POV: The Secret to Wildlife Conservation Might Be the “Animal Agency” Approach—Giving Creatures a Role in Their Own Preservation
From Indian leopards to New England deer, wild animals are living in cities and suburbs, and protecting them—and humans—means not seeing them as things to be managed
Human-caused pressures on the environment like climate change and deforestation are bringing wild animals into greater contact with human society—from deer in Massachusetts to rhesus macaques in India, wolves in Europe, and hyenas in Ethiopia. Roaming in urban and suburban regions, these wild animals develop complex behavior that is attuned to their surroundings in ways humans neither want nor expect—birds singing at higher pitches to beat traffic noise, lizards that evolve to run on smooth walls rather than coarse branches.
I experienced one example of this myself when conducting research activities on urban leopards in India. The Sanjay Gandhi National Park, located within Mumbai, shelters an abnormally high density of leopards. These top predators routinely roam the busy streets of Mumbai—a city home to more than 20 million people—enter buildings, cross highways, and prey on domestic animals. Such high densities and behavior deviate from the common image of leopards as solitary and highly territorial animals, and suggest that the leopards of Mumbai have adapted their habitat requirements and social structures to take advantage of the resources of the urban and suburban environment.
In this context, wildlife managers and conservationists constantly need to find new ways to protect wild animals while minimizing conflicts with humans. In a recent study published in Conservation Biology, my coauthors and I argue that to succeed we need to consider animal agency—we need to recognize animals as complex beings, whose individuality and sociality influence their relationships with humans. Instead of treating wildlife as objects to be managed, we can look to animals’ behaviors, letting their actions, personalities, group decisions, and relations to humans illuminate better ways to help preserve their populations. In this way, animals can be seen as partners in their own conservation.
Multiple studies have shown that animals already have agency. That is, wild animals can adapt to, and exert influence on, human activities and behavior because of their sentience, individuality, and even cultures. For example, female bottlenose dolphins have had lasting and complex relationships with fishers in Brazil, and individual dolphins have socially learned cooperative foraging tactics that benefit both dolphins and humans. In some parts of Bulgaria, brown bears and humans have learned to cohabit by developing relations of mutual trust and respect through repeated, conflict-free, peaceful encounters.
In the context of conservation, this means that animals already actively influence and participate in conservation and management outcomes, and do so in ways that constantly reshape the landscapes, cultures, and histories that humans and wildlife share. Throughout history, diverse communities have recognized animal agency, and incorporated it into how they manage wildlife. For example, in the Arctic, recognition of marine mammals’ personhood is an important tenet of Nunavik Inuit communities who have sustainably managed beluga whale populations for generations.
Only a few Western conservationists really consider animal agency. But those who do have seen promising results: leveraging the participation of beavers in watershed management or allowing gulls to show them where they prefer to make their nests in urban regions of the Netherlands.
In our research, we examined more than 190 studies of different wildlife conservation and management practices, looking at the assumptions underpinning each approach and its outcomes. We then reviewed findings from fields that share an interest in understanding the complexity of animals, their relations to their environments and to humans, and how these dynamics can and should shape human treatment of nonhuman animals.
In our paper, we explain how protecting species’ cultural and social systems is essential for their survival. Viewing animals as active participants in conservation policymaking encourages us to better understand and represent animals’ perspectives, interests, and rights. It can also augment existing and emergent practices that incorporate facets of animal agency, such as ecological justice, which calls on us to recognize that animals have the same entitlement to space and resources that humans do.
Although engaging with animal agency does not mean easily solving ecologically, politically, and culturally fraught conservation challenges, it is a necessary step forward to face the ongoing loss of global biodiversity.
Émilie Edelblutte is a geographer and Boston University PhD candidate in earth and environment. She is also a fellow in the BU Global Development Policy Center’s Land Use and Livelihoods Initiative and a research assistant for a National Science Foundation–funded project on suburban deer management.