The value of being wild: An eco-phenomenological approach to wildlife conservation after COVID-19

Apr 21, 2020 | Commentary

By Dr Adam Cruise – University of Stellenbosch

It is the grim reality that wild places and animals are being destroyed at catastrophic levels by human action. A report, The Living Planet Index (2018)prepared by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London, found that global wild animal populations have dropped by 60% (almost two-thirds) between 1970 and 2014 (World Wildlife Fund, 2018: 7). This has occurred largely as a result of unregulated and unsustainable anthropogenic (human-generated) activities like over-harvesting of natural resources, over-exploitation of wildlife due to consuming, trading, hunting, poaching; or from human-induced climate change, natural habitat loss and widespread pollution (World Wildlife Fund, 2018). A year later, an even more dire warning was issued. In May 2019, a global assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, 2019) found that one-million species are currently threatened with extinction and that humans are undermining the entire natural infrastructure on which our world depends.

Based on these reports (and others), it is common knowledge that human population expansion and human consumptive behaviour have triggered what scientists and commentators refer to as the Sixth Great Extinction event in the history of Earth (Kolbert, 2014). And it is not only wild animals, but humans who may begin to look at their own species as part of this extinction. The reduction of clean air and water, healthy soils and an increase poverty, hunger, disease and global pandemics are a direct result of anthropogenic destruction of wild nature.

The Sixth Mass Extinction is the only one of mass extinctions created solely by an earth-dwelling species – humans. It is also referred to as the Anthropocene. It is a term that defines earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic. The definition of the Anthropocene is based on overwhelming global evidence that the atmospheric, geological, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans (Carrington, 29 August 2016). The word combines the root word ‘anthropos’ (human) with the root word ‘-cene’ (the suffix for ‘epoch in geologic time’).

A brief but violent history of the Anthropocene

Until recently, human awareness of their destructive actions was limited. The slow realisation that humans may be doing irreparable damage to the planet and other species only really began in the 1960s when Rachel Carson published her rousing exposé The Silent Spring (1962). Carson had focused her attention on environmental problems and the destruction of wildlife that were caused by pesticides and widespread use of chemicals. It was the first time someone had brought environmental concerns to the global public and helped to inspire the environmental movement (Paull, 2013: 1-12).

It was in the late sixties and early seventies, also as a direct reaction to the publication of Silent Spring, when philosophy began to seriously address environmental and non-human animal issues in what is now the discipline of ‘Environmental Ethics’ (Brennan & Lo, Winter 2016). Essays were produced by the pioneering thinkers like Richard Routley, Holmes Rolston III, J. Baird Callicott, Joel Fineberg, Arne Naess, Clare Palmer and Peter Singer who raised awareness on the ethics of environmental and species destruction and the possibility of affording rights to non-human animals and even plants (Callicott & Palmer, 2005). Driven by a growing groundswell with both the voting public and in academia, especially in the sciences and philosophy (Brennan & Lo, Winter 2016), the 1960s saw global governments and inter-governmental organisations realise that something urgent needed to be done to reverse the extinction of plants and animals.

However, the desire to conserve species at government and inter-government level was and still is a human-centred one in that the preservation of wild species was predominantly seen in terms of sustaining human economic benefits of utilising rather than conserving wildlife simply for the sake of wildlife. In other words, the thinking of policymakers always centres on the importance of instrumental value over intrinsic value. The former is the value of things as a means to further the ends of some external telos or goal, in this case human well-being as something external to the wild species themselves. Whereas the latter is the value of wild animals and plants (animals and plants in the natural environment, as opposed to domesticated animals) as ends in themselves regardless of whether they are also useful as a means to human well-being (Brennan & Lo, Winter 2016). Wild animals are conserved with the singular aim and rationale to further the economic benefits of humans. Wild animals are in our current era always and solely regarded and treated as resources and commodities for human consumption and utility.

Driven by this framework of instrumental value, in 1963 a resolution was drafted by eighty countries in Washington D.C. for the establishment of the future Convention on International Trade in Endangered Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES, an organization under the umbrella of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) that came into effect a decade later (CITES a.). The very title of the Convention revealed its instrumental nature, that is: the continuation and sustainability of the human trade in endangered wildlife.

Ostensibly, CITES was the organization to safeguard species of plants and animals from human over-exploitation at an international level (CITES a.). I say ‘ostensibly’ because given the chilling findings in the latest reports, in the four and half decades since its inception, CITES has failed in its mandate to do so. The main reason for this failure is the fact that instrumental value is founded entirely on anthropocentrism.

