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Endangered wildlife often doesn't have time to evolve to rapidly changing environments. Now conservationists are manipulating animal behaviour, using "nudge" techniques akin to those designed to influence humans

By Ute Eberle

In Zambia, artificial waterholes help persuade elephants to take a less dangerous migration routechristophe_cerisier/Getty Images

In Zambia, artificial waterholes help persuade elephants to take a less dangerous migration route

christophe_cerisier/Getty Images

KEN RAMIREZ is an animal trainer with decades of experience, including a 25-year stint at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois. He has taught all sorts of creatures to do all manner of tricks. Once, he trained thousands of butterflies to perform a choreographed display in a botanical garden. It took several weeks, but even he was impressed with the result. “I watched in awe,” he says. “They appeared to undulate to the rhythm of the music – it was incredible!”

These days, however, Ramirez is less likely to use his talents for entertainment. Instead, he is working to protect wild animals by tweaking their behaviour. That may sound intrusive, but, in a rapidly changing world where human activities can have fatal consequences for wildlife, evolution often can’t act fast enough to meet the challenges. So a growing number of conservationists aim to encourage wild animals to adapt by understanding and manipulating behaviours like hunting, foraging, mating and migration.

In fact, the approach resembles strategies increasingly adopted by governments and organisations to spur humans towards healthy or socially beneficial choices. Sometimes referred to as “nudges”, these are based on the idea that, for example, we choose to eat more vegetables if we encounter a salad in the buffet line before pizza. Or that scarce parking in a city encourages us to cycle or take the bus. “All creatures learn the same way,” says Ramirez. “Let’s make what we don’t want animals to do difficult and what we …

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