Governing the Wild: Databases, Algorithms, and Population Models as Biopolitics
This essay draws on interviews with conservation biologists to reflect on two interrelated aspects of the in situ – ex situ divide and its increasing integration: database systems and population management models. Specifically, I highlight those databases and software programs used by zoos in ex situ conservation settings, and the parallel, traditionally distinct, in situ databases and risk assessment models. I then explore the evolving technologies that integrate wild-captive databases and population models and, in particular, emerging metapopulation and meta-model approaches to small population management. My central argument is that, while still viewed by many as separate, the in situ and ex situ projects—and their respective elaborate administrative structures and models of calculation—are, in practice, increasingly bleeding into one another. The stories I tell here about the efforts to save the red wolf from extinction reveal the complexities of this integration. I also document how—in this process—a tiny group of experts translates data into algorithmic formats to generate standardized risk calculations that are meant to apply both universally and objectively. Applying Foucauldian and STS insights to the field of conservation biology, I argue, finally, that surveillance and biopolitics work hand-in-hand in this context to enable a comprehensive, effective, and unitary management of nonhuman population life, or “viability”.