The world is witnessing an unprecedented, human-induced collapse of biodiversity and is in the middle of a global pandemic caused by the consumption of wild species often kept in cruel, unsanitary conditions. Laws insisting on animal welfare and legal rights would have prevented this.

This is a guest post by Don Pinnock for the Conservation Action Trust.

Let’s face it, we treat most fellow animals very badly and rationalise ourselves into complacency. In addition to vast feedlots and hatcheries, we’re penetrating deeper and deeper into wild areas, clear-cutting forests, and are shaking loose viral contagions like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of our diseases are zoonotic – derived from animals. Hundreds are known, thousands more are lurking in non-conventional food like pangolins, civets, snakes, lion bones, bats, primates and bush meat. It’s time to take a hard look at how we regard the wild creatures with whom we share this planet.

Wild animals are regarded by humans in two very different ways: as commercial objects or with compassion. The position we take has to do with how we ourselves engage with the world.

According to David Bilchitz, a professor of Fundamental Rights and Constitutional Law at the University of Johannesburg, one view, sustainable use, sees wild animals solely in terms of their benefit to human beings. If they pay, they stay. It’s often wrongly cited as being based on the Constitution.

“This approach essentially rejects the notion that individual animals have worth and interests in their own right and are deserving of respect,” says Bilchitz. “It regards their lives and welfare as having very minimal value compared to the importance their use may have for human purposes. The interests of animals are subordinate to the economic benefits humans may achieve from their existence.”

According to this view, human self-interest is the lens through which the animal world is viewed and there’s very little reason not to use an animal in a way that advances that self-interest. This is essentially the logic of a virus: you can damage your host as much as you like but, if you want to survive, be sure not to kill it, so you can keep using it. This makes sense from the point of view of a virus but is bad news for a host.

The notion that Earth is here for our use and pleasure is deeply embedded in our collective assumption. It has served us well until now. But with the human population edging towards eight billion and crowding out spaces and species, that assumption needs a rethink. We have to rebalance our relationship with the natural world. COVID-19 is a warning of what happens when we don’t. How do we do this?

The 18th-century English jurist Jeremy Bentham said of animals: “The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?”

When we took over the world, wild animals, by default, became our subjects. Their welfare increasingly depended on our compassion. In its absence, they suffered.

Sustainable use is the polar opposite of compassion. It’s about our use of “things” with little regard for the individual suffering of those things. Applied to individual creatures, it’s very often extremely cruel.

The ability of animals to suffer is central to the idea of animal welfare, an approach that Bilchitz calls “integrative”. This requires an attitude of respect for individual animals that make up a species, an ecosystem and biodiversity itself.

What’s important to this approach are “relationships between individual animals and the environment in which they live, including their connection with human beings”.

These two poles in our engagement with wild animals are not simply abstract ideas, but are reflected in international treaties, national legislations, NGO campaigns and local protests in many countries.

In September 2015 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on sustainable development called Transforming Our World. It proposed 17 goals, number 15 of which was to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”.

Hidden within the obvious reasonableness of the goal was an assumption that wildlife is here for our use. Unfortunately, the history of human “use” of nature is more akin to plunder and “use”, in the long run, often tends to undermine sustainability.

The idea of sustainable use was reinforced at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in February this year. In building a “2020 global biodiversity framework”, one of its targets is to “enhance the sustainable use of wild species providing, by 2030, benefits, including enhanced nutrition, food security and livelihoods for… people”.

Sustainable use is also embraced by the Safari Club International, the world’s largest hunting association. It has a legal advocacy department that promotes hunting internationally and what it terms “sustainable use conservation”, the idea that killing wild animals assists in their preservation.

Support for sustainable use, touted as progressive wildlife management by such international organisations, is cascading through national and local systems. It’s the justification for activities like canned lion hunting, bear bile and tiger farms, the consumption of wild animals that kicked off the coronavirus pandemic and, of course, trophy hunting. It has nothing to do with the biodiversity conservation that Transforming Our World seeks to promote.

In his famous book, The Outermost House, written in 1926, the environmental writer Henry Beston took a different view: “Earth’s wild creatures are not our brethren, they are not underlings. They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow beings in the splendour and travail of Earth.”

