A Welfare State For Elephants?
A Case Study of Compassionate Stewardship
Within the next few decades, the exponential growth of computer power will ensure every cubic metre of the planet is computationally accessible to remote monitoring, micro-management and control. Harnessed to biotechnology and nanorobotics, this growth in surveillance and control capabilities presents huge risks and huge opportunities. In a dystopian vein, such technologies lend themselves to advanced war-fighting, or they could be used to sustain an Orwellian dictatorship. Alternatively, such technologies could deliver compassionate stewardship of the entire living world.
High-tech Jainism of the kind needed to safeguard the interests of smaller mammals, let alone the well-being of marine vertebrates and (ultimately) members of other phyla, is still decades away. The CRISPR revolution in genome-editing is only a few years old. Nanotechnology, and in particular nanorobotics, is still in its infancy. The obstacles to a cruelty-free world aren't merely technical. Even as the technologies of intervention become cheaper and readily available, human status quo bias may postpone implementation of a compassionate biology indefinitely. The ideology of conservation biology is deeply entrenched. So ambitious germline interventions to "reprogram" traditional predator species, orchestrate pan-species fertility regulation, and guarantee the well-being of all sentience in our forward light-cone probably aren't on the horizon for a century or more. Yet this sort of timescale doesn't mean discussions on ethical intervention / stewardship are just idle philosophising. On the contrary, some forms of compassionate stewardship are technically feasible right now. Many of the worst and most morally urgent cases of wild animal suffering are the most accessible to intervention; and also the least expensive to remedy.
Launching our compassionate stewardship of the living world with free-living elephants might seem an arbitrary choice of species. Why choose elephants for a feasibility study? But from an ethical point of view, elephants are a prime candidate. With a brain weighing just over five kilograms, the African elephant has the largest mind/brain of any terrestrial vertebrate. On some fairly modest assumptions, elephants are among the most sentient nonhuman animals. All the technologies necessary for a comprehensive elephant healthcare program are available, in principle if not yet in practice. Nothing speculative or even especially futuristic in the way of high technology need be invoked to lay out the foundations of an elephant welfare state, although software tools for efficient remote monitoring and tele-diagnostics need further development. Admittedly, free-living elephants offer a comparatively "easy" example of compassionate species care. Elephants are large, long-lived, charismatic and herbivorous. No seemingly irreconcilable interests are involved (e.g. lions versus zebras) in safeguarding their interests because mature elephants typically have no natural predators besides Homo sapiens. The limiting factor on elephant population size in the absence of human predation or artificial fertility regulation is inadequate nutrition.
The starkest exception to this generalisation is the terrible case of lions in Savuti. Opportunistic killing of juvenile, sick or badly injured elephants by other predators, notably hyenas, does occur; but such killing is relatively infrequent. It's the kind of horror that compassionate stewardship of Nature could prevent.
Are Cared-For Elephants Really Free-Living?
As with humans, "free-living" is not synonymous with "wild". Critics of any blueprint for an elephant welfare safety-net may claim that the recipients of healthcare, food aid and emergency relief won't be truly free. This is not the place to explore the metaphysics of freedom, nor to enter human left-right political debate. Elephants are not economic actors; the expression "welfare state" may set libertarian alarm-bells ringing, but in this context it's politically neutral. If intelligently run, crisis-interventions in time of drought needn't give rise to an elephant "dependency culture"; this is not feeding time at the zoo. Critics will undoubtedly allege that elephants whom humans have assisted or saved from harm are no longer truly "wild" or "natural". But humans who wear clothes or who take medicine aren't thereby less human or somehow diminished compared to their "wild" conspecifics. Likewise elephants.
Some animal advocates claim that the use of immunocontraception in over-populated wildlife parks violates the presumed right of nonhuman animals to procreative freedom. Intimate or remote monitoring as canvassed here violates the supposed right of nonhuman animals to privacy. Yet worries about privacy breaches, in particular, are an unwarranted anthropomorphic projection on our part. The alternative to fertility control is witnessing one's calf slowly starve to death in a degraded habitat, or the brutal practice of "culling" (i.e. massacring whole elephant families) to prevent ecological devastation.
The loss of a calf or a child, or of a matriarch or a mother, is traumatic for elephants and humans alike.
Costs of Intervention.
