National Comment Comment

Why care about conservation?

People condemn hunters without considering their own damaging actions

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Image Credit: Bernard DUPONT

Don’t be deceived by the title - I do not disagree that animal conservation is a valuable and worthwhile cause. Quite the opposite. I think it’s great that most people in our country are aware of and care about animal conservation to varying degrees.

My article’s concern is why people in many societies across the world increasingly care about the poaching of wild animals, even though the majority of these people are simultaneously willing to have countless numbers of animals killed for their personal consumption

First of all, why do people care about conservation? One motivation that certainly carries weight is that if we do not drastically reduce current extinction rates, there will likely be serious or even catastrophic implications for humans. Though extinction of species has always existed, the extinction rate today is between 1000 and 10 000 times the natural rate, and this is threatening the stability and viability of many ecosystems across the world, upon which a lot of humans depend.

Or, maybe, many of us feel an affinity with conservation because we want to preserve the natural beauty of the planet, which entails protecting both the environment and a wide variety of species of animals. Just as we preserve artistic masterpieces, we should aim to preserve the world as we found it.

The third possible motivation, and the one of greatest interest to this article, is that we care about animal conservation because we feel guilt or some kind of moral responsibility to limit the often unnecessary damage caused by human activities. When we see images of rhinos or elephants shot dead with only bloody cavities where their tusks used to be, or a leopard shot dead for its fur coat, it seems to evoke a sadness that such majestic and innocent animals would be so needlessly killed.

This may be followed by a virile anger towards the perpetrators of the killing, seeing them as heartless, selfish and savage. Many people go even further and take pleasure in the death of poachers when they are mauled to death by the animals they were trying to poach - poetic justice, many would argue.

While these feelings are understandable, are we really any more virtuous than poachers when most of us indirectly commit similar (or arguably worse) crimes against animals every day as a result of our meat consumption habits? Does our society deserve a form of poetic justice for the millions of animals we mistreat and slaughter every day for food? Some may contest the moral equivalency between the poachers’ actions and our actions in eating meat, but killing an innocent elephant so you’re able to feed your family or even just to line your own pockets, is no more morally reprehensible than killing an innocent pig because it tastes nice, or is convenient.

So, why is our society so eager to assist in conservation efforts, sharing videos and campaigns on Facebook or donating to charities that protect endangered species, while simultaneously ignoring the plight of the billions of innocent animals who needlessly suffer for our meat-consumption habits? The human-benefit arguments that conservation of ecosystems secures the future of humans and that natural environments hold an aesthetic value certainly play a large role.

What I see as the fundamental reason, however, is that it costs us very little to care about conservation. As valuable and righteous a cause it is we, in our relatively wealthy society, don’t have to sacrifice much to help. We don’t depend on the income generated from selling the ivory nor does ivory play a significant cultural role like it does in China, for example. Contrastingly, when it comes to caring for the animals that we choose to raise for meat, this involves a significant sacrifice that most of us are unwilling to make.

The consumption of large quantities of meat is heavily ingrained in our culture; seen as an essential part to most meals. Just as Chinese people are unwilling to abandon their ivory-consumption habits, many of us are unwilling to give up meat. Just as Chinese ivory-lovers don’t need ivory ornaments, meat-lovers don’t need meat. I’ll be the first to admit that meat and fish do taste nice and are convenient, but these are morally vacuous justifications for the horrendous suffering that we impose upon the overwhelming majority of animals we eat.

I’m not advocating we treat the issue of conservation with the same moral neglect that we treat the eating of meat.

Rather, we should attempt to remove the moral inconsistency, look past our own interests and realise that if we feel poaching animals in the wild for their fur or ivory is morally wrong, then killing animals to eat them is no better.

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