Public concern at increasing damage to private property by kākā since conservationists released them in Wellington City have led me to wonder: Do we conservationists care enough about other people and the things important to them?

For example, although there is widespread opposition to the use of 1080, many conservationists advocate it be used even more to reach the Predator Free 2050 target. This leaves the impression we disrespect other peoples’ opinions and values.

I heard colleagues expressing their delight at Gareth Morgan’s criticisms of cat owners. This had me suspecting we wilfully antagonise other people.

Is uncaring, disrespect and antagonism how we want to achieve biodiversity conservation in this country?

In a 2012 survey of New Zealanders published by Dr James Russell of the University of Auckland, 40 percent of people said poisons such as 1080 should not be used (18 percent were undecided). That is a lot of New Zealanders.

The survey also showed the percentage of people opposing 1080’s use has grown. Opposition from New Zealanders rose by nine percentage points from 1994 to 2012. These trends are supported by the Department of Conservation’s own surveys.

People oppose the widespread use of poisons for many reasons that are aligned with their personal values. Some of those are ethical and environmental values shared with many conservationists. Poisons are nasty and cruel.

Why then are conservationists choosing this time to advocate that 1080 be used more, not less? We seem determined to achieve conservation goals by riding rough-shod over the values of our neighbours.

Recent surveys of Wellington residents found the private property damage caused by kākā is getting more serious and widespread. And feeding of kākā by some, including conservation organisations, is increasing damage to their neighbours’ properties.

Conservationists released kākā into Wellington City in 2002 without first conducting an environmental and social impact assessment, although we already knew kākā could damage property. They damage trees where they live in forests and their similar cousin, kea, damage vehicles and buildings wherever they meet tourists and tourism infrastructure.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature advised against unevaluated releases of wildlife into places like cities, especially if they pose a risk to property. But we did it anyway.

Conservationists did not consider that releasing kākā was putting other peoples’ properties and neighbourly relationships at risk. Why were we, conservationists so inconsiderate?

Conservation is necessary because of the environmental damage people do and because wild plants and animals are valuable for myriad reasons. But conservation can also not happen without people, and it must be acceptable to most people or it will fail.

The tendency, therefore, for conservationists to conduct themselves as if other people and their values don’t matter, or as if every project is a zero-sum game – a ‘fight’ – is deeply troubling to this conservationist. It is the wrong way to do conservation. It is, ironically, unsustainable and will be, ultimately, less successful.

Fortunately, there is a developing social science on how communities resolve environmental disagreements, reach compromises and solve problems. It demonstrates that escalating conflict is not inevitable or necessary for social movements, like conservation, to make progress.

For example, recent research showed appealing to cat-owners’ different values motivated them to care for their cats in ways that reduce their ability to hunt. Cat owners could be convinced to confine their cats inside more where they cannot hunt wildlife.

It’s a solution that doesn’t require demonising cat owners or threatening to take away their cats. Indeed, it is a strategy for engaging respectfully with cat owners on their own terms to help conserve wildlife.

We conservationists need to learn and apply more of that sort of science – treating the people who love a cat or are wary of poison use, and their private properties, more respectfully. Conservationists could achieve much more if we regarded the wider public as partners rather than adversaries.

We need to care about people at least as much as we care about native plants and animals if we are to succeed.

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