Sentience and Conservation: Lessons from Southern Africa

A new book covers many topics on animal-human conflicts with global relevance.

Posted Jan 20, 2019

The Nature/Culture Cocktail

“Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.” (Henry David Thoreau)

"...the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?...The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes..."  (Jeremy Bentham)

Pixabay free download
African elephant
Source: Pixabay free download

I recently received an outstanding book edited by Jan-Bart Gerald, a historian and Director of the African Studies Centre at Leiden University in The Netherlands, Marja Spierenburg, a Professor in Development Studies at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, and Harry Wels, an Associate Professor at VU University Amsterdam and research fellow at the University of Pretoria in South Africa called Nature Conservation in Southern Africa--Morality and Marginality: Towards Sentient Conservation?  Given my interests in the rapidly developing field of compassionate conservation in which sentience and the well-being of individuals are stressed, the subtitle "Morality and Marginality: Towards Sentient Conservation" caught my eye because it captures so much of what needs to be considered when developing solutions to a whole array of  animal-human conflicts that are faced all around the world.

Of course, moral principles are important to consider in animal-human conflicts. Countless nonhumans and humans are routinely treated as marginalized beings, and what they feel as individuals about how they're treated all need to be factored into how they are treated. These and other areas that are covered in this landmark book capture what Nature Conservation in Southern Africa is all about. The description for this seminal book reads: "Nature conservation in southern Africa has always been characterized by an interplay between capital, specific understandings of morality, and forms of militarism, that are all dependent upon the shared subservience and marginalisation of animals and certain groups of people in society. Although the subjectivity of people has been rendered visible in earlier publications on histories of conservation in southern Africa, the subjectivity of animals is hardly ever seriously considered or explicitly dealt with. In this edited volume the subjectivity and sentience of animals is explicitly included. The contributors argue that the shared human and animal marginalisation and agency in nature conservation in southern Africa (and beyond) could and should be further explored under the label of ‘sentient conservation’." The book is divided into four sections, Animals in Wildlife Conservation, Histories in Wildlife Conservation, Politics of Wildlife Conservation, and Critical Voices in Wildlife Conservation. The Table of Contents is listed in Note 1.

Harry Wels
Cover of Nature Conservation in Southern Africa
Source: Harry Wels

As I read the book my learning curve was vertical, and each time I reread different parts I learned something new. Different areas of the world are faced with many similar problems centering on animal-human conflict, however, as this book makes amply clear, southern Africa faces many problems that are unique, or almost unique, to that region, the solutions of which also require detailed knowledge of much more than principles of conservation biology or population biology. Biologists, including ecologists and conservationists, along with cognitive ethologists who study animal cognition and animal emotions, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, historians, philosophers, and others interested human-animal studies and in the humanities all need to weigh in on defining and characterizing different problems and coming up with solutions that fit the area in which they occur. The phrase "The Nature/Culture Cocktail" that University of Kwa-Zuu Natal sociologist Malcolm Draper uses in his essay called "National Parks, Eco-Frontiers, and Transfrontiersmanship in Southern African Conservation" aptly captures much of what this forward-looking book is all about. (Page 124)

I asked the editors if they could answer a few questions and gladly they said "Yes." Our interview went as follows. 

"What we have proposed in the book’s introduction is a paradigm shift in nature conservation in southern Africa towards ‘sentient conservation,’ which resonates strongly with the concept of ‘compassionate conservation’, an attempt to render conservation truly inclusive by arguing that marginality and processes of marginalization in nature conservation affect both human and non-human animals".

Why did you and your co-editors compile the essays for Nature Conservation in Southern Africa

Based on our research findings in various countries in southern Africa and keeping up with new academic articles and books on and from South and southern Africa, we got a clear sense that the time was ripe for a renewed call for inclusivity in nature conservation. In conservation policy circles we have noted a return to 'the barriers', a return to the old way of confining both animals and humans, and keeping them separate. Especially the poorer sections of local populations are increasingly sidelined and excluded again. This old 'fines and fences' approach equally does disservice to the animals who find themselves enclosed, and hence the book fundamentally challenges the conventional anthropocentrism and speciesism in nature conservation in southern Africa and suggests another way forward, which we labelled in the introduction as ‘sentient conservation.’

How did you select your contributors, what disciplines do they represent, and what are some of the major topics about which they write?

The edited volume is based on a network of researchers in nature conservation in southern Africa who have known one another for many years and often have already worked together on other academic publications and research projects. All contributors are based in either the social sciences (primarily anthropology and sociology) or the humanities (history). In our respective disciplines we were all academically raised and trained to be attentive to the impacts of conservation policies and practices on marginalized groups of humans, hence, the focus of our works is / has almost exclusively (been) on human animals. But given the recent scientific developments that all point in the direction that human and non-human animals only differ in degree and not in kind, there is a shared realization that these advances in science must have consequences for how we refocus our research to include other sentient beings. Major topics in the book are a vision of (the history of) nature conservation through the eyes of various non-human animals, like cows (Michael Glover), baboons (Jan-Bart Gewald), quagga (Sandra Swart) or lions (Harry Wels).

