Wildlife conservation as a human right

Whale sharks in the Philippines. Credit Quinn Patrick / iStock

“Imagine a world without [insert animal here]” is a common refrain from wildlife conservation–focused non-profits seeking to spread awareness and accrue donations. Not only would a world without animals feature a significantly changed ecosystem, but their cultural importance would be lost. Identities would be directly changed by the loss of an animal species, given how integral animals can be to cultures’ various histories, religions, and social structures. Typically, conservation efforts are seen as the job of non-profit organizations. However, given the intertwining nature of wildlife and human rights, states need to be an active part of the conversation. In addition to the impact on animal populations, the lack of action on the part of states to protect and conserve wildlife is a violation of human, cultural, and environmental rights. 

Culture is not defined within many of the United Nations’ foundational human rights agreements, though it is frequently mentioned. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ensures that everyone has the right to engage in cultural activities. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) recognizes the right “to take part in cultural life,” assigning the duty of conservation, development, and diffusion of these cultural rights. In short, cultural rights are repeatedly ensured, although not defined.

A common understanding of culture encompasses “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” These arguably include religious activities, art, historical relics, and tradition-based activities that have and continue to shape identity. From this perspective, nations that are party to the ICESCR and the UDHR are obligated to protect and preserve wildlife in their region as a cultural right.

It may seem strange to refer to wildlife conservation as a human right, but animals are integral to a shared human history. As seen in many Indigenous societies globally, animals have been central to religions, art, stories, and life. For example, bison were essential to the Plains Indian Nations in the United States, not only for sustenance but also for art and religion. The systematic extermination of bison by European colonizers was a direct attack on the structure and cultural life of the First Nations peoples who inhabited the plains. 

Animals have been crucial to cultural life throughout history. The alarmingly shrinking rates of animal species are indicative of a global and state-based failure to protect this cultural heritage. For example, the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger represented a significant loss in Tasmania and Australia. The species, thought to have become extinct in 1936, is still featured in Tasmania’s government logos and coat of arms and serves as a sports mascot in Tasmania and Australia. These marsupials are also important to Aboriginal nations within the regions, many of whose legends and early art feature the Tasmanian tiger. The ramifications of the loss echo today. 

Wildlife conservation should be considered an environmental right. There is a lack of explicit provisions in international human rights documents on climate change and the right to a safe and livable future climate. However, the United Nations has passed a resolution that, while not binding for member states, acknowledges the right to a healthy environment. Further, there is increasing advocacy internationally for a healthy future climate. Wildlife conservation should feature prominently in this environmental human right. Our own health, the environment’s health, and animals’ health are intrinsically linked. Animal health and conservation are directly connected to the livability of our own environments. 

Conservation and protection policies cannot be “one size fits all.” Each nation must consider its own set of circumstances and unique resources in order to take effective action. There have been successful cases of states undertaking wildlife conservation on a governmental level, even with limited resources. For example, Somaliland cracked down on the trafficking and poaching of cheetahs in response to the dwindling population. This is an especially impressive example of wildlife conservation as Somaliland is regarded as part of Somalia and not recognized as a sovereign state; however, the Somaliland minister of the environment and Somaliland courts made cheetahs part of a conservation campaign. 

With the more abundant resources of a recognized nation, conservation is feasible. Given animals’ cultural significance and the importance of healthy environments for future generations, rights practitioners should embrace animal conservation as a cultural and human right. Nations that are signatories to the UDHR and/or the ICESCR have a duty to conserve and preserve species that inhabit their territories. Political leaders and civil society must take immediate action to protect wildlife and, in the process, protect human rights.