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1.4: Environmental Ethics

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    Most human societies today aim to protect biodiversity through rules and regulations (Chapter 12). An alternative approach is to change the fundamental materialistic values of modern society to values that prioritise genuine and lasting human well-being. This is the goal of environmental ethics, a discipline within philosophy that emphasises the ethical values of biodiversity. The foundation of environmental ethics lies in the philosophical principle that every organism of Earth has a right to exist, regardless of its usefulness to humans, so any action that negatively impacts biodiversity would be considered unethical.

    Because human quality of life is intricately linked to the ability of the natural world to prosper (Chapter 4), the ethical arguments for biodiversity conservation hold even for people who value only human life. Or, in other words, respect for human life—even our instincts for self-preservation—should compel us to preserve biodiversity. In contrast, if we neglect our assumed responsibility to act as guardians of life on Earth, future generations will suffer with a lower quality of life. We can already see signs of this today: as species are lost and natural ecosystems replaced with sprawling cities, children are increasingly deprived of the wonderful experience of seeing a ‘new’ animal (Figure 1.4) or pretty flower. We can imagine that we are borrowing Earth from future generations, and that it is our responsibility to ensure that they receive it in good condition.

    Figure 1.4 A ragged-tooth shark (Carcharias taurus, VU) fascinates two kids at the Two Oceans Aquarium, South Africa. People—and especially kids— enjoy seeing wildlife, as shown by the increased popularity of protected areas, zoos, and other institutions where biodiversity can be seen. Photograph by Karen Schermbrucker, courtesy of Two Oceans Aquarium, CC BY 4.0.

    Because of this close link between nature and human well-being, the concept of nature preservation has permeated through the value systems of most human cultures, philosophies, and religions throughout history. This is especially relevant in Africa, where most (if not all) traditional societies have a deep connection with nature that is woven into their spiritual beliefs and customs (Figure 1.5). Our responsibility to protect animals is also explicitly described in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Other major religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism also strongly support the preservation of non-human life. In light of accelerated biodiversity losses, faith-based groups have recently started playing a more active role in conservation, particularly among urbanised people. They do this by informing adherents that it is wrong to allow the destruction of nature, and that such destructive activities can have negative consequences for all people on Earth. These links between faith-based organizations and conservation have given rise to consortiums such as the Forum on Religion and Ecology (, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (, and the SCB’s Religion and Conservation Working Group (, as well as the emerging field of spiritual ecology (Vaughan-Lee, 2016).

    Figure 1.5 The spiritual connection between people and nature features strongly in ancient rock art made by Bushmen (also known as San, or First People) of Southern Africa, believed to be the oldest human population on Earth. Pictured here is a common eland (Tragelaphus oryx, LC), drawn by shamans to open the portals of the spiritual world. Photograph by Alan Manson,, CC BY 4.0.

    Environmental ethics has strong links to the environmental justice movement and has recently established strong ties to the social justice movement. Some of the most exciting developments in this direction involve initiatives that combine protection activities with community upliftment programs that improve the well-being of local peoples (Box 1.2; see also Section 14.3). These developments have shown that when poor and marginalised people are empowered to protect the environment, they may act as strong local guardians of forests, coastal areas, and other ecosystems that may have been destroyed otherwise.

    Box 1.2 The Okapi Wildlife Reserve: Protecting Nature and Providing for People

    Rosmarie Ruf & Marcel Enckoto

    Okapi Conservation Project,

    Okapi Wildlife Reserve,

    Epulu, DRC.

    The Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a World Heritage Site in peril, is located within the dense, tropical Ituri Forest in north-eastern DRC. The reserve was created to protect the okapi (Okapia johnstoni, EN) (Stephenson and Newby, 1997). Researchers estimate that there are between 10,000 and 25,000 okapi (Figure 1.B) left in the wild, but with populations appearing to have declined by more than 50% over the last 15 years (Kümpel et al., 2015). The reserve also protects charismatic species like forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), 14 species of primates, including chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes, EN), leopards, forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus), and bongo antelope (Tragelaphus eurycerus, NT).

    Figure 1.B The okapi, a relative of the giraffe, at ZooPark de Beauval, France. This species, one of the DRC’s natural treasures, survives only because of the dedication of a devoted group of conservation biologists. Photograph by Daniel Jolivet,, CC BY 2.0.

    Since 1987, the Okapi Conservation Project has partnered with the Congo Institute for Conservation of Nature, the government agency responsible for the Okapi Wildlife Reserve’s management, to provide financial and technical support for the operation of the reserve and preservation of the surrounding Ituri Forest. The project is partially managed and funded by Wildlife Conservation Global, a non-profit NGO based in Florida, USA.

    Despite the support, conservation managers in this region face various challenges due to political instability since the 1990s. This has led to the deaths and displacement of millions of residents and rampant poaching in the area and beyond. Epulu Station, the reserve’s headquarters, was tragically attacked in 2012, resulting in hostage taking, destruction and looting of the headquarters’ infrastructure, and the deaths of staff and families, as well as 14 okapis at the captive breeding station.

