The Endangered Species Fallacy & Its' Wildlife Management Implications

Ron Thomson

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Jun 27, 2009
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The Endangered Species Fallacy & Its' Wildlife Management Implications

One of the greatest fallacies of modern wildlife management philosophy is the concept of the so-called ‘endangered species’. It is also misleading and has muddled society’s perceptions with regard to the true management needs of wildlife.

There are several definitions regarding what constitutes an endangered species but the original IUCN version is probably still the most widely accepted:

Animals or plants in danger of extinction and whose survival is unlikely if the causal factors continue to operate. Included in this category are species whose numbers have been reduced to a critical level or whose habitat has been so drastically diminished in size or degraded or both that they appear to be in danger of extinction.

The Mauritian Kestrel is one species that meets this criterion. This is a small falcon that occurs only on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. It is adapted to the island’s montane forest wherein it is specialised for the catching of arboreal geckoes. Over the last several hundred years, however, the island’s forests have been almost completely eliminated through excessive logging, so the kestrel’s very special forest-gecko-catching niche has virtually disappeared. Less than ten pairs now exist in the wild and the species would likely have long ago disappeared had it not been for man’s intervention with a captive-breeding-and-release programme.

Many of the world’s classified endangered species, however, are no more endangered – as species – than is mankind. This is because the several definitions, that classify a species as being endangered, are all based upon a false premise. They presume that the species is the primary unit in the wildlife management equation - which is not true. The primary unit in the survival stakes is the species-population.

A SPECIES can be defined as:

A group of animals or plants that share the same physical (and, in the case of animals, behavioural) characteristics and which, when they breed amongst themselves, produce fertile young with the same physical and behavioural characteristics.

A POPULATION of animals, on the other hand, can be defined as:

An integrated group of animals, of the same species, that interacts on a daily basis, and that interbreeds ONLY with other animals in the same group.

Animals do not organise themselves as species. Their primary structured occurrence happens at the population level. In this regard a species can have thousands of populations, occurring in pockets of suitable habitat spread across the entire range of its distribution; or it could have only one – like the Mauritian Kestrel.

Because the animals comprising species-populations breed only with their own population members, populations establish their own gene pools. These are banks of specific inheritance characteristics contained in their genes and which are passed on to each new generation.

As a consequence, over time, different populations of the same species acquire characteristics in appearance that make individuals of one population clearly distinct from those in other populations. This is manifest by large or small size, specific colouration or marking patterns, the size and or shape of their horns or tusks, and a whole host of other measurable phenomena. These are the first signs of racialism (the creation of sub-species) in a species. This makes the population the basic unit of evolution - because it is from populations (not individuals) that new species evolve.

Bontebok and blesbuck are good examples of two subspecies of the same species from which, under natural conditions, two quite separate species might have evolved over time.

Populations also develop other characteristics, hidden within their genetic make-up, which adapt them to the specific environmental conditions that pertain in the habitats wherein they live. Thus individuals in a specific population will be able to tolerate conditions of cold or heat, wetness or dryness, and so forth, that would kill individuals, of the same species, in another population.

Two populations of the same species of fish, for example, may live in adjacent streams the waters of one of which may be acidic and the other alkaline. Under such circumstances the transfer of fishes from one stream to the other will likely cause their immediate deaths.

All these realities have important wildlife management implications and it is because they are NOT taken into proper account that so much confusion and controversy exists about wildlife matters that should, conversely, be very easily understood.

Knowing that these states of affairs exist makes it easier to understand that different populations of the same species of animal can, and do, have very different natural pressures exerted upon them all the time. Some are more obvious than others.

The fact that there are different rainfall regimes across the length and breadth of Africa - alone - tells us that the natural ecological circumstances of same-species populations that occur in widely separated parts of the continent will be very different. Habitats occupied by same-species populations in different countries, for example, often comprise different plant species – so the animals eat different foods. This factor, alone, in very important.

Man’s agrarian encroachment on vital habitats is also very different – one country to another. In some countries, poaching is out of control. In others it is under control. Political attitude towards wildlife ‘conservation’ is another variable.

There is, in fact, a whole host of variables, some natural some man-made, that cause different pressures to be exerted on same-species populations of animals - even those that occur in the same country. One population, therefore, can be barely surviving, and living under conditions of extreme adverse pressure, whilst another is thriving.

All this means that a species – ANY species - can ONLY be ‘managed’ at the population level. This makes the endangered species concept illogical. It also makes the propagation of its importance dangerous to wildlife because it has caused society to believe that wildlife can and should be uniformly managed, and legislated for, at the species level rather than at the population level – which is infinitely more important.

‘Management’ is the action taken by man to achieve man-desired objectives. It is, therefore:
man-manipulated; and
man is the principal beneficiary.

