by David Pearce
Thoughts about the exponential growth of computer power in the coming decades combined with developments in nanotechnology have led to technofantasies about human enhancement, and also to great fears about Orwellian dictatorships and other dystopias. But what’s seldom talked about is how such technologies could enable comprehensive care for all sentient beings.
High-tech Jainism of the kind needed to safeguard the interests of smaller mammals, let alone the well-being of marine vertebrates and (ultimately) members of other phyla, is still decades away. Nanotechnology, and in particular nanorobotics, is still in its infancy. Yet some forms of compassionate intervention are technically feasible right now. Many of the worst and most morally urgent cases of wild animal suffering are the most accessible to intervention; and also the least expensive to remedy. Some of the most effective and inexpensive interventions have already been implemented on a small scale for decades, such as vaccinations.
To look at the feasibility of providing care to free-living animals, let’s consider the case of elephants. All the technologies necessary for a comprehensive elephant healthcare program are available, in principle if not yet in practice. Nothing speculative, transhumanist, or even especially futuristic in the way of high technology need be invoked to lay out the foundations of an elephant welfare state, although software tools for efficient remote monitoring need further development. Admittedly, free-living elephants offer a comparatively “easy” example of compassionate species care. Elephants are large, long-lived, and herbivorous. No seemingly irreconcilable interests are involved (e.g. lions versus zebras) in safeguarding their interests because mature elephants typically have no natural predators besides Homo sapiens. The limiting factor on elephant population size in the absence of human predation or artificial fertility regulation is inadequate nutrition.
Like humans, elephants are susceptible to infection by tuberculosis, a treatable disease caused by a bacterium that affects especially the lungs. Mosquito-borne diseases are also a risk. Anthrax may be contracted via contaminated water or soil. Some ailments are specific to elephants, notably trunk paralysis and elephant pox, but other afflictions are common to humans and elephants alike, ranging from intestinal colic and constipation to pneumonia. Elephants may even catch the common cold, though this condition is self-limiting. Ill elephants often attempt to self-medicate, treating digestive diseases through fasting or consumption of bark, bitter herbs or alkaline earth. Such limited self-treatment can be complemented by human medical expertise.
Elephants are normally robust and peaceable. However, fights do occur, particularly between bull elephants disputing over a female in oestrus. Occasionally, one or both parties may be badly injured in such aggressive encounters. Bone fractures are common injuries due to such fighting, due to ordinary accidents and as a result of injuries from stepping on land mines. Bone fractures will need to be treated by elephant orthopaedic specialists. An existing elephant hospital has already successfully fitted elephants with prosthetic legs.
Provision of perinatal elephant care is potentially expensive. Immediately after birth, the young calf is most vulnerable to predation by lions, hunting dogs and hyenas. An elephant calf’s first year of life is his or her most hazardous. Mortality rates range from below 10% to more than 30%. Calf mortality is liable to increase when ranges are restricted and habitats change so opportunities for browsing and midday shade become less available. In the face of potential predators, the calf’s mother will vigorously defend her newborn. Unfortunately, the calf may not always be able to keep in the secure position under her mother’s abdomen. Moreover the calf will still be vulnerable to predators for some years to come. After six months or so, the youngster starts to move further from his or her mother. If potential predators are near, (s)he is at risk of being left behind if the herd is disturbed or stampeded.
Causes of juvenile death include not just predation, but disease, accidents, drought, starvation, nutritional deficiencies, stress, heat stress, drowning, becoming trapped in mudholes, snake bite and congenital malformation.
Elephants typically give birth to one calf. Less than one percent of births involve twins: one and often both calves usually die within weeks or months of birth. Intervention here will be needed to ensure a favourable outcome.
Orphaned elephants will need special protection. A calf normally continues suckling at least until two years old. Unaided, orphaned young elephants below the age of two or three years rarely survive in the wild. In a few countries, the basic infrastructure of elephant orphanages is already in place; such rescue and rehabilitation services just need extension, systematisation and adequate funding. After weaning, annual elephant mortality rates are perhaps five or six percent until about the age of 50 years. Mortality rates rise sharply in the sixth decade.
Human depredations aside, the greatest source of mature elephant morbidity and mortality is inadequate nutrition. Elephants replace their teeth multiple times. The fifth set of chewing teeth (molars) lasts until the elephant is in his or her early 40s. The sixth – and usually final – set must last the elephant the rest of his or her life. As the final set of molars wears away during the late fifties, the elephant is no longer able adequately to chew food. She or he will die from the effects of malnutrition or starvation. Free-living elephants do not usually live much past sixty years. Elderly elephant deaths generally occur during the dry season. This is because dry food cannot be effectively sheared by the residual smooth grinding surface of the worn-down sixth molar. The weakened and emaciated elephant will eventually collapse. Helpless, she or he may be eaten alive by scavengers and predators. Late-life orthodontics to prevent this fate will be more costly than routine health care. But the kinds of material used for false teeth could last decades without need for replacement.
During drought, deaths are normally from starvation or malnutrition rather than thirst. This is because elephants are reluctant to leave known water-sources to find food. Deaths may also be related to heat stress. However, the congregation of herds of undernourished and malnourished elephants at remaining water-holes will make provision of crisis nutritional support easier and cheaper.
