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Conservation of wild animals does not exclude use by humans

By Arthur Goldberg From mercatornet

A Biblical perspective on environmental ethics

Feeding time at Cayman Turtle Farm, Grand Cayman, 2011 via Wikimedia Commons

“There are market solutions to most of [the] endangered species problems,” according to Dr Richard Rahn, Chairman of The Institute for Global Economic Growth. He argues that by providing private owners economic incentives to breed eatable wild animals, efficiently selling other parts of the animal, and releasing a portion of newborns back to the wild, numerous endangered species may be saved from extinction.

To evaluate this hypothesis it is useful to explore humanity’s relationship to wild animals first from a biblical perspective and thereafter to review alternative approaches, including (a) those of animal rights activists who don’t believe people have a moral right to eat animals and (b) those who seek to combine a profitable, sustainable animal recovery with conservation strategy. A huge gulf separates animal welfare/animal rights approaches from the more holistic view that focuses on “the viability of populations and species.”

Biblical perspective

The law given to Noah prohibiting consumption of the flesh of a living creature frames an entire practical ethical relationship to nature. These principles (that is, the Noahide Code) serve as the underlying foundation for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Under this Noahide Code, in order to replenish life on earth after the Flood, G-d prescribed practical and moral actions to minimize the harm and maximize the good done by humans.

To distinguish the stance of the Noahide Laws from radical environmentalism and animal rights activism, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Bible sets forth the human being’s sovereignty over nature. (Gen.1:28 & 9:2). This dominion over nature recognizes humanity’s role as that of stewardship. Humans have a special responsibility to protect and care for the natural environment and its inhabitants.

Radical environmentalism, however, invests the created order with absolute value by worshipping nature rather than the Creator. Nature thus acquires an idolatrous “sanctity” of its own, one that cannot be infringed upon for legitimate human benefit—a point of view that violates the Noahide Law that humanity shall not worship idols.

Humanity’s food chain was dramatically restructured after the biblical flood. Prior to the flood, G-d expected people to be vegetarians and restricted humanity from killing any living creatures for food. G-d’s instructions in the first three chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1:29, 2:16-17 and 3:18-19), involve eating the seeds and fruits of plants and trees. Changing the rules after the flood, in Genesis 9:3, G-d declared that “every creature that lives shall be yours to eat” with the exception of flesh taken from a live animal (Gen. 9:2). Subsequently, He set forth restrictions regarding the eating of clean and unclean animals (the kosher laws) in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14:3-21.

Competing environmental philosophies

In the twentieth century, the idea that humans should not kill, confine, or otherwise interfere with wild animals became a rallying cry for some of those seeking to conserve natural resources and wildlife. A philosophy emerged in which humans become the sole source of morality. When man no longer feels constrained by G-d and His Commandments, man replaces G-d with an idol of his own making. This is the religion of secular or liberal humanism, a dominant spiritual and intellectual orthodoxy in today’s America. “Under the banner of humanism, man (not G-d) becomes the measure of all things.”

Invoking charters such as the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (“CITES”), these ideological environmentalists, sometimes referred to as proponents of ecological imperialism, seek to protect pristine nature by banning any trade in wild animals and their by-products. Similar to secular humanists who worship nature, they pervert the Noahide commandment not to worship idols.

However, a counter-philosophy has emerged which, in order to prevent the loss of species, seeks economic uses for wildlife. Referred to as “conservation through commerce” or “enviro-capitalism”, this practice challenges the thinking that private entrepreneurship inherently destroys the environment. It looks to accommodate humanity’s continuous use of wild nature as a resource for food or other products while managing wildlife and rescuing threatened species before they reach the brink of oblivion.

Environmental entrepreneurs are able to “discover new opportunities for improving environmental quality and then figure out how to produce it in the private sector.” They analyze cost-benefit ratios and recognize that simply preserving wildlife is a negative cost to governmental and non-profit agencies while market based conservation efforts produce income to offset the cost. Economic value is assigned to the species.  

Effort to commercialize the Green Sea Turtle

Several government and Non-Governmental Organizations vigorously fight against this effort of humans to intervene in species regeneration and abhor any suggestion that entrepreneurs can find market niches to protect endangered species. However, since the 1960s, captive breeding and subsequent reintroduction of a threatened species to the wild has become one popular way to restore wildlife. Among the dozens of successful restorations of wildlife are the wolves who roam Yellowstone and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Peregrine Falcon, Gold-lion Tamarinds in Brazil, Whooping Cranes, the Quitobaquito Pupfish, the Freshwater Mussel, and the Blanding’s Turtle.

A case in point is the controversy involving the Green Sea Turtle in the Cayman Islands. In 1968, British Businessman Sir Antony Fisher and three partners received an exclusive franchise from the Cayman Islands Government to create the first commercial venture to domesticate Green Sea Turtles (Mariculture, Ltd), an animal whose population was rapidly declining.

According to the Caribbean Conservation Corp., although female Green Sea Turtles lay thousands of eggs in the sand of tropical beaches, diverse factors including natural predators (such as raccoons who eat their eggs), habitat destruction, egg harvesting, and pollution, caused “only an estimated one in 1,000 to 10,000 [to] survive to adulthood”. Many turtles are also accidentally caught as by-catch in fishing nets. And, turtle poaching led to further population declines, resulting in increased prices for the turtle products which in turn led to even more poaching.

Fisher and his investors recognized that by increasing the birth rate through incubation and protecting the baby turtles until they were big enough to avoid predators, an estimated 20% of hatchlings could be released into the wild to replenish the wildlife stock. The balance would be used as breeders or sold for meat or for other turtle products.

