Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Find a Better Way
distributed 10/16/03 - ©2003

"We had to destroy the village in order to save it." That saying from the Viet Nam War came to mind when as I heard of an outlandish proposal for dealing with endangered species.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is planning to change a long-standing interpretation of the Endangered Species Act, and allow the importation of several species that are on the brink of extinction. The plan would permit circuses and pet dealers to bring in live animals. It would also allow hunters and leather importers to ship in carcasses and skins.

Although the notice of this proposed change was published in the Federal Register in mid-August, it is only within the last week that word of this new policy has appeared in news reports. The period for public comment ends at midnight on Friday, October 17, 2003 -- TODAY for many of you. Details are provided below for submitting comments.

Let me surprise you all by saying that there are some ways in which I agree with the espoused purpose for the changes. (That sentence is carefully worded -- it does not imply my support for the policy!)

A Fish and Wildlife Service official spoke of a growing realization that the Endangered Species Act provides poor countries with no incentive to protect dying species. If US hunters, circuses, etc., were allowed to take a fixed number of animals from the wild, he said, the revenue provided would help protect the animals that remain.

The principle of eco-justice insists that social justice for humans and environmental sustainability can, and must, be held together. Eco-justice affirms that the folk in "poor countries" should not take an economic hit because we in the "rich country" have decided that animals in their country should be protected.

So, yes. It is perfectly valid to insist that US policies provide appropriate aid and incentives to those whose lives and livelihoods might be disrupted by our laws. The question then becomes, is this an appropriate way to achieve that goal?

Is it appropriate to have the species that are already at risk pay the costs of their own preservation efforts? Taking more animals from the wild -- whether dead or alive -- will cut the diversity in the gene pool, raise the risk of total extermination from some catastrophic event (disease or fire, for example), and increase the likelihood of illegal poaching. None of those effects are good for the critters.

Neither is this plan the best way to support the local communities or the countries that are involved. These days, live animals in the wild can be a far better source of income than the one-time payment that comes from a hunter or exporter.

A Denver Post editorial on this topic stated:

The fact is, developing countries get more economic value from preserving wildlife than they could ever reap from destructive exploitation. Kenya, one of Africa's leaders in wildlife conservation, says it would get a one-time benefit of about $10,000 if it let a hunter kill an elephant. But keeping that elephant alive in its native habitat brings the country up to $200,000 a year for decades.

"Eco-tourism" that focuses on exotic wildlife can be a very effective way of encouraging the preservation of species, and the habitat that they need. It works well with "charismatic megafauna" like elephants and gorillas. Where the tourism option isn't as viable -- the animal isn't cute, it is hard to see, or the region isn't attractive to visitors -- there are other ways of providing incentives for preservation. Those long-term options usually involve support for sustainable agriculture within the threatened habitat, or the development of new job categories that don't harm the species.

In principle, under the changed policy, the US would only issue import permits with regard to countries that have strong conservation programs in place. The income from hunting would be a reward for good environmental policies.

In practice, such "sustainable use" programs often don't work out. Adam Roberts, from the Animal Welfare Institute, said, "As soon as you place a financial price on the head of wild animals, the incentive is to kill the animal or capture them."

Argentinean wildlife biologist Enrique Bucher, commenting on "sustainable use" programs, said "It is a very romantic idea, but in practice I do not know of any positive examples."

The theological principle of the integrity of creation affirms vigorous efforts to save endangered species simply because they have value in their own right. (Think of Noah's Ark). A more pragmatic ethic recognizes the value of genetic diversity, the complexity of the web of life, and the unknown utility that may be found a the vanishing species. It is good to make conscientious efforts at preservation.

It is also good to work for just and equitable ways of achieving that goal. And so I affirm the -- I hope honestly expressed -- intent behind this proposed policy. But the evidence leans strongly away from this plan as a responsible, effective or ethical way to preserve endangered species. Let's squash this idea, and find a better way.

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To submit a comment to the public record, either for or against this proposed policy, you can send an e-mail to ManagementAuthority@fws.gov. At the top of the message, specify "TO: Dr. Peter Thomas, RE: Endangered Species Policy Change" and state, "Please include this statement in the record of public comments."

Or, the National Audubon Society has an on-line system for submitting a comment. They provide a sample letter that you can edit before sending it to Dr. Thomas.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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