What would be the financial cost, at contemporary prices, of cradle-to-the-grave healthcare and welfare provision for the entire population of free-living African elephants? The elephant population of the African continent currently stands at around 500,000. Elephant taxonomy is currently in flux; but the half-million figure includes what is commonly known as the savannah (or bush) elephant, Loxodonta africana, and the forest species of elephant, Loxodonta cyclotis. An annual cost of somewhere between two and three billion dollars seems plausible. Most of the same challenges and opportunities arise for securing the well-being of the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus. An estimated 40,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild. So the type of program sketched out below could be implemented in SouthEast Asia at a fraction of the price.
Most human healthcare expenses are incurred in the last six months, and often the last six weeks, of life. In the case of elephants, we simply don't know the upper bounds to life-expectancy, given adequate late-life dentition. Assuming effective orthodontic care, this particular challenge, i.e. managing the age-related infirmities of free-living geriatric elephants, will (presumably) be decades away from the launch of an orthodontic healthcare service. After being GPS-chipped, vaccinated and (where necessary) provided with immunocontraception, most free-living elephants could be remotely monitored but otherwise largely left in peace - apart from in years of severe drought and famine, when costly crisis-interventions will be necessary. To flourish, free-living elephants need a habitat that offers fresh water, plentiful vegetation for grazing and browsing; and some available shade. A mature African bush elephant typically ingests over 200 kilograms of vegetable matter daily. The elephant emergency equivalent of Humanitarian daily rations (HDRs) will be quite bulky. When needed, the cost of providing additional vaccinations, vitamin and mineral supplements, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, parasiticides, sedatives and anaesthetics, antibiotics, antifungals and antivirals, disinfectants and cleaning agents will not be negligible; but the relevant agents are almost all off-patent. Training and labour costs of ancillary support staff in sub-Saharan Africa are comparatively low; and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Close, politically sensitive collaboration with the local human populations will be vital to the long-term success of the project. Elephant healthcare work could provide valuable employment. Some forms of expertise could be delivered only by specialist veterinarians. An air-ambulance service would incur significant transport costs.
Ivory poaching and habitat destruction have dramatically reduced unprotected elephant populations over the course of the past two hundred years. However, in favourable conditions elephant populations may increase at four to five percent per year. Inevitably, such growth is ecologically unsustainable. In the long run, humans will have to choose the overall level and demographic profile of elephant populations in our wildlife parks, or otherwise let Nature (i.e. famine and malnutrition-related deaths) take its course. The victims of "natural" climatic disasters will mainly be the young, the sick and the old. As with tomorrow's humans, advances in behavioural genetics and reproductive technologies will shortly allow use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis to choose everything from pain thresholds (cf. variant pain-modulating alleles of the SCN9A gene) to susceptibility to depression (cf. the role of the COMT gene and serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR)) to personality variables. Or policy makers may opt to perpetuate the traditional genetic roulette of sexual reproduction. Once again, political and ethical choices will be unavoidable.
Provision of perinatal elephant care is potentially expensive. Immediately after birth, the young calf is most vulnerable to predation by lions, hunting dogs and hyenas. An elephant calf’s first year of life is his or her most hazardous. Mortality rates range from below 10% to more than 30%. Calf mortality is liable to increase when ranges are restricted and habitats change so opportunities for browsing and midday shade become less available. Causes of juvenile death include not just predation, but disease, accidents, drought, starvation, nutritional deficiencies, stress, heat stress, drowning, becoming trapped in mud-holes, snake bite and congenital malformation. In the face of potential predators, the calf's mother will vigorously defend her newborn. Unfortunately, the calf may not always be able to keep in the secure position under her mother's abdomen. Moreover the calf will still be vulnerable to predators for some years to come. After six months or so, the youngster starts to move further from his or her mother. If potential predators are near, (s)he is at risk of being left behind if the herd is disturbed or stampeded.
Elephants typically give birth to one calf. Less than one percent of births involve twins: one and often both calves usually die within weeks or months of birth. Intervention here will be needed to ensure a favourable outcome.
Orphaned elephants will need special protection. A calf normally continues suckling at least until two years old. Unaided, orphaned young elephants below the age of two or three years rarely survive in the wild. In a few countries, the basic infrastructure of elephant orphanages is already in place; such rescue and rehabilitation services just need extension, systematisation and adequate funding. After weaning, annual elephant mortality rates are perhaps five or six percent until about the age of 50 years. Mortality rates rise sharply in the sixth decade.
Elephants are normally robust and peaceable. However, fights do occur, particularly between bull elephants disputing access to a female in oestrus. Occasionally, one or both parties may be badly injured in such aggressive encounters. Bone fractures will need to be treated by elephant orthopaedic specialists.
Disease Prevention and Treatment.
Like humans, elephants are susceptible to infection by tuberculosis, a treatable disease caused by a bacterium that affects especially the lungs. Mosquito-borne diseases are also a risk. Anthrax may be contracted via contaminated water or soil. Some ailments are specific to elephants, notably trunk paralysis and elephant pox, but other afflictions are common to humans and elephants alike, ranging from intestinal colic and constipation to pneumonia. Elephants may even catch the common cold, though this condition is self-limiting. Ill elephants often attempt to self-medicate, treating digestive diseases through fasting or consumption of bark, bitter herbs or alkaline earth. Such limited self-treatment can be complemented by human expertise in scientific medicine.
Human depredations aside, the greatest source of mature elephant morbidity and mortality is inadequate nutrition. Elephants replace their teeth multiple times. The fifth set of chewing teeth (molars) lasts until the elephant is in his or her early forties. The sixth - and usually final - set must last the elephant the rest of his or her life. Ageing elephants may roam in search of marshy areas with softer food sources. As the final set of molars wears away during the late fifties, the elephant is no longer able adequately to chew food. S/he will die from the effects of malnutrition or starvation. Free-living elephants do not usually live much past sixty years. Elderly elephant deaths generally occur during the dry season. This is because dry food cannot be effectively sheared by the residual smooth grinding surface of the worn-down sixth molar.
The weakened and emaciated elephant will eventually collapse. Helpless, s/he may be eaten alive by scavengers and predators. Late-life orthodontics to prevent this fate will be more costly than routine GPS tracking or immunocontraception. But the kinds of material used for "false teeth" could last decades without need for replacement.
During severe droughts, the construction and maintenance of artificial waterholes will be necessary to prevent tragedies. However, during a drought deaths are normally from starvation or malnutrition rather than thirst. This is because elephants are reluctant to leave known water-sources to find food. Deaths may also be related to heat stress. However, the congregation of herds of undernourished and malnourished elephants at remaining water-holes will make provision of crisis nutritional support easier and cheaper.
Elephant Psychiatric Care.
Like people, elephants may suffer low mood, anxiety disorders and depression. Elephants grieve when they lose a calf or close family member. Psychoses may occur, but primarily in consequence of captivity, rarely in their natural habitat. In common with people, the incidence of endogenous depression is lower when elephants are living in their natural habitat in small family groups rather than suffering solitary confinement in captivity. Post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of hunting or natural trauma could potentially be treated with inexpensive beta-blockers. Determining the appropriate drug dosage in different treatment regimens still depends on metabolic scaling formulas. Such crude procedures are used because comparatively few pharmacokinetic studies have been conducted to provide elephant-specific information. If an ethical discipline of compassionate biology replaces a doctrinaire conservation biology, this relative lack of studies can be remedied.
For now, financial projections of comprehensive free-living elephant care will depend on back-of-an-envelope calculations rather than a rigorous methodology. But a $2.5 billion annual price-tag of full healthcare and welfare provision for the entire population of free-living African elephants may turn out to be pessimistic. Financial planners will just need to bear in mind the potential for cost overruns and unexpected expenses that tend to plague any new enterprise. The likely extent of corruption, maladministration and the growth of a welfare bureaucracy in an elephant healthcare program are hard to quantify too. In practice, the great majority of Africa's 500,000 elephant population would need far less than the annual $5000 per head this figure allows. Neurochipping, individual genome sequencing, vaccinations, GPS tracking and (when appropriate) immunocontraception would cost at most a few hundred dollars. The GPS-chipping, individual genome sequencing and vaccinations would typically be a one-off expense rather than a regular part of the annual budget. What's feasible at modest expense for e.g. all UK "domestic" dogs is no less feasible for free-living elephants. Chipping could range from simple tagging to more complex remote-monitoring of health status (e.g. cortisol monitoring. Elevated cortisol levels are suggestive of high stress and consequent need for investigation and possible compassionate intervention.)
What would be the timescale for complete coverage of Africa's elephant population? Perhaps one or two years - but only if an international consensus existed.
The Speciesist Objection.
Even the most sympathetic critic of compassionate biology is likely to raise a seemingly compelling objection. Hundreds of millions of human beings do not yet enjoy an adequate welfare safety-net. Couldn't the estimated annual two or three billion dollars cost of an elephant welfare program be more fruitfully spent promoting human welfare instead? Africa needs Obamacare not elephant care.
