Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 78, 1950
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Scientists and Conservation.

It is obvious that two words of very wide and general application have been used in the title chosen for this address. I shall not delay you by offering a definition of a scientist, but pass on to the second. The word conservation calls to mind first the restricted usage in which it is applied to the shutting-off of a plant association or an animal community, or a picturesque earth formation, to save it from destruction. In the course of my remarks I shall make some incidental reference to such action; but I am more concerned that we should think of conservation in a wider sense—as the wise and studied use of any natural resource which will regard its continuance as of equal importance with its exploitation. In this sense conservation is not only many-sided; it is also of direct concern to all whose thought is constructive and whose public action is performed in a spirit of responsibility. This public reaction to Nature conservation derives for some—as Professor Aldo Leopold of Wisconsin has pointed out—from a love of Nature, which is a matter of æsthetics; from concern for the wise use of natural resources, which is economics; and from understanding of Nature, which is science. But any such analysis of motive is only a convenient abstraction, and, ultimately, whatever our professional approach we are all concerned with the whole problem.

It is for this reason that I have considered the topic comprehensive enough for a Presidential address. In the main I shall be dealing with those parts of the biological field with which I am more familiar, but I hope that wide implications will be apparent. Natural resources have been variously classified, usually as renewable and non-renewable, but there is a third category, namely, the natural resources that are, or should be, normally self-renewing—and this is the field in which conservation theory and practice are most vitally concerned. First, however, a word about non-renewable resources.

As Dr. David Williams has pointed out (B.A.A.S., vol III., No. 10, 1945) mineral resources are irreplaceable wasting assets which are being rapidly depleted. How rapidly is an open question; but figures are available to show that more minerals have been extracted from the earth during the past 30 years than in all preceding history. Naturally, one finds some slight disagreement in detail amongst students of the subject as to whether world reserves can be reliably estimated. Thus Professor Desch in 1941 (“Nature,” Oct. 4, 1941, and Nov. 8, 1941) stated that “copper, tin, gold, and phosphate deposits, at the present rate of production, are believed

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to have a life of less than a century.” On the other hand, Dr. Williams, already quoted, while allowing even shorter time limit for the exhaustion of copper, tin, and gold, considers that phosphates exist in sufficient abundance to satisfy world requirements for hundreds of years. There is general agreement, however, on the need for conservation and on the aims of conservational policy which (quoting Williams again) “should be to prevent waste and promote the more efficient use of mineral raw materials, rather than to hoard them for posterity. Scientific research designed to improve methods of prospecting, mining, concentration, and mineral usage, coupled with an international policy of exploitation and distribution are the best insurance for the future of the mineral industry.”

Employment of substitutes is recognised as having a significant part to play in conservation, one example in the mineral field being the probable supplanting of Chilean nitrate with synthetic nitrogen.

In the case of such renewable natural resources as domesticated animal stock and cultivated plant crops of all kinds, it is almost unnecessary for me to point out that scientists are now fully enlisted and operating in the front line of advance.

Turning now to the resources that should be self-renewing—examples of which are indigenous forests on land and fish and marine mammals in the sea—we find as a matter of history almost everywhere that exploitation has outstripped and even brushed aside sporadic attempts to study, regulate, and conserve. To select an example that is not too involved, I propose to outline briefly the history of pelagic whaling. It was inevitable that these immense mammals, of which every part but their tissue-paper skins has proved of use and value to men, should have been first objects of hunting for local needs and then of industry. It is centuries since their progressive extermination began, and the only reason it was not completed is that there are many kinds of whale with as many varieties of habit. Basque peoples wiped out the Biscayan whale and passed on their technique to northern Europeans, who carried it to Spitzbergen and the Arctic in pursuit of the northern right whale. International competition forced the pace of extermination of this species also until most of the competitors gave up, and one of them, the English, transferred their enterprise to the South Seas in pursuit of the southern right whale. This unfortunate mammal was not entirely pelagic. It came annually into secluded bays and harbours to calve, and a nursing mother was not only easy prey, but also in top condition for oil; hence the popularity of bay whaling. Pelagic whalers even moored their ship in many bays round the coasts of New Zealand and became shore whalers in winter. Yankee enterprise meanwhile had found out how to deal with the purely pelagic sperm whale, of which the distinctive and waxy spermaceti had a much higher value than right whale oil. Within a century both sperm and right whales had been reduced to a point where it no longer paid to hunt either of them. What probably saved them from complete extinction were timely appearances of substitutes for whale products—steel for whalebone, vegetable oils, coal gas,