Elephant Psychiatric Care
Like people, elephants may suffer low mood, anxiety disorders and depression. Elephants grieve when they lose a calf or close family member. Psychoses may occur, but primarily in consequence of captivity, rarely in their natural habitat. In common with humans, the incidence of endogenous depression is lower when elephants are living in their natural habitat in small family groups rather than suffering solitary confinement in captivity. Post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of hunting or natural trauma could potentially be treated with inexpensive beta-blockers.
Ivory poaching and habitat destruction have dramatically reduced unprotected elephant populations over the course of the past 200 years. However, in favourable conditions elephant populations may increase at four to five percent per year. Inevitably, such growth is ecologically unsustainable. In the long run, humans will have to choose the overall level and demographic profile of elephant populations in our wildlife reserves, or else let Nature (i.e. famine and malnutrition-related deaths) take its course. The victims of “natural” disasters will mainly be the young, the sick and the old.
Costs of Intervention
What would be the financial cost, at contemporary prices, of cradle-to-the-grave healthcare and welfare provision for the entire population of free-living African elephants? The elephant population of the African continent currently stands at around 500,000. Elephant taxonomy is currently in flux; but the half-million figure includes what is commonly known as the savannah (or bush) elephant, Loxodonta africana, and the forest species of elephant, Loxodonta cyclotis. An annual cost of somewhere between two and three billion dollars seems plausible. Most of the same challenges and opportunities arise for securing the well-being of the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus. An estimated 40,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild. So the type of program sketched out here could be implemented for them at a fraction of the price.
Most human healthcare expenses are incurred in the last six months, and often the last six weeks, of life. In the case of elephants, we simply don’t know the upper bounds to life-expectancy, given adequate late-life dentition. Assuming effective orthodontic care, this particular challenge, i.e. managing the age-related infirmities of free-living geriatric elephants, will (presumably) be decades away from the launch of an orthodontic healthcare service. After being vaccinated and (where necessary) provided with immunocontraception, most free-living elephants could be remotely monitored but otherwise largely left in peace – apart from in years of drought and famine, when costly crisis-interventions will be necessary.
To flourish, free-living elephants need a habitat that offers fresh water, plentiful vegetation for grazing and browsing; and some available shade. A mature African bush elephant typically ingests over 200 kilograms of vegetable matter daily. When needed, the cost of providing additional vaccinations, vitamin and mineral supplements, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, parasiticides, sedatives and anaesthetics, antibiotics, antifungals and antivirals, disinfectants and cleaning agents will not be negligible; but the relevant agents are almost all off-patent. Training and labor costs of ancillary support staff would be pretty low. Close, politically sensitive collaboration with the local human populations will be vital to the long-term success of the project. Elephant healthcare work could provide valuable employment. Some forms of expertise could be delivered only by specialist veterinarians. An air-ambulance service would incur significant transport costs.
For now, financial projections of comprehensive free-living elephant care will depend on back-of-an-envelope calculations rather than a rigorous methodology. But a $2.5 billion annual price-tag of full healthcare and welfare provision for the entire population of free-living African elephants may turn out to be pessimistic. Financial planners will just need to bear in mind the potential for cost overruns and unexpected expenses that tend to plague any new enterprise. The likely extent of corruption and maladministration are hard to quantify. In practice, the great majority of Africa’s 500,000 elephant population would need far less than the annual $5000 per head this figure allows.
What would be the timescale for complete coverage of Africa’s elephant population? Perhaps one or two years – but only if an international consensus existed.
Arguments could be made that those billions of dollars a year would be better spent on helping humans or on ending animal agriculture, the greatest source of severe and readily avoidable suffering in the world today. We should try to avoid speciesist bias in choosing our priorities, but whatever our priorities may be today, the inevitable end of animal agriculture and the ever-decreasing cost of technological interventions will mean that ensuring the welfare of both humans and nonhumans will be realistically within our reach in the near future.
The Biggest Obstacle
Despite the initially daunting technical challenges, the biggest obstacle to comprehensive care of the world’s free-living nonhuman animal population is not technical or even financial but ideological. Most people are prone to status quo bias. Such innate bias is normally rationalised by some version of the “appeal to Nature“, sometimes (mis)characterised as “the naturalistic fallacy”: what is natural is good. Even many who want to see radical change to the status quo often fall under the spell of the appeal to nature, such as deep ecologists and those who equate animal rights with environmentalism.
The irrationality of the “appeal to Nature” is illustrated by a simple thought-experiment. Imagine, fancifully, if starvation, disease, parasitism, disembowelling, asphyxiation and being eaten alive were not endemic to the living world – or such miseries have already been abolished. Would anyone propose there is an ethical case for (re)introducing them?
However, our bioconservativism is not wholly consistent. If presented with a specific example of terrible suffering, for example an elephant mother and her calf trapped in a mudhole, most people argue we should intervene rather than permit the horror to unfold “naturally”. Human benevolence is typically weak, erratic, sentimental rather than reasonable and consistent. Once we accept that intervention to prevent suffering in free-living nonhuman animals is sometimes ethically justified, and sometimes even ethically mandatory, a straightforward question then arises. Does free-living animal suffering matter only when we happen to notice it? What principle(s) should govern our interventions? If we can underwrite the well-being of elephants, should we aim, ultimately, to extend our concern and try to help all sentient beings when they need it?