If we're going to help save elephants, we need to get our own house in order
There is, doing the rounds, a petition against poaching elephants. I signed it. But I wanted to add this footnote.
I am not a cultural relativist. If something is wrong in one place, it is wrong in another. I think that hunting an animal to extinction is bad, and I think that’s true everywhere.
However, there may, of course, be differing factors in play in different places. So, for example, if a whole community will be less able to feed itself without the ability to hunt this animal, then we have to weigh that in our moral calculus. If a certain valuable culture will be lost, then that surely matters too. And we have to consider each oppression alongside every other one.
So, for example, there are indigenous peoples who traditionally hunt whales. These peoples have, in some places, suffered cultural genocide at the hands of Europeans – Europeans whose descendants today still benefit from this stolen wealth.
Many of those Europeans today also live in countries who made significant wealth from hunting whales to near extinction – and that wealth has been passed down the generations to us. So, for us to tell those indigenous communities that because of our ancestors actions in commercially hunting whales, they now cannot be allowed to maintain one of their valuable traditions – very low level whale hunting – would be seriously problematic.
And whilst I don’t know the extent of the history of Westerners hunting elephants in Africa (other than that it happened), it is certainly the case that our colonial history of telling people what to do needs to be remembered every time we sign a petition doing so.
In this context, then, we may be right to sign a petition to save elephants. But we must also remember that biodiversity is not – as we seem to be brought up to believe – unique to Far Off Lands Of Which We Know Little. A species isn’t more important because it is, to our eyes ‘exotic’. We are right to defend elephants from extinction. But if organisations like WWF are going to campaign to tell governments in the global south what to do with relation to elephants, why don’t they ever seem to do this with Western governments?
The most endangered big cat on earth is in Spain – the Iberian Lynx. The population dropped from 1100 in 1990 to about 100 in 2004. Why have I never been asked to sign a petition to the Spanish government? Similarly, Britain has destroyed much of its wilderness. But it could be restored, in places. Why do WWF not campaign to reintroduce wolves? bears? Eurasian Lynx? – or even beavers? If we expect Africans to to manage elephants, then why can’t we cope with our native species?
Hunting elephants in Africa to sell ivory in Asia is wrong. I am happy to support campaigns to ban it. But the failure of big wildlife charities in general, and WWF in particular, to push us to get our own houses in order ought to be a global embarrassment. It makes these campaigns look like modern colonialism, and ultimately, fails to secure a more biodiverse planet.