Ownership of native fauna – could it make a difference

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In the United Kingdom, as is the case elsewhere in the world, landholders/owners have some ownership rights over native fauna on their land. In short, there are three ways of qualified ownership of native fauna (ref ):

  • Tame and reclaimed animals – Where a person lawfully takes, tames, or reclaims a living wild animal, they can acquire qualified ownership in the wild animal. Once a wild animal has been acquired in this manner the wild animal becomes the property of the person who has taken, tamed or reclaimed them. The animal remains in the ownership of that person until it is released or it escapes and reverts back to the wild and has no intention of returning to the person. However, there is legislation that prohibits a person from lawfully taking, taming or reclaiming wild animals.
  • Wild animals born on a person’s land – Where wild animals are born on land belonging to a person that person ordinarily becomes the qualified owner of the animals. Such animals remain within the ownership of that person until the animals can run or fly away.
  • Hunting rights – If a land owner has an exclusive right to hunt, take and kill wild animals, on his own land he is regarded as being the qualified owner of such animals while ever they remain on his land. A person cannot legally own “absolutely” game (pheasants, hares and the like). However, the law recognises the need to protect private interests in game. The law does this by limiting rights over game to certain classes of people and by creating criminal offences relating to the taking or destroying of the eggs of certain birds.

Because of these ‘ownership rights’ landholders/owners have often undertaken conservation projects to protect native fauna on their land; sometimes this is done for hunting purposes and in other occasions because the land owner has a concern for the fauna. Such laws have given rise to agencies such as the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. This charity organisation undertakes research to enhance the British countryside for the public benefit, mostly by focussing on developing game and wildlife management techniques, but it also conducts courses in wildlife management.

A similar situation prevails in South Africa, where ownership of wildlife is permitted, and high value wildlife species are owned, traded and substantial businesses operate to breed and protect these species. There are multiple examples of where lands formerly allocated to cultivating domestic stock are now used for wildlife conservation. Had the protection of wildlife been left solely in the hands of government in South Africa, then almost certainly threatened species populations would be diminished as a consequence.

In WA, ‘Except to the extent which the Minister declares by notice published in the Government Gazette pursuant to the provisions of this section all fauna is wholly protected throughout the whole of the State at all times’ (Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 Part 14(1)). It could therefore reasonably be implied that all native fauna is owned by the Crown.

If you own a dog or a cat, and it causes a problem then you are responsible and liable. However, if native fauna that are protected by the Crown cause a problem, then it can be difficult to get the Crown to accept responsibility or liability. In fact the reverse often applies. If for example Western Grey Kangaroos, being native fauna and protected by the Crown, are causing a problem in an urban bushland fragment or in residential development, and even putting peoples’ lives at risk, then it is unlikely the Crown will accept responsibly and do something about it. More often than not the Crown will require the land owner (or manager), who does not own the native fauna, and has no responsibility for them, to foot the bill to address problems that they are causing. It seems to us there is an inconsistency here, and even a bit of cost shifting because the Crown is not prepared to accept its responsibility.

Under the current model of wildlife ownership in Western Australia we have seen a progressive decline in numerous species, and in particular a decline in many threatened species, with no obvious turn-around in sight (Woinarski et al. 2015). Perhaps we need to rethink some of our basic policies and approaches and look for more novel approaches to addressing the problem.

Recently, Wilson et al. (2016) provided an interesting alternative policy where wildlife ownership and management are opened up to the private sector and personal benefit. Currently, management of native fauna, and in particular threatened species is vested exclusively in the Crown in Western Australia, with a few non-for-profit agencies (e.g. Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Bush Heritage), under tight regulation and control, doing an outstanding job with limited resources. Wilson et al. (2016) are suggesting a change in wildlife proprietorship and the application of market-based incentives to remedy the current short falls in funding being allocated by the Australian and Western Governments to this continued and serious decline in threatened species.

