WHEN CONSERVATION GETS CRUEL

From the archives; I originally wrote this in March, 2013

This week has seen news of a new plan to control the highly invasive brown tree snake on the island of Guam. The plan involves toxic mice, and has met with fierce opposition from animal rights groups such as PETA. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/24/us-guam-snakes-mice-peta

First it is important to know a bit of background about Guam, and its large snake problem. Guam is a small island around 2000km north of Papua New Guinea, in the western Pacific. As a U.S territory its economy benefits from the location of an American military base, but its main source of income and jobs is the tourism industry.

For the past 70 years or so the people of Guam have shared their island not only with their rich native fauna, but also with an invader of great consequence, the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis). There are well documented ecological factors that make some species more susceptible to extinction from invasives than others, and unfortunately island species tend to fit these criteria. Since its arrival the arboreal snake has freely expanded its population to its now huge density.

The impacts of this come in two interlinked flavours. Firstly, impacts on native wildlife; the snake has caused the local extinction of almost all native birds and reptiles, including the endemic Guam Flycatcher (now extinct) and the Guam Rail (now being bred in captivity for reintroductions elsewhere). 9 of 11 forest bird species previously found on Guam no longer occur there. As always with invasives, the impacts don’t stop there. Through impacts on the birds (which are important pollinators) native plants are also in decline. Secondly, impacts occur through conflict with people. Numerous power outages are directly caused by the snakes, along with a decline in tourism over and above that expected from purely the negative effects of the global recession.

So what are the U.S Department of Agriculture doing about this problem, which is having undisputed and hugely negative effects on the people of Guam and their wildlife? This is where we revisit the news that has been widely reported this week. The USDA are planning to use helicopters to drop dead mice laced with the chemical acetaminophen and attached to small parachutes, in order to kill the snakes and reduce the population. Now, firstly it pays to get to the root of the story, ideally a publication or press release from the organisation in question. A quick search led me to see that this story isn’t new at all. National Geographic reported in 2010 that the “toxic mice” were being airdropped in Guam. And the USDA have published reports detailing their efforts in controlling the snakes, and have been using acetaminophen since 2001. The primary concern of groups opposing the plans (ie PETA) is that the drug induces coma and death in the snakes, and takes up to 60 hours to have its affect. Other concerns are that airdrops are simply too random, and effects on non-target species are likely to be large.

These are all legitimate concerns, and animal rights groups play an important role in ensuring we aren’t exploiting species, but In this case I believe people need to do more research before they flat out refute something. Gone are the days when nations would take drastic biological decisions without a seconds thought (eg the disastrous use of myxomatosis to control Australia rabbits). The USDA conducts active research into plans to control invasives. A report from 2007 tested various types of parachute for the dead mice to reduce accidental death of non-target species – mainly coconut and hermit crabs. Far from the random and gung-ho approach the media have enjoyed portraying this is, it is a lot more calculated than that.

In terms of effectiveness this tactic appears to have a high potential, the fact that the brown tree snake will eat prey it has not consumed itself is fairly rare in snakes and is a weakness that conservationists need to exploit, in much the same way medical research looks for weaknesses in viruses. The cruelty issue is a tough one, without getting into a debate of the pain feeling abilities of reptiles, it is a cruel thing to do to any animal, and the snakes didn’t ask to be stowaways and transported to Guam. Having said that, I have come to the conclusion that it is a necessary evil. The USDA currently removes around 7000 snakes a year, out of an estimated population of over 1 million. That statistic alone shows that current efforts just aren’t going to be enough to ever make a serious change. There are also concerns that despite the presence of expert snake detecting dogs at all airports and ports on Guam the snakes could spread to other vulnerable islands. The opportunity is here to make a real dent in the snake population, and improve the livelihood of the people of Guam also. Focussing purely on the cruelty is not looking at the real picture, of the knock on effects on other species and people that this species is having. Sometimes conservation has to be cruel.

brown tree snake

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