The Ethics of Preserving Biodiversity: African Animals & Environmental Regeneration in the Anthropocene (Part I)

Satao, a magnificent bull elephant, lived in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park. He was one of the few remaining “big tuskers,” a group of elephants whose tusks weigh over 100 pounds apiece. But even among these giants, Satao stood out; his massive tusks reached a length of six and a half feet long and touched the ground. Weighing in at over six tons, he was the largest land mammal on earth. This “magnificent, dusty behemoth,” as filmmaker Mark Deeble described him, was a global icon, a spectacular symbol of a species whose evolutionary history dates back thirty-five million years.1 But it was likely his legendary status that brought him to a premature and tragic end.

Paula Kahumbu, Director of Wildlife Direct, notes that in early June Kenya was swirling with worried rumors of Satao’s death. She “suspected for days that Satao was dead.”2 He was well monitored by both Tsavo Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). According to Tsavo Trust’s “Incident Report,” there were numerous ground sightings of him during the month of May, and he was seen at least nine times by air. But he and several other bulls had ventured to the boundary of the park, most likely to take advantage of the lush vegetation from recent rains, and in so doing, they wandered into dangerous territory, an area known as a “poaching hotspot.” The last sighting of him alive was May 19, 2014.3

Tsavo National Park, Kenya

During aerial reconnaissance on June 2nd, the carcass of a giant tusker was spotted by Richard Moller, Co-founder and Chief Conservation Officer the of Tsavo Trust. “I knew instinctively in my gut this was Satao, but there was a tiny chance that I was wrong,” he said.4 A ground team later confirmed his worst suspicions. The remains were indeed Satao’s. He had been killed by a poisonous arrow on May 30th. The poachers mutilated his body, hacking off his face and removing his tusks. Moller poignantly wrote of Satao’s passing: “[a] great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantelpiece.”5 Satao fell victim to the merciless and bloody ivory trade, targeted because his life was reduced to the street value of his tusks.

But poaching is just one of the threats facing elephants. Climate change, habitat loss, due to development and agriculture, and human-animal conflict are also posing serious challenges to the survival of the species.

Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, partnered with several well-known conservationist organizations to count African elephants. The Great Elephant Census, which according to their website is the first “pan-African census in over 40 years,” is now complete, and the numbers are not good. The African elephant population has plummeted from around 10-12 million in the 19th century to less than 400,000.6 Around 35,000 die each year. At these rates of decline, we could lose them in our lifetime.

Tsavo National Park, Kenya

But elephants aren’t the only animals feeling the negative effects of life in the “Anthropocene,” a term coined by chemist, Paul Crutzen to describe our contemporary age, an age in which human activity is the primary driver of change in the natural environment. It is no longer “man” versus nature; we humans have turned the tables and now dominate nature.

And nowhere is this more evident than in the nonhuman animal world where a sixth mass animal extinction is likely underway. The last mass extinction occurred sixty-five million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. While the exact cause of their disappearance remains a mystery, many scientists believe it was due to a natural phenomenon, like an asteroid or volcanic eruption.7 But, as Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, notes, the cause of this extinction leads to “one weedy species” – us.8 One study concluded that the current extinction rate is about 1,000 times higher than the normal, background rate of extinction.9 Kolbert writes, “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.”10

Africa is at the epicenter of this maelstrom where many wildlife populations (in addition to elephants) are in freefall. Rhinoceroses have declined to around 25,000 because their horns, which are made of keratin, are in such high demand.11 The majestic and noble lion population has experienced a decline of forty-two percent in the past twenty-one years.12 A recent study demonstrated that cheetahs, the fastest land mammals on earth, have plummeted to 7,100.13 And the gentle giraffe is undergoing what many are calling “a silent extinction,” losing more than 30% of their population since 1985.14 And it isn’t just the iconic mammals that are in trouble. A new study found that six of the eleven species of vultures in Africa are at risk of extinction.15

The reason for their decline? The “weedy species.”

Should we care about preserving biodiversity when there are so many other pressing challenges facing the human population? A variety of ethical cases could be made to suggest that we should indeed care.

A neo-Kantian might argue that animals deserve to be protected for their own sake. A virtue theorist could suggest that humans ought to protect biodiversity because doing so contributes to human flourishing. A utilitarian could proffer that minimizing the suffering of animals is optimific since it increases overall happiness. Each of these arguments has merit, but I want to suggest another moral justification for preserving biodiversity.

Tsavo National Park, Kenya

Scientists are increasingly learning that nonhuman animals play a regenerative role in their ecosystems. In other words, their behaviors contribute to the overall health of the environment. This mutually beneficial relation, in many cases, stands in stark contrast to our own relationship with the natural world. Christian theologian Elizabeth Johnson cites Job 12:7 with approval (from the Hebrew Bible): “But now ask the beasts to teach you.” One need not be religious to see the wisdom in this teaching. In my next blog, I will examine some of the ways African animals regenerate their ecosystems and explore the moral implications and lessons to be learned from these regenerative relationships. In short, we will be asking the beasts what they can teach us about regenerative environmental relationships.

(all images above courtesy

About the AuthorRumfelt_Janet_outdoor_pic.jpg

Janet Rumfelt, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Liberal Arts
College for Contemporary Liberal Studies
SEED Institute Fellow
Regis University

Bio: Dr. Rumfelt teaches at the intersections of religion, philosophy, ethics, and environmental humanities. She is currently working on an edited volume on animals and religion.  She is a board member of The Africa Network for Animal Welfare-USA, and she founded and is the race director of Running Wild, a USATF-Certified 5K and 1-Mile Fun benefiting imperiled African wildlife. In her spare time, she can be found reading magazines and books on midcentury/modern design, walking her Miniature Dachshunds, riding her scooter, biking, meditating, and running. She loves the ocean.


End Notes

1 Deeble, Mark. “Satao: Last of the Great Tuskers.” June 14, 2014. Accessed June 14, 2017.

2  Kahumbu, Paula. “Kenya’s Biggest Elephant Killed by Poachers | Paula Kahumbu.” The Guardian. June 13, 2014. Accessed June 14, 2017.

3 Information about sightings of Satao and his movements taken from “Kwaheri Satao: Saying Goodbye to a Tsavo Icon,” Tsavo Trust, June 13, 2014. Accessed June 21, 2017.

4 Cited in Kahumbu, “Kenya’s Biggest Elephant Killed by Poachers.” For information about Satao’s sighting and cause of death see, “Kwaheri Satao: Saying Goodbye to a Tsavo Icon.”

5 “Paying the Ivory Price: Elephant Icon ‘Satao’ Killed by Poachers.” Nature World News. June 17, 2014. Accessed June 14, 2017.

6 Great Elephant Census. (n.d.). Retrieved from

7 “Dinosaur Extinction Information and Facts.” March 02, 2017. Retrieved from

8 Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York, NY: Henry Holt, 2015, p. 18.

9 “Extinctions during Human Era Worse than Thought.” September 2. News from Brown. Accessed June 14, 2017.

10 Kolbert, p. 17-18.

11 “Rhino population figures.” (n.d.). Retrieved from

12 Platt, J. R. (n.d.). “African Lion Populations Drop 42 Percent in Past 21 Years.” Retrieved from

13 “Cheetahs Are Dangerously Close to Extinction.” (2017, June 13). Retrieved from

14 McGrath, M. (2016, December 08). “Giraffes facing ‘silent extinction’ as population plunges.” Retrieved from

15 “Conservationists Warn Africa’s Vultures Are Sliding towards Extinction.” Accessed June 15, 2017.

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