Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Why should we conserve rhinos?


The question of why we should conserve rhinos popped up on Twitter earlier today. We tend to assume that it’s bad when a species is under threat of extinction, but it’s rare to see any defence of such claims. So what reasons might we have for thinking that poaching rhinos to extinction is bad? Below are five potential reasons why we should preserve a species, using rhinos as an example:

1. Because then there would be no more rhinos for us to enjoy

This reason sees rhinos as instrumentally valuable – they are the means by which we gain enjoyment, much as we would from viewing an aesthetically pleasing artwork or a beautiful sunset. If the loss of rhinos were a bad thing on this ground then we would have to show that there is a particular type of enjoyment that we can only gain from rhinos and which cannot be compensated for from other sources. Maybe there’s a special quality to the enjoyment of watching rhinos that we cannot gain from watching elephants or hippos, but it seems unlikely to me. Not a very strong reason then.

2. Because rhinos fulfil an important role in the ecosystem

Again, this reason views rhinos as instrumentally valuable insofar as they help preserve an ecosystem. Why we might want to preserve an ecosystem may be because we see ecosystems as valuable for their own sake (although I’m not sure what features of an ecosystem we could pick out to that would make it so), or because we judge ecosystems to be important in meeting human (or potentially other animal) needs. If we think the preservation of rhinos is important for ecological reasons, then that importance is contingent on no other animal being able to fulfil the same role in the ecosystem and the ecosystem being unable to adapt to the loss of rhinos. In other words the rhino must be a necessary component of the ecosystem for it’s extinction to be a matter of concern under this reason. Ecosystems are often quite resilient and adaptable, so whether rhinos are necessary in this way is something I’m sceptical of.

Edit: thanks to @AGBear for pointing out that the precautionary principle might apply here. Perhaps we cannot know what the negative consequences of the loss of a species on an ecosystem will be. Because those potential negative consequences might be very high – ecosystems are very complex beasts – we should do our best to preserve endangered species such as the rhino. This argument still doesn’t value rhinos for their own sakes though. Furthermore, the value of the species is also (as above) derived from the role played by individual non-human animals in the ecosystem. I’m also inclined to think that whilst we might not know the precise risks to an ecosystem that the loss of a species carries, we can know with greater or lesser degrees of certainty, and the accuracy of our predictions is likely to increase as numbers of a species decrease and we can see the effects of this decrease. In other words, our lack of perfect knowledge doesn’t provide a knock-down reason for saving a species.

3. Because rhinos fulfil an important economic role in a community

It’s not uncommon to see reference made to the valuable contribution certain wild animals make to poor communities through the attraction of tourists. Here again the reason to preserve a species is instrumental and contingent, this time upon the species being an irreplaceable source of income. That rhinos are the only way a poor community can gain wealth is a pretty strong claim – not one that I’m sure can succeed, so I think that this reason ultimately fails too.

4. Because the destruction of the species involves the destruction of individual members rhinos

Here we come to what I think is a much more plausible claim: the reason to save rhinos from extinction is that extinction involves the death and probable suffering of individual rhinos who are worthy of moral concern for their own sakes. This, of course, is where the argument for animal rights comes in – I’m not going to defend it here, but I think it offers the only truly convincing reason for saving a species, a reason that is derived from the moral status of the individual non-human animals making up that species. Thus, we care about saving rhinos not because we care about whether there are rhinos in the world or not, but because we care about the individual rhinos that do presently exist.

5. Because the species is valuable to individual rhinos

This fifth reason hangs of the fourth: the thought is that if an individual being is worthy of moral consideration for its own sake, and it values its own species, then that species might form part of the individual being’s good. Although I can see how we might see the preservation of a community or a family as important for the reason it plays in a creature’s life, I don’t see how the species can be analogous to the family in a way that is makes sense in this kind of argument. Furthermore, I suspect it will only be a subset of non-human animals that it can be convincingly claimed of that they value their communities. Perhaps the higher apes, dolphins, perhaps elephants etc. So, this reason also looks like it too fails.

The weird thing about the reasons I’ve given above is that the claim about the badness of a loss of a species usually appears to rest not on them, but on an implication that species are intrinsically valuable. That is to say that species are valuable for their own sake and not because of the individual members of the species that make them up. But that claim is very different from the potential arguments I’ve listed above. It seems like we have an intuition that species are intrinsically valuable, but I can’t think of how you might defend this claim convincingly.

Ultimately then, I’m not sure why the destruction of a species counts as a bad thing separate from the loss of the individual members of that species, so I’m minded to conclude that we should focus instead on the plight of individual non-human animals and on their communities.