    To meet its goals in this difficult environment, the Okapi Conservation Project has seven objectives aimed at enhancing conservation, safety, and community:

    • Financially supporting the operation of the reserve, paying warden and guard bonuses, building informer and monitoring networks, and providing necessities, such as food rations for patrols, fuel and spare parts for travel and field equipment.
    • Maintaining and building infrastructure in the region that includes an airstrip, okapi pens, patrol posts for rangers, and high-quality tourism facilities. The project has also outfitted 20 health centres with necessities and has overseen the refurbishment and setup of territory offices in Mambasa and Wamba, the construction of a primary school in Epulu, and rehabilitation of medical dispensaries in Sondo and Koki.
    • Breeding okapi in captivity for release into their natural habitat to boost non-captive population numbers and genetic diversity. Between 1987 and 2012, the project succeeded in producing 11 calves.
    • Promoting environmental education, public engagement, and public awareness. Project staff achieves this by developing and implementing school programs in and around the reserve, presenting seminars in primary and secondary schools, and producing radio broadcasts. They also facilitate focus group meetings with women and farmers, public meetings in villages, work with local committees, and produce outreach materials such as conservation films, calendars, leaflets, and posters. The Okapi Conservation Project has already supplied 112 schools with educational materials.
    • Facilitating tourism activities, including visits around the Epulu Station and zoo, forest walks, and participation in traditional hunting.
    • Promoting food security in local communities by providing seeds and farming tools to more than 900 farmers in and around the reserve. In addition, more than 142 women have benefited from sewing and embroidery materials, and participation in community farm fields.
    • Offering medical care to more than 300 families, a total of more than 1,500 family members, who work at the reserve.

    The work of staff at the Okapi Conservation Project and Congo Institute for Conservation of Nature is not easy due to political instability, breakdown of law and order, and lack of financial security. The Reserve and surrounding area also face increasing pressures from mining, poaching, and logging interests. But the project is necessary to help preserve the unique biodiversity of this Global Biodiversity Hotspot. In coming years, we hope that governance of the region will continue to improve and restore peace, justice, and the socio-economic status of local people. In such a situation, local communities and ecosystems, including the okapi, will benefit.

    1.4.1 Conservation biology’s ethical principles

    Conservation biology rests on a set of underlying ethical principles that is generally agreed upon (Soulé, 1985) and can be summarised as follows:

    • The diversity of species and biological communities should be preserved: Most people appreciate biodiversity. Hundreds of millions of people visit national parks, game reserves, zoos, botanical gardens, and aquaria each year. They spend money and take actions to protect these places and species. People also recognize that biodiversity has economic value, whether through tourism, consumption, or other services.
    • The untimely extinction of populations and species should be prevented: Throughout history, species have occasionally died off as a result of natural, non-human causes. The loss of a local population was generally temporary, until a new population established itself through dispersal. However, human activities have increased the rate at which species are going extinct by more than a hundredfold (Box 1.3). Meanwhile, there is no similar increase in the rate at which new populations and species are being created.
    • Ecological complexity should be maintained: In complex natural environments, biodiversity expresses many of its most valuable features and interactions. Although the biodiversity of species may be partially preserved in captivity, maintaining ecological complexity requires that natural areas be preserved.
    • Evolution should continue: Evolution creates new species, increases biodiversity over time, and facilitates adaptation to changing environmental conditions. People can help preserve these evolutionary processes by maintaining genetic diversity in wild populations and allowing populations to exchange genetic material. In captivity, many natural evolutionary processes do not occur, which can hamper survival when species are reintroduced in the wild.
    • Biodiversity has intrinsic value: The value of species, communities, and ecosystems does not depend on their utility to people. They are intrinsically valuable on their own, with unique evolutionary histories and ecological roles. There are certain iconic species that people simply want to have around, but other, lesser-known species or species seen as problematic to people are not less valuable.
    Box 1.3 Biodiversity: Can Humanity be Saved?

    Nkengifor Nkeshia Valery

    Regina International Cameroon,

    Member of Union Farms of Africa,

    Yaoundé, Cameroon.

    What happened over the past 200 years that we have arrived where we are? How did we get to this modern paradox? A society where we cherish comfort at the cost of the ever-increasing destruction of our planet. Never in the history of humanity has the environment been degraded to the point that even the air we breathe has become cancerous. Animals are exploited by industries at an alarming rate and those remaining are killed to enrich a privileged few. And all this evil happens with our complicity as indirect consumers. Our inheritance from God, the source of all our nourishment, does not belong to us. Yet it has been bought and exploited by multinational corporations and financial markets that hinder us from cultivating sustainably. We are pushed to feed ourselves and our crops with chemical products that are dangerous to our long-term health. We are also experiencing the start of the sixth mass extinction episode of biodiversity (Ceballos et al., 2017). As a result, the natural world has declared World War III against humanity. This is a war fought not by nation against nation, but that the environment has declared against the whole human race.

    This war condemns us to live in an illusion of freedom; we are, in fact, destroyed at an increasing rate by different dangerous diseases and rendered slaves of the polluted environments that we blindly accept. The question we need to ask is not whether we should act to save our planet, but what future and meaning we are going to give the word “HUMANITY”. We are all actors in a civilisation that we are constructing; to quote the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. […] We need not wait to see what others do”. Let us pause and ask ourselves what we want the future to say of us. Are we a destructive generation, or a generation that is ready to sustainably preserve its biodiversity? It is a question every reader needs to ponder. The future is judging no one and blaming no one, but it needs us to change our habits towards protecting the world’s biodiversity.

    To change our attitude and make the world a better place, I drafted the following poem with passion to see my words become action for every lover of biodiversity




    These principles are not absolute, nor are conservation biologists required to agree with them—they are actively discussed and debated. But many individuals and organizations agree with two, three, or all the principles, and support conservation efforts.

    This page titled 1.4: Environmental Ethics is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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