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and petroleum for whale oil. But the disappearance of sperm and right whales meant only a lull in whaling. There were still whales too fast and powerful for hunting with sailing ships and rowing boats. Power craft and harpoon guns and explosives ushered in a new era with the last and largest of the baleen whales as a prey. This time it was Norwegian enterprise with a rapid spread, until to-day we have a multinational fleet involved, not to mention an international problem.

In the long history of this particular form of destructive exploitation the idea of conservation has made a very late appearance. Zoologists always were handicapped by inability to study the life-history, habits, and ecology of whales, and for the most part contented themselves with anatomical studies. The main credit for a revolution in this attitude must go to the British Government Interdepartmental Committee, which in 1924 set up the Discovery Committee with adequate funds for an investigation—funds derived appropriately enough from national revenue from the whaling industry. The work proceeded slowly for methods had to be pioneered; but it was sound because somebody was far-sighted enough to recognise that the problem was fundamentally one of ecology, that is, it was not only facts about life-history and migrations that were required, but the way in which these were related to food supply and physical conditions. Facts about life-history soon were forthcoming and they proved unexpectedly significant—whales matured more rapidly than had been supposed and their breeding life under existing conditions was short. Migration data took a little longer to assemble, but they showed that stocks could be isolated and estimated. The environmental data opened a huge field of oceanography, and so far is only tentatively applicable to the original problem, but that was to be expected. The total data, however, have been of direct application to the problem of conservation and have influenced many of the international regulations for whaling. So far this outline has disclosed a satisfactory picture of science in conservation; but some qualifications must be added. The conservation clauses in international agreements have still to be fought for. The main burden of pressing for them in conferences still falls on representatives of the Discovery Committee. Many of the other delegations have not even a biological adviser in attendance, and this has applied to, amongst others, the New Zealand representation at all the conferences (there have been four in 10 years). We have also, by the way, a seat on the Discovery Committee which never has been usefully availed of. All this may seem unimportant; but I would remind you that our local whaling industry, small as it is, is able to operate on a protected species of whale because of a concession clause for shore stations inside the prohibited area for humpbacks. It offers an almost unique opportunity for biological studies on a migratory stock of humpbacks—studies which would make a real contribution to a world problem, a contribution that we should be prepared to make.

As far as pelagic whaling in concerned, the post-war conferences have agreed to a relaxation of restrictions formerly deemed a

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minimum, on the grounds that (a) there should be more whales because of respite in the War years, and (b) there is a desperate world shortage of fats and oils. The first excuse could be queried, and the second analysed for motive, but at the moment we are concerned only with the fact that the aspect of conservation is again in abeyance. The industry, of couse, is not neglecting science. There are biochemists, including at least one New Zealander, carrying out work which is indirectly conservational in that it results in better utilisation of products and discovery of new values in former waste products. There are radio physicists applying asdic methods for the detection of whales, and not doing any harm at the moment. There is a place for them all; but if the ground gained by the biologists is lost, all the techniques of the whaling industry soon will have to be transferred elsewhere, for they will cease to be needed.

Another marine mammal lately in the news again is the fur seal. As we now have a further close season and some investigation is under way, I need only point out that the history of one species, the Alaska fur seal, provides an almost unique example of how conservation practice based on scientific study has not only conserved a wild stock, but actually revived an industry. As seals, unlike whales, breed on land, it was possible to find out that bulls in excess of one to about 40 cows appear to be superfluous, and that when a regular percentage of surplus young bulls was culled the population actually increased. In this way an expanding industry, under complete control of the United States Government, has been built up.

