- From the EditorsThe Last Elephant?
Almost every year, we are told by scientists that one or more iconic species is threatened, on the verge of extinction, if not now actually extinct. Last year, 2016, was no exception. Both rhinos and elephants are under threat. "It is thought that African elephant numbers have declined from a population of 3–5 million in the 1930s and 1940s to fewer than 500,000 today" (African Geographic, 2016). Scientists regard elephants in particular as "keystone" species on which many other species depend for their survival.
How can we account for this lamentable situation? Although each individual situation varies, three general answers present themselves.
The first is pressure from the ever-growing human population. The World Wildlife Fund maintains that "humans are behind the current rate of species extinction, which is at least 100–1,000 times higher than nature intended" (World Wildlife Fund, n.d.). We are unsure what "nature intended" means in this context, since nature is not a moral agent. But it does seem indisputable that the human population is in danger of outstripping the world's natural resources. Since we believe in individual human rights, as well the rights of sentient nonhuman subjects, it is worth pondering how all such rights can be reconciled in the context of increasing overpopulation.
Every new human being born in the 21st century has rights to food, water, clothing, houses, schools, education, health care, and the rest, but where will this leave animals? As Stephen Clark (1977) rightly expostulated: "It is we that steal their land for cattle, and for roads, and industry, and then complain that they [animals] come a poaching" (pp. 82–83). Moreover, it is astonishing that the one species that regularly claims that animals should be "culled" (i.e., killed) to preserve "ecological balance" or "biodiversity" are themselves incapable of effectively regulating their own population. Despite the work of organizations, such as Population Matters (Population Matters, n.d.), few people, let alone governments, seem prepared to tackle this problem head on. The result is an unrelenting [End Page v] increase in the global population. We are slowly (or rather not so slowly) but surely edging other species off the planet.
Second, there is the philosophy of "wildlife management," especially "sustainable use." As the President of the Humane Society International John A. Hoyt wrote back in 1994: "According to this concept, in order for wildlife to survive, it must 'pay its own way' by being 'utilized' to produce economic benefits" (p. 1). Hoyt was surely prescient that subjecting free-living animals to the vagaries of economic supply and demand would demean their status, and so it has. Free-living animals, however majestic, intelligent, or iconic, are now being reduced to consumer items, so much so that despite considerable attempts at preservation, ivory is still at a premium in Asian markets because of economic demand. Even people who "farm" crocodiles now believe that they are ensuring their survival, whereas in fact of course they are simply opening up another source of economic exploitation.
Third, there is the failure of pragmatic approaches. The World Wildlife Fund's 2014 Living Planet Report "found wildlife populations of vertebrate species—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—have declined by 52 percent over the last 40 years" (World Wildlife Fund, n.d.). But it doesn't state the obvious corollary that this decline has happened despite developing manifold programs, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES; Nash, 2013, pp. 102–103), restricting, if not banning, some of the trade in animal parts, and expanding animal reserves and sanctuaries. Nothing should be done to minimize the importance of these strategic or tactical attempts to limit the risk that these species face. At the same time, it must be recognized that these remedies, however successful, are bound to be short-lived and short-term. So long as there exist animal parts that are desired and tradable, the future for all the relevant animals can only be dismal and ameliorated at best. As noted, some "conservationists" have already acquiesced in this thinking and proposed the "sustainable use...