Exploitation of African Wildlife: A Call for a New Global Conservation Ethics

indexWild animals in Africa are in the international news almost every day. Usually this is for the reasons that these nonhuman animals, also called wildlife, are exploited as individuals and threatened as species. To say wild animals are exploited implicitly admits that some issues related to nonhuman animals are moral issues. Morality, as was already stated by the Greek philosopher Socrates, is about “how we ought to live”. This includes, among other things, how we should treat other individuals. These ‘other individuals’ are not only our family, friends, compatriots, members of our own race, or members of our own species, but also include the nonhuman animals living in the wild.

Although billions of wild animals suffer at the hands of human beings all over the world, only a few people seem to notice and raise attention to this problem. Wildlife policy is mostly concerned with maintaining ecologically and economically optimal wildlife numbers rather than with the suffering of individual wild animals. In this article, I aim to voice the point of view of the minority which is speaking out against our human apartheid against wild animals, especially those in Africa. I will first try to convince the reader that wild animals have moral rights and, therefore, can be victims of injustice. I then suggest that human beings are in different ways responsible for the injustices to wild animals. Finally, since many African states are too weak to protect wild animals or they are themselves responsible for violating wild animals’ rights, we must act as a global community in a way similar to humanitarian interventions.

Let me begin with a small clarification. By wildlife I mean only wild animals and not wild plants. By wild animals I do not mean all wild animals. For the purposes of this article you need only bear in mind such animals as impalas, elephants, lions, hyenas, chimpanzees, and giraffes living in vast numbers and rich biological diversity in Africa. I will leave open the list of exact wild animals that we should care about morally if only to stop red herrings and quibbling about whether tsetse flies or leeches have rights too. However, in addition to some flagship animal species I have mentioned, you may make your own judgement based by the shared features I will outline that form the baseline for moral consideration.

The Moral Status of Wildlife

Humans have spun many arguments to ensure that moral considerability is exclusive to an elite club of members of the Homo sapiens species. However, criteria such as being able to use human language, having a high human IQ, or having a human soul are specious similar to those based on skin colour and type of genitalia that have been used to rationalise slavery or sexism. These criteria are all irrelevant for the question of morality. In fact, wild animals share all the aspects that are important for possessing moral rights. Those of us who believe animals do experience pain and other emotions are labelled with anthropomorphism, the sin of projecting qualities unique to human beings on nonhuman animals who lack them. I find the charge of anthropomorphism to be mere sophistry and totally unconvincing. Evidence that nonhuman animals suffer and enjoy depending on their own condition and the state of the world around them seems undeniable. Let me briefly point to some of the reasons for believing nonhuman animals can experience suffering and pleasure.

Human experiences such as suffering and enjoyment do not happen in a vacuum. They are possible only through complex biological systems and processes. We may not know exactly what it is to be a bat but through analogical reasoning we can make some reasonably safe conclusions by examining bats and comparing certain features of which we know serve certain purposes or signal certain capacities in humans. Through biology and psychology, we discovered a lot about our own bodies. Interestingly, some of this knowledge has come from the study of nonhuman animals ranging from mice to chimpanzees.

If science tells us our spine, our nervous system, and our brains produce, carry, and interpret impulses that enable us to experience pleasure and pain, then we may reasonably infer that any beings endowed with these features do experience pleasure and pain as well. In fact, the inferences are twofold. From nonhuman animals that are like us, we may draw conclusions that the effects of certain chemicals on nonhumans will have effects on us. And vice versa. Such, I believe, can be the strength of an analogical argument about the similarity of our biological makeup with nonhuman animals. We can almost certainly claim that, in both cases, the functional biological makeup implies suffering and enjoying.

