Does size really matter? Regretfully, when it comes to conservation issues, it often does. We all know of the plight of the wild dog and the cheetah, and most of us know how dugongs are fighting against extinction. But how many of us know about the plight of the giant bullfrog or the critically endangered micro frog? How about the Brenton blue butterfly?
It seems that a lot of people who consider themselves to be ‘conservationists’ are just concerned about the “big and hairy’s”, while not even giving the smaller creatures a second thought. Whenever the Japanese undertake their annual dolphin harvest, there is a massive public outcry. Yet, how many people pause to think what effect the commercial fishing industry has on our marine resources? Annually, hundreds of sharks, turtles and dolphins are killed in commercial fishing nets, while many albatross species are becoming increasingly threatened, some being pushed even to the brink of extinction, by the longline fishing industry.
And for what? So that we can sit down to a meal of fish and chips, or open a tin of tuna to put on our sandwiches. Fish in themselves are becoming increasingly threatened, especially Patagonian toothfish and tuna, yet there isn’t a public outcry when these products are sold in our local supermarkets. In fact, both of these commercially harvested fish species are currently more threatened than the dolphins over which there is such a massive public outcry.
Every time that Kruger mentions that it wants to start culling elephants again, people are up in arms. Similarly, when private nature reserves want to sustainably hunt large predators, the public moan. Why? What is the difference between an elephant or a leopard and a mosquito, cockroach, scorpion or snake? Every night there are adverts on television about this-and-that chemical that is guaranteed to kill all insects, and most people won’t think twice about killing a snake. Yet, no television station would dare show a documentary, let alone an advert, showing elephants being culled or whales being harvested.
Why? What is the difference? Isn’t this a severe case of double standards? All of these organisms are living and play a key role in the ecosystem, regardless of their size. Many people claim that elephants have a “higher intelligence” than other animals, but this has never been proven beyond doubt. Isn’t this also just a case of wishful thinking or a ploy to prevent culling? Likewise, people object to leopards or lions being sustainably hunted, yet they wouldn’t think twice of destroying a wetland that provides habitat for a frog that is far more threatened than either one of these species.
It is also a common misconception that by protecting the larger organisms, the smaller ones will automatically be protected. For example, the giant bullfrog Pyxicephalus adspersus is listed as near-threatened nationally, although it is in a far worse state locally in Gauteng, a region which once used to be the stronghold of this species. Many people remember how these frogs visited their gardens seasonally, and how they would have to swerve to miss them on the tarred roads at night. Now it is considered a privilege to see one. A few years ago there used to be a number of breeding sites of this species between Pretoria and Johannesburg, while at present there are only two viable breeding populations remaining between these two cities. Within the past two years, two giant bullfrog study sites have disappeared under housing complexes, while even now one of the remaining two breeding sites is being threatened by the construction of low-cost housing. Yet there is no public outcry about these killings.
In and around Cape Town, the habitat of the critically endangered micro frog Microbatrachella capensis is also vanishing under housing developments, again without any public outcry. What is the difference? All in all it appears that we humans have a very selective view when it comes to conservation. We are only concerned with the larger, cuter and scarier creatures, while harbouring little or no concern for the smaller species that are often even more threatened, and just as ecologically important. Maybe we should stop calling ourselves “conservationists”every time we publicly oppose culling operations until we learn to treat all species, no matter how big or how small, equally.