Anyone got a good argument for the intrinsic value of species?


Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

8 thoughts on “Why should we conserve rhinos?

  1. I value your article. Its important to educate people. Without us, ignorance would continue. Besides the hanous ignorance behind Rhino extinction (slaughter within African National Parks for their horn- which is made of the exact same material as our human finger nails- Sold very valuably as a “magical cure all” in places such as Chino. Funny thing about nails is they grow back, just as clipping the horn would. That’s a whole seperate thought process each on its own)

    On THE The 1.5 million year old
    RHINOS PURPOSE in the African Safari’s ECOSYSTEM:

    Wiping out the Rhino will create detrimental domino effects. Important ecological relationships become in tatterereds and many that survive because of her will also die. Interfering with these connections can cause change that ripple through the whole ecosystem. The Ancient Rhino supplies life giving nitrogen rich grass all prairie grazers need to survive.

    Our grazing wildlife in Africa travel great distances to get their nutrients from hard to find Nitrogen-Rich grass. Yet in the over abundant Lowest-Nitrogen rich areas useless to other grazers, Rhinos consume up to 12 hours a day the low-nitrogen grass. Her body houses an enormous fermentation chamber that compensates by eating a lot that slowly ferments into waste deposits leaving Nitrogen-Rich fertilization. Allowing for New Nitrogen-Rich Grass to grow. Trimming down the Long, Low-Nitrogen Lacking grass, to grow better, stronger more nutrient rich grasslands for the animals to graze, assuring their survival.

    Rhinos create these nutrient hot spots that other grazers need. They’re the living farmers who till fertile nitrogen into barren prairies that makes new life giving food.

    Cropping down the useless growth that saturates the land encourages growth of shorter grass species high in nutrients. Encouraging animals like the fussy empalla to come feed on the high nitrogen rich grass.

    Complex webs of relationships like these, allow animals to survive the nitrogen shortage of the grass lands.

    Rhinos keep alive other species like the red-billed ox pecker while they hitch a ride on their backs, feeding on her ticks. As well, the cradle egrets feeding on the insects fleshed out by their huge feet.

    When we save the Ancient Rhino, we save the thriving prairie life she supports. A living species thats existed for 1.5 million years, who creates what lacks naturally in the environmental food source, assures the survival of grazers, and those who feed on them…

    Once done, there is no turning back. We can only imagine the impact it will have on the delicate balance of life.

    • Thanks for the comment Amy. All of the points you’ve made are good reasons for conserving rhinos. However, they are not trains for conserving rhinos for the sake of themselves – all of the value you place upon them is grounded in their value in maintaining an ecosystem. One interesting consequence of this is that if their numbers fall to such a low number in an area that they can no longer play the roles you write about then there is suddenly no reason to conserve them – an oddly counterintuitive position to end up in.

  2. Thank you me and my daughter live in south africa in the middle of the rhino debate. Thanks for this clear headed look at humanity and animals. We are using this meterial for her debate at school.

  3. we use this info for this discussions at school

  4. • Rhinos are very important seed dispersers – if they disappear it will have a large impact on vegetative populations
    • Because of the way that they graze they create a shifting patch mosaic on the landscape (diversity among the plant community which supports the species that other wildlife rely on to survive)
    • It’s presence demonstrates the balance of the ecosystem – like sea otters, an ecosystem must be at a specific functioning level to sustain large herbivore populations such as rhinoceros or elephants
    • Flagship species – it’s protection means that other smaller less exciting species are also protected
    • Keeps specific vegetation groomed back, grazing on grass species increases grass species biodiversity present
    • Enrich soil – dung (nutrients in the soil)
    • Eco-tourism = better appreciation and jobs
    • Has a symbiotic relationship with the oxpecker (bird)
    • Their dung attract insects which feed other species
    • Rhinos dig deep water holes – increasing depth for the next rain – helps other species
    • digs up and excavates minerals from the ground by using its horn and feet. The minerals can then be used by other species as well
    • By altering the plant community through grazing rhinoceros also alter the conditions of the savannah for fires. By impacting the types of fuel for fires they impact how quickly the ground is burnt and how often. This is vital for ecosystem maintenance and for savannah functioning.

    • Thanks for the comment Carolyn. Each of these examples is a reason for valuing rhinos for the role they play. In other words, these are instrumental reasons to value rhinos; they are not reasons to value rhinos for their own sakes. In my view, we have reasons to value rhinos for their own sakes, and to think their deaths a bad thing, regardless of whether they perform these roles. These reasons hinge on the fact that rhinos are sentient beings capable of suffering and having lives that go well or badly for themselves.

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