Sunday, 20 September 2020

Letter to the Editor: Captive Breeding of Tigers Is Not Conservation



The proposal by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) to breed the critically endangered Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) at the National Tiger Conservation Centre for release and ‘rewilding’ raises many reasons for concern.

The reason for the decline in the population of Malayan tigers is not that the tigers are not mating or breeding enough. Tigers, like most members of the cat family, are prolific breeders, which explains why the number of tigers in captivity continue to rise worldwide, even as wild tiger populations continue to be decimated.

The Malayan tiger is critically endangered in the wild because of habitat destruction, diminishing prey species, poaching, and the wildlife trade. Human encroachment into tiger habitats, usually for agriculture, also increases the risk of human-wildlife conflict. In such conflicts, tigers often die from being shot or snared by plantation or livestock owners, or from diseases such as canine distemper virus when they come in contact with infected dogs introduced by humans.

Researchers from the University of Exeter found in a 2008 study that most captive-born predators do not survive following release. The chances of carnivores such as tigers and wolves surviving freedom is only 33%, due to their lack of hunting skills and lack of fear of humans, and susceptibility to viruses and diseases.

Conservation organisation Born Free Foundation also points out that wild tigers born in human-controlled environments such as wildlife reserves and zoos are unlikely to be successfully released and will often spend the rest of their lives in captivity. Part of the reason is genetics. There are not enough tigers in breeding programmes to sustain genetic diversity over a long period of time. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums tries to diversify captive gene pools by exchanging breeding animals between zoos, but genetic drift and genetic bottlenecks can still occur. Genetic weaknesses in breeding stocks can result in deadly diseases, as seen in India’s effort to breed the Asiatic lion. Captive breeding programmes should not take too many animals out of the wild for breeding programmes either, as it will remove their genes from circulation in the wild.

It takes over a year for tiger cubs to learn how to stalk, catch, and kill their prey from their mothers. According to conservation charity Flora & Fauna International, captive tigers, whether they have been hand-reared by humans or raised with their mothers, lack the vital exposure from wild and experienced mothers to be predators. There is also the risk that captive-bred wild tigers, even if raised with their mothers and other tigers, will associate humans with food and lose their fear of vehicles. Upon release, they could pose a bigger threat to humans and livestock than wild tigers, as they are less likely to avoid human habitation and farms.

Efforts around the globe to reintroduce captive-bred tigers into the wild has not been met with much success. After over 30 years of expert conservation efforts and successfully breeding over 1,000 Siberian tigers in captivity, China has still not been able to release even one of these tigers into the wild. Kazakhstan has been trying to reintroduce Amur or Siberian tigers into its Balkhash region but the project has not borne any results yet.

India successfully released Bengal tigers in the Panna and Sariska Tiger Reserves as part of its Tiger Reintroduction Project, but researchers unfortunately found that the released tigers were not breeding successfully, presumably due to stress caused by the presence of human activity near the tiger reserves. This strongly indicates that reducing human activity near wildlife habitats is still key to their protection and conservation. Being able to have enough living adult tigers to release into a designated area is not a measure of success. Success can only be said to be achieved when reintroduced tigers are able to survive, thrive, and breed. This means that we need to invest at least as much energy and resources in the protection of wild habitats as in the captive breeding of the Malayan tiger.

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)’s Tigers Alive Initiative has pointed out that “reintroducing tigers is the easier part, protecting the site and prey base is even more complex”. Not only must captive-bred tigers be trained to hunt and survive in the wild, there must also be suitable prey and appropriate breeding partners in the area marked for their reintroduction.

Due to deforestation, habitat destruction, lack of prey species, and poaching, there are not many suitable habitats left in Peninsular Malaysia for tigers to be released into. There is not much use in creating a thriving captive population of tigers if we continue to clear primary rainforests for development and agricultural projects. To maintain a healthy wild tiger population, we need healthy ecosystems.

In addition, professionals in the field of tiger conservation agree that to stop the extinction of wild tigers, there must be comprehensive poaching prevention strategies. This is why the PDRM’s recent announcement of a stricter crackdown on the wildlife trade and firearm possession is such welcome news. The captive breeding of tigers cannot help to restore wild populations unless there is an end to poaching and the trade in tiger parts. There must be stricter law enforcement and harsher penalties for wildlife crimes, and Malaysia must play its part in helping to incapacitate wildlife trafficking networks.

The resources allocated for this ambitious project to breed the Malayan tiger in captivity should instead be redirected to conserving and protecting wild habitats and the remaining wild tigers, and to the prevention of poaching and wildlife trafficking.


Saturday, 5 September 2020

Letter to the Editor: End Speciesism: For the Animals, Planet, and Human Health





If there are any lessons the recent Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that deforestation, the exploitation and consumption of wildlife, and intensive animal agriculture all increase the risk of zoonotic diseases and threaten human health and well-being.


Human society is aware of this link between animal exploitation and disease outbreaks, which is the reason why China announced a ban on wildlife trade in an effort to contain the Covid-19 outbreak. In the US and elsewhere, the sales of plant-based meat alternatives increased by over 200% during the coronavirus lockdown (Sources: US Food Navigator, the Financial Times, Bloomberg). In the Netherlands, the mink fur industry went into an early shutdown after minks were found to have contracted coronavirus and transmitted the virus back to humans, and there are now calls to shut down mink farms in Spain and the USA as well.


It would be premature to celebrate these as victories. Humans have short memories, and human desires and appetites are often alarmingly disconnected from what the human intellect knows to be beneficial to human health, social justice, and animal and environmental well-being.


