Many African elephants have a well-founded fear of persecution and cannot return to the protection of their country. These animals are refugees in a moral sense and need special protections.

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Hunting, habitat loss and climate change are displacing animals at alarming rates. Scholars in both the humanities and the sciences frequently refer to these displaced animals as ‘refugees’. This loaded term implies a call to action but it is not clear whether its use it is intended as mere rhetoric or something more committing.

We tested the claim that animals can be refugees in a straightforward manner: we applied the results of recent behavioural research on African elephants to the criteria set out in the Refugee Convention. According to that widely-recognised agreement, a refugee is one who has a fear of persecution for reasons of their group identity; is outside of their country; and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country. Sadly, there is good evidence that some elephants meet the criteria. Those elephants, persecuted for their ivory for example, are displaced and too fearful to return. Some exhibit behaviours that in humans would be strongly indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Our claim that elephants and other animals can be refugees carries practical implications. Refugees have specific needs and any adequate wild animal refugee policy would need to: protect refugee animals from being sent back into danger; ensure their care and protection in the place at which they first arrive; and promote a permanent solution for their flourishing. All of these requirements should of course be considered alongside the rights, needs and capacities of the receiving human and ecological communities.

Wildlife conservationists have a wealth of experience that can be brought to bear on the problem of animal refugees, including establishing protected areas, translocating animals, cooperating internationally and promoting the coexistence of wildlife and people. However, there are challenges likely familiar to those same conservationists: finding adequate funding, supporting the interests of local communities, mitigating the ecological risks of newly arrived populations and breaching a policy gap that prevents animal translocations across political boundaries.

There are theoretical implications of our approach as well. The historical impasse between conservation ethics and animal rights is partly driven by reductive approaches in both fields, for example, the intrinsic value of a species is difficult to reconcile with the inviolable rights of individual animals. Part of the problem here is that these approaches rest on reductive or thin concepts such as intrinsic value, inviolable rights or personhood that are so sweeping and abstract as to only give the broadest of guidance. We think that analysis in terms of a rich, thick concept like ‘refugee’ is a sensible way of getting around this problem, reintroducing psychological and social dimensions of animal welfare to conservation practice.