Elephant benefits often overlooked in conservation strategy

A new study examining the benefits of elephants has found that many of these values are often overlooked when deciding how to protect them. The research, which was conducted by universities in England and South Africa, including the University of Portsmouth, discovered that conservation strategies often have a narrow focus and prioritize certain values of nature, such as economic or ecological, over moral ones.

When looking specifically at elephants, the study found that financial benefits such as ecotourism, trophy hunting, and ivory or labor often conflict with the animal’s ecological, cultural, and spiritual contributions. According to the study’s co-author Antoinette van de Water, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, “We’re not saying economic contributions aren’t important, but there’s a lot of different values at play and they all need to be considered in conservation strategies if they are going to succeed.”

The study also found that conservation decision makers tend to take a single worldview when considering the value of nature. Co-author Dr. Lucy Bates, from the University of Portsmouth, explained, “Whether it’s economic, ecological, or social, a blanket approach to values can impact the success of a conservation strategy. Consider something like the ivory trade for example. International trade in ivory is illegal, but many southern African countries want to restart the trade leading to contention across the African continent. If you focus less on the potential economic value of ivory, and turn to other ways elephants can support communities, it can be a game-changer.”

The research recommends incorporating moral values related to biodiversity conservation into the valuation framework to create a positive loop between benefits to humans and to nature. The authors believe that this approach will help policymakers and managers have a better understanding of what elephants mean to people, why elephants are important in themselves, and what values and interests are at stake. This approach could also be applied to other species and ecosystems.

According to Antoinette van de Water, “What is really needed is a change of thinking. Conservation policies are often based on price tags. Our pluralist valuation system provides solutions that are not based on economic gains or political status for the few, but instead on long-term common good and the goals and aspirations of societies.”

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