Killing animals to save them

2008-01-17

in Canada, Economics, Politics, The environment

Nick’s dog Molly

The Inuit Tapiriit of Canada are protesting attempts in the United States to have polar bears designated as an endangered species. They argue that the bears are being killed in sustainable numbers, that a listing in the United States would cut off the supply of hunters, and that such hunting provides vital economic stimulus within their communities. Apparently, the total population of polar bears is estimated at 25,000. Between the summers of 2006 and 2007, 498 bears were killed – 120 of those by commercial hunters who paid about $30,000 for the right to do so. They also hired guides and purchased goods and services within native communities.

The situation raises a number of moral questions. The most obvious is whether it is ethical or prudent to fund conservation efforts through hunting. Unsurprisingly, The Economist says yes, at least for African game. It does make sense to say that ensuring conservation of nature depends on making such conservation in the interests of those who live in the region. After all, they are the only ones with a sustainable capacity for enforcement.

The polar bear may also be a special case. It is estimated that melting sea ice could slash their numbers by two thirds or more by 2050. In response to that, it is possible to argue that saving as many as possible from hunting is justified; it could also be argued that we may as well hunt them, since they are doomed anyhow.

The particular case of polar bears is probably not especially important. Barring dramatic and sudden shifts in the climate policy of most states, it seems unlikely that more than a handful will survive the coming Arctic melt. It is entirely conceivable that all Arctic summer ice will be gone in a few decades and that the bears will only survive in zoos, and possibly by shifting to a new habitat and food supply. The effect those changes will have upon the Inuit are difficult to over-state.

A more general moral question raised by all of this is: “To whom do species belong?” Legally, they belong to the states in which they are found. At the same time, it is part of international law that states are not permitted to take actions that impose ecological costs on other states. Clearly, Brazil or Indonesia burning or cutting down their rainforests has such an effect. The situation is less clear when it is a locally important ecosystem or a single species being considered. Do people in India or France have a right to the existence of polar bears? Is it part of the collective of nature, within which we are all trustees?

It does seem as though there is a certain force to that argument, and a parallel obligation on the part of states not to destroy elements of their natural legacy. Of course, a strong case can be made that allowing hunting to pay for conservation serves rather than violates this principle. Such are the kinds of questions that need to be hashed out within international law and politics as the clash between a notion of state sovereignty predicated on non-interference clashes with the nature of a world as interconnected and full of humans as ours is.

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Litty January 17, 2008 at 10:34 am

A more general moral question raised by all of this is: “To whom do species belong?” Legally, they belong to the states in which they are found. At the same time, it is part of international law that states are not permitted to take actions that impose ecological costs on other states. Clearly, Brazil or Indonesia burning or cutting down their rainforests has such an effect. The situation is less clear when it is a locally important ecosystem or a single species being considered. Do people in India or France have a right to the existence of polar bears? Is it part of the collective of nature, within which we are all trustees?

This applies especially to all the talk these days about Australia, Japan, and whaling.

Yuan January 17, 2008 at 10:54 am

Milan, do you think the polar bears will eventually smarten up and go south for food instead of heading up north into the vast arctic ocean (no more ice since it’s all melted)? But I guess such behavioural change may then lead to phenotypical changes as well sooner or later. So, the question is then whether they should still be considered as polar bears if they go south… LOL.
Phenotypic plasticity in relation to a species’ environment is one important question to address when we are talking about conservation. What do we want to preserve…? Is it the unique genetic composition of the animal or the unique phenotype displayed within the context of this animal’s natural habitat? And overtime, genetic traits evolve also… Is the goal of conservation to stop the animal’s natural ability to adapt to the changing environment made by men’s activities because these activities are not natural? So we try as hard as we can to leave their present habitat undisturbed… Wild animals vs. men, segregation seems like what the conservationists are trying to do — setting up reserves and protected areas and such. But I can argue that men are also part of nature and what we do is absolutely natural. Birds build nests but we build houses. Both can be considered as instinctive construction efforts for establishing shelter for gaining protection from the elements. But we with our well developed brains can do better than birds. We don’t just simply gather raw materials from nature, but we modify them so they suit our needs better. Anyways, my point is, by this logic, industry can be seen as a natural activity, even… it’s nest building at a much more advanced level.
… …
Anyways, I’ll continue this discussion with you at some other time. I have to run for class! =)

. January 17, 2008 at 11:09 am

Australia to act on whaling row

Australia has said it will send a ship to collect two activists from a Japanese whaling vessel, in a bid to end a two-day Antarctic stand-off

. January 17, 2008 at 12:00 pm

OFFSHORE DRILLING: Lawmakers want decision on polar bear before leases offered (01/17/2008)

Key members of the House and Senate are trying to delay the Bush administration’s plans to expand oil and gas drilling off the coast of Alaska until after the administration makes a final decision on protecting the polar bear.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said yesterday that he is working on legislation that would require the Interior Department to delay its drilling rights sale in the Chukchi Sea until after it makes a decision on the whether to protect the bear under the Endangered Species Act, and whether to designate protected habitat for the bear.

Two groups of House and Senate members — including Markey and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) — are also sending two separate letters today to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to ask him to delay the sale.

The Minerals Management Service, which is part of the Interior Department, decided two weeks ago to open almost 30 million acres to oil and gas developments in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska. MMS is scheduled to auction the leases Feb. 6.