Sustainable use has become the dominant mantra of the Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries and the Department of Agriculture. In the second part of this discussion on wild animals – Eat them like there’s no tomorrow – we’ll look at how this came to be.

As the world staggers under the catastrophic impact of eating a wild animal, probably a pangolin, the South African government has reclassified 130 wild animals as meat. The next pandemic could be round the corner with its epicentre at the southern tip of Africa.

South Africa has embarked on a mission to commercialise and commoditise wild animals. See: Living with Wild Animals part one. It has legalised the sale of rhino horn, failed to close down deeply discredited lion breeding facilities despite a Parliamentary resolution to do so, sanctioned the sale to Asia of lion bones for the production of fake tiger wine, allowed unrestricted fishing of dwindling shark populations and made a strong pitch at the recent CITES conference to open trade of elephant and elephant parts.

Underpinning this are some startling new regulations.

Late last year, 32 wild animals, including lions, giraffes, white and black rhinos, lions and cheetahs, were listed under the Animal Improvement Act, effectively rendering them farm animals subject to manipulation and consumption. They were listed in order “to provide for the breeding, identification and utilisation of genetically superior animals in order to improve the [food]production and performance of animals in the interest of the Republic”.

Then in February, 98 more wild animals were proposed to be listed under the Meat Safety Act, including rhinos, hippos, elephants and crocodiles. According to the act, they may be “slaughtered for food for human and animal consumption”.

Given that the Covid-19 outbreak came from the consumption of wild animals, the implications of these moves are deeply worrying, particularly following the news that a tiger in the NY Bronx zoo caught Covid-19 from its keeper and the possibility that it could infect other big cats. Captive-bred lions in South Africa could become a dangerous virus reservoir.

The Animal Protection Index (API), which ranks 50 countries around the world according to their animal welfare policy and legislation, has rated South Africa as “C” overall and “E” with regard to wild animals, alongside Nigeria, China, Pakistan and Argentina. It falls behind Kenya and Tanzania, two other African countries that rely heavily on wildlife tourism. Its report can be downloaded here.

The stated mandate of the Department of Environment is “to give effect to the right of citizens to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being and to have the environment protected for present and future generations”.

Wild animals, however, are not citizens. The department’s prevailing mantra and that of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development  (DALRRD)  is “sustainable use of specimens” with no provision for their welfare. It’s also the song of the wildlife industry.

Welfare is a political hot potato between the departments of Environment and Agriculture. When I asked the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEFF) about animal welfare, they claimed this was the role of the Department of Agriculture. That department referred me to the NSPCA, a small, underfunded non-government organisation with few inspectors. The NSPCA is tasked with implementing the Animal Protection Act on behalf of government but receives no state funding. Even Lotto funds to the organisation dried up two years ago.

In the parliamentary debate on wildlife regulations, questions about welfare were referred to the draft National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA). This provides for “the use of indigenous biological resources in a manner that is ecologically sustainable, including taking into account the well-being of any faunal biological resource”. According to the National Environmental Management Laws Amendment Bill, the use of “faunal biological resources” must be “ecologically sustainable and take into account their well-being”.

Apart from the shocking description of a living creature in this way, there is no legal definition of what “well-being” might mean, rendering it meaningless as a protection. It is clear, according to many environmental organisations, that terms like faunal biological resources do not reflect the intrinsic value or sentience of wild animals and are in contradiction with their welfare and protection.

The environment minister recently appointed a high-level panel to look into wildlife issues regarding the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of elephant, lion, leopard and rhinoceros, but departments are forging ahead before the panel has made any recommendations, effectively side-stepping it. The panel was appointed without public consultation. It’s predominantly composed of people involved in the use and exploitation of wildlife, including hunting, breeding, testing and slaughter.

There has been no requirement for panel members to publicly disclose their personal or organisational interests. Its terms of reference have not been made public and it’s not at all clear what the panel is meant to achieve.

The NGO EMS Foundation drafted a letter to the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Barbara Creecy, challenging the panel’s appointment, and another letter requesting that the TOPS regulations be withheld until there is further public consultation. Such regulations do not require parliamentary oversight but are forwarded to the National Council of Provinces, a body ill-equipped to give oversight on these issues. It’s clear that job creation at any cost and not animal welfare is at the root of government moves.