Similar methods applied to elephant seals have also preserved an animal and an industry once almost extinct.

The basis of the scientific attitude to conservation is that it seeks to understand all the factors involved. Without this, the exploitation motive always will take a short-term view, satisfied with just enough science to improve the returns. But the scientist cannot be satisfied on this level, and must continue to follow new trails as they open up, for open up they will. Thus, in the case of Alaskan seals just quoted it is not enough to determine that 90 per cent, of bulls seem to be a surplus and leave it at that. It may well be that there is some undisclosed but vital factor in the welfare of seals requiring a higher percentage of unmated bulls about at breeding time, admittedly we don't know, but the requisite scientific organisation should be retained, to work on such a hypothesis and similar ones. One of the commonest mistakes, even when results of scientific findings are applied, is the failure to follow up. When bacteriologists discovered that malaria was transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito, and entomologists pointed out that mosquitoes needed water in which to breed, the problem was handed over to drainage engineers. After a lapse of years there are now many areas in the United States where marsh drainage for mosquito control has resulted in a disastrous lowering of the water-table, increase of acidity of the soil, loss of vegetation and of water-fowl and musk-rats formerly abundant. All this

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without getting rid of the mosquitoes, to which other methods of control could have been applied if research had kept pace with the energy of the drainers.

There has been much tendency for authorities concerned in wild-life questions to call on scientific advice on a specific problem, accept or reject the report, and then, figuratively speaking, to pay-off the scientist. In 1924 the late Professor H. B. Kirk was asked to investigate the feeding-habits of opossums in this country, which he did in a restricted area, and provided a report which offered tentative conclusions. These were accepted as basic reference data for nearly twenty years in spite of the fact that population of opossums and its ecology was in process of change. I am not here offering any opinion on the opossum question, but using an example to indicate the importance of continuity in research.

Relating all this to our subject, then, the first principle on which we should insist in the scientific approach to conservation, is freedom to work at the pace which the nature of the problem will determine, resisting all temptation to supply hasty conclusions ahead of tested data. I recall that when the scientific staff of the Discovery Committee were in New Zealand waters after five and even ten years of work they would give no public answers to such questions as: “How long do you think pelagic whaling can last?’ or “What is the exact nature of the circulation of oceanic water round New Zealand?” They were not without private opinions better based than most, but the results had not been worked up. One can recognise a social obligation to speak on matters of conservation without abandoning scientific caution. (Although, of course, it is very hard to resist the temptation to score a point by claiming the supposed omniscience of a scientist.) The second principle should be freedom to approach the problem of conservation with latitude to pursue what may appear to others to be side lines. There is an idea abroad that planning and direction of research is necessary for the advancement of science. This is likely to result in those being planned for and directed becoming scientific technicians. They may be technicians at a very high level, but essentially they are applying a technique which was discovered in a very different atmosphere. It is a matter of history that the major discoveries and revolutions in science have in the main been unpredictable and even to all appearances accidental. Dr. A. Fleming and the discovery of penicillin comes to mind as one of the most recent examples. There must, of course, be a mind trained and prepared to grasp the implications of the observed phenomenon before we have a discovery, but it is doubtful if this lively intuitive faculty can flourish in the atmosphere of narrowly-directed research. The New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology contains a great deal more technology than creative science, which is quite a proper state of affairs so long as we keep the distinction clear and do not confuse the one with the other. All this may seem to be getting away from our subject into definitions of pure and applied science, but it has some bearing on conservation research. Many of the projects which in the past have been designed

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to throw some light on conservation problems have been not only sporadic, as already stated, but they have been carried out at a low and restricted technological level. Take the following case, which is not entirely fictitious. It is assumed that introduced salmonid fish are desirable inhabitants of New Zealand fresh waters—an assumption which a freely operating ecologist cannot accept without reservation, anyway—but we let that pass. Obvious predators are one or more of the indigenous shags, which are also known to eat eels, which in turn are considered to prey on trout. So the investigator is set the task of determining the proportion of eels to trout in the diet of shags. Most likely it is done in one area in one month and the recorded results restricted to an enumeration of eel and trout remains. If insect larvae, molluscs, or small native fish are found they are either ignored or not estimated, along with many other factors required for a balanced interpretation of the results. In the past such results have been used and quoted as a guide to policy, but they are really worthless in isolation from a broader ecological approach.

