Thursday, 27 September 2012

Conservation Ethics for Nature Guides

By Christa Panos

For any new guide, the subject of ethics is covered as one of the first topics in the FGASA level 1 Manual. Here it relates to the do’s and don’ts of guiding. This article wishes to address a broader perspective and asks the question: should guides also have a conservation ethic? And how does this influence the guided experience?

What are ethics and principles?

Ethics, as stated above, relate to questions of what we should and should not be doing, based on our idea of what we as people regard as morally correct behaviour. Our morals are based on our value systems, which in turn is formed by our culture, religion and social situations. The morals of a Christian will for example be based on the dos and don’ts as set out in the Ten Commandments and other values as described in the Christian Bible. For a subscriber of another religion, although there may be similar concepts involved, there may also be quite substantial differences in what is regarded as right and wrong – one such area, where religions differ greatly is the human view towards the animal and natural world. Like the many wars fought during the history of mankind was closely linked to different values and worldviews, so the many controversies surrounding the management and conservation of our natural heritage, are also closely linked to different values and worldviews.

As guides, we are for the most part not involved in conservation management. Our functions lie in the interpretation and unveiling of the natural world to our guests. Yet within this function there is a very important moral and ethical responsibility that we carry to ensure that our guests understand what we interpret to them, from a perspective that will promote and support good conservation.

Assuming that you are working as a full time guide at a busy lodge, doing drives or other forms of guided activities for at least 20 days of the month, with an average group of 4 guests – a rather conservative estimate- , your total monthly exposure is 80 people and your annual exposure becomes 960! The influence you have over the way these 960 people perceive the natural environment will get multiplied by the word of mouth that happens after their experience with you – often exponentially.

Have you considered that many of the stories we tell around camp- fires today, were first of all told by guides like you and me – FGASA assessors and trainers will no doubt have a laugh and be able to come up with a whole list of popular stories that guides like to tell on their drives. These include stories around the sacrificial branches of the fever tree, the aggression of the black rhino, the ability of impala to delay birth or the various stories around elephant and the marula fruit! Regardless of whether any of this is true or false, the point is that they tend to leave an impression on guests, and are remembered and retold by them to many other people in return. For this reason, I confidently make the statement that guides, with daily access to attentive guests, have got far more potential to influence the average person’s understanding of conservation in South Africa, than any academic or natural scientist, whose opinions are evaluated more by their peers, than by the general public.

It is therefore also clear and easy to understand why you as a guide, should have a sound conservation ethic, and be aware of the values and views that you are passing along to your guests, as these are the small seeds that grow into public opinion.

The problem here is that as guides, like all other people, we also have our own worldviews, and as a group we do not agree on what is ethical – what is morally correct – or not. We have seen from the example above that we cannot base our code of conservation ethics on our religion.

Conservation ethics based on religion will produce troublesome challenges that cannot easily be overcome in almost all situations. So what then shall we use to define our code of ethics for the management of our planet? Can we perhaps apply the philosophy of Ethical Naturalism. This is a moral philosophy which looks to nature as the foundation for moral beliefs, independent of any religious framework. (Honderich, 1995) We should, in short, look at nature to help us find the solutions we need and copy the examples as observed in nature. This is quite a difficult task, because even though two people can observe the same phenomenon in nature, they may still understand and interpret it differently.

In addition to this, some argue that we can never equate nature with ethics, because what we regard as good and right, is generally only good and right if it “serves our purpose” while we have no emotional connections to the natural components that we are making judgements about. So for example, we may see an abandoned antelope and because of our human parenting experience, decide that it is unethical to leave this young animal to starve or be predated on. We have no knowledge of the real situation here – the mother could have abandoned her young for various reasons, possibly to better care for another. This makes no sense in the human world and is seen as cruel and uncaring – yet in the animal world, young animals are often killed or abandoned for a greater good that we may not always understand.

We are already very good at using the examples of nature to improve the human environment as highlighted by concepts like Biomimicry. But can we apply our own knowledge and experience to improve the natural environment?

We cannot make decisions of right and wrong about the natural environment, based on religion, or other human philosophies such as ethical naturalism. It is suggested that we can only arrive at the decisions for what is right and what is wrong, by looking holistically at the issue or problem and evaluating the various different components involved and by making a concerted effort to disengage emotionally form the problem at hand. Consider for a moment what this means – this means that we can only decide, for example, what the correct management options are for issues such as rhino poaching, by disconnecting emotionally from the problem. This takes a great deal of courage and often goes against our human instincts. This also means realising that there may not be a right or wrong, but simply a best possible course of action. This is not as easy as it seems, since the natural environment is such a complex system, and one of which we have very little knowledge.

Regardless of this, we can find certain general principles from our known experience with the natural environment to guide our current and future actions. We know for example that introducing alien species leads to a loss of local species in the long run, and therefore have developed management practices around this knowledge. We also know that any population whose growth is allowed to continue without constraint, will eventually crash, causing much suffering for all its members. We also know that what seems to us like a cruel and immoral practice, is a valid strategy for the Moorhen (literally translated as murdering hen) to ensure its continued survival. (The Moorhen is named as such because it is often observed to kill the weakest of its own offspring, to ensure the survival of the rest.) When looking for knowledge, the advances of science are particularly important, as this is generally where most of our current knowledge comes from.

For you as a guide, the key phrase to remember here is knowledge – not ideas or feelings, or thoughts. This is not to say that these are not important, they are, it simply means that you also from time to time need to put these feelings aside to evaluate what we KNOW about a particular subject. When it comes to the management of our natural heritage, it is vitally important that we make well informed decisions based on what we know. Managing our wildlife with our emotions, is not different to managing our finances with our emotions – a practice I am sure most people would agree can feel quite good in the short run, but is in fact rather foolish in the long-run.

Perhaps some guides reading this are asking at this stage whether or not we should be managing our natural heritage – and if it is not a better idea to let nature manage itself. That is question to broad to cover here, but if this is a question for you at this stage, I would recommend that your education and quest for knowledge starts with a crash course on human population growth. Humanity and our continual expansion is the single biggest threat to our natural heritage, and even if we eliminate all poaching, hunting, eco-tourism, or other trade and interference in our wildlife, we will still be using more and more of our natural habitat for human occupation and manipulation as our population continues to grow.

In order to develop a responsible conservation ethic, it is your moral responsibility to educate yourself about the issues you discuss with your guests and other guides. I would go as far as to say that it is every global citizen’s responsibility to become environmentally literate – there is simply too much at stake for us to ignore this urgent task. As a guide, you play a key role in this environmental literacy – but it has to start with you. It is important to remember that you will not gain any new knowledge through simple discussion, or browsing Facebook– to arrive at a valid conservation ethic, you have to consult the sources of our current knowledge – that means reading! Finding reliable sources, reading all possible sides of an argument and committing yourself only to worldviews and ethics when you have gathered enough information to make an informed decision.

Bhejane has addressed this urgent issue in a new specialist module called Conservation Principles and Ethics. For more information on completing this module, you can contact us at

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