by Whit Gibbons

March 10, 2002

Many roads lead to wildlife conservation and protection of natural biodiversity, and those roads have many travelers. The motives and agendas of different individuals and groups involved in conservation efforts can, indeed do, vary, and confusion can arise about the real purposes of the actions that different people take.

Misunderstandings may occur because people do not distinguish between animal rights activists and environmentalists. The distinction between the two lines of thought is significant. An animal rights person focuses on individual animals, whereas environmentalists direct their efforts toward protecting populations of a particular species, a group of species, or their habitats.

The term "animal rights activists" has entered our cultural lexicon. It's time to expand our understanding of that designation to include people who are "species rights" or "habitat rights activists." For example, someone who concentrates on or cares intensely about protecting black bears, Venus flytrap plants, or Asian turtles is a species rights person. A habitat rights person focuses on protection of a particular type of threatened habitat, such as old-growth forests, salt marshes, or wild rivers. Some may target a specific habitat for protection, such as Florida's Everglades or Alabama's Hurricane Creek. Interest in protecting particular groups of organisms or habitats is increasing throughout the country, and for each of the categories just mentioned, I know someone who qualifies as a species or habitat rights person.

As with any human endeavor, the more people who become involved in it, the more complex the situation becomes--and the more the lines delineating one group from another begin to blur. In some circumstances, determining whether the interests of a person or group are directed toward individual animal rights, species rights, or habitat rights can be downright troublesome. During the spotted owl furor a few years ago, conservationists wanted to protect the magnificent forests of the Pacific Northwest. The timber companies wanted to continue logging. (You may recall that tempers were hot on both sides of the issue.) The endangered spotted owl became the critical piece in that endgame. When situations like that develop, some of the people involved want to spend time and resources fixing the broken wing of an injured spotted owl; others are intent on trying to protect the whole population of spotted owls in the forest. Meanwhile, those focused on protecting individual owls and those committed to preserving the whole species may forget that the real goal is to save the forests. The irony is endless.

Some hunting rights advocates can also be at odds with species rights and habitat rights activists, as when forests are manipulated to promote a single game species, such as quail, without regard for other wildlife that is part of the natural system. And targeting the destruction of native wildlife because they naturally compete with or prey on a selected game species can become a contentious issue and is not conducive to wildlife conservation.

As with any cause, individuals or organizations with extremist views will eventually surface and may even carry out acts of violence. Such actions are not reasoned ones, and they dilute the efforts of others working for the cause by polarizing the public against it. Thus when the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) destroys property in protest of research on crop genetics or certain development projects, people who might otherwise be supportive of the same environmental causes as ELF are actually repelled. Likewise, people who throw red paint or pig's blood on a fur coat seldom emerge as heroes or champions of justice. Violent people like these are not environmentalists. They are, in their own way, terrorists.

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