Murphy’s law in conservation

Engineers have the Murphy’s law. Ecologists didn’t have anything similar since evolution through natural selection optimizes ecosystem functioning: if anything goes wrong, it is eliminated. This was before managers came in. At present, in our modern world, we must manage nature. Some problems are addressed and the outcomes are surprising. Here are a few examples:

In certain areas, people are prey for tigers. It is site specific and in the reserves where it happens, not only does the Forest Department try to eliminate or remove the man-eating tigers, the administration also provides a substantial financial compensation to the family. The compensation does not heal people of their pain, but eases some of their difficulties at the worst time possible. Smart guys however, send their old parents to the forest hoping a hungry tiger will find the meal to its taste. And in case no tiger happens to wander into their vicinity, some even take the trouble of doing the tiger’s job. It’s not so simple to be a top predator and sometimes the reward is jail.

The Animal Husbandry Department of Tamil Nadu came to the rescue of the poor with a poverty alleviation program whereby goats were distributed. This should not have happened near protected areas for many reasons, among others: goats destroy vegetation, and herders put their lives in jeopardy getting close to elephants or… tigers. But the destruction was somewhat controlled: the boundless imagination of humans kicked in to resolve the ecological problem and make the poverty alleviation program a success. By stealing the goats, some smart thinkers ultimately help with vegetation regrowth and enrich themselves, till they hit the local TASMAC (the state distributor of alcohol) outlet. The state finally gets its money back and the financial transactions along the way are accounted as development. Everybody wins!

There is a fairly good system for providing rations in the countryside where a lot of people are poor. It avoids tremendous suffering, there is no starvation and it probably contains social problems that may occur if it did not exist. There are minor disadvantages, though: menial jobs can be used to just obtain extra perks from life. Petty criminality (over-harvesting of wood for example), generates extra-money to purchase alcohol. This devastates ecosystems and again, puts people in contact with problematic wildlife. A solution that has not be tried is to ration alcohol. Why not give it a try, after consultation with social-scientists and doctors? Since solutions often create problems, maybe some problems could create some solutions?

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud