When protection of biodiversity gives rise to a social crisis

Panneau - Danger requins © Espace pour la vie (Marie-Odile Noël)
When protection of biodiversity gives rise to a social crisis

Here I am, back from my travels on the Sedna IV, where I handled scientific communications as part of the 1000 Days for the Planetmission. During my three-month stay on Reunion Island, I shared my discoveries and reflections with the readers of my logbook. But something got left out, and that was my confrontation with the Reunion community on the subject of the bull shark.

Bull sharks and humans: a difficult cohabitation

I’m really shaken by what the bull shark has come to symbolize on Reunion since attacks on humans became more frequent, in early 2011. My colleague Eddie and I had plans for a wonderful topic featuring a difficult cohabitation between humans and an animal. We planned to write a series of blogs on what they call the “shark crisis” over there. But things quickly took a strange turn after my blog of December 4 (in French only) was published. I began to be the target of the abusive comments of certain islanders. I was treated as a trendy “tree hugger” and accused of being another one of those people who, without knowing anything about Reunion, claimed they could solve the crisis anyway. I suddenly understood that I’d touched a raw nerve – a really raw one…

And it’s obvious why…

The first thing you think of are the families and friends of the victims, who saw their lives turned upside down because of these big fish. But it’s more than that: there’s a whole way of living and a whole economy that disappear with the closing of the island’s beaches. The reaction to the situation has turned into a social crisis for the citizens of Reunion. There’s intimidation, there are inflammatory posters, and lecturers who get jeered. There are people who shout, and others, a little more restrained, who have trouble being heard. There are mayors who talk a lot but do little, hoping to please everyone at the same time. There are people who are accused of using the shark attacks as a pretext for achieving their commercial goals. The day we were told that graffiti might start to appear on the Sedna IVif we didn’t get our noses out of the shark crisis, Eddie and I were forced to think about what might happen next. It was the first time, at least as far as I knew, that the work of the Mission’s scientific communicators had created such a commotion.

With all that, what do we do?

There are situations where protecting biodiversity runs up against people’s deeply-held convictions, when it stirs up emotions and divides the population. There are crises where, unfortunately, no solution seems possible… There are times when the best solution is to withdraw. Despite the interest that our shark blogs sparked in Québec readers, Eddie and I quite simply changed the subject. I come back from my stay on the Sedna IV with that story engraved in my entire being. Reunion is a wonderful island and place to live, with breathtaking countryside and generous people of the sort you rarely come across. My hope is that the harmony it so deserves will be restored.

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