Very often what on a short view appears to be the problem is not the main problem at all, or at most is only part of it. It is not long since a responsible group in the South Island asked a Catchment Board to do something about the control of keas in high country. It was not an investigation for which they were asking, but a subsidy for control. Now. I should think that the proper function of a Catchment Board in such a case was not the provision of destruction bounty, but the promotion of an investigation of the whole relation of keas to high country, for it has never been done. An investigator in the early years of this century was set the task of proving scientifically that keas killed sheep, and did considerable damage. He satisfied himself that it was so, and further study of the problem lapsed. When in the nineteen twenties one of our most competent biologists suggested a different method of approach, his report was officially suppressed. I need give no details of this, for the personalities concerned are no longer living; but the problem is still with us. It has been the subject of much expression of opinion. Most high-country sheep farmers know from experience that they have a problem, and they consistently press for what they believe is the remedy. They believe it would be a good thing for the high country if keas could be driven out of it or exterminated. They probably would regard as irresponsible a remark once made to me in Shavian vein by the late H. Guthrie-Smith, himself a sheep farmer, namely, that the best thing that could happen to high-country sheep farmers would be for the keas to drive them off the high country—meaning, of course, that overgrazing and burning of high country might be a worse potential national danger than the kea. It is, of course, too sweeping a statement to be accepted without reservation, but it contains a challenge and suggests a working hypothesis. In the small amount of investigation I myself have been able to undertake in intervals between sitting on numerous committees and preparing a presidential address. I have found indications that the kea is one of the

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only natural agents that is putting wiry rock-binding plants higher and higher up on the screes and other loose surface of the tops. We do not know enough to be dogmatic about it, but it is an angle worthy of further study, and it illustrates, I think, the importance of an ecological approach.

The third freedom which I submit as important is freedom of discussion of the validity of theories, and methods. J. R. Baker has reminded us that science is necessarily a social activity, and that although no one should be expected to disclose results before they are ready for publication, yet there ought to be no private property in demonstrable knowledge. With that goes the corollary that if controversy arises only valid methods of argument should be used. It may be too much to expect reform in this matter in the political field, but the scientist can surely make a contribution, by avoiding the introduction of irrelevancy and the use of rhetorical device. The recent public discussions about future policy for Waipoua Forest were conducted on a much higher plane than were many conservation controversies, but they were not entirely free from some reservations suggesting secretiveness on the one side and some irrelevancy and rhetorical use of emotive words on the other.

This brings us to a consideration of the part the Royal Society has played and can still play in the conservation programme. In the past membership voices were not lacking to raise protests and pose questions, but in an age of exuberant exploitation they seemed to be largely unheeded, although what they said often was both constructive and prophetic. I am selecting only at random when I mention D. Petrie, in 1884, advocating regulations requiring trained rangers to supervise the extraction of all timber during milling operations; A. P. W. Thomas and F. R. Chapman, with their constructive proposals for flora and fauna sanctuaries and scenic reserves; and Philip Walsh in a series of able reviews of the factors in forest destruction, which included an early evaluation of the effect of browsing and grazing mammals. (You have a schoolmaster, a biologist, a lawyer, and a clergyman in that lot, reflecting not only the widely representative membership, but the general interest in conservation.)

In these days when the idea of conservation is generally accepted, the Society has turned its attention to wider questions of national policy and organisation—a subject studied and reported on at regular intervals by a sub-committee set up more than ten years ago. As a result it has advocated the establishment of a national conservation council—the term Wild Life Control has been used, but I think we can improve on that—as a co-ordination of policy. It has been thought by some that interdepartmental discussion should secure all the co-ordination necessary; but it may be pointed out that there is plenty of evidence of lack of co-ordination in the past, and that Government departments have not yet absorbed all the people with some qualifications to contribute in this field. One most important agency for Soil Conservation and River Control is a Council with decentralised Catchment Boards. Scientific and

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Industrial Research is similarly guided. Between them we almost cover the whole field of Conservation, but not quite. If the representation of both or either cannot be widened to bridge the gap, then a new Council semes to be required. Otherwise we shall lack any unfettered body in which conservation matters can be effectively discussed, except in the open forum of our Society meetings with their resoutions following one another to the same monotonous fate.

