Consider what life is like for so many African elephants: family and friends killed, communities broken, ancestral homelands transformed by construction and climate change, seeking new homes in an often-unfriendly world. A human being in that predicament would be considered a refugee. Should an elephant?
Indeed they should, argue Tristan Derham, an ecologist at the University of Tasmania, and Freya Mathews, and environmental philosopher at La Trobe University, in the journal People and Nature.
Elephants “share some of the same concerns and experiences as humans,” they write. “They may fall under some of the same moral categories as humans and be due similar forms of moral consideration. Here we present a case for treating some elephants as refugees.” And while the idea is in its theoretical infancy, Derham and Mathews “hope that it opens a new moral horizon for elephant care and conservation.”
They note that animals are already described as refugees in rhetorical terms, usually in the context of species shifting their range in response to changing environmental conditions. The formal definition of the word, however, and the obligations of assistance and sanctuary it places on the international community, is reserved for us. It might seem odd if not downright inappropriate to think of animals this way.
Then again, there’s a first time for everything. Not long ago it would have sounded strange to hear an abused dog called a victim; nowadays it’s acceptable, both conversationally and legally. The idea of victimhood need not be species-specific. As for what it means to be a refugee, Derham and Mathews invoke the definition established by the United Nations: any person who fears persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” and finds themselves outside their home country and unwilling or unable to return.
“It takes no stretch of the imagination to show that many elephants meet those criteria,” write Derham and Mathews. “They have a fear of persecution; they are displaced by that fear; and they cannot return to their country or will not due to their fear.”
Central to the argument are the extraordinary mental capacities of elephants. A wealth of scientific research describes how they are self-aware, highly emotional, and have complex social lives featuring decades-spanning relationships and systems of group decision-making. In the aftermath of trauma, they’re prone to extreme aggression and nervousness; they may neglect their offspring and withdraw from social interaction.
Experts have described these behaviors as indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder—and, crucially, it doesn’t manifest in response to predation or natural disaster, but in the aftermath of human-inflicted killing or dislocation. “That wild elephants are now exhibiting such symptoms suggests that they believe they are under siege,” write Derham and Mathews, “that they are in an extreme and deranged situation.”
Given their status as habitat engineers whose foraging and trampling shape the physical characteristics of the landscapes they inhabit—landscapes that they know in rich detail, following well-worn paths and seasonal traditions—they can also be “said to have countries to which they belong and from which they might be excluded,” Derham and Mathews write.
If elephants are considered refugees, what tangible consequences might follow? In the case of humans, the international community is obligated to help. Such programs would not translate directly to elephants; rather, responses might include conservation protections and the practice of rewilding, but with extra moral urgency and an international obligation to share the costs.
This would also set a precedent. People might seek recognition of other refugee species, which could fast become complicated for creatures less charismatic and endangered than elephants, or whose mental and social lives are not so similar to our own. Some people would fear that help for elephants could come at the expense of human refugees—and, given the political sensitivity of immigration issues, the plight of animals might also become politicized.
Because of those complications, says Derham, he and Mathews have kept the focus strictly on the relatively clear-cut example of elephants. They’re open to considering other species, though. “One would just have to test each case against the criteria,” he says. “We are hoping people with deep knowledge of particular animals and their situations will provide their own examples, carefully thought through.”
Source: Derham, Tristan and Mathews, Freya. “Elephants as refugees.” People and Nature, 2020.
Image: Jordy Sla
About the author: Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature and science. He is now writing Meet the Neighbors, a book about what animal personhood means for our relationships to animals and to nature. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.