Apart from science, we know through common sense how nonhuman animals are like us through observing their behaviour, living with them, and developing special relationships of friendship or hostility. Wild animals show aversion to things we fear or dislike such as death, poison, high temperatures, thirst and hunger; they are attracted to things we seek or like such as food, water, sex, sleep. When they are subjected to things they are averse to, their response is similar to ours. Moreover, we see how nonhuman animals exhibit higher or moral emotions of grief, loneliness, depression, anguish, sorrow, empathy, and love. Elephants grieve the passing of a close one; bonobos show frustration and anguish about being caged; and lions rush with joy to hug their human rescuers years after being reintroduced into the wild. It seems insincere to reproach the claim that these are instances of emotions as anthropomorphism.

We have established that given our biological similarity with other vertebrates, and given observed similarities in our behaviour and emotions with some nonhuman animals, they meet the threshold for being individuals who matter morally. Humans have rights because they have certain important interests deserving respect from morally conscious beings. Most of these interests we share with many nonhuman animals. It is arbitrary and prejudicial to claim that humans have a right against being tortured while an elephant does not when both individual humans and individual elephants have an interest in not being subjected to senseless pain. Of course, since humans are not exactly like giraffes or gorillas, they will have moral rights which wild animals do not have. It is absurd to speak of wild animals having a right to free speech as they do not have an interest in speech, at least as we ordinarily understand this. This does not indicate moral inferiority. Adults have different rights than infants, but this does not imply that one is inferior to the other..

Moral rights give us a moral compass for how we ought to live in relation to those who, like us, can be harmed by our actions or omissions. I suggest we focus on some less controversial rights for wild animals namely, the right to life, the right against enslavement or captivity, the right to food, subsistence and habitat, the right to health, and the right against torture. If we violate any of these moral rights, we commit injustices. Those who commit injustices must pay for them. But also good people or rich states must do more than just avoiding committing injustices themselves. Even if they are not directly harming these nonhumans, they are also obliged to help all victims of injustice and support institutions and organisations that ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. Now I will show in what way we are involved in injustice to wildlife and how, as good people acting individually or collectively through the state, we must prevent wild animals from suffering.

How Humans Violate Rights of Wild Animals

For the most part of our evolution, some of the suffering inflicted on wild animals was a matter of survival of the fittest. , Our moral awareness has developed gradually, as captured by Peter Singer’s analogy of the ‘expanding circle’.[1] However, the post-industrial revolution era has seen untold unnecessary harm inflicted on wild animals. Humans hunt wild animals for food and for other products used in medicines, cosmetics, clothing, and fashion. Millions of wild animals are also being captured to be tamed as pets, circus acts, zoo attractions, or subjects of scientific experiments.

dfqHumans violate the rights of wild animals when they compromise the wild animals’ subsistence and survival. This happens through habitat destruction, degradation, and fragmentation through human settlements logging, mining, and other development projects. Grauer’s gorillas around the Congo River have been categorised ‘critically endangered’ after numbers fell by over 70% partly due to mining and logging activities. The timber from the Congo Rainforest is exported mainly to Europe and Asia.

Further, armed groups in Africa’s civil wars such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and South Sudan and terrorists groups resort to wildlife as a source of food and revenue. The war in South Sudan has seen many wild animals killed by both local and international players. Following the Westgate shopping mall terrorist attack in Kenya in 2013 by al-Shabaab, the UN Secretary General and the Kenyan Wildlife Services have drawn links between al-Shabaab, the Lord’s Resistance Army and the multibillion US dollar ivory trade on the black market. That ivory has been referred to as the “white gold of jihad” speaks volumes about the violations of elephant’s rights.

Desperate for foreign investment, poor African countries easily give Western and Asian mining corporations mining licenses in their National Parks. For instance, the Zambian government gave an Australian mining company, Zambezi Resources, license to open the Kangaluwi Copper Mine in Lower Zambezi National Park, a site that had been earmarked as a World Heritage by UNESCO. Although the company claimed the project would be the “cleanest, greenest and safest copper mine ever built”, unconvinced environmentalists initiated and won a court injunction to halt the opening of the mine. The crux of cases such as this is that for many developing countries the economic interests of humans easily trump the rights of wild animals.

