This post was written by Associate Editor Clare Palmer from Texas A&M University, to mark the recently published paper “Elephants as Refugees” by authors Tristan Derham and Freya Mathews. As handling editor, she explains why this paper is so timely and thought-provoking, and how it complexifies thinking about relations between people and nature at a time of rapid global environmental change.

Can wild animals – like elephants – be refugees?

I’m writing this blog post on a plane flying between London and New York in January 2020 – a flight that’s contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions warming the earth. As I’m sitting on the plane, cut off from global news, I’m wondering what’s happening in Australia, on one of the worst days of a bushfire season terrible both for people and for other animals. It’s estimated that at least a billion wild animals have been killed. Many animals that survived the flames will have lost their habitat, and will need to move elsewhere until the land regenerates. Could we call animals like this, forced to relocate from bushfires enhanced by climate change, “animal refugees”?

In their paper “Elephants as Refugees”, Derham and Mathews explore the idea that animals could be refugees by focusing on the case of a particular species: elephants. They ask: Might elephants displaced by poaching be thought of as refugees, in a similar sense to the way that persecuted, displaced people are recognized as refugees?

The authors chose elephants for their study for several reasons: there has been a staggering human-induced decline of elephant populations, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa; much of this decline is due to poaching, which might reasonably be called “persecution”; elephants are highly intelligent and social in nature, sharing important cognitive and emotional capacities with humans; and as such, their fear of poachers has driven some of them out of their natural habitat.

To answer the question whether such elephants could be called refugees, the authors turn to an analysis of the UN Refugee Convention. As they point out, for elephants to count as refugees would require broadening of the terms of the Convention. For instance, for people to be refugees under the Convention, they need to have a country and to be excluded from it. We don’t normally think of elephants as “having a country” in the human sense. However, Derham and Mathews argue, elephants do belong to territories that they both actively shape and that have shaped them; it seems reasonable to interpret these territories as “countries.” And so, they argue, if flexibly construed, elephants could fit into the category of “refugee” as outlined in the Refugee Convention.

Suppose this refugee categorization were to be taken seriously: what would elephants be owed? Like human refugees, Derham and Mathews maintain, elephants shouldn’t be sent back to the place where they were threatened, nor turned away from their initial place of refuge; in fact, they should be cared for in their first place of refuge, and only relocated if this would facilitate their flourishing. However, the authors are also aware that this could lay a heavy burden on local communities, both in terms of funding elephant care and the potential for human-elephant conflicts over land use. But – as in the human case – Derham and Mathews maintain that the responsibility for the care of refugee elephants should be broadly distributed across nations and, potentially, philanthropic organizations, not be wholly required of often impoverished local communities.

Derham and Mathews develop this elephant refugee model in some detail, but as they acknowledge, we’re a long way off any such provision for elephants right now. However, even with no short-term policy pay-off, this paper is interesting for People and Nature in (at least!) two significant ways.

First, it presses at the boundaries of the journal’s self-description.  In highlighting the complexity of elephants’ cognitive, social and emotional worlds, and in applying human legal categories to elephants, “Elephants as Refugees” raises the question whether elephants should better be thought of as another kind of “People” rather than as “Nature”. That in turn raises broader questions about what we actually understand by the terms “People” and “Nature,” and whether any meaningful distinction between these terms can be maintained.

Second, “Elephants as Refugees,” by design, has a relatively narrow focus to make a strong case: highly intelligent social animals, deliberately persecuted because they are members of the elephant species, with the capacity to be fearful of poacher attacks and the ability to relocate themselves to new habitats. But can these arguments for elephant refugees be extended to other situations and other species? Could a version of these arguments, for instance, apply to Australian wild animals who may be less cognitively sophisticated and social, and who are not so much persecuted as unintended victims of climate-enhanced bushfires? (Derham and Mathews note that even in the human case, there’s disagreement about whether the term “refugee” should be applied to people displaced by extreme weather rather than by active persecution.) And how far should human legal frameworks, such as the Refugee Convention, be used as any kind of model for human impacts on wild animals? Is it inappropriate, or even disrespectful, to extend the kinds of categories we apply to displaced human beings (People) to displaced non-human animals (Nature)? And this question, of course, takes us right back to that “People” v. “Nature” distinction again.

These are big questions, and Derham and Mathew’s paper takes some important first steps in  addressing them. Their paper might also give us food for thought when we reflect on the displacement of millions of wild animals, not only from poaching and bushfires, but close to most of our homes, from everyday suburban and agricultural expansion into wild animal habitats.