Why should we care


Andrew Kirkby, International Intern

Date Published

I am watching an elephant, amused by the way it twirls its trunk around the grass to feed, humoured by the way a calf is chasing impala, amazed at a friendly touching of trunks as one greets a newcomer, and curious about what I am also missing in these interactions. However, I know others will look at an elephant and feel and think something different. Some will be amazed and take many pictures, or will think ‘menace’ and run to defend their fields, while others might think of the acquisition of wealth in one way or another. Different values and life experiences show us different worlds.

Yesterday I was observing 6 elephant families, all down by the Ewaso Ng’iro river. The image was impressive, so many elephants in one location! That night gun shots were heard and in the morning rangers and search teams found Bonsai, one of the females we were observing dead, across the river from where we were watching them. My fellow intern, Gao posted the incident on his social media. One of the responses, out of many, asked; ‘why should we care?’… So how do you answer this question to someone with different values and life experiences so that they can be on the same page and see your point of view?

These reasons came to me about the general importance of elephants and wildlife as a whole in Kenya:

– Economic and wellbeing: Money from tourism brings in almost 900 million USD into Kenya annually (Kenyan Ministry of Tourism, 2010). Loss of an elephant means loss of money.

– Ethical: Besides the fact that killing for wealth is unethical, elephants are sentient and emotional beings with vast knowledge that they pass on to their young. One dead elephant means a great loss to the herd.

– Intrinsic: Elephants have the right to life, so who are we to decide the importance of a species.

– Cultural importance: To Samburu people, elephants are regarded as moral beings capable of hurting and being hurt. As a result, elephants attain a higher moral status in their society, more than any other animal, including livestock (Onesmas Kahindi, 2001). To the Kenyan national it is cultural heritage, national pride, the emblem of the Kenyan Wildlife service and other Kenyan products.

– Environmental: elephants act as keystone species, in maintaining grasslands in savannah habitats by repressing tree growth and thereby maintaining savannah and shrub land (or whatever they maintain), which multitudes of other species rely on. Elephants in forests act as major seed dispersers. In DRC, it was found that 14 of the 18 target trees (78 percent) were no longer reproducing enough young to replace old trees in the absence of elephants (David Beaune et al, 2013).

– The bigger picture: The killing of an elephant is a huge reminder of the global ivory trade issue. Main supplier states are Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, consumer states being China and Thailand, with Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines being major transit states (CITES conference 2013).

These are all logical reasons, but to care some emotion needs to be evoked. When does someone care? When is someone’s behaviour stimulated to value nature or a natural resource? This creates a slightly different list… one which includes values that people fundamentally care about.

– Enlightenment: To gain knowledge. Those who value this want to learn more about elephants, their behaviour or the way they shape their environment.

– Affection: To gain friendships, relationships and to feel love, intimacy and loyalty. As highly social beings, we care about each other’s interests. In Samburu for example, many local people are employed in conservation and thus their friends care about their work and elephants indirectly.

– Reputation: To gain respect. Conservation and elephants (as a flag ship species) can often be used as a means to gain positive reputation, either by an NGO, government organisation, or by individuals.

– Power: Linked to reputation and often a goal of leaders, governments or NGOs. Participating in conservation is a way to gain more reputation and respect and thus more power. There is, of course, also power in information and so this is connected to enlightenment.

– Wealth: Gained from employment and business in wildlife tourism, media, conservation and research.

– Skills: To gain or maintain. From researchers to tour guides, many careers rely on their wildlife subjects. Skills can also be obtained to gain more knowledge and wealth.

– Physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing: Working to feel good about yourself, gaining the feeling good by doing what is morally right. This idea often relies on the intrinsic values of an animal or system. Caring about the people in the affected environment, i.e. preventing human-wildlife conflict or preventing the negative effects of loosing wildlife.

Finding a common interest in why you should care about the killing of an elephant seems easier to explain after you have identified the personal values for conserving nature. In China, ivory carving is cultural heritage, buying ivory is often seen a wealth investment. However, global trends in elephant populations indicate widespread decline and possible extinction as poaching has tripled in the last year (UNEP et al,. 2013). Although it seems like a very odd concept to conceive, just like game hunters being conservationists, ivory carvers risk losing their culture, skills and livelihoods just as much as the Samburu people, for example. I believe common interests can always be found, however, sometimes it would have to be achieved at the expense of the individuals’ special interests which might be in conflict with the good of the whole community, for instance the undue pursuit of wealth and power in a trade that is unsustainable and has negative effects on others. After ivory carvers, trader and buyers begin to understand the situation and what is at stake, they might agree to reduce their business in the interest for both their future of the ivory carving culture as well as the African elephant.

Who decides which is the most important common interest for the whole community (wealth or enlightenment for example), and who should have to sacrifice? I hope that we make the wise choice.

We should care.

I have used this blog as a means to put down my thought process and to share it with others, but I know it is by no means comprehensive. I would very much like to thank Gao for his help in developing the ideas to tackle this question.