Remember Cecil? It was the lion hunted by an American dentist in 2015 in Zimbabwe, and its death caused a major scandal worldwide. A great number of conservationist and animal rights organizations protested. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe also jumped on board: he energetically condemned Walter Palmer (the hunter), and demanded that he be extradited to Zimbabwe to face charges.
At the time, a lot of commentators pointed out that Mugabe was in no position to preach about anything. In fact, so the argument went, Mugabe was capitalizing on the scandal in order to drive attention away from the numerous human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. Instead of worrying about lions, it was claimed, he should be concerned about Zimbabweans.
Make no mistake: Mugabe is a brutal dictator. But, it is a very fallacious argument to claim that, just because a despot cares about animals, then we shouldn’t care about animals. Hitler loved his dog and he was a vegetarian. Should we, then, hate dogs and condemn vegetarianism? The answer seems obvious.
However, it would also be fallacious to claim that, inasmuch as Mugabe condemned the killing of a lion last year, he is now a hypocrite for proposing to allow the hunting of elephants in Zimbabwe. Perhaps elephants and lions are different, and we should not apply the same ethical standards. Lions are endangered, elephants are not.
Indeed, the governments of Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, have recently advanced a proposal to legalize elephant-hunting. Their argument is quite simple: there are plenty of elephants in those countries (27,000 in South Africa, 82,000 in Zimbabwe and 20,000 in Namibia). Regulated hunting poses no risk whatsoever to elephant populations in those nations. And, given the increasing demand for ivory in countries such as China, this would be a good opportunity for those three countries to make much-needed profits.
Is it a good idea? Ethicists of a libertarian bent have long thought so. Their argument is as follows: if hunting is legalized as a business, species will be protected. Capitalists will see in hunting a great profit opportunity, and they will make sure the species never go extinct (by providing breeding and conservation programs), precisely because it is the source of their profit.
As with many libertarian ideas, this one seems to have a powerful logic. But, also as usual in libertarianism, it places too much hope on economic rationality. Capitalists will not always act as libertarians expect them to. And, if history is any guide, it is quite obvious that most species have gone extinct precisely because of overhunting.
Nevertheless, with 82.000, the elephant population is quite strong in Zimbabwe, and at least in the short term, endangering the species is not a concern. So, is it ethically acceptable to legalize hunting in that country? Not so fast. There may be some other objections.
Why should we consider animals as creatures with lesser rights? If The Hunger Games causes horror in us, shouldn’t elephant-hunting be as terrifying? Ethicist Peter Singer has long denounced speciesism, the idea that individuals of other species do not have some rights (including the right to live). Not long ago, it was believed that people with dark skin color didn’t have the right to be free, and could thus be enslaved. We now condemn that as racism. Shouldn’t we, then, also condemn speciesism? In Singer’s view, speciesism is as immoral as racism.
But, Singer is also a utilitarian philosopher. Under utilitarianism, if an act generates a balance of good consequences, then it should be ethically acceptable. Thus, if a greater number of human and animal lives could be saved by killing a lesser number of elephants, then Singer would be forced to admit that, yes, killing the elephants is the right thing to do.
Is that the case in Zimbabwe? It is very doubtful. While it is true that elephants and humans may compete for resources (especially water) in remote areas of Namibia and Zimbabwe, there may be plenty of relatively simple technological alternatives to satisfy both humans and elephants’ needs. With good distribution systems, there is plenty of water for all.
What about profits from the ivory trade? Wouldn’t that help in feeding hungry children in those countries? Again, it’s not likely. Zimbabwe is a notoriously corrupt country, and in all likelihood, the spoils of the ivory trade will go to the Swiss bank accounts of Mugabe and his cronies.
Furthermore, there is a major concern raised by Botswana, a neighboring country with a more fragile elephant population. If hunting were to be allowed in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, there is an increased risk that hunters will eventually cross the border into Botswana, and they will endanger its elephant population.
In short: legalizing elephant hunting in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa is not a good idea. Fortunately, most other nations agree, and they are toughening the grip on elephant hunting.