Choosing animals over humans
and are gorilla toddler twins who playfully tumble over each other in the vast Dzanga Sangha rain forest, one of the best places to see gorillas, antelopes and elephants play.
This area where Central African Republic, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo come together is one of the wildest and most remote parts of the world, and the three countries have established bordering national parks. I also visited a forest glade filled with 160 elephants and a large herd of bongo antelopes (pictured), plus a few African buffalo. I felt myself melting. Yet when I turn sentimental at the majesty of wildlife, I sometimes feel uneasy. Does honouring animal rights come at the expense of human rights?
When the shooting of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe attracted far more outraged signatures on a petition than the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a US police officer, writer Roxane Gay tweeted, “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.”
Years ago, I visited a rain forest camp where young Americans and Europeans were volunteering to assist gorillas as part of a conservation programme. It was impressively altruistic — but these idealists were oblivious to Pygmy villagers nearby dying of malaria for want of $5 mosquito bed nets.
So are we betraying our own species when we write cheques to help gorillas? Is it wrong to fight for elephants and rhinos while 5 million children still die each year before the age of five? At the broadest level, it’s a mistake to pit sympathy for animals against sympathy for humans. Compassion for other species can also nurture compassion for fellow humans. Empathy isn’t a zerosum game.
Conservation organisations have become better at giving local people a stake in the survival of animals. The Dzanga Sangha Protected Area hires 240 local people, from rangers to trackers who locate the gorillas and get them habituated to people.
“These efforts are good for us,” said Dieudonné Ngombo, one of the trackers. “We work and get a salary, and then our kids live better and we sleep well.”
Luis Arranz, a Spanish wildlife biologist who runs World Wildlife Fund efforts in Central African Republic, said the conservation programmes depend on the local community to watch out for poachers.
Northern white rhinos are on the verge of extinction because of poaching to feed Chinese demand for rhino horn, with the last male in the world dying recently in Kenya.
So compassion for elephants or rhinos or gorillas is not soggy sentimentality, but a practical recognition of shared interests among two-legged and four-legged animals. Go ahead and embrace animal causes without a shred of guilt.