Whatever our response to this objection, our answer should not clouded by arbitrary anthropocentric bias, i.e. speciesism. It's worth stressing that anti-speciesism is not the claim that "All Animals Are Equal", or that all species are of equivalent value, or that the well-being of a human - or an elephant - is as important as the well-being of a mosquito. Rather it's the claim that other things being equal, all animals, human and nonhuman, of equivalent sentience are of equal value and deserve equal consideration. Comparisons are invidious; but the anti-speciesist argues that ethically what matters in resource allocation is not ethnic group or species membership but sentience. Thus there is no evidence that degree of sentience is bound up with e.g. the species-specific allelic variations of the FOXP2 gene implicated in the human capacity for generative syntax. Microelectrode studies of the human brain using verbally competent awake subjects confirm that the most intense forms of sentience, notably our core limbic emotions, are also the most phylogenetically primitive, whereas the phenomenology associated with such distinctively human cognitive capacities as higher mathematics or generative syntax is also the most subtle and rarefied. The phenomenology of language-generation is barely accessible to introspection. Abundant evidence suggests elephants are at least as sentient as human the toddlers. Elephants can pass the "mirror test", thereby demonstrating a capacity for reflective self-awareness. The elephant hippocampus is comparatively larger than human hippocampus, presumably a function of an elephant's prodigious memory. Elephants are endowed with an immense, highly convoluted neocortex subserving their complex tactile, visual, acoustic and olfactory communication systems and capacity for empathetic understanding. Elephants display sophisticated social cognition. More controversially, their comparatively larger limbic systems suggest that elephants may be at least as sentient as adult humans, albeit lacking the logico-mathematical and linguistic prowess that allows modern Homo sapiens to dominate the planet. Either way, even if, cautiously and conservatively, we judge elephants are no more sentient than prelinguistic human toddlers, we still have a duty to protect their interests. By the same token, the affluent world also has an ethical duty to "interfere" and help vulnerable children in developing nations. Examining the issue of Third World Aid here would take us too far afield.
A more compelling objection to implementing an elephantcare program is that our overriding ethical priority should be ending the suffering and killing for which humans are directly responsible. Factory-farming is the greatest source of severe and readily avoidable suffering in the world today. Hannah Arendt famously remarked on the "banality of evil". Most humans are complicit or financially implicated in the nonhuman animal holocaust. Even though a pig, for example, is of comparable sentience to a prelinguistic toddler, humans routinely do things to factory-farmed pigs that would earn a life-sentence in prison if our victims were human. The development and commercialisation of in vitro meat promises global veganism / invitrotarianism later this century. In the meantime, billions of sentient beings will have been abused and slaughtered to satisfy our taste for their flesh.
The Biggest Obstacle.
For better or worse, humans or our descendants will be responsible for life on Earth for the indefinite future. Despite the initially daunting technical challenges, the biggest obstacle to compassionate stewardship of the world's free-living nonhuman animal population is not technical or even financial but ideological. Most people are prone to status quo bias. Such innate bias is normally rationalised by some version of the "appeal to Nature", sometimes (mis)characterised as "the naturalistic fallacy". What is natural is good.
The irrationality of the "appeal to Nature" is illustrated by a simple thought-experiment. Imagine, fancifully, if starvation, disease, parasitism, disembowelling, asphyxiation and being eaten alive were not endemic to the living world - or such miseries have already been abolished and replaced by an earthly paradise. Would anyone propose there is ethical case for (re)introducing them? Even proposing such a thought-experiment can sound faintly ridiculous.
However, our bioconservativism is not wholly consistent. If presented with a specific example of terrible suffering, for example an elephant mother and her calf trapped in a mudhole, most people argue we should intervene rather than permit the horror to unfold "naturally". Human benevolence is typically weak, erratic, sentimental rather than rule-bound, and often negligible, but it's still real. By focusing initially on grisly concrete examples, a broad consensus on the principle of compassionate intervention can potentially be established, though not of course whether intervention should be piecemeal or systematic - or how it should be funded. Eliciting support for ad hoc animal "rescues" is the critical wedge that advocates of compassionate stewardship of Nature need to press their case further. Once we accept that intervention to prevent suffering in free-living nonhuman animals is sometimes ethically justified, and sometimes even ethically required, a straightforward question then arises. Does free-living animal suffering matter only when humans happen to notice it? What principle(s) should govern our interventions? If we can underwrite the well-being of elephants, should we aim, ultimately, to extend our compassionate stewardship to the rest of the living world?
David Pearce (2012)
(last updated 2015)
Br. Portuguse translation (2015) here.
Social Media (2023)
The Abolitionist Project (plus podcast)
Gene Drives and a Happy Biosphere (2016)
Conservation Biology versus Compassionate Biology" (Santa Maria, 2012) (PDF) & (PPT)