What are the book's major messages, and how do they link across the various disciplines that are represented in your very timely and important book? I am a fan of transdisciplinary approaches to conservation, and some of the essays are very much aligned with the goals of the ever-growing field of compassionate conservation for which the basic guidelines are "First do no harm" and "The life of every individual matters because each has intrinsic value." 

What we have proposed in the book’s introduction is a paradigm shift in nature conservation in southern Africa towards ‘sentient conservation’, which resonates strongly with the concept of ‘compassionate conservation’, an attempt to render conservation truly inclusive by arguing that marginality and processes of marginalization in nature conservation affect both human and non-human animals.

Who is your intended audience?

We probably aim for an academic audience first and foremost, particularly researchers and students, but we hope that the book also reaches policy makers and politicians. The latter may find it more difficult to change their way of thinking immediately, given the histories of the institutions they are working in, but hopefully it makes them more reflexive of their perspectives on non-human animals (in nature conservation).

Are you hopeful that things will change for nonhumans in Southern Africa and why or why not?

Given our answer to the previous question, we tread carefully but are at the same time hopeful, that the book will add to making a difference. Although we consider it an academic book through and through, there is at the same time quite some advocacy in the various chapters, explicitly, but also often between the lines.

What are some of your current and future projects?

Within the African Studies Centre Leiden we have started a Collaborative Research Group (CRG) entitled ‘Trans-Species Perspectives on African Studies’, in which we try to argue for looking beyond anthropocentrism. This not only concerns nonhuman animals, but also extends our thinking towards plants and trees. Last year for instance, Dr. William Ellis from the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, presented during a seminar at the ASCL his fascinating article which he wrote together with his colleague Dr. Diana Gibson, entitled ‘Human and plant interfaces: Relationality, knowledge and practices’ (Anthropology Southern Africa, 41(2), 75-79) . Professor Jan-Bart Gewald, Director of the ASCL and historian, is supervising Michael Glover, a South African PhD, in his research on a ‘cattle-centered perspective’ on South African history. There is research cooperation in-the-making with Professor Sandra Swart from Stellenbosch University, focusing on baboons and their close relations with humans throughout South African history.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

First of all, thank you Marc for offering us this tremendous opportunity to tell people more about our book! Why we are so happy about this opportunity is because a lot of mainstream academia does not pay much attention to what is happening on the African continent, except when it comes to war, famine and poverty or concerns about the loss of 'Africa's amazing wildlife' without any attention to the context in which nature conservation takes place - and certainly without questioning our own lifestyles. And just as academia seems to suffer from anthropocentrism, it also seems to suffer from ‘Western-centrism’ with sentiments so brilliantly described in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). But Africa has so much more to offer and we are happy that we were granted the opportunity to bring some of it to the fore in this interview.

Thank you Jan-Bart, Marja, and Harry for taking the time to answer these questions. Clearly, the lessons that are offered in your groundbreaking book can be applied globally, and I hope that it enjoys a broad audience. It would be perfect for a wide array of courses in many different academic disciplines, however, politicians and policy makers along with people interested in the future of southern Africa and our magnificent planet will find much food for thought in the different essays. Clearly, what happens in Southern Africa influences the entire world. I keep going back to different essays and when I randomly flip through pages I always find something that makes me further reflect on who we are, what we do to all sorts of diverse ecosystems and to nonhumans and humans around the world, and how we must unravel and come to a deep understanding of "The Nature/Culture Cocktail" that is not unique to Southern Africa. Thank you for publishing this pioneering book.


1People, Animals, Morality, and Marginality:Reconfiguring Wildlife Conservation in Southern Africa Jan- Bart Gewald, Marja Spierenburg, and Harry Wels Part 1 Animals in Wildlife Conservation 1 A Cattle- Centred History of Southern Africa? Michael Glover 2 Brothers in Arms: Baboon- Human Interactions, a Southern African Perspective Jan- Bart Gewald 3 Rewilding White Lions: Conservation through the Eyes of Carnivores? Harry Wels Part 2 Histories in Wildlife Conservation 4 National Parks, Eco- Frontiers, and Transfrontiersmanship in Southern African Conservation Malcolm Draper 5 Resurrection Conservation: The Return of the Extinct? Sandra Swart Part 3 Politics of Wildlife Conservation 6 The Emergence and Socio- Economic Impacts of Wildlife Ranching in South Africa Marja Spierenburg 7 ‘If It Pays, It Stays’: The Lobby for Private Wildlife Ranching in South Africa Tariro Kamuti 8 Controlling Sex and Death: On the Wildlife Trophy Industry in South Africa Dhoya SnijdersPart 4 Critical Voices in Wildlife Conservation 9 Continued State Monopoly and Control of Community-Based Natural Resource Management in Zimbabwe: The Care of Hurungwe’s CAMPFIRE Programme Vupenyu Dzingirai, Albert Manhamo, and Lindiwe Mangwanya 10 Poaching: Between Conservation from Below, and Livelihoods and Resistance Paul Hebinck.

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