most jeopardized by habitat competition from mice and rats, enough cats appear to be surviving to help birds to control the rodents.
Lesson from the Farallon Islands
Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife fauna ecologist Pat Hodgens could take a lesson from the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, west of San Francisco, if the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service could be persuaded to discard E.O. Wilsonian shibboleths recycled from the pre-Charles Darwinian idea that God put every species where it belongs, in an unchanging universe, and instead look at the actual natural history of the islands.
Both feral cats and mice are known to have been present on the largest of the Farallon Islands by 1892, brought at some point––the mice by accident, the cats to hunt the mice––by settlers employed by the Pacific Egg Company, who stripped the island of sea bird eggs from circa 1848 until 1881.
Over-fishing & DDT
The Farallon Islands bird population has long struggled to recover, inhibited by over-fishing in nearby waters, depleting the birds’ food supply, and in the mid-20th century, by food chain build-ups of DDT, which inhibited egg formation.
Inevitably, with intensive fishing and use of DDT continuing apace, the Fish & Wildlife Service blamed the cats, and killed them all off in 1971-1972––just before the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT from most uses.
Gulls, whose population in the Farallon Islands rebounded after the DDT ban, are aggressive mouse-hunters, but cannot swoop into all of the rocky crevices that the feral cats once patrolled.
Now the Farallon Islands mouse population is said to have exploded, eating enough eggs to jeopardize the breeding colony of about 300,000 sea birds, including the rare ashy storm petrel, and attracting burrowing owls, who eat both mice and ashy storm petrels.
The solution, the California Coastal Commission decided on December 18, 2021, despite vigorous in-person opposition from primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall, is to use helicopters to carpet-bomb the Farallon Islands with a ton and a half of mouse poison.
“The move will require approval from the regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and even then it probably would be at least two years before the program gets underway, officials said,” reported Maanvi Singh for The Guardian.
Errors based on misassumptions about bugs
Underpinning the E.O. Wilsonian worldview, and that of Lovejoy et al, were convictions based on insect studies done in their youth in the Amazon region of Brazil.
Both believed that insect intelligence is almost wholly genetically determined, and that insects and other invertebrates therefore lack the flexibility of choice necessary to survive in changing habitats, or even to find similar habitat in new places.
Instead of having feelings about their environment, which lead to choice and adaptation, insects were thought to merely react to stimulus in limited and wholly predictable ways.
Darwin was right
But, summarized Zaria Gorvett for BBC Future on November 28, 2021, citing four eminent entomologists, “There is mounting evidence that insects can experience a remarkable range of feelings. They can be literally buzzing with delight at pleasant surprises, or sink into depression when bad things happen that are out of their control. They can be optimistic, cynical, or frightened, and respond to pain just like any mammal would. And though no one has yet identified a nostalgic mosquito, mortified ant, or sardonic cockroach, the apparent complexity of their feelings,” the precursor to intelligence and flexibility of behavior, “is growing every year.”
This, Gorvett noted, is exactly as Charles Darwin anticipated would eventually be discovered in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published 13 years after his much better known volume On The Origin of Species.
Some of the Darwinian but counter-E.O. Wilsonian insight into the intelligence and behavioral flexibility of invertebrates is widely expected to soon be enacted into British law through a pending amendment to the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill.
Explained BBC environment & rural affairs correspondent Claire Marshall on December 20, 2021, “The change has come after a team of experts sifted through more than 300 scientific studies and concluded that octopuses are ‘sentient beings,’ and there is ‘strong scientific evidence’ that they experience pleasure, excitement and joy,” as well as “pain, distress and harm.”
“The authors,” continued Marshall, “said they were ‘convinced that high-welfare octopus farming was impossible’ and that the government ‘could consider a ban on imported farmed octopus’ in the future.”
The tentative British recognition of octopus sentience, unfortunately, comes as “The number of octopuses in the wild are decreasing and prices are going up,” Marshall continued. “An estimated 350,000 metric tons are caught each year, more than 10 times the number caught in 1950.”
Responding to demand, the Spanish multinational aquaculture company Nueva Pescanova has announced that it will begin selling farmed octopus in 2023, from an inland facility near Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.
Nueva Pescanova argues that supplying farmed octopus will relieve pressure on wild populations, a familiar argument from advocates for market-based approaches to conservation.
Reality, however, already demonstrated many times over, with recent examples including the sale of legally obtained elephant tusk ivory and tiger bone, is that increased availability of a formerly scarce wildlife-sourced commodity tends to drive demand up.
This tends to increase poaching, since poached products can be sold for the same price as those obtained legally, with lower production costs and, accordingly, a higher profit margin.