Recently, Creecy made a public statement on Twitter (later deleted) that: “It is not the animals that we need to worry about, it’s the people. After all, animals have been looking after themselves for hundreds of thousands of years. If we want to address these issues we need to focus our energy on the people.”

Within the overarching “development” framework and under the guise of poverty alleviation, South Africa is spearheading an aggressive “consumptive use” agenda of  “if it pays it stays”. We are sacrificing wildness on the altar of use.

This is not new. Historically, the government has always taken a pro-consumptive use stance in relation to wild animals. Under apartheid this was so a few people, mainly white, could benefit and have private hunting grounds, but today this use is part of the language of development. It includes vague phrases like “green economy, wildlife economy, wildlife industry value chain” and “biodiversity economy”.

The legislative dyke against cruelty should be the Animal Protection Act (APA), but it’s out of date and legally hock-tied, being administered by the Department of Agriculture which appears to be operating counter to the act’s directives. Agriculture is therefore unlikely to initiate a case against itself, so the APA is therefore effectively neutralised and few convictions for cruelty have been secured using its constraints.

One of the major failings of the APA is that animals are viewed as objects and property and not as sentient beings with their own rights and needs. The act also limits most instances of cruelty offences with a requirement that the suffering is unnecessary. Without a clear definition of suffering, the protections against commercial uses of animals are rendered so narrow as to be functionally meaningless.

Upgraded and given more teeth, it could protect the welfare of wild animals. However, it provides protection to animals only in the limited circumstances in which the criminal burden of proof can be established. It’s entirely “reactive” to specific incidences of harm and offers no prescription for animal welfare, kindness or care.

The direction in which South Africa’s environmental and agricultural departments are moving, unfortunately, reflects the UN’s questionable dictum of sustainable use but is out of step with our own higher courts and even the National Environmental Management Laws Amendment Bill (NEMLA). The bill, now under discussion and following the Constitution, uses the term “ecological sustainability”, requiring the integrity of whole systems be included in protection and thereby includes individual animals.

In 2016 the Constitutional Court handed down a judgment that elevated the welfare and protection of non-human animals to a constitutional concern. A minority view in that case held that animals are sentient beings capable of suffering and experiencing pain and are worthy of protection.

A later judgment in the North Gauteng High Court considered canned lion hunting to be “abhorrent and repulsive”. It found that even if captive lions are ultimately bred for trophy hunting and for commercial purposes, “their suffering, the conditions under which they are kept… remain a matter of public concern and are inextricably linked to how we instil respect for animals and the environment of which lions in captivity are an integral part of”.

In a Supreme Court case, the bench concluded that the rationale behind protecting animal welfare had shifted from merely safeguarding the moral status of humans to placing intrinsic value on animals as individuals.

This chimes with provisions in the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) which requires sustainable development to avoid the disturbance of ecosystems and loss of biological diversity. It insists on a risk-averse and cautious approach. How turning 130 wild creatures into farm animals relates to this is hard to imagine.

Why is any of this important? The world is presently witnessing an unprecedented, human-induced collapse of biodiversity and is in the middle of a global pandemic caused by the consumption of wild species often kept in cruel, unsanitary conditions. Laws insisting on animal welfare would prevent this.

An animal welfare approach insists that we regard with compassion individual creatures with which we interact. They each have intrinsic value, which limits the uses that can be made of them. The basic moral premise underlying wild animal welfare is that people ought to: 1. Understand how human actions affect the welfare of wild animals; 2. Consider wild animal welfare in making decisions about human actions; and 3. Take reasonable and practicable measures to avoid and minimise the harm that human actions will cause to wild animals.

This would make cruelty more difficult, our relationship with animals less brutal, mass slaughter more socially unpalatable and could protect us from the next viral contagion that comes from eating wild animals. Much of the wisdom of the past, says environmental philosopher Thomas Berry, has become inadequate in the present:

“We are presently concerned with ethical judgements on an entirely different order of magnitude. The human community has never previously been forced to ethical judgements on this scale because we never before had the capacity for deleterious action with such consequences.”

COVID-19 has forced the world to reconsider its relationship with wild animals, but South African legislation is increasingly pointing in the wrong direction. It urgently needs a rethink.

** Read my other shared posts by CAT here. For more information connect with or through their website. Look out for other guest posts from the Conservation Action team as I put my support behind their unwavering efforts. The original article was published on Daily Maverick.