Article image

What is the value of elephants?

According to a new study published in the journal Ecosystem Services, conservation strategies often have a narrow focus, tending to prioritize economic or ecological values of various species, while ignoring other types of benefits, such as those related to well-being or morality. Looking specifically at the case of elephants, the experts found that financial benefits including the role of elephants in ecotourism, trophy hunting, or labor often conflict with the elephants’ ecological, cultural, and spiritual contributions. Thus, overlooking the value systems of all the stakeholders involved in conservation, including local people, can lead to social inequality, conflict, and unsustainable strategies.

“We chose to look at elephants as the case study because their conservation can be especially challenging and contentious,” said study co-author Antoinette van de Water, an expert in human-elephant interaction at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. “We’re not saying economic contributions aren’t important, but there’s a lot of different values at play and they all need to be considered in conservation strategies if they are going to succeed.”

According to van de Water and her colleagues, conservation decision makers frequently tend to take a single worldview when considering the value of nature. “Whether it’s economic, ecological, or social, a blanket approach to values can impact the success of a conservation strategy,” explained study co-author Lucy Bates, a zoologist at the University of Portsmouth in the UK.

“Consider something like the ivory trade for example. International trade in ivory is illegal, but many southern African countries want to restart the trade leading to contention across the African continent. If you focus less on the potential economic value of ivory, and turn to other ways elephants can support communities, it can be a game-changer.”

“On a smaller scale, you can also apply this framework to defining protected areas and what land could be made available to elephants. By listening to those living in these areas, you can get a clear understanding of how decisions will affect human life as well, and work out ways to resolve any issues.”

Thus, instead of focusing solely on financial and economic benefits, conservationists should also take into account nature’s non-material benefits, such as recreation, inspiration, mental health, or social cohesion, together with broader moral values, like human rights, environmental justice, rights of nature, or intergenerational legacy.

An approach incorporating moral values related to biodiversity conservation to create a positive loop between benefits to humans and to nature would help policymakers and managers better understand what elephants mean to people, why these animals are important in themselves, and what values and interests are actually at stake.

“What is really needed is a change of thinking. Conservation policies are often based on price tags. Our pluralist valuation system provides solutions that are not based on economic gains or political status for the few, but instead on long-term common good and the goals and aspirations of societies,” concluded van de Water.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day