May I draw your attention to a document which indicates that the importance of non-governmental participation in conservation policy is a live issue in international affairs. It is a Unesco document headed—Protection of Nature. It is dated April 20, 1948, and has just been passed on to me by Dr. Archey. It reads: 6.9.1. An intersectional committee has been set up in the Secretariat to consider ways and means Unesco can participate in the United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilisation of Natural Resources to be held in 1949… 6.9.2. Preparations are under way to hold a World Conference on the Preservation of Nature in 1949, following the United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilisation of Natural Resources. In the light of consultations with representatives of governments, studies have been initiated on the possibilities of an international non-governmental organisation for the preservation of Nature rather than an inter-governmental organisation as proposed by the Brunnen Conference in 1947… 6.9.3. This resolution will be taken into account when the agenda for the conference mentioned in 6.9.2. is prepared. I would remind you that not only at this World Conference of 1949, but also at the Pacific Science Congress to be held in this country highly important and international aspects of conservation policy will be discussed.

In some experience of international congresses I have been impressed with the advanced and constructive views on conservational principles and practice held by the representatives of smaller countries like Switzerland, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries. They have learned it through the hard way of necessity, no doubt, but their final state is to be preferred to ours if we do not realise that in another small country we have acquired in good times national habits of thought and action which are dangerously spendthrift. And that brings me to another aspect to which the Royal Society might well give its attention—the field of education. It has not been neglected, but attention has been sporadic. Organisation like the Forst and Bird Protection Society have for long conducted a praiseworthy campaign of slogans backed with informative literature. More recently the Soil Erosion and Rivers Control Council have entered the field of public education with instructional films, and those of you who have seen the programme at present on circuit will agree that the standard is high. As I have just said some critical things about departments I should add that the film of Central Otago irrigation produced by the Works Department is of very high educational and artistic standard indeed. But more is required than passive instruction, and here our Society might continue the interest it has already shown in

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the science syllabus of schools by advocating an ecological approach. It would not add to the teachers' burden but might give some needed cohesion to a course in which many of them are seeking integration. What I have in mind might follow the lines suggested by a contributor to the American Biological Teacher (9 [5] Minnie S. Douglis, see Biol. Abst., Oct., 1947), who outlines as a unit on conservation in high school biology a part of the course devoted to conservation of forests, animals, and soil, with an emphasis on interdependence and the need for a co-ordinated planning authority. The student is taught that change in one place has repercussions on life elsewhere, that sporadic conservation attempts may do more harm than good, that farm and forest practice affects cities, and that the outdoor world has value for the city dweller.

And now a word to social scientists before I conclude, for conservation is as much a social as a natural science problem. In our own community its importance was recognised rather late. But throughout the world, including our neighbouring Pacific, are social groups adjusting themselves to a changing economy. The difficulties of adjustment are recognised and various Government authorities and regional commissions are preparing to study and advise. Would it not be well if this study and advice were to include the natural resources on which particular social groups have to depend? I am indebted to my friend Professor Raymond Firth for the suggestion that even a small picked team for such projects should include at least two ecologists, one for agriculture and one for marine biology. I must confess that my ideas for ecological studies in island dependencies had not envisaged the biologists in the social science group, but the advantage is obvious at once, and commends itself increasingly. When ecology comes at the beginning instead of at the end of a social experiment there is more hope for a buoyant and balanced economy.

I have touched on, but not developed, several aspects of my theme. Others have not been dealt with at all, but enough has perhaps been said to show that what is done or is not done in conservation is a matter that concerns us each individually? Man himself is a part of Nature, and a part charged with very great responsibility for the welfare of the whole.