Embracing the Ethics of Conservation

Island Conservation and animal welfare organizations formalize wildlife control ethics guidelines, and urge others to integrate these principles into their work.

By: Gregg Howald

Since its inception, Island Conservation has recognized the importance of animal welfare in the planning and implementation of invasive species removal projects. In a recent paper, we applied our experience and expertise to advance development of formal animal welfare guidelines for pest management professionals. We encourage encourage others to consider the same.

Non-native, damaging (invasive) species are one of the leading causes of extinctions globally, and the leading cause on islands, where most recorded extinctions have occurred. In the race against extinction, conservationists must move quickly.


Island Conservation and partners supported the rescue of Island Foxes in the Channel Islands, California, who have been delisted thanks to conservation efforts and are thriving today. Credit: Rory Stansbury/Island Conservation

Island Conservation works to protect our world’s most vulnerable species, such as those endemic to islands (e.g. a Giant Tortoise found only in the Galápagos Islands) or seabirds that evolved to nest on islands free of ground-based predators. Many native island plants and animals are highly vulnerable to invasive predators, such as rats and feral cats, because historically they had no need to evolve defenses against them. The science is clear; the data show that invasive species on islands can and do cause extinctions.

New research by Island Conservation and international partners analyzing the Threatened Island Biodiversity database reveals that nearly half of our world’s highly threatened animals are on islands. By controlling or removing invasive species from these islands, we can protect 41 percent of all threatened vertebrates and 95 percent of those on islands

island watch conservation science infographic preventing extinctions

Today, we are faced with difficult decisions in the urgent effort to prevent extinctions. A very small window of time exists between the arrival of an invasive species on an island and the subsequent wave of extinctions. This small window affords little time for conservationists to step in and dismantle the pattern of destruction caused by an invasive species. Fortunately, we have conservation tools to protect island wildlife threatened with extinction by removing invasive species.


Conservation Biologist Dena Spatz, PhD in the field with a Pinzón Tortoise. Credit: Island Conservation

To prevent extinctions and island ecosystem collapse, Island Conservation and many other organizations systematically eradicate invasive species populations from islands around the world. In most cases, to save imperiled wildlife, the only sufficiently effective and efficient methods available today involve lethal removal of invasive species.


The Critically Endangered Polynesian Ground-dove, AKA Tutururu benefited from the recent successful restoration of 5 Pacific islands. Credit: Richard Griffiths/Island Conservation

When removing invasive species, we adhere to the following guidelines to protect native wildlife and communities from the predation and other damage wrought by invasives:
1. Remove every single individual of the invasive species population.
2. Maintain the integrity of the native ecosystem.
3. Ensure safety for humans.
4. Meet economic and time constraints.
5. Carry out operations as quickly as regulatory and logistical conditions permit.
6. Minimize harm and suffering to the invasive species.

For the time being, for most island eradication projects, virtually no non-lethal alternative conservation tools exist for this purpose. Our values guide the choices we and our partner communities make to protect the diversity of our world’s native island plants, animals, ecosystems, and communities. To do this, we are obliged to remove populations of invasive species, introduced in nearly every case by humans.


Ancient Murrelets (Synthliboramphus antiquus) benefited from the restoration of Arichika Island, Haida Gwaii British Columbia that was carried out from 2011-2015. Credit: Ian Jones/Island Conservation

Much of society, including animal welfare organizations, likewise favor protection of native species over passively allowing wildlife to go extinct. Island communities and their governments make the final decisions to eradicate an invasive species population.

Island Conservation confidently stands by the decision to intervene where both invasive and endangered species are present on islands. We are compelled to provide a resolution for the long-term health of the total system. To allow invasive species to persist on islands results in native wildlife deaths and extinctions. Considering that human activities initially caused the problem of invasive species, humans have an obligation to restore the conditions for life wherever possible. Conservation intervention is an act of taking responsibility. Doing nothing would be culpable negligence.


Island Restoration Specialist Jason Zito recording an Albatross chick on Antipodes Island, NZ. Credit: José Luis Herrera/Island Conservation

From the outset, Island Conservation has included animal welfare measures in our projects. Today, we support the seven guiding principles outlined in the paper, “International consensus principles for ethical wildlife control” published this year in the journal Conservation Biology. We urge all conservation interventionist practitioners and organizations involved in pest management to also adhere to such guidelines.

The entire field of invasive species management should uphold and defend our moral obligation to protect the diversity of the word’s wildlife while taking measures to ensure animal welfare.

Featured photo: Polynesian Ground-dove, AKA Tutururu, native to the Acteon Gambier island group, French Polynesia. Credit: Maddy Pott/Island Conservation

About Gregg Howald

Gregg has been working in the island conservation field for more than nineteen years, and since 1999 has focused on the restoration of island ecosystems internationally. Gregg serves as Island Conservation’s Director of Global and External Affairs, and his experience and expertise are utilized for many of IC’s projects worldwide. Gregg has developed a diverse array of North American partnerships among federal government agencies, private industry, NGOs, research scientists, and local communities.

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