Anthropocentrism in its strong sense favours human existence and economic well-being over and often at the expense of the survival of wild species. In this sense, anthropocentrism is also implied in a purely instrumental valuation of wild species.  

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, anthropocentrism had already been identified as the overriding problem in the destruction of the natural environment and extinction of species by the aforementioned pioneering philosophers (Callicott & Palmer, 2005: vol I, i-ix). These early thinkers immediately posed a challenge to the dominant anthropocentric paradigm by questioning the assumed superiority of human beings to members of all the other species on earth and investigated the possibility of rational arguments for assigning intrinsic value to the natural environment and its non-human inhabitants (Brennan & Lo, Winter 2016). Yet despite serious reservations raised decades ago by these thinkers, anthropocentrism as a dominant paradigm is a spectre that widely persists today, albeit in a weaker sense. By ‘weak anthropocentrism’ I mean that conservation of wildlife is still seen in purely instrumental terms, but instead of over-exploitation, wildlife is treated as a sustainable resource where species are conserved up to the point where they can provide continued benefit of humans and economic well-being into the foreseeable future. In other words, while the purely instrumental valuation from a human perspective remains in place, the anthropocentrism is somewhat tempered in this weaker version of the theory. Immediate human benefit is ‘limited’ or ‘regulated’ for the sake of longer-term human benefit.

Among today’s government, non-government and inter-governmental circles, weak anthropocentric conservation of wildlife is euphemistically referred to as ‘sustainable utilisation’ (the prolonged use of wildlife for sustaining human economic well-being) or, more broadly, ‘sustainable development’ (the prolonged use of wildlife for improving human economic well-being). The United Nations Brundtland Report, the result of a commission set up by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987, regards ‘sustainable development’ as the best mechanism for conserving wild species from over-exploitation and destruction. The broad definition of the term ‘sustainable development’, as per the report, is to:

…balance local and global efforts to meet basic human needs through the use of wild animals and natural resources without destroying or degrading the natural environment so that future generations [of humans] can meet their own needs (UN General Assembly, 1987).

The notion of sustainable development with its implied instrumentalism has subsequently become the endorsed system for policy makers at both an international and national level. It is central to all United Nations environmental organisations such as UNEP and CITES and other inter-governmental environmental organisations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest nature conservation organization, as well as global non-governmental environmental organisations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Almost all national governments have followed UN international policy in adopting these weak anthropocentric policies. This is evident in the fact that 183 out of 193 of the world’s nations are members of and participate in CITES.

Given that weak anthropocentrism and its reliance on instrumental value conserves wildlife population numbers simply to sustain human trade and consumption, the major problem that is the fact that there is no regard that wildlife is an integral and interconnected combination of vital organisms in a broader ecological system that maintains the continued existence of all species. This shows a failure to appreciate that wild animals in the wild contribute entirely to the flourishing of the broader natural system. The common view when it comes to the conservation of wild species numbers, it is usually achieved at the expense of the broader natural environment in that wild animals are bred and stocked on ranches that are more akin to domestic livestock farms than wilderness areas, or are captured or killed in the wild while many species are confined in unsanitary confined conditions in markets across the globe. This is not only detrimental to the survival and continued flourishing of species, but is detrimental tothe flourishing of human well-being too.

Eco-phenomenology as a meaningful alternative to anthropocentrism

Given the dire circumstances for wildlife, and brought into sharp relief by the COVID-19 threat as a result of human consumptive desires, it is therefore imperative to provide an alternative approach to wildlife conservation, one that avoids anthropocentrism and wildlife valuation on an instrumental basis in order to provide meaningful and tangible success for both wildlife and human well-being in an inclusive way. In this sense, the concept of eco-phenomenology is an example as an important non-anthropocentric alternative to sustainable development in that it provides a framework for radically redefining our undertaking of what it means to be wild. 

Phenomenology, in a philosophical sense, takes its starting point in the world as we experience it – literally the study of ‘phenomena’: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings that things have in our direct experience of them. “Traditional phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first-person point of view” (Smith, 2018: online). However, the later works of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty moved phenomenology away from the first-person to something more interchangeable and reversible. He shows that human embodied subjectivity is never located purely in our bodily presence in and experience of the world, but in the intertwining between ourselves and the natural world in a non-subjective way.