The Chukchi Sea area may contain up to 15 billion barrels of oil, according to MMS. But it is also prime habitat for the polar bear.

The lawmakers are concerned about potential harm the sale could have on polar bears. Their chief concern is what could happen to the bears if a large oil spill occurred. An environmental impact statement from MMS said that a large spill could have “significant impacts” on polar bears.

. January 17, 2008 at 2:24 pm

Polar Bear Politics

Listing polar bears under the Endangered Species Act won’t do much good, but we should do it anyway.
By Holly Doremus
Posted Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008, at 12:24 PM ET

Emily Horn January 17, 2008 at 3:07 pm

A more general moral question raised by all of this is: “To whom do species belong?”

That raises very interesting questions about whether animals have rights. If they don’t, then they can be considered ‘territory’ of the state in question, but if they do, their preservation becomes more of a global incentive. If a state is violating their rights, wouldn’t it be seen as appropriate by the law for other states to intervene on their part?

Jenn January 17, 2008 at 5:54 pm

Here’s to hoping that we are able to protect them from hunting and more importantly that such a beautiful species will be able to seek out and adapt to a new natural environment once the melt occurs, even if only a few survive. Who’s to say that those hunted now wouldn’t be, or give birth to, the few to survive the melt.

It breaks my heart to think of what’s to come…

Sarah January 17, 2008 at 10:27 pm

It does seem reasonable to enquire about whether listing polar bears as ‘endangered’ under US law does anything to reduce the chances of polar bears becoming extinct. If the change does little or nothing to reduce the probability of their extinction then it doesn’t make much sense to impose economic harm on poor communities who already face major difficulties due to climate change (eg melting permafrost causes holes in the ground which break up roads & houses, ice roads melt etc, in addition to the likely loss of cultural practices on hunting etc which have likely prevailed for thousands of years). Of course, one could decide to protect the bears AND financially support the Inuit – a choice which partially avoids the tradeoff but which the US government (and many environmentalists) will dislike on grounds of expense.

Milan January 18, 2008 at 10:22 am

This applies especially to all the talk these days about Australia, Japan, and whaling.

It does. You cannot really beat the Japanese when it comes to gall: continuing to claim that the thousands of whales they catch are all for ‘scientific research.’

Is it the unique genetic composition of the animal or the unique phenotype displayed within the context of this animal’s natural habitat?

These are excellent questions and relate to contending conceptions of what it means for something to be ‘natural.’ One way of responding is to say that conservation means leaving future generations with the same options we have, if possible. We cannot stop biological evolution from proceeding, but we can try to avoid making irreversible or systemic changes within natural systems.

That raises very interesting questions about whether animals have rights.

That is certainly an interesting question, though one that doesn’t have much legal force internationally. Given the unwillingness of states to intervene even in the face of large scale violations of human rights, it seems unlikely that animal advocacy will become a force within diplomacy any time soon.

…that such a beautiful species will be able to seek out and adapt to a new natural environment once the melt occurs, even if only a few survive.

The question Yuan asked above is quite relevant here. Are white bears that do not hunt seals on the sea ice still polar bears, or have they become something else fundamentally? It may be preferable to have adapted bears compared to none, but something will undeniably be lost when the present configuration of the ecosystem is disrupted.

If the change does little or nothing to reduce the probability of their extinction then it doesn’t make much sense to impose economic harm on poor communities who already face major difficulties due to climate change

While it is clear that hunting is not the major threat to polar bears, it is possible that a listing could help to minimize other threats. The degree to which that compares in importance to the economic vitality of northern communities is tricky.

Sarah January 18, 2008 at 2:04 pm

While it is clear that hunting is not the major threat to polar bears, it is possible that a listing could help to minimize other threats. The degree to which that compares in importance to the economic vitality of northern communities is tricky.

That’s what I thought was going on: in essence, people are hoping to force more governmental action on climate change (and restrict oil exploitation) via a huge Save the Bears! campaign.
But if you’re an Inuit whose house is threatened by holes in the permafrost and whose job and local economy (already dirt poor by most of our standards) depends on hunting bears, then you’d be royally pissed off to be further penalised just because it might help some white people encourage other white people to resolve a problem that they caused and which is (thusfar) mostly harming you. Frankly, Americans saving poor endangered polar bears from the Inuit sounds a little like traditional (and wholly inaccurate) Western justifications of colonialism as white men saving brown women from brown men.

Kerrie January 20, 2008 at 3:38 am

Sarah makes a good point. I think it is worth pointing out the relative cost to individuals depending on where they are situated in this argument. For American tourists, there is very little cost for them to stop hunting the polar bear. For Inuit communities, it is a matter of livelihood/life. It is not a coincidence that policy makers are adopting a stance representative of the more privileged group-and we’ve seen this play out before with adorable baby seals and lovable whales, which all seem to be more deserving of compassion than Canadian First Nations in the eyes of the dominant public.

Single-species conservation is retarded anyways. They would have a much harder time banning the unsustainable and environmentally suicidal practice of driving, wouldn’t they? And yet what would make a more positive impact on nature? Oh wait, the automobile is so central to our livelihoods, our economy, and our way of life that only a MORON or a TYRANT would take drastic measures to end it. (I’m being ironical).

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Previous post:

Next post: