Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Compassionate Conservation Isn't Seriously or Fatally Flawed

Two essays, one in popular press and one in an academic journal, have it wrong.

Over the past three days, I've received a large number of emails asking me if I'd seen an essay by Mark Kinver published by BBC News with the sweeping, damning title, "Compassionate conservation is 'seriously flawed'." I hadn't heard of Mr. Kinver's piece at the time I received the first five emails, but these queries piqued my interest because I knew of another essay with the ominous title "The fatal flaws of compassionate conservation" that was published in the journal Conservation Biology in response to a paper called "Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation" on which I was a co-author. I found Mr. Kinver's piece and was as surprised about some of its content as were all of the people who have written to me for some of the reasons below.

All three of the above essays are available for free online, so here I simply want to make a few comments because the coverage of our essay doesn't truly represent what compassionate conservation is all about and doesn't lead to a veritable or close to factual conclusion that compassionate conservation is seriously or fatally flawed. A few people asked why we weren't also interviewed for the BBC piece because of the alarming and dismissive nature of its title and its sweeping dismissal of our essay. To them, it sounded like a statement of fact, which it surely is not. I told them that's not how BBC or other news outlets typically work, although in the past I've been contacted by journalists who are writing a strong criticism of my own or others' work, but who also want to write a balanced piece. Be that as it may, to set the tone for what follows below, the four guiding principles of compassionate conservation are, First Do No harm, Individuals Matter, Value All Wildlife, and Peaceful Coexistence.1 ,2 These form the general foundation for the multi-authored essay, "The fatal flaws of compassionate conservation."

Because far more people will read the BBC essay than the piece published in Conservation Biology, I'll focus on this short summary of the more formal essay. It also seems, according to my reading of Mr. Kiver's essay and some comments I received, that he didn't read our original essay or perhaps the response to our piece to which he refers. Furthermore, it's clear that he talked with at least one of the authors of the essay that was published in response to our essay because his BBC essay covers some areas that weren't mentioned in their more formal misguided response.

Mr. Kinver begins, "The idea that you cannot kill any animal is 'fatally flawed' as a conservation concept, scientists argue. Conservation measures should concentrate on species or habitats rather than individual animals, they observe." I emphasize the word should because there isn't any compelling argument why this is so. Some people who are interested in different aspects of conservation argue that collectives—species and populations, for example—should be the focus of conservation protocols, whereas others, including those who favor compassionate conservation, argue that that the well-being of individuals should be the primary focus. There really isn't a should in the ways in which conservation scientists go about their business.

Mr. Kinver also writes, "Invasive species, they argue, often require mass culling of an animal in order to protect an endangered species. Under so-called 'compassionate conservation', such an approach would not be allowed. 'The argument is that conservation and sustainability needs a variety of approaches. You need to be pluralistic about both the cultural and scientific approaches,' explained study co-author [of the response to our essay] Prof Kartik Shanker from the Indian Institute of Science." Why anyone would refer to the ever-growing international field of compassionate conservation as "so-called 'compassionate conservation' baffles me and many others who try to implement its protocols. It's a misplaced insult, and it truly ignores the depth and breadth of the field.

Furthermore, Professor Shanker's claim, "You need to be pluralistic about both the cultural and scientific approaches," suggesting that compassionate conservation does not follow these ideals, is simply wrong. A point we make in our essay and one that is made in many other places is that compassionate conservation is pluralistic and that those who follow its basic tenets are a heterogeneous lot with different views about what compassion means.

In Mr. Kinver's piece, we also read, "There is universal agreement that animal welfare is important by which we mean that we should aim to reduce cruelty to animals and this applies to both wild biodiversity and domestic animals. Prof Shanker said there was agreement that cruelty should be minimized. 'I think the problem arises when compassionate conservation states that you should not kill animals for any reason whatsoever,' he told BBC News." This simply is not so. As I mentioned above, the compassionate conservation community is pluralistic and while no one has ever done any sort of study, it's likely that while the majority of those who espouse the principles of compassionate conservation are against killing, there are some who might be open to considering killing in very few specific instances. However, I don't know any in the community who would accept that "cruelty should be minimized." Indeed, cruelty should be abolished. Anyone who knows about many of the horrific ways in which other animals are treated and killed that are cashed out as being "humane" knows that they really are not. In numerous wildlife projects, numerous targeted and non-targeted individuals suffer deep and interminable pain before they die.

Compassionate conservation values individual lives, is sensitive to cultural differences, all for biodiversity, and recognizes that nonhumans and humans matter

"Compassionate conservation is the key to the future ahead of us." (Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani, Wildlife SOS, India.)

"The commitment of individual people to individual animals lies at the heart of the newly recognized field of Compassionate Conservation--an approach that has always formed a foundation of ElephantVoices. We work toward a day when individual animals, their habitats and ecosystems are protected and sustained by individual people, their families and entire communities. Through our citizen science projects, Facebook, and other outreach, we endeavor to link elephants and people across countries and continents...The recognition of compassionate conservation was long overdue." (ElephantVoices)

Finally, in the BBC essay, we read, "The compassionate conservation approach is widely viewed as having its base in privileged, western, and largely urban centres." (My emphasis) Mr. Kinver also writes that Prof. Shanker argues, "It is clear that there are numerous incidences where taking a compassionate conservation approach clearly does not look at the larger goals of biodiversity conservation." This is simply not so. As we stress in our essay and elsewhere, as do many others in the compassionate conservation community, we are all for biodiversity.

The idea that "The compassionate conservation approach is widely viewed as having its base in privileged, western, and largely urban centers," is not only a dismissive and erroneous cheap shot, it's also blatantly false and isn't supported by any data whatsoever. In an email to me, animal advocate Merritt Clifton wrote, "Compassionate conservation is most closely philosophically related to the traditional environmental teachings of Buddhism & Hinduism, whose roots are neither in privilege, the west, or urban society." Indeed, anyone who's read our essay "Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation" knows that many of the examples we use that are based on compassionate conservation protocols, projects that have been and are successfully being implemented globally, refer to non-western, rural, and "unprivileged" areas. So, too, do numerous other protocols that are based on the principles of compassionate conservation. An excellent example is one set by Maasai Kenyan teenager, Richard Turere, who used lights to scare off lions, rather than allowing them to be killed. In an essay about Richard's TED talk, Nina Gregory writes, "His simple solution was so successful, his neighbors heard about it and wanted Lion Lights, too. He installed the lights for them and for six other homes in his community. From there, the lights spread and are now being used all around Kenya. Someone in India is trying them out for tigers. In Zambia and Tanzania, they're being used, as well."

Flickr, Pexels free download
Source: Flickr, Pexels free download

Here are a few more examples that clearly show that compassionate conservation does not have its "base in privileged, western, and largely urban centers." In an essay called "Compassionate Conservation: More than 'Welfarism Gone Wild'," I wrote about two projects in India that stress the need for peaceful coexistence between humans and nonhumans who harm and kill the humans and destroy their businesses. They are wonderful examples of striving for coexistence with elephants and leopards. And, in an essay called "Compassionate Conservation Meets Cecil the Slain Lion," I wrote about a project that took into account the interests of humans and nonhumans that centered on putting an end to the use of dancing bears. At a meeting on compassionate conservation, this project was discussed by Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani of the organization Wildlife SOS, India. Part of the abstract for their talk reads as follows: "Compassionate Conservation and sustainability of wildlife and forests was the focus of the program which is still ongoing. Wildlife SOS also works with human-animal conflict situations similarly aiming for compassionate conservation and rehabilitation measures that educate the stakeholders, such as the villagers or dwellers around a forested area, in avoidance behavior...Compassionate conservation is the key to the future ahead of us." (My emphasis). Their training school is called "the kindness school." Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani's entire abstract can be seen in "Compassionate Conservation Meets Cecil the Slain Lion" and is well worth reading. Numerous examples of projects and successes can be found on the website for the Centre for Compassionate Conservation in Sydney, Australia, the website for Compassionate Conservation--Middle East, as well as in Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation and here. It's easy to see that compassionate conservation knows no geographical bounds, does not only serve urban and privileged people, and deeply respects local cultures and values.

In the formal response to our essay the authors write, "The ethical and moral foundations of all societies are strongly context dependent. Conservationists should not presume that one set of anthropomorphized, culturally specific values is universally applicable to all and independent of regional factors or local politics (Gavin et al. 2018). We therefore argue for a broader, culturally informed approach to conservation that fully considers and utilizes the diversity of values and uses of nature." Compassionate conservation has nothing to do with "being anthropomorphic." In the BBC essay, Prof. Shanker also suggests that compassionate conservation isn't sensitive to different world views. He is quoted as saying, "...imposing a different world view on a local community often failed to respect the people's values and culture." Many who wrote to me and I were astounded when we read this because so much literature about compassionate conservation argues just the opposite. Nonhumans and humans matter. Many of the above examples along with many others show this to be true.

Compassionate conservation is alive and thriving

Compassionate conservation isn't seriously or fatally flawed. While it might not be perfect, it's essential for people who vehemently oppose it to fully understand what compassionate conservation is all about and not spread mistruths and imply they're supported by actual data. At the beginning of the essay "The fatal flaws of compassionate conservation," the authors write, "Compassion need not preclude humanely killing an animal if that reduces the animal’s suffering, enhances the survival of the species or its habitat, or safeguards human life or other more threatened species. But Wallach et al. argue that to be compassionate, one should not kill animals for any reason." This is not so, and I can't imagine that anyone would argue against humanely euthanizing an animal who clearly is in interminable and intolerable pain.

Compassionate conservation is alive and thriving. It's all for maintaining biodiversity, it's pluralistic, its base is not located in "privileged, western, and largely urban centers," and it is sensitive to differing cultural values. I'm pleased that many others and I continue to receive inquiries about how to implement its basic principles, namely, First Do No harm, Individuals Matter, Value All Wildlife, and Peaceful Coexistence, from people all over the world who actually know what the global and transdisciplinary field of compassionate conservation is all about. The future of compassionate is very bright, as it should be.

1The views on this essay are mine and do not necessarily represent those of all of my co-authors on "Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation, although I expect that they are in agreement with most of what I've written.

2Numerous essays that lay out the agenda and goals of compassionate conservation can be found in the references below and also here.


Bekoff, Marc. Compassionate Conservation: A Green Conversation. Psychology Today, May 14, 2013.

_____. Compassionate Conservation Meets Cecil the Slain Lion. Psychology Today, August 9, 2015.

_____. Compassionate Conservation Matures and Comes of Age. Psychology Today, November 15, 2017.

_____. Compassionate Conservation Isn't Veiled Animal Liberation. Psychology Today, May 28, 2018.

Ramp, Daniel and Bekoff, Marc. Compassion as a Practical and Evolved Ethic for Conservation. BioScience 65, 323-327, 2015.

Wallach, Arian. et al. Promoting predators and compassionate conservation. Conservation Biology 29, 1481-1484, 2015.

Wallach, Arian. et al. Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation. Conservation Biology 32, 2018.

More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today