There is, therefore, nothing natural about wildlife management. The fact that management can only be applied at the population level, however, is very important – and it has huge ramifications in many fields. For example, when CITES placed the African elephant on its Appendix I list in 1989, and banned the international trade in ivory and other elephant products, it tried to achieve a man-desired objective by imposing a species-management action – which is as illogical as it is impossible. It also declared the African elephant to be an endangered species – which is equally invalid.

In 1989 certain populations of elephant in East Africa might well have been ‘endangered’ - because of the commercial poaching pressures that were being exerted upon them – but southern Africa’s elephant populations were then not suffering from poaching at all. In fact, at that time, southern Africa’s elephant populations were ALL suffering from over-population problems that demanded population-reduction management.

So, when CITES placed the African elephant on its Appendix I list in 1989, it afforded the African elephant – as a species - throughout its range, with the kind of very special protection that only endangered populations needed.

Nevertheless, this captured the imagination of the world and has had some very serious consequences for southern Africa.

Foreign visitors to South Africa, for example, after 1989, harangued their tour guides and severely castigated the country for still culling elephants – which they insisted was an endangered species – in Kruger National Park. This was a contributing factor in getting the new South African government to stop elephant culling in 1994 – a management strategy that, if it is not reversed soon, will destroy the Kruger Park. (The new elephant management plan for Kruger was discussed in Volume 8, Issue 1.)

Another adverse management implication was discussed in the last issue. That is, what to do with the surplus black rhino bulls that exist in South Africa’s several thriving black rhino populations? In my opinion, they should be made available to hunters – for a VERY high fee – to help pay for the exorbitant costs of black rhino protection. I stand by this attitude, stoically, even though the black rhino has been reduced to only c. 2 500 individuals and has been declared an endangered species?

It is my considered opinion, therefore, that the endangered species concept is ill-conceived and that, because of the kind of public perceptions that it creates, its continued application interferes with common sense management practices to the detriment of wildlife. It, therefore, needs to be replaced with something similar that can be applied at the species-population level. In this regard, the more simple we can make the replacement the more understandable and the more acceptable will it be to the general public and to the wildlife management profession, alike.

My proposal is that animal species-populations that occur in very low numbers relative to the sustainable carrying capacity of their habitats, and that are declining (for whatever reason), should simply be called UNSAFE. And animal species-populations that occur in comfortable numbers relative to the sustainable carrying capacity of their habitats, and that are dynamically stable or increasing, should be called SAFE. This concept acknowledges that some populations of a wild animal species can be ‘not endangered at all’ whilst, at the same time, other populations of the same species can be ‘very endangered” – AND that the management needs of both are VERY different.

Once the true status of a population of animals has been determined in this fashion the decision as to which type of management should be applied to it becomes very easy. It also makes wildlife management more explainable and understandable to everybody, and it should make our wildlife management endeavours much more acceptable to the general public.

To ascertain whether an animal species-population is safe or unsafe it has to be evaluated on the basis of its ecological circumstances. In many cases this is easy to determine. In others it may require a study – both to discover its own status relative to the sustainable carrying capacity of its habitat, AND its status relative to the needs and the status of the other animal species-populations with which it shares that habitat. These evaluations are based upon the science of ecology.

Ecology is the study of living organisms (plants and animals) and their environment; and their interaction with other organisms with which they share that environment.

Ecological studies produce results. One result of a black rhino study, for example, will tell you that the species eats the ‘sticks’ of certain woody-plant species. Another will tell you that the densest populations of black rhinos occur in areas wherein heavy thickets occur - from which the animals obtain security. The management implications, therefore, are that black rhinos should be maintained in habitats where their preferred woody-plant food species occur in abundance, and where there are areas of dense thicket. Ipso facto, wildlife management is nothing more than ‘applied ecology’.

There are two arms, or functions, of wildlife management. The one is called preservation-management, the other conservation-management.

Preservation-management is applied to an UNSAFE population of animals. Its purpose is to render that population SAFE. That means everything possible needs to be done to protect individual animals in the population from harm and to improve the living circumstances and breeding capacity of the population.

Sometimes the achievement of these objectives is relatively simple. All that may be necessary is that the numbers of a seriously competing population of another species be reduced after which the target UNSAFE population of animals will expand naturally.

Sometimes, however, it will require the ultimate in preservation-management practices: It may require that the whole wild population be captured and that a SAFE population of the species be developed in captivity. Progeny from the captive-breeding stock can then be released back to the wild in viable numbers once the causal factors of its natural decline in the wild are rectified.