Trophy hunting is yet another way wild animals’ rights are being violated. Wild animals are hunted and killed simply for the thrill and prestige of the hunters. From the days of renowned hunter and 26th President of the USA, Theodore Roosevelt, the history of wildlife conservation is enmeshed with that of hunting by political elites and the wealthy. The activities of trophy hunters are supported by powerful hunters’ clubs. The USA’s Safari Club International (SCI) boasts that for the past 15 years, it “has spent $140 million on protecting the freedom to hunt through policy advocacy, litigation, and education for federal and state legislators to ensure hunting is protected for future generations.” Another club, the Dallas Safari Club, states that “it contributes millions of dollars each year to programs and projects” which include “to promote and protect the rights and interests of hunters worldwide.”

Safari hunting contributes to conservation through the money they pay to be allowed to hunt. The amounts paid are not as large as I thought, at least going by the hunting licenses in Zambia last year. Only $60 for a baboon, $250 for a hyena, $2650 and $4,200 to kill a leopard and a lion respectively, and $10,000 for an elephant. Part of this money is used by wildlife management departments to fund conservation programmes. In Zambia, for example, in early September 2013 while conducting research in some Game Management Areas of South Luangwa National Park, I learnt how anti-poaching and human-wildlife conflict resolution had been hampered by poor funding. Village game scouts had gone without pay for months; victims of wildlife crop depredation had gone without compensation for months; Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) was struggling with overhead expenses for patrolling the national park. This, ZAWA officers said, was partly due to the suspension of big cat hunting earlier that year by the Government of Zambia due to dwindling numbers of lions and leopards that could no longer sustain further offtake.

In 2015, the Zambian Minister of Tourism and Arts, Jean Kapata controversially lifted the hunting ban. This suspiciously followed her invitation to and attendance of the SCI annual conference. After the lifting of the ban SCI commended “Zambia for this important development in its approach to lion and big cat conservation and its recognition that hunting plays a valuable role in the sustainable management and conservation of these species.” It seems SCI had used its financial power to persuade the government of Zambia to rescind its decision. Many environmentalists questioned the decision as no counting of the big cats had taken place since hunting was suspended.

The safari hunters are arguably a mixed blessing to wildlife. Although some people deny the claims of the hunters about funding wildlife conservation programmes, I would like to give the hunters the benefit of the doubt. The Dallas Safari Club’s website claims that they have become “official members of this highly respected” United Nation’s International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN. The IUCN and the World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF, which has also partnered with the World Bank are global pioneers of wildlife policy across the world. The rights of individual wild animals are completely ignored in wildlife policy. All that matters about wildlife are biodiversity preservation and the ecological, economic, aesthetic, and bequest value to humans. The current conservation praxis, therefore, falls short of a morally sound conservation ethic. To overcome this moral blind spot in wildlife conservation, I propose a global rights-based approach.

A Global Conservation Ethic

Cosmopolitanism asserts the moral equality of all humans wherever they may be. So if you are Belgian, you do not have a greater moral obligation towards a fellow Belgian than towards a Ugandan. If you are to help a fellow Belgian rather than a Ugandan this may be merely for prudential reasons that this is the best way to benefit other humans. But to the extent that cosmopolitanism leaves out putative nonhuman animal beneficiaries of morality, it is speciesist. Without justification, it discriminates against nonhuman animals. But if speciesism is morally flawed, then current forms of cosmopolitanisms are also morally flawed. Without providing any reasonable justification, they regard only human beings as having moral equality beyond borders. My position is to include nonhuman animals within this cosmopolitan scheme. Rights are moral levelers. If some lions in the Serengeti are threatened with anthropogenic disaster, and some humans in Darfur are threatened with starvation, there is no a priori reason for responding to the human plight before that of the lions.

There are already global NGOs and intergovernmental organisations that can be utilised to realise the moral paradigm shift that takes wild animals’ rights seriously. The United Nations, UN, easily comes to mind. The UN already has agencies, which, with a revised conservation ethos, can be used as a vehicle for safeguarding the rights of wild animals. With institutions[2] for nonhuman animals that parallel the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, the UN can concern itself with environmental protection as a question of justice. Furthermore, taking nonhuman animal rights seriously will require the International Criminal Court also tries and punishes despots and rebel leaders that commit crimes against humanity and against wildlife.

