How do you feel when you read about endangered animals being killed for parts?
I love animals — sometimes more than people. No matter the size or shape — they are amazing, majestic, interesting — they are all special just because they exist.
When I hear about another rhino being poached in Africa, or a lion being shot as a trophy, I get angry. The string of descriptive obscenities that come out of my mouth as I vent my feelings about such people are not fit for anyone’s ears — or eyes, in this case. I wonder how people can be so stupid, selfish, and blind to the fact we are killing off many species forever. It feels like if they just understood the facts, they would stop such unconscionable behavior.
The problem is that it isn’t that simple.
(Damn it. Why does everything have to be more complex?)
A Bit of Perspective
It’s easy for me to sit in my comfy four-bedroom home, knowing my refrigerator is full and my income relatively stable and pass judgment on people on the other side of the world. What must it be like to see an elephant trampling the crops that were meant to feed your family? Would you want to let it live to repeat the destruction? Is it really less acceptable than people here in the US who shoot coyotes and cougars because they hunt their chickens or sheep? I suspect it feels pretty similar.
I have read that chimpanzees are sometimes killed or maimed when caught in illegal snares set for antelope and bush pigs. Most of these traps are for domestic consumption — people trying to feed their families. The chimpanzees are unintended victims, which is sad, but how many of us wouldn’t do almost anything to take care of our families? In many cases, these are not bad people doing bad things, they are desperate people feeding families. When organizations go in to help teach sustainable ways of making a living, such as beekeeping, the changes are welcomed and senseless deaths reduced.
I recently read an article, I believe it was in the World Wildlife Fund Magazine, about a villager in Africa who had never thought about elephants in any way other than destroyers of villages, crops and even people. When she started working with an organization that helps locals prevent animal damage without harming them, she gained a new perspective. She realized elephants are beautiful animals and now that she sees there are ways to keep them away from her village, she no longer believes it is right to kill them.
In this case, addressing the underlying problem resulted in more compassion and hopefully, less elephant deaths. In how many other similar circumstances could targeted education and actions be the links that allow people to get what they need while also protecting wildlife?
I recently watched the 2017 Fuller Symposium (sponsored by WWF and National Geographic) and listened to Gayle Burgess, the Behavioral Change Coordinator for TRAFFIC, whose mission “is to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature.” She discussed 5 steps of behavioral change in the context of environmental conservation, and pointed out that in order to change behaviors, we must first understand what the benefits of the behavior are to those involved.
In Vietnam, for example, rhino horn is a symbol of power and also considered a treatment for many diseases. In order to stop the valuing of rhino horn for these purposes, attractive alternatives that meet the same needs must be offered. Giving facts about the dwindling numbers of rhinos that tends to appeal to the Western world is not effective because it does not speak to the needs the animal “product” fulfills. The people seeking to use rhino horn are not inherently “bad,” they are just seeking to have needs fulfilled in a way that is culturally appropriate for them.
I have wondered if I might try the same process in helping myself to understand those mostly rich, white men who believe trophy hunting African wildlife is an acceptable hobby. What need does that fulfill for them? Are they trying to prove their manliness to their fathers or work associates? Are they basically good people using an outdated method to prove their worth? If so, surely there are less destructive ways to go about it than shooting innocent, often endangered animals.
OK, that is still a tough one for me, but I understand the concept that if I can see these hunters as basically good people trying to fulfill a need, it would be easier to have a conversation and work towards a solution than if I simply demonize them. Maybe that is a key to much of the conflict seen not only in wildlife conservation, but in situations of conflict everywhere.
Conflict is some pretty heavy stuff. How about treating yourself to some play?
Stuart Brown, MD, founder of the National Institute for Play, teaches that play is as important to humans as vitamins or sleep. In light of this, please accept my Endangered Species Superheroes Activity Book as a gift for your health. It is 20+ pages of fun for all ages — earth-friendly word searches, fill-in-the-blank games, coloring pages and more.
(I originally published this article on Medium.com. If you would like to read more of my articles, please click here.)