This is the plan behind the Mauritian Kestrel captive breeding project. Captive breeding and the release of captive-bred progeny is what is currently bringing the Californian Condor back to the wild skies of America. It was also how the endemic Peregrine was saved, and re-established in the wild, in the United States.

Conservation-management, on the other hand, is applied to SAFE populations of animals - the ultimate purpose of which is to ‘use the population wisely and sustainably for the benefit of mankind’. Physical ‘use’ of a SAFE population of animals, however, may not always be possible, necessary or desirable – but when a population IS safe it opens the door for man to ‘use’ that population in a sustainable manner for his own benefit.

Interpreting this ideal requires the application of some serious common sense.

It is difficult to conceive, for example, that the American man can physically ‘use’ the Californian Condor – a New World vulture - for his own benefit. But, in Africa, it is possible that SAFE Old World Vulture populations could be legally and very sustainably harvested to satisfy the demand for their body parts for traditional medicines – no matter how much First World people might object to such a practice. Working ‘with’ Africa’s traditional healers in this fashion would obviate the current illegal (and very destructive) practice of mass poisoning of vultures to satisfy the demand. Such is the reality of Africa, and how wildlife management practices can reach a compromise between ‘conservation’ purism and what is actually happening on the ground.

There is an important link between the two functions of this wildlife management ideal. For example, once the ‘preservation-management’ objective for an UNSAFE population has been achieved, the status of the population changes. It then becomes a SAFE population whereupon its management needs become those of ‘conservation-management’.

There are several connotations to this new philosophy. When a SAFE population of animals is managed according to the principles of preservation-management, this represents MIS-management of that population. Conversely, when an UNSAFE population of animals is managed according to the principles of conservation-management this, too, represents MIS-management. And when wild animals are allowed to exist in an altogether un-managed state – when either conservation-management OR preservation management is indicated – this also represents MIS-management.

Practicing conservation-management and preservation-management at the population level, appropriately, makes wildlife management, holistically, much more understandable and acceptable. Everyone with a modicum of common sense can be made to understand that UNSAFE populations of animals need ‘protection from harm’ and that SAFE populations of animals can be ‘used wisely’. This, surely, is much better than pursuing the illogical endangered species concept which demands, in the public and bureaucratic mind, that both safe AND unsafe populations of the species concerned be managed according to the principles of preservation-management ALONE.

Some notes on supporting illustrations:

A blesbuck and a bontebok illustrated together, in two pictures, side by side. The blesbuck on the left, the bontebok on the right.

A joint caption under the pictures should read:

The blesbuck (left) and bontebok (right) are good examples of two races of the same species. For years now the blesbuck in South Africa has existed in many hundreds of very SAFE populations that have been hunted and/or culled for their meat. This means ‘conservation-management’ was applied to them! Not long ago, however, the status of the bontebok was precarious with the subspecies existing in only a handful of very UNSAFE populations. This situation has now been rectified due to the application of successful ‘preservation-management’. At no time during the period when the bontebok populations were so very seriously UNSAFE, however, was the Blesbuck/Bontebok ‘SPECIES’ in any way ENDANGERED. Today both subspecies are hunt-able trophy animals.

Illustration - A group of white rhinos.

The caption should read:

Early in the 20th Century the Southern White Rhinoceros was reduced to one very UNSAFE population in Kwa-Zulu Natal comprising less than 30 animals.
At THAT time, therefore, the species was ‘endangered’, too – but it was the preservation-management of the UNSAFE ‘population’ that saved the species from extinction. Today the species numbers several thousand animals that exist in many different populations - some SAFE, some still new and UNSAFE – but the conservation-management of the SAFE populations allows a large number of select trophy animals to be made available to hunters every year.


The study of Living Organisms And their Environment

“Applied Ecology”

(Function One)

To USE ‘SAFE’ wild animal populations WISELY and SUSTAINABLY for the benefit of man

This is the ultimate objective of managing ALL renewable natural resources – both domesticated AND wild – on planet earth

(Function Two)

To PROTECT ‘UNSAFE’ wild animal populations FROM HARM so as to render them ‘safe’

When this objective has been achieved the now ‘safe’ population of wild animals must be transferred to the ‘conservation management’ function.


AH enthusiast
Apr 29, 2020
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South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia
Finally found someone who thinks practically as I do and can put it onto paper. It is unfortunate that those who "run" the preservation/conservation world (governments, CITIES, DWAF, WWF, etc) are mostly bureaucratic, intellectual peons who's sole purpose is to keep their positions and the money flowing into their organisations and coffers...

How different the global environment would be if common sense prevailed as stated in this article.


AH enthusiast
Apr 29, 2020
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South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia
I love Ron's articles and stories. One of the truly unsung heroes and environmental minds when it comes to African wildlife and wildlife conservation.

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