Humans in general rarely question their relationship with non-human animals and the natural world, and this is attributable to speciesism, that is, the assumption of human superiority and an inherent ‘right’ to use, exploit, and consume animals. In spite of the fact that scientific evidence and historical data strongly indicate that 6 out of 10 known infections and 3 out 4 emerging infectious diseases originate from animals, there is still widespread resistance against ending animal agriculture and the breeding of animals for the pet, sport hunting, entertainment, and fur industries, with supporters of these industries arguing that it would put too many people out of work and cause economic loss. We know from the study of human history and civilisations that human society is resilient and adaptable, and that industries and occupations that become obsolete have died out in the past without causing significant or lasting damage.


Racism is what makes Western society believe that China ought to be pilloried for its wildlife trade and live animal wet markets, but that it is perfectly alright to confine calves in small solitary enclosures and induce iron deficiency to produce veal, and to confine and force-feed ducks and geese and induce liver disease to produce foie gras. Speciesism is what makes human society understand that animal agriculture puts a huge strain on the Planet’s resources, that animals in farms and laboratories suffer in ways that is never considered acceptable for even the worst of humans to suffer, and that humans can live healthy and productive lives without eating or exploiting animals, and yet still choose to eat meat and maintain the status quo. Speciesism is also the reason why people throw birthday parties for their dogs and cats and raise funds for tapirs and pandas, but think nothing of paying someone else to deplete our oceans and commit deforestation so that one can eat fish and steak, because the lives of certain species are valued over that of others. Humans know that in order to prevent pandemics and environmental disasters, we need to stop exploiting and interfering with animals and the natural world, yet our speciesist bias means that we are unwilling to give up the pleasure that comes with eating and confining animals, destroying wildlife habitats, and using animals for clothing, entertainment, and sport. Humans’ sense of dominion and desire to maintain the appearance of being the “master species” means that we continue to normalise violence and cruelty to animals and trivialise their pain and suffering.


To move forward into a cleaner, healthier, greener, and kinder future, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions about our relationship with other species. For too long, we have relied on the appeal-to-tradition fallacy that “humans have always eaten meat” as a justification to continue doing so. Just because something has always been done does not make it moral. We can agree that no amount of normalisation can make slavery, domestic violence, or human trafficking moral acts, so we are also capable of making the connection that just because we have always eaten and exploited animals, it does not make these acts moral, justifiable, or even essential to human health and survival. Further, it is true that humans have always eaten meat, but it is also true that pandemics in the past have also been linked to the consumption and exploitation of animals. The 1918 Spanish Flu arose from the farming and consumption of pigs. Rabies in South America was transmitted by vampire bats to cattle who then transmitted it to humans. The Nipah Virus became an outbreak because virus-infected fruit bats transmitted their virus to farmed pigs. Scientists believe that HIV has its origins in the hunting of primates in central African forests, while Ebola has been associated with hunting in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Where there is the consumption of meat and the destruction of the natural world, there will be disease outbreaks.


We need to question not only animal agriculture and meat consumption, but also the frequency and volume of meat consumption. As incomes and standards of living rise in Malaysia, our meat consumption also rises. Between 1981 and 2015, consumption of beef in Malaysia rose from 23,000 metric tons to 250,000 metric tons. Between 1996 and 2015, consumption of poultry rose from 666,000 metric tons to 1.59 million metric tons. Even if meat consumption was not a moral issue for people who lived 2-3 generations ago, it is imperative for us to ask ourselves now if it is necessary, appropriate, moral, and harmless for us to continue to consume so much resources and inflict so much suffering, pain, and death. The more meat we eat, the more intensive and cruel the animal agriculture industry has to become in order to be efficient and profitable.


The technology already exists for us to consume meat that does not cause animal suffering or harm our health or the environment. ‘Clean meat’, grown from harvested stem cells, is now reaching the scale of production in which it will soon be as affordable as animal-based meat. Producing meat in laboratories would require less water, land, and grains than livestock farming, and would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Plant-based meat alternatives have already been in the Malaysian market for many years, and most of these products have obtained halal certification and can be safely enjoyed by everyone. Further, thanks to advances in technology, much of the world including Malaysia has access to a wide variety of fruits, grains, and vegetables, which can meet human dietary needs inexpensively. Considering that we can get all the dietary nutrients and calories that we need from non-animal sources, what’s stopping us from making the transition?


There is a growing population of vegans and animal rights advocates who hold the strong moral view that there can be no justification for harming animals. But even holding the moderate view that we should kill fewer animals for food, and choose products and services that do not harm or exploit animals, will reduce the number of animals who suffer great pain and misery and who are killed to satisfy human appetites.


Evolution has equipped all of us – humans and non-human animals alike – with an instinct to survive, thrive, procreate, and avoid pain and misery. This provides us with a scientific foundation to argue that reducing the pain, suffering, and misery of others – not only humans – is the moral, appropriate, rational, and prosocial thing to do. If we can live happy, healthy, and productive lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?


August 29 is observed as the World Day for the End of Speciesism. It is a day for us to reflect on, and challenge, our long-held beliefs about the superiority of humans and how to relate to and regard non-human species. SPCA Selangor, which has long been seen as an organisation working to protect and improve the welfare of companion animals such as cats and dogs, have since expanded its work to include advocating for improvements to farm animal welfare and for a plant-based lifestyle and ethics. On this day of observance, we would like to encourage everyone to change how we view and treat other species, take measures to reduce the suffering of other species, reduce the consumption of meat and animal products even if one cannot make the full transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet, support higher welfare standards for farm animals that remain in the animal agriculture system until the system can be reformed or abolished, question traditions and practices that exploit or harm animals, and choose products, services, and practices that cause the least harm to others possible.