Magazine article Newsweek International

Deserving of Respect; Is It Acceptable to Kill the Elephants of South Africa Even When It Is Necessary to Save Other Species? the Answer Is No Longer an Automatic 'Yes.'

Magazine article Newsweek International

Deserving of Respect; Is It Acceptable to Kill the Elephants of South Africa Even When It Is Necessary to Save Other Species? the Answer Is No Longer an Automatic 'Yes.'

Article excerpt

Byline: Hennie Lotter (Lotter is professor of philosophy at the University of Johannesburg.)

A hundred years ago, the only signs of elephants at Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa, which had just opened, were a few tracks in a dry riverbed. Game hunters of the 19th century had hunted the creatures almost to extinction. Conservation efforts were so successful that by 1967 the authorities decided they had to start culling elephants--shooting them from helicopters and hauling their carcasses away in trucks--to keep their populations between 6, 000 and 8, 000, considered to be the park's "carrying capacity." Few people questioned the policy, which was dropped in 1995. Since then, however, the elephant population has soared to 14,000. Conservationists now fear that this herd might devastate vegetation, threatening many life forms with extinction.

A new proposal to cull the creatures has created a dilemma for the national parks authority, South African National Parks. As a responsible custodian, it has urged that "decisive action is required" to safeguard the survival of the rich diversity of life forms in South African wildlife reserves. The culling of elephants, it argues, is needed as a precautionary measure to avert local species' extinctions in future. "A decision on the use of culling as a legitimate option for management of elephants," the park managers said back in 2005, "should not be delayed beyond March 2006." What has held up this action is fierce disagreement over whether culling the elephants is a morally responsible choice--a debate that didn't exist in 1967.

What's changed? Scientists have told us in recent years that elephants and other higher mammals, such as chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins, whales and dogs, have aspects of consciousness, feelings and intelligence that until recently most people thought was the province of humans alone. Geneticists have shown that 98 percent of the human genetic code is identical to that of chimpanzees. Psychologists and neuroscientists assert that higher mammals experience emotions. Linguistic researchers have proved that many mammals have languages with a diversity of sounds and symbols. The debate over what to do about Kruger's elephants--like similar debates over the ethics of animal testing and the treatment of animals raised for food--is challenging us to reflect on how we treat other living beings.

The elephant is a fitting object of this dilemma because it has more in common with humans than meets the eye. Elephants typically live for 65 years, spending their first 14 years growing up in a social group. Females teach them about the geography and vegetation of their range, the social hierarchies of their species and how to raise their young. They are playful, compassionate with the sick and mournful of deceased family members. An elephant will pause and smell the bones of its dead, making mournful sounds too low for humans to hear.

The understanding that science gives us about what these animals experience--their capacity for emotion and awareness--supports the contention of some animal-rights activists that we must treat such creatures with more respect than we have in the past. …

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