Animals v. Biodiversity: from tensions to fruitful relations

December 9 2020

Eva Bernet Kempers

Things are going well for the Giant Panda. Arguably partly due to its undeniable charisma, the efforts directed at saving this wonderful species from extinction have been particularly elaborate and successful, and its status was recently upgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ on the official list of the IUCN. In the many giant panda nature reserves in Eastern Asia, pandas now live in what we could describe as a heaven on earth, having even a panda-version of the dating app Tinder at their disposal, created with the aim to match them with their most suitable panda-partner. According to several reports published in August 2020 however, the emphasis on panda-protection has fully overshadowed concern for some other species that might be just a bit less pleasing to the eye, such as the wild dog and snow leopard, which are now almost driven to extinction in the very same regions in which pandas thrive. While we have focused on creating pleasant lives and even fostered successful relationships for the specifically attractive panda, biodiversity as a whole has lost out. Because we tend to see Giant Pandas as valuable individuals, each of which deserves protection for its own sake, we easily lose sight of the bigger ecological system in which this species is embedded. 

The influence of the ‘cuteness-factor’ of an animal in the degree of legal protection their species is assigned, is only one example of the many tensions between the discipline focusing on the legal protection of individual animals on the one hand, and the conservation of species for the sake of biodiversity on the other hand, that frequently arise. These tensions are the indirect result of the fact that the two perspectives are rooted in two contrary, inherently incommensurable paradigms. Whereas biodiversity conservation has a more environmentally-oriented outlook, regarding the species as valuable unit, easily sacrificing the individual members when, for instance, they tend to disbalance or endanger the ecosystem as a whole, animal protection takes the individual being capable of suffering as starting point, seeing no sense in seeking legal protection of the human-constructed abstraction of ‘species’. Whereas the first perspective approaches legal protection in a more functional light, a ‘means’ to prevent the further decline of biodiversity, the second regards the inclusion of animals as subjects of law as a moral imperative, the logical consequence of our natural obligations towards other living beings. 

The way in which the different assumptions underlying the two perspectives can lead to conflict in practice is beautifully illustrated by the case of the Oostvaardersplassen, the biggest natural park of the Netherlands. This area of about 6000 hectares of ‘wild’ nature was created in what formerly was water, part of a big lake, and in the 1980’s several big grazers, under which wild horses and red deer, were introduced in the area. The aim was to ‘let nature thrive’; with as little human intervention as possible, the ecosystem would stabilize itself and become a biodiversity hotspot. Even though the park has generally been regarded an ecological success, the red deer soon became too prosperous in the absence of any natural predator, which led to severe overgrazing and damage to the ecosystem is a whole; especially for several species of birds, that, as a consequence, had trouble finding nesting sites in the area. In the cold winter that followed, many of the deer starved to death. In response, two animal protection organizations started a case against the Dutch state, claiming that it was under a duty of care to feed the starving animals, preventing their painful death. Essentially, the organizations asked the state to choose for the individual over the ecosystem, to recognize our moral obligations as more important than the scientific judgment that the natural death of those animals would, in the end, benefit biodiversity as a whole.  

The case of the Oostvaardersplassen illustrates, just as the case of the Giant Panda does, that when the two paradigms clash there are no straightforward answers. Yes, we could decide to protect only the charismatic species and let the uncharismatic ones die as a result, creating an aesthetically pleasant world, but we can never establish with certainty what the long-term consequences of such a choice might be, and whether any wild dogs would survive at all. Yes, we could decide to feed the deer and prevent suffering, but we can neither be sure whether this would be the start of much more suffering in other species for which there will not be enough space left in the Oostvaardersplassen. Or, on the contrary, we can also decide to get our hands off and ‘let nature thrive’ to the fullest, denying that we can possibly have any obligations towards wild animals at all, but is this really a defensible stance in the era of the ‘Anthropocene’? As humans now are the main geological force shaping the planet, it becomes increasingly difficult to deny having any obligations towards the animals that live in the wild, as our actions inevitably influence their opportunities to flourish. 

The idea that, in the current era of the Anthropocene, it is time to reconcile the two formerly competing perspectives and develop a more comprehensive approach, is therefore slowly gaining support in and outside academia. Conservationist Jamie Lorimer notes that conservationists “face hard and uncertain choices in deciding what to let ‘flourish’” and there is a need for “new ontologies for conservation in the Anthropocene.” The absolute distinction between those animals that are subject of individual welfare protection and those animals that are protected for the sake of their species, can, in this context, no longer be upheld; “animals involved in […] new relationships do not fit into the old dichotomy of independent wild animals untouched by humans on the one hand, or dependent domesticated animals under control of humans on the other hand.” Some authors have even argued that wild animals are in fact  becoming ‘less wild’; the human impact on nature is so severe that we should regard animals as being subjected to a process of ‘Anthropocenic domestication.’” Indeed, as Harrop states, “the effects of climate change, in the wider context of other human induced changes, may so fundamentally alter the status of so called ‘wild’ animals that precedent dictates that they may now, more than ever, merit individual protection from cruel practices rather than mere preservation at the species level.” In a 2020 article in Science, it was similarly posited that “[c]onservation could better promote not just the quantity of species but the quality of animal life.” 

Such remarks seem full of sense, yet remain particularly abstract. What could a more comprehensive approach that incorporates concern for species and biodiversity as well as for the individual opportunities to flourish, look like in practice? My preliminary proposal would be the following. If neither of the extremes provides us with the desirable outcome (we either always feed the deer, ruining the ecosystem, or deny any responsibility towards wild animals whatsoever), the task at hand is to incorporate the most important insights from both sides and shape human-animal relations accordingly. Our obligations towards other animals then should then be regarded as lying upon a continuum, in which three factors play a role. First, the closeness of the relation between the animal and the human could be determinative in deciding the specificity of the duty of care towards it (let’s call it ‘the closeness-factor’). Whereas with regard to a domesticated cat, we can say that humans have an elaborate, specific duty of care, towards a wild deer the duty of care could be given shape in a more general way, directed towards the habitat in which it lives. Second, the status of the species would be of influence in the strictness with which human actions towards animals are evaluated (the conservation status-factor). Whereas with animals that are close to extinction only very little or no disturbance in their surroundings would be allowable, the evaluation would be somewhat more flexible concerning actions that might impact species of which there is an abundance. Lastly, and maybe most controversially, the role of the animal within its ecosystem should, in my view, also be taken into account (the functional factor). Whereas we generally would not recognize a specific duty of care towards individual insects such as the bee, and it is neither classified as a very endangered species, its function and role in many ecosystems is so fundamental that it cannot be entirely disregarded. In the end, it does not make sense to only protect the sentient individuals from attractive or endangered species when the ecosystem that sustains them cannot survive. Hence, we need to balance between holism and particularism, charm and function, general and specific care, in reshaping human-animal relations in the Anthropocene.

Do you agree that the closeness-factor, the conservation-status factor, and the functional factor offer a promising starting point to shape the relations and obligations between humans and non-humans, overcoming the tensions present in the protection of biodiversity v. the protection of individual animals? Or do you envision an entirely different perspective? Should we feed the deer or let them starve?