By Niki Rust
Conservationists have recently become very excited about financial incentives. The idea is to pay people to do things that will help biodiversity, for example, where farmers are paid not to till crops that reduce soil erosion or where landowners are given money to plant trees to capture carbon in the atmosphere.
This technique, considered by some as bribery to do what you want, has actually changed environmental behaviour for the better in some significant instances.
“Great”, I hear conservationists say, “let’s pay everyone to do exactly what we want!” The possibilities are endless: we could give farmers money to set aside land for nature, we could make fishing more sustainable, or we could reward people to not kill threatened predators. There are, however, problems with the system behind paying people to do things that they wouldn’t normally do, not least because sometimes money cannot solve everything.
Human vs predator vs livestock
Take carnivores, for instance: menacing, bloodthirsty killers of infamous myth and legend that have plagued farmers' nightmares for millennia. These species provoke such raw emotions in some people that intolerance has become a cultural identity, learned through generations of ingrained hatred.
So when conservationists came up with the idea to pay reindeer herders to tolerate wolves in Sweden, it is no surprise that the herders declined the payment in favour of managing wolves themselves (that is: killing them).
Such a long-standing conflict between livestock farmers and carnivores is too embedded in the psyche to overcome purely by throwing money at people. If anything, it could be seen as an insult to their integrity, just as financial incentives paid to families of organ donors have been criticised for turning human life into a commodity.
To many farmers, a cow is worth more than its market value, just like their farm is worth more to them predator-free (at the expense of compensation) than with predators (and a financial reward). This may be one of the reasons why schemes have often failed to increase tolerance even when reimbursements have been paid for livestock killed by predators.
To pay a farmer to accept a predator onto a farm is almost as absurd as paying Israelis to tolerate Palestinians: both are long-standing, deep-rooted conflicts that cannot be bought out unless underlying issues are resolved. Both situations can therefore be regarded as “wicked problems” with no clear way. As such, is it even useful to use financial incentives for carnivore conservation?
As with other challenges in wildlife management, the answer is not clear cut. Yes, sometimes it does appear to work with species that may not have caused much controversy in the past, such as the aforementioned Swedish scheme which increased tolerance towards wolverine and lynx. But for highly emotive species such as wolves or lions, bribery appears impotent. Consequently, we must try other tactics to improve opinions towards the predator species that produce these immensely charged responses.
Educating children on how important predators are to the ecosystem may improve attitudes before they have been shaped by their parents’ perceptions, but this tactic takes time and effort (and may tread on dodgy ethical ground if it is seen to be brainwashing children ).
Or it may be that farmers find their own way to benefit from carnivore presence on their land, such as by offering tourists or trophy hunters the chance to “shoot” wildlife (with a camera or a gun).
But this will not sway the extremists who cannot fathom accepting such a beast onto their land. For these old-school farmers, the only way they can envisage a predator is hanging as a skin on their wall or in the security of a fenced protected area far from their land.