 From 1968 to 1978, Fisher’s group formed the herd by collecting nearly 500,000 eggs and 148 adults or sub-adults from several countries, including Ascension Island, Costa Rica, Guyana, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Suriname. In the mid-1970s, turtles hatched at the Center and reared to sexual maturity began mating, establishing a hatch rate of 33%. This success obviated the need to capture either more turtles or eggs from the wild.

However, during this time frame, environmentalists, believing that wild turtle populations could be better restored by using conservation, regulation, and education were able to close off U.S. markets through listing the Green Sea Turtle under the Endangered Species Act. In 1979, the UN “CITES” entity passed regulations to effectively stop the turtle farm’s ability to sell their turtle products to international markets. These products not only involved the high protein-low fat meat but also the shell (a valuable decorative material) and the belly plate (a major ingredient for calipee soups.) While the small domestic market for turtle meat continued, the company’s economic model collapsed.

Takeover by Cayman Islands Government

In 1983 the Cayman Islands government purchased the farm and by doing so, also preserved a unique aspect of Caymanian culture by providing “turtle products for the local market.” It also kept Caymanians “employed in the turtle industry.” Perhaps of greatest importance as a national economic policy objective, this take-over also preserved what by then had become the island’s most popular land-based tourist attraction. By 1989, second-generation captive-bred turtles starting hatching and the program continues on. The Cayman Turtle Farm’s 2016 Annual Report briefly recounts its history.

It appears that this facility is the only one in the world that has successfully and sustainably bred any species of marine turtle in captivity. Their techniques and farming knowledge are transferable to other locations throughout the world. Given the long lifecycle of Green Sea Turtles and the length of time required for them to reach reproductive age, to create such an enterprise requires a huge amount of commitment and determination, very committed shareholders with a significant long-term vision, and a long time-horizon for returns on investment.

As an example of transferability of marine turtle husbandry techniques, in 1984 the Company became the first and only facility in the world to successfully breed in captivity the most endangered of all the marine turtle species: the Kemp’s ridley. This was done upon the request of conservation authorities in the USA and Mexico.

In the past 35 years, thousands of turtles have been born in the Cayman Turtle Farm and more than 30,000 released back to the wild. Titanium flipper tag returns have verified that the released turtles from Grand Cayman migrate throughout the Caribbean and as far afield as the USA and Venezuela. The Cayman Turtle Centre asserts that  “the sale of turtle meat has a positive conservation impact because it greatly reduces poaching in the wild, which is often otherwise uncontrollable, both in terms of numbers and indiscriminate in terms of age and sex.”  A 2015 University of Exeter study quantified the socio-economic benefits and the cultural importance of the turtle conservation program of the Cayman Islands.

One would assume that the Cayman Turtle Farm would be praised by the environmentalists for their efforts. Instead, these advocates recommend terminating the Cayman’s commercial operation and replacing it with a conservation plan that would simply rehabilitate injured wild sea turtles, provide education, and create a research facility. However, to do so, enormous subsidies, without corresponding income, would be required. A conversion of a former turtle farm in the Indian Ocean in Réunion (part of overseas France) needed more than 20 million Euros to convert its facility and satisfy the environmentalists.

Through rigorous DNA analysis, a Darwin Initiative project verified that the “minimum estimated contribution of [the Cayman Turtle Farm] to the wild [population of Green Sea Turtles in Cayman waters] was estimated at approximately 50%.” In another report the group stated, “The direct consequences of this finding is that inbreeding depression is very unlikely to occur in the near future, increasing survival and recovery potential for the population.” In spite of this successful reintroduction to the wild, eco-imperialists continue to fight against the Cayman’s turtle breeding and release programs. 

After reviewing the situation and visiting the site, Andrew Morriss, a senior scholar at several universities, praised the Farm for its entrepreneurial efforts and for finding a way “around the roadblocks to commercialization created by international and American regulators.” However, he observes that “its success cannot distract us from the devastating impact of American and international regulators’ unwillingness to accept a role for markets in preserving endangered species.”

If only the international conservation community would sensibly embrace the demonstrably practical opportunities available, marine turtles could be raised and released into the wild to stock turtle fisheries in various nations and help overcome the lack of healthy protein in the diet of the population of under-developed countries, a major malnutrition concern in several of the world’s poorest nations.

Of course, there are other examples of commercialization saving endangered species. A century ago, buffalo herds were almost extinct in the United States. A few hundred remained alive. However, captive breeding of the buffalo (as the North American bison is commonly known), when combined with economic incentives, saved the bison.

Practical and moral significance

A consistency of action is possible to implement the biblical perspective concerning man’s obligations toward nature, his ethical obligations under the Noahide laws, and the opportunity presented by enviro-capitalism to strengthen and reinforce declining wildlife populations such as the Green Sea Turtle.

Contemporary philosophies of “environmentalism” and “animal rights” activists (both of which wish to preserve species endangered by previous actions of mankind) has not proven as effective as commerce through capitalism. 

If enviro-capitalism were allowed to fully function, as illustrated by the buffalo which were replenished through profit incentives (and are no longer in danger of extinction) and by utilizing the experience of the Cayman Turtle Farm, it is likely that greater numbers of Green Sea Turtles and other endangered marine animals could return to the oceans.

Rabbi Dr. Simon Cowen aptly summarizes: “the ultimate concept of the relationship between humanity and nature is that of the incorporation of nature in a project steered by humanity. It is not a project which is for the benefit of humanity alone. It is a Divine project … that includes … the redemption of nature itself.”

Arthur Goldberg is Co-Director of the American based Jewish Institute for Global Awareness (JIFGA), former Co-Director of JONAH, Inc. JIFGA sponsors, a crowd-funding site for those committed to Biblical values. He has authored Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality, and the Power to Change. You can contact him at [email protected]

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