Wildlife conservation and wild animal welfare work both aim to protect and increase our understanding of wild animals. Despite these shared goals, most organizations focused on wild animals prioritize conservation rather than welfare. We estimate that the organizations dedicated to wild animal welfare—a multidisciplinary field dedicated to studying the individual experiences of wild animals and finding ways to improve their wellbeing—receive less than $10 million in total funding each year. In this post, we’ll explore the relationship between wildlife conservation and wild animal welfare by examining wildlife conservation’s goals, the issues it seeks to address, and their impact on wild animals’ wellbeing.
What Is Wildlife Conservation?
Wildlife conservation consists of efforts to preserve the habitats and ecosystems of wild animals, protect wild animal populations, and prevent the extinction of endangered species. It involves monitoring species population trends and managing the use of natural resources to maintain ecosystem balance and promote the survival and genetic diversity of wild groups.
What Does Wildlife Conservation Do?
Wildlife conservation helps maintain and restore ecosystem balance, prevent habitat and biodiversity loss, and promote a more sustainable relationship between humans and wild animals. Because wildlife conservation targets species at the population level, certain conservation measures can negatively affect individual animals’ wellbeing. For example, non-native animals may be killed to protect the population of a native species; similarly, native animals may be routinely killed to prevent a species’ population size from exceeding optimal levels.
What Are the Goals of Wildlife Conservation?
The main goals of wildlife conservation are to preserve biodiversity and prevent the extinction of species. While ACE prioritizes individual welfare over species-level protection, we still recognize that wildlife conservation is a vital field for safeguarding wild animals from the threats of an increasingly human-controlled world.
What Are Some Wildlife Conservation Issues?
Below, we outline some global issues that wildlife conservation aims to solve and the impact those issues have on wild animals, who comprise more than 99% of life on Earth.
The issue: Habitat loss refers to the destruction, degradation, or fragmentation of natural environments that wild animals need to survive. It is a significant cause of species decline and extinction. Urbanization, industrial agriculture, and infrastructure development are major drivers of habitat loss, but it can also occur due to natural events such as floods and forest fires. Conservation tactics to combat habitat loss include establishing protected areas and restoring degraded habitats.
The impact: The effects of habitat loss on individual animals depend on several factors, including the size of the affected habitat and the species being affected. Animals may be directly injured or killed as their habitat is destroyed (for example, by being unable to flee from a wildfire or bulldozer). In contrast, others may experience longer-term suffering due to elevated stress, starvation, exposure, and increased competition over limited resources. Unfortunately, many species cannot adapt to new habitats, which increases their risk of population decline and extinction.
The issue: Deforestation is the purposeful clearing of forested land. It is commonly done to increase space for agriculture (particularly cow farming) or to obtain wood and other natural resources. Because massive amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere when forests are destroyed, deforestation contributes to climate change as well as habitat loss. Conservation efforts to combat deforestation include protecting and restoring forests and creating wildlife bridges to connect fragmented habitats.
The impact: Deforestation severs once-connected forests into fragmented areas, shrinking habitats and separating animal populations from one another. Fragmentation harms animals’ ability to breed, move, and access resources in areas where they could previously roam freely. Over time, segmented populations of wild animals become more vulnerable to inbreeding, genetic bottlenecking, and disease outbreaks. Deforestation can also disrupt predator-prey dynamics; for example, cleared areas restrict some animals’ ability to hide from predators, and predators may struggle to survive in smaller habitats with fewer resources.
The issue: Poaching refers to the illegal killing of wild animals. One of the largest drivers of poaching is the high-value demand for specific animal parts and products, such as pangolin scales, ivory, and exotic furs. Although poachers do not exclusively target endangered species, several endangered animals are significantly threatened by poaching. Efforts to combat poaching include establishing and enforcing anti-poaching laws, monitoring protected areas with cameras and sensors, and spreading awareness about the impacts of the illegal wildlife trade.
The impact: Poached animals are often killed in brutal and inhumane ways (e.g., being shot, trapped, or poisoned), resulting in immense fear, stress, pain, and sometimes slow, agonizing deaths. Many animals haven’t been able to catch up evolutionarily with these new ways of being hunted; for example, the pangolin’s defense mechanism is to curl up into a ball because their scales protect them from natural predators. Unfortunately, this defense behavior makes it easier for poachers to catch them. Poaching may also break up family units, which can cause emotional distress, disrupt social bonds, and leave young animals orphaned and unable to survive. Frequent encounters with poachers can make animals fearful or aggressive toward humans and affect their natural behavior patterns, impacting their overall health and wellbeing. Certain efforts designed to make animals less valuable to poachers, such as dehorning rhinos, may have negative effects on individuals’ welfare, but more research is needed to determine whether this is the case.
