A short article in the New Scientist of August of last year has stayed to trouble me ever since.
The practical side of conservation can, on occasion, carry with it soul-wrenching decisions.
This article reveals that around the mid 1980s only 18 Black-footed Ferrets remained in the wild in the USA. If they were not to become extinct drastic action was needed. Towards this end the entire wild population was taken into captivity with the admirable intent of building up the numbers in a protected environment before releasing them back into the wild. And it worked. By 2010 somewhere around 750 of these animals were back in the wild. Who could not but praise such good work?
The ferrets while in captivity were fed both dead golden hamsters and dead prairie dogs. But the real heart-felt decision for the scientists followed from a necessary train of thought. It was not intended that the new-born ferrets would remain forever in captivity. In time they would be released into the wild and therefore would need to acquire hunting skills if they were to survive. And how was this critical element of the captive-breeding-release programe to be accomplished?
Live hamsters and live prairie dogs were placed into a large pen where the young ferrets would learn the skills needed to hunt down and kill their food. There can be no doubt that fear and stress would have been experienced by the prey animals.
There is a great moral dilemma in this. It is here for the scientists who had to make such a heart-felt decision so that young ferrets would survive in the wild. But let us be clear here. It is equally a moral dilemma for those of us who are keen that species don’t pass to extinction. Let us not blame the good scientists who had to make that awful decision that a particular species would not become extinct. Remember this – habitat loss, brought about by us, was one of the primary reasons why these ferrets were reduced to such endangered numbers in the first place.
Food for thought in this – any comments?