Animal rights one day!
This was the battle cry of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham more than a century ago.
But on what should one base these rights? Respect, freedom, empathy, equality, the right to privacy? Where do the boundaries between man and nature on the one hand, and the human race on the other, stop and begin? Are we still entitled to our status as guardians and custodians of the natural world?
The recent death (4 September 2006) of Australian wildlife expert and most famous for his crocodile antics, Steve Irwin, has poured fuel onto this fiery debate once again. His influence across the globe on conservation and man’s involvement in the protection of nature cannot be miscounted. More than half a billion people in a 160 countries have watched his documentaries in 24 languages. And more than 80% of people that did, had a positive view of the man.
But in the aftermath of his death debates heated up between his ardent supporters and those that believe he overstepped the boundary between man and nature. Do you remember the time he dangled his own kid in front of a crocodile?
The truth maybe lies somewhere in between. Famed National Geographic filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert have set very strong guidelines for themselves when it comes to no interference. However, they feel just as strongly about their conservation message.
About Irwin Beverly says:
“We may not agree with the way he did things but there’s no denying what he did mattered. He set aside large pieces of land for conservation and in the process got people’s attention about the importance of it. The more we hear about this Australian icon, the more I’m convinced we share some of the same values.”
Irwin however hasn’t been the only nature documentary maker that has been accused of his “unnatural” behaviour towards animals. In the last couple of years there have been others that created artificial situations and behaved irresponsibly towards nature and wild animals – all in the name of more viewers and more money.
Professor Johannes Odendaal, an expert on animal behaviour, says to work with wild animals one needs to have the appropriate knowledge.
“People have been fascinated by the management of wild animals over the centuries and it has always been risky. It doesn’t seem that this trait will disappear from our genes anytime soon … and documentaries have the extra encouragement of money.
“It is idealistic to think that people can and should change. On the other hand, nature is not clay in our hands. Occasionally we are reminded that we should live in balance with nature rather than thinking we can control it all. Steve Irwin’s history proves that he was in control of wild animals, but only up until one day.
“All one can do is to teach respect for nature. Those who are smart will live the message while others will make the same mistakes over and over again.”
It is this command already given to man in Genesis 1 to “look after the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea and the wild beasts on the earth,” that is still at the heart of the conservation message today. It involves the preservation of nature and all its inhabitants and not domination.
Whoever wants to protect and conserve, those are the ones that see the inherent value of species other than humans, as well as the value of nature and its biodiversity, says Professor Alex Antonites of the Philosophy Department at the University of Pretoria.
“The quest to let nature go and to let animals fight their own fight does not mean that one has to let things go unhinged completely and that animals are now left to their own fate. The duty of maintaining biodiversity and to disrupt natural processes as little as possible does not necessarily conflict with management or control.”
For the first time since the inception of the Kruger National Park in 1926, ordinary South Africans are now being given the opportunity to do just that – to make suggestions on managing one of the country’s most precious natural treasures.
This is good, because times have changed and we have to adapt, after all, it is our wildlife and it does not belong to an exclusive group. However, the extent to which changes and adjustments need to be made is not always clear. Some people want more than just the game viewing experience and campfires. For others, it is precisely the unspoilt that is the attraction.
According to Antonites, it remains valid that we want to protect and preserve the genuine and pristine nature, that which is not disturbed or touched by man’s hand.
“But I wonder if today we can still speak in an absolute sense of a completely unspoilt, wild nature with human culture and civilisation on the other. I doubt the traditional boundary between culture and nature remains. Just about every piece of nature, such as the Kruger National Park, has already been influenced so much by man that we cannot just leave the animals there to their fate.
“The Kruger National Park was established to protect animals in the wild from destruction and extinction. To be entertained in the evenings is certainly not wrong, but to create amenities on a large scale conflicts with the whole idea of visiting a nature reserve. And this applies not only to the Kruger National Park, but to any other similar natural heritage in the world.”