The issue: Ocean acidification is the process by which ocean pH levels drop due to increased absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Burning fossil fuels, combined with fewer trees to absorb carbon dioxide due to deforestation, is a major cause of ocean acidification. Reducing the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions is an effective way to prevent ocean acidification.
The impact: Ocean acidification has several negative effects on marine wildlife, particularly those who rely on calcium carbonate. Because acidity dissolves or slows the growth of calcium carbonate structures, corals and shell-forming animals have difficulty developing or maintaining essential body parts. This results in stunted growth, reduced reproduction, and increased mortality rates. Changes in the abundance of calcifying animals disrupt the balance of marine ecosystems, affecting the wellbeing of small and large fishes and marine mammals alike.
The issue: Pollution refers to the introduction of harmful substances or energy into the environment. There are several types of pollution, including air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, and light pollution, to name a few. Consumer awareness or corporate pressure campaigns, sustainable development, and zero-emissions technologies are some methods for reducing pollution.
The impact: The impact of pollution on wild animals differs based on the kind of pollution, ecosystems, and animals affected. For example, chemical emissions and oil spills can harm or kill animals by polluting their habitat’s air, water, soil, and food supply. Agricultural run-off from farms can leak into and change the water chemistry of freshwater ecosystems, leading to harmful algae blooms that result in large swaths of uninhabitable areas known as ”dead zones.” Plastic pollution directly threatens animals who ingest or get trapped in plastic debris, which can lead to starvation, suffocation, or severe injuries. Additionally, light and noise pollution can be fatal as they disturb natural rhythms and navigational cues that some animals, such as marine mammals and birds, depend on to migrate and survive.
Illegal wildlife trade
The issue: The illegal wildlife trade is a global industry involving the poaching, transport, trade, and sale of wild animals. It is driven by the demand for exotic pets and wild animal products. Efforts to fight the illegal wildlife trade include educating the public about its effects and enforcing wildlife protection laws.
The impact: Animals in the illegal wildlife trade experience immense suffering from the moment they are snatched from their natural homes. Capture methods are often cruel (e.g., traps, snares, or chemical-induced immobilization), resulting in physical and psychological trauma. During transport, animals are denied their basic needs, aggressively handled, and subjected to crowded and unsanitary environments. These conditions place animals under extreme stress, which can make them more susceptible to disease. Beyond its severe welfare implications, the illegal wildlife trade is a major contributor to the population decline of various species and poses a significant risk to public health due to disease transmission.
Can Wildlife Conservation Improve Wild Animal Welfare?
More research is still needed to determine the best practices for measuring and monitoring wild animal welfare in wildlife conservation; however, several conservation efforts indirectly benefit wild animals’ wellbeing. For example, efforts to combat poaching and illegal wildlife trade can improve wild animals’ lives by preventing their capture, suffering, and death. Similarly, disease control efforts—such as providing vaccines and conducting research on specific diseases—can minimize the negative impacts of diseases on animals’ health and wellbeing. Protecting “umbrella species,” whose ecological needs are likely to benefit numerous species, is another conservation tactic with the potential to significantly improve wild animal welfare.
What Are the Welfare Effects of Wildlife Conservation Strategies?
More research on wild animal welfare is needed to determine the welfare effects of specific wildlife conservation strategies. The current lack of evidence for the effectiveness of interventions to improve wild animal welfare is partially due to the complexity of natural ecosystems and the difficulty of measuring the impacts of interventions in the wild. That’s why we believe research is a promising avenue for informing interventions to help wild animals. Fortunately, organizations like Wild Animal Initiative are working to improve our understanding of how to help animals in the wild by identifying wild animal welfare research priorities and advancing the field of wild animal welfare science.
Why Should We Care About Wild Animal Welfare in Wildlife Conservation?
We believe that improving our understanding of wild animal welfare can encourage us to adopt higher-welfare practices across multiple sectors, including wildlife conservation. Certain conservationists are already attempting to incorporate wild animal welfare into conservation efforts via an emerging field called “compassionate conservation.” Although we are thrilled that this work is being done, we focus our efforts on advancing wild animal welfare work rather than wildlife conservation because we believe it has the potential to impact the future of all wild animals, as opposed to animals in a particular group or region.
How Can I Help Wild Animals?
Anyone can help wild animals by spreading awareness about wild animal suffering. You can make an even larger impact by donating directly to charities that are working to improve wild animal welfare, such as our Top Charity Wild Animal Initiative. A donation to ACE is also a great way to support multiple charities that are researching effective ways to help wild animals and advocate for their welfare.