Phenomenology helps moves the human away from anthropocentrism to a far more inclusive approach in conserving wildlife. This is because phenomenology deals with the interconnected relationship between humans and wild animals and their dependence of and in a broad ecological system. The strength of phenomenology is that it regards all living and even non-living entities, such as air, water and soil, as interconnected and interrelated within a broad biosphere, hence the term ‘eco-phenomenology’.

Eco-phenomenology offers a return to a world that humans have tried hard to alienate themselves from. It directs humans back to the natural environment and other living bodies, not as a complex set of objects and objective processes to be utilized instrumentally, but rather as they are experienced and lived from within by the attentive human or other animal who is entirely a part of the living, material world that he or she experiences. It also directs human attention to the perceptions and agency of other living bodies for whom we are part of their experience. Eco-phenomenology thus emphasises a holistic dialogue with and within a more-than-human world (Abram, 1996: 65).

However, eco-phenomenology is yet to be considered in an applied sense (Brown & Toadvine, 2003). The concept points toward an applied strategy but so far this has not been achieved, or at least, not attempted in earnest. This is specifically true when it comes to wildlife conservation. In my PhD dissertation The Value of Being Wild (2020), I investigate the concept of eco-phenomenology in order to provide a new practical wildlife conservation approach that challenges, and potentially replaces, the current prevailing policies as employed by global governmental and inter-governmental agencies. In particular, this alternative frame is proposed as a replacement for the failing instrumental and anthropocentric conservation practices currently in place in countries like South Africa. This dissertation explores strategies where conservation of wildlife is not taken as instrumentally-valued, or even intrinsically-valued, but rather as wild-valued in that the existence of wild animals as wild is conserved within a broader, more inclusive overall wild ecology that supports the survival and flourishing of all living beings, including plants, animals and human beings.

Essentially, the successful conservation of wild species comes down to just a single notion: recreating the space for all biodiversity to thrive. Eco-phenomenology therefore is about the commitment toward and the protection of the entire wild system, which includes all living beings (plants, wild animals and humans) and even non-living entities (water, soil and air). Eco-phenomenology is a new conservation approach in that it wholly abandons any anthropocentric constructs in conservation. Consequently, it avoids all the resultant pitfalls of anthropocentrism. It is instead ontological in that it concerns itself with the existence and well-being of the entire natural environment. Thus, it is the protection of ‘wildness’ that is key to a new conservation approach.

Crucially, governments and other policy-makers need to recognise that the loss of biodiversity and consumption of wild animals will not only harm the natural environment, but will cause human health, social, economic and cultural collapses as well. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, the future of humanity depends on the future health of the natural environment. Such practical strategies are to expand the space for biodiversity to thrive. Cutting down space that feeds livestock like poultry, pigs, cattle (soybean farming in the Amazon basin) and even camels (all of which have been causes of other global zoonotic diseases like bird and swine flu as well as foot and mouth diseases and MERS) and thinking of better ways to feed humanity  such as eating less meat – especially from wild animals (the causes of Ebola, HIV/AIDS,  SARS and now COVID-19) are some such strategies.

Ultimately, eco-phenomenology recognises that all living beings are not stand-alone entities to be taken individually (either as instrumentally or even intrinsically valuable), but together as a great interconnected web of life that depends on each other for their existence and well-being. At the heart of an eco-phenomenology is the wildness-of-being. Ultimately, if humans are successfully to conserve species, including our own, in the era of the Anthropocene, we need to preserve the house that keeps us all alive – wild nature.


Abram, D. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous. (New York: Vintage)

Brennan, A. & Lo, Y. (2016) Environmental Ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed).

Brown, C. & Toadvine, T. (2003) Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself (Albany: State University of New York Press)

Callicott, J. Baird & Palmer, C. (2005) Intrinsic Value in Nature: A Metaethical Analysis. Callicott, J. Baird & Palmer, Clare eds. Environmental Philosophy: Critical Concepts vol. I (Abingdon & New York: Routledge.

CITES (a), What is CITES?

IPBES (May 2019) Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science- Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (eds). (IPBES Secretariat, Bonn, Germany) 

Kolbert, E. (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (London: Bloomsbury Publishing)

Paull, J. (2013). The Rachel Carson Letters and the Making of Silent SpringSAGE Open

Smith, D.W., (Summer 2018 Edition) Phenomenology, Edward N. Zalta ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

United Nations General Assembly (1987) Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. Transmitted to the General Assembly as an Annex to document A/42/427 – Development and International Co-operation: Environment.

World Wildlife Fund (2018) Living Planet Report 2018 (WWF, Gland, Switzerland) file:///Users/adamcruise/Downloads/lpr2018_full_report_spreads%20(1).pdf

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