Much of the decline in Australia’s biodiversity has occurred on private or pastoral lands or mining tenements due to vegetation clearing and the impacts of invasive species such as the cat and fox. Commercial incentives could be used to encourage landholders to reverse these trends. You might say that this is already occurring as we have philanthropic organisations making a significant contribution to threatened species conservation through assisted recolonization. The Wilson et al. (2016) proposal takes this one huge step further, where surplus stock are able to be ‘owned’ and traded, and their progeny would be extractively used, meaning that they would be removed from founder populations as part of a conservation strategy to expand populations. This proposal is based on the notion that landholders would allocate more resources to wildlife if they have proprietorship of wildlife and a profit incentive. This incentive might come through display of animals in wildlife tourism, sale of the progeny to hobbyists, other breeders and other landholders. This will only occur with well-defined, secure and transferrable property rights to help establish the value of the resources.

The Wilson et al. (2016) proposal enables landholders and community groups wanting to participate in breeding threatened species, for altruistic, aesthetic and financial reward to have a form of wildlife proprietorship on lands outside protected conservation reserves. They could breed and on-sell surplus stock to other landowners. There would be a strong financial incentive for wildlife ‘owners’ to adequately protect and care for the animals because of their value. Government involvement would be at a much reduced level than the current over regulation (see for example regulations and control of reptiles in WA), and probably would be restricted to regulating the buying and selling, if that was needed. Such a market responsive system would provide a ready outlet for surplus zoo animals and much needed additional funds for public zoos.

The Australian Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010-2030 (Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council 2010) recognised the need for a much greater level of community and private sector involvement in managing biodiversity. The first of its 10 national targets for the first five years was:

‘By 2015, achieve a 25% increase in the number of Australians and public and private organisations who participate in biodiversity conservation activities (p10).’

At a recent conference on Conservation through Sustainable Use of Wildlife we proposed two possible schemes:

Captive breeding and a royalty on farm gate sales

There are numerous species where there is sufficient demand by private collectors or breeders for animals to be caught and bred, with a royalty being paid to land holders from farm gate sales. If there is a concern about new animals being caught in the wild without approval, then DNA from the founder population can be obtained as the basis for testing any suspect individuals. Examples of native fauna that could be included in this program include Western Swamp Tortoise, Western Spiny-tailed Skink, Desert Skink and the Rough Scaled Python.

Captive breeding with a royalty at capture

There are numerous species of native fauna that may make better captive animals or pets than house mice, guinea pigs and cats. These animals could be wild caught and a royalty paid on their capture. Again if there were concerns about new animals being caught in the wild without approval, then DNA from the founder population can be obtained as the basis for testing any individuals suspected of being illegally taken. Examples of native fauna that could be included in this program include the threatened Western Trout Minnow, Balston’s Pygmy Perch, Western Mud Minnow, Little Pygmy Perch, Drysdale and Prince Regent Hardyheads, Barrow Gudgeon, Blind Gudgeon and the Blind Cave Eel.

Wilson et al. (2016, p6) concluded their article, saying ‘time is running out for wildlife in landscapes that are so transformed by agriculture, other human activity, and rampant feral animals that they lack their original mammal and terrestrial bird fauna. Threatened species lists are lengthening and wildlife remains undervalued by policy distortions’. For whatever reason, be it a lack of will, lack of ability, a lack of ideas or funds, governments do not appear to be able to arrest and reverse the decline in threatened species, and we see every day more of our native fauna being lost to vegetation clearing and our inability to effectively manage the landscape. Surely it is time to consider some alternative solutions.

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Images – top: Western Pygmy Possum, bottom: Honey Possum

References

Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council. 2010. Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010-2030. Canberra.

Wilson, G. R., M. W. Hayward, and C. Wilson. 2016. Market-Based Incentives and Private Ownership of Wildlife to Remedy Shortfalls in Government Funding for Conservation. Conservation Letters.

Woinarski, J. C., A. A. Burbidge, and P. L. Harrison. 2015. Ongoing unraveling of a continental fauna: Decline and extinction of Australian mammals since European settlement. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.

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