University of Valencia (SPAIN)
About this paper:
Appears in: INTED2024 Proceedings
Publication year: 2024
Pages: 2455-2462
ISBN: 978-84-09-59215-9
ISSN: 2340-1079
doi: 10.21125/inted.2024.0680
Conference name: 18th International Technology, Education and Development Conference
Dates: 4-6 March, 2024
Location: Valencia, Spain
Conservation biology is a ‘crisis’ discipline that investigates what, how, and why biotic elements in nature are to be conserved and/or restored. This goal is grounded on diverse values and narratives which are often justified on a scientific basis (a form of naturalistic fallacy), or simply implicitly assumed. When these values and narratives are contrasting, they can give rise to conservation dilemmas. For instance, people who advocate for compassionate conservation adhere to a ‘first do not harm’ ethics that applies even to invasive species, thus eradication is not an option under this view. Or, people who hold ‘exemptionalist’ worldviews consider that human actions are not natural, thus their effects must be reversed, rather than be integrated or tolerated, in ‘truly’ natural landscapes. Over the last decade, we have been developing a 4-h activity aimed at undergraduate Biology students from the University of Valencia, who are asked to answer questions on selected conservation dilemmas at home, then engage in a face-to-face group discussion to verbalize, discuss, and eventually understand the implicit values and narratives that underpin their answers. An excerpt of one such conservation dilemmas is the following: “The North American ruddy duck is an invasive alien species in Europe whose population was founded by just seven birds escaped from captive stocks in the UK; this species now seriously threatens the native, highly endangered white-headed duck through hybridization.

Please decide and justify:
(i) whether or not the ruddy duck should be eradicated in Europe if this is the only realistic way to preserve the white-headed duck, and
(ii) whether or not your decision would be different if ruddy ducks had colonized Europe by themselves (i.e., ‘naturally’)”.

Based on pre-discussion surveys of 414 students from the academic year 2014-15 to date, we have detected a remarkably stable pattern over the years. First, ca. two thirds of the students advocate for ruddy duck eradication, mainly based on the fact that the ruddy duck is not globally endangered and the white-headed duck is native and singular. However, one-third of students deny eradication, and most of them (especially women) justify their decision based on some form of pathocentrism (i.e., compassionate conservation). Second, ca. two-third of students consider that there is a fundamental difference between a ‘natural’ vs. a ‘human-assisted’ introduction of ruddy ducks in Europe; the former should be tolerated as part of the ‘natural’ order, whereas the latter should be reversed. In contrast, one third of the students adopt a consequentialist view of the problem, arguing that the potential outcome (i.e., the extinction of the white-headed duck) is the same regardless of the form of the ruddy duck’s invasion. Our survey thus reveals that Biology students hold an implicit, diverse array of values and narratives about conservation that largely reflects ongoing academic debates on the same issues. In our experience, lecturers usually put emphasis on how to conserve (the scientific side of conservation), and less (if at all) on why to do so. The latter, however, is paramount if we want students (or citizens, for that matter) to be able to detect and discuss flawed assumptions in the conservation agenda, or to search for rational agreement about contrasting goals.
Biology, conservation, dilemma, compassionate, exemptionalism, consequentialism, survey.