Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Elephants vs. Starving Children: Apples to Oranges?

As a supporter of wildlife conservation, I am deeply vested in a non-profit that is seeking funding to provide a baby Asian elephant with a prosthetic foot, to replace the one he lost to a poacher's snare. In a recent discussion about this program and its viability, I was challenged to answer the question, "Why would someone provide funding to save one baby elephant, when there are children starving?"

It's not as though this is an unrealistic or unprecedented question. In fact, it's fairly obvious. Still, the directness with which it hits anyone who is passionate about wildlife conservation cannot be ignored. The obvious answer is that not all funders are interested in granting money to prevent childhood hunger (not that they don't care about it) and that some foundations make it a personal mission to conserve endangered wildlife. Effective in the heat of the moment for certain, but this answer does not approach the deeper question(s). Are humans more important than animals? 

An interesting way to look at it is to switch the original question around to ask, "Why would someone provide funding to save one baby human, when Asian elephants populating are declining rapidly due to habitat loss, poaching, and habitat fragmentation?" Suddenly, that baby human's life seems pretty important to us, in spite of the imminent threats to an ENTIRE species of elephants. Interestingly, humans as a species are far from endangered while less than 50,000 Asian elephants survive in the wild. 

Maybe it seems like a cop-out by my response is: apples to oranges. The question shouldn't be who deserves it more. Both children who want for food and endangered elephants might not be in the predicaments they are in if it weren't for human influence. In the end, they are both in need of aid in different ways but because humans are, essentially, the cause of both problems it is our duty to work to fix both issues. One baby male elephant seems paltry, but less so when you realize the ratio of male Asian elephants to female in the wild is 1:6. If this elephant receives a prosthesis, he'll grow normally and, barring the influence of unpredictable factors, be healthy enough to father children through a captive breeding program. Suddenly, one baby elephant could have an effect on the survival of a species. 

As long as there are programs working to end childhood hunger and there are funders granting money to a cause that requires such immediate action, there is no reason why Asian elephants cannot be protected simultaneously. Is it really our duty to decide who is more deserving, if in fact, there are resources to go around and it is actually just a matter of allocating them effectively? 

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