Choos­ing an­i­mals over hu­mans

The East African - - MAGAZINE | DISCOVERY - - Ni­cholas Kristof, NYT

In­guka In­ganda

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.

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