Elephants And Ethics Explored

© Roger de la Harpe

What does the management of elephants have to do with abortion, cloning, HIV/Aids, stem cell research and the distribution of medicine during disease outbreaks? All of these issues are of ethical concern to South Africans and were all on the agenda at the Ethics Society of South Africa's third annual conference held from September 11-13, 2006.

The importance of the ethical concerns relating to elephant management in South Africa were highlighted by the fact that a whole day of the three-day conference was devoted to the matter. Speakers discussed the ethical issues relating to green hunting and elephantback safaris, as well as the moral dilemmas surrounding elephant culling and why elephants should be entitled to legal rights as a species.

Papers were presented by both local and international animal ethics campaigners, such as Jason Bell-Leask from IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) Steven Best from the University of Texas, Steven Wise from Harvard University, and Michele Pickover from Animal Rights Africa (ARA). Spokesperson for ARA, Steve Smit, says that one of the most important things coming from the conference was that "the majority of the speakers felt that elephants deserve a unique ethical consideration of their life."

However, he added that as an animal rightist he would like the ethical considerations that people discuss for elephants to be extended to other species. "It's not that we should elevate elephants above other species," but Smit feels that "elephants occupy a unique place and relationship with people," and that if the public can accept applying ethics to elephants, the campaign can be extended down to other species.

Smit says that ARA intends to write to the minister of environmental affairs and tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, to ask him to take into consideration the ethical issues raised at the conference when he drafts the new norms and standards for elephant management in South Africa.

"The case made for killing elephants could be made for humans, and so cannot even be considered for the exact same reasons." Smit also said that an important issue in the ethical consideration of elephant management was raised by the two American speakers, Steve Best and Steve Wise.

They argued that elephants could never adequately be protected unless they were given the same status, in the eyes of the law, as people are. They felt this might be achieved through the process of common law, where individual judges make rulings outside the law that protect elephants.

Melissa Wray
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