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Clyde Israel
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The Moral Ambiguities of Rhino Poaching and Conservation

11 March 2014, 11:18

Rhino poaching in South Africa has increased dramatically over the last couple of years, however, whether it’s one of the most pressing problems facing wildlife conservation is a matter of debate. In order to better understand this issue, one must attempt to weigh in on the prevailing moral ambiguities, namely, intrinsic and instrumental values, as well as the empirical evidence at hand. Killing rhino may be considered a moral dilemma as it raises the question of what a moral agent ought or ought not to do, appealing to good reason and a sense of duty – usually when a sense of value converges upon empirical data often the conclusion is based in morality. However, moral outcome is reliant on perception, thus it is prudent to consider whose values are in question and attempt to discover how they are connected to the inherent character of individual circumstance, which is inevitably manipulated by the prevailing status quo, i.e. the laws and moral position of the social structure in which one exists.

The dual nature of intrinsic value can lead a moral agent in opposite directions: should a person have a conservative nature and lean politically right of centre, it is reasonable to assume a circumstance which leads to the adoption of an intrinsic value theory which is predominantly anthropocentric, where only humans have a soul, are self-aware, experience richness and self-concern, thus, whatever intrinsic value rhinos’ have is determined by humans - capitalism, free-market economics and the old testament theology of man must conquer nature, for his benefit only, is the common thread amongst these proponents; however, on the flip side, intrinsic value may also focus on the philosophical properties of an object, an ethos which extends beyond that of old testament dogma into matriarchal elements of ecofeminism, where one equates value with the fundamental aspects of mere existence. This type of ethic sets the stage for a new paradigm, one where everything is connected, made up of the same elemental matter, born of the stars and the end product of a seemingly endless billion year cycle of life and death - an ethic where all life, and that which enables it, is deserving of equal respect, and thus ‘value’.

Instrumental value theories are anthropocentric, measuring value in terms of gross domestic product, i.e. it perpetuates a capitalist free market, finding value in economics and the system’s ability to fulfil human needs and desires. Two lines of thought emerge: 1) Resource development and conservation – guided by cost benefit analyses, where moderation, limits to growth and concern for future generations are realised; 2) Wilderness preservation – where value is found in preserving nature for human use and benefit. Instrumental value theories assign a nominal intrinsic value to nature, they are considered to be: radical and not in line with the four pillars of sustainability; reliant on the ethics of technological optimism and theories of superabundance; having a taxonomy which is closely related to the anthropocentric hereditary of intrinsic value theories; and as such, the complexity of this issue, of morality, is further clarified.

In many parts of Asia rhino horn has been a valuable commodity for millennia: used as a panacea for illness; it is associated with virility; and serves to promote social cohesion and development through ‘face consumption’ and elite gift giving. This begs the question: is it moral to deny these societies access to rhino horn? Does global circumstance, which reflects generalisations of human universal traits, encourage an atmosphere enabling ecofeminism and the associated intrinsic value of existence? Human nature has led to concepts of the prisoner’s dilemma and the tragedy of commons, where current markets and economic systems breed inefficiency, are unstable and tend to accumulate money and power in an elite minority, perpetuating inequality; all of which increases the impact of degradation on human and natural environments – consider the plight of South African rhino. South Africa faces many challenges: increasing Inequality; a dismal education system; high unemployment; and corruption. In light of global and South African circumstance, it is logical to assume that rhino will be poached and its horn sold for profit, irrespective of and perhaps because of, the prevailing moral ambiguities.

The South African constitution and legislative framework is progressive in terms of environmental rights and democratic values: Article 24 of the constitution captures environmental rights within the context of human health, recognising the rights of future generations within the context of sustainable development while promoting justifiable economic and social development; the Bill of Rights affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality, and freedom; and the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) categorises rhinos’ as part of the environment and stipulates that development must be socially, environmentally and economically sustainable with responsibility falling upon every South African citizen to protect the environment. However, the constitutional court has ruled that a, ‘constitutional right to an environment is on a par with the rights of freedom to trade, occupation, profession and property.’ ‘It will require a balancing of rights when competing interests and norms are concerned.’ Therefore, denying Asian communities access to rhino horn denies them intrinsic value, detracts from the instrumental value of rhino horn and denies rhino intrinsic value; this controversy is exacerbated by the intrinsic and instrumental circumstance of rhino poachers whom are pawns within a global economic system which promotes a ‘dog eat dog’ circumstance.

South African conservation faces many challenges, all of which stem from the political and social status quo, defined by human universal traits which support a system of free market economics. This construct contributes to environmental degradation, and when considering the gravity of conservation issues, assessing the cause and related effect assists in the allocation of priorities and thus resources. Empirical data indicates that rhino conservation is a pressing issue, however, the underlying social, political and economic constructs which breed inequality, unemployment and corruption supersedes it and fuels all degradation. The crux of conservation questions surrounding rhino conservation are moral and determined by present attitudes towards the intrinsic and instrumental value of all life and the non-human aspects which support it. Learning to feed into human universal traits by searching for intrinsic and instrumental value in profit, will not only support a growing population and economy, but will also drive sustainability and protect commodities such as the South Africa rhino.

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