The IUCN is another organisation that is strategically positioned to bring the new global conservation ethic that respects individual wild animals into effect. It is strategic for its wealth of expertise and having “an expanding network of regional and country offices, located principally in developing countries.”[3] However, the IUCN must reform morally and not be overtaken by the powerful hunting lobbyists that want to conserve so that they and their children can kill in perpetuity. Partnerships with the World Bank and the IMF also pose a threat to reform. The financial institutions are more focused on the potential of wildlife for economic benefits to humans and their tendency is towards commodification of wild animals.

Protecting the rights of wild animals through the UN has the advantage of being perceived as politically neutral. Wildlife conservation is a melting pot of conflicting interests and wildlife values. Political histories of colonialism and forceful evacuations of indigenous peoples are likely to crowd the agenda for wildlife rights if the agenda is seen as driven by former colonial nations alone. The rhetoric of neo-colonialism, breach of national sovereignty and security is not unusual in political ecology. For example, Navaya ole Ndaskoi, a Maasai, complains of the ‘elitism and the white saviour complex’ as wildlife conservation in Africa is dominated by Westerners while local blacks are squatters, poachers, scouts, or guides for mzungu hunters. The perceived neutrality of the United Nations can therefore be a more trusted medium for a global approach to conservation that recognises the rights of wildlife. However, there are still challenges to the global approach even if spearheaded by a neutral party. I end this article by highlighting one of the likely challenges.

Some people might say that wildlife is owned by humans in the respective countries. It will therefore be wrong for non-citizens of such countries to dictate what happens to this property. Indeed, in practice, wild animals are categorically regarded as property of the state in which they are found. This is fallacious. Since wild animals have rights which include life and liberty they cannot, morally speaking, be owned as if they were cars or trees. The relationship of property and owner comes with implications that conflict with possessing moral rights. It is for this very reason that no human being can be owner of another human being. We should as humans have a vicarious relationship with the wild animals. Largely leaving them alone but intervening in cases where such intervention is most likely beneficial to individual wild animals. As in the case for humanitarian intervention, it is permissible for other states and the UN to intervene in another state’s jurisdiction for the benefit of those individuals the ‘host’ state is unable to protect and provide for or individuals who may be threatened by the very state with the moral duty to protect them.

Citizens of all nations need to realise their duties to wildlife everywhere. Through appropriate mechanisms, citizens must urge their countries to end their complicity to wildlife crimes and, instead, to contribute positively towards protection of wild animals’ rights wherever they may be threatened. Together, we can and should found institutions of justice for wildlife through existing organisations currently pursuing similar protections for human animals. It is unfair for rich nations to leave low income countries alone to protect wildlife rights. The lukewarm commitment by rich countries further helps perpetuate the negative misconception that wildlife is property of these poor states when, morally speaking, wild animals are nobody’s property be they rich states, poor states, or tribal peoples.


Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the editors for their fair and helpful comments. My discussion with Helen Apted has helped in making this article more readable.

Julius Kapembwa teaches philosophy and applied ethics at the University of Zambia. He is currently a PhD Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Reading. His PhD research is focusing on the implications of the nonhuman rights approach to wildlife governance.


[1] See Singer, P. (2011). The expanding circle: Ethics, evolution, and the moral progress. Princeton: Princeton university press.

[2] The UN is the organisation and the UDHR is the institution. In everyday use, we normally conflate ‘organisation’ and ‘institution’. However, organisations are agents for devising and implementing institutions. “Institutions are the conventions, norms and formally sanctioned rules of a society.” Vatn, A. (2005). Institutions and the Environment. Cheltenham: Edwards Elgar. p. 60.

[3] McNeely, A. J. (ed.) (1995). Expanding Partners in Conservation. Washington, D. C.: Island Press. p. ii