Hybrid apes in the anthropocene: burden or asset for conservation?

Published online
22 Oct 2021
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
People and Nature

Palmer, A. & Sommer, V. & Msindai, J. N.
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Conservationists often view hybrid animals as problematic, at least if anthropogenic influence caused the intermixing to occur. However, critics propose that humans should respect non-human autonomy, reject and accept the creatures they have helped to create. Based on two case studies of our own ethological, genetic and ethnographic research about chimpanzee and orangutan subspecies hybrids, we assess what, if anything, should be done about such animals. We consider problems posed by cross-bred apes relating to: (a) Breeding-Do hybrids really experience reduced reproductive success? How are population-level concerns and welfare of individual animals balanced in conservation breeding? (b) Essentialism-Are anti-hybrid arguments based on essentialist or purist thinking? Does essentialism vary by conservation context? (c) Pragmatism-How do socio-economic circumstances influence whether hybrids are embraced or ignored? Does the erosion of 'untouched nature' render hybrids more important? We show that answers to these questions are complex and context-specific, and that therefore decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. For example, we find that anti-hybrid arguments are essentialist in some cases (e.g. ape management in zoos) but not in others (e.g. ape reintroduction). Thus, rather than present recommendations, we conclude by posing nine questions that conservationists should ask themselves when making decisions about taxonomic hybrids.

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