This article is adapted from a document prepared by Animal People for distribution at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Conference of Parties 15 (COP 15), underway from December 7-19th, 2022. It was written by Wolf Gordon Clifton and Kim Bartlett (Animal People) in consultation with Purity Karuga and Josphat Ngonyo (Africa Network for Animal Welfare).
What is Animal Welfare?
Animal welfare describes efforts to promote the wellbeing of non-human animals, especially by reducing suffering caused by human activities. Animal welfare recognizes animals as individuals – sentient beings with interests of their own which warrant ethical consideration, including in law and policy. It also interlinks closely with environmental and sustainable development initiatives, including efforts to protect human and environmental health. U.N. Environment recently recognized a “Nexus” between animal welfare, the environment, and sustainable development (UNEA EA.5/Res.1). This document offers a brief overview of animal welfare issues in the context of biodiversity, with specific attention to the targets listed in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
Direct Exploitation (Targets 5, 9)
Direct exploitation of natural resources, including wildlife, is recognized as one of the top two human-caused drivers of biodiversity loss across all regions. Globally, the wildlife trade is worth up to USD $220 billion per year, of which up to a tenth is illegal. Increased efforts to combat wildlife crime are essential, but legal trades also pose dire concerns. These include the impacts of fishing, especially highly destructive practices like deep sea trawling; commercial hunting and trapping for meat, fur, and medicinal products; and wildlife farms, which supply 85% of the global fur trade and a growing share of other wildlife products, yet can also drive demand for poaching and provide reservoirs for diseases threatening wild animal and human health.
Trophy hunting is an especially contentious issue, widely opposed by the general public as well as many scientists and economists. Its contribution to conservation funding has been highly exaggerated, accounting for less than 2% of wildlife tourism expenditures. By targeting the largest and most impressive animals, hunting for trophies can disrupt social structures and reduce the genetic fitness of populations.
The pet trade is another driver of exploitation largely overlooked by current policy. Animals in the pet trade suffer trauma, abuse, and inadequate care at all stages in the supply chain. As few as 3 in 10 wild-caught animals survive to final sale, and only 2 in 10 after one year in captivity. Even when legal, the pet trade can exacerbate biodiversity loss. Capture of wild species, especially species understudied or unlisted by CITES, can rapidly imperil populations before the danger is recognized. Legal trade can bolster illegal trade by driving excessive demand, through mislabeling of threatened species as common ones, and via laundering of illegally caught animals to supply registered captive breeding operations. In addition, escape or release of exotic pets is a major driver for the spread of invasive species.
Potential policy solutions include more stringent animal welfare guidelines, closing legal loopholes, and educating the public to reduce demand for exotic animals.
Land & Sea Use Change (Targets 1, 10, 16, 18)
Land use change is the single largest driver of biodiversity loss in terrestrial ecosystems, consisting mainly of conversion for agriculture. Animal agriculture contributes disproportionately, as 26% of all ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and a further 33% of cropland used for livestock feed. Yet animal proteins can feed only a fraction as many people as plant proteins relative to the land, water, and other resources they require. Demand for meat is increasing throughout much of the world. This is driven in part by the adoption of meat-heavy Western-style diets, as well as government subsidies which reduce the market price of animal products. There is massive opportunity to slow biodiversity loss by redirecting harmful subsidies toward sustainable plant-based agriculture and emerging technologies such as cell-cultured meat and precision fermentation.
Shifting food systems away livestock farming is necessary but not sufficient to prevent biodiversity loss due to agriculture. Conversion for cropland – especially monocultures like oil palm, corn, and soy that are unsuitable as wildlife habitat – is driven not only by food needs but also by increasing demand for biofuels. This highlights the need to better coordinate climate and biodiversity actions.
Ideally, agricultural policy should favor small-scale, localized, and plant-centered food systems, protect locally adapted heritage crops, and promote traditional diets that are healthier and more sustainable than the Western model.
Preventing Pollution (Target 7)
Wild animals like sea birds, turtles, fish, and whales suffer excruciating deaths from accidentally eating or becoming entangled in plastic. Without drastic action, ocean plastic pollution could quadruple by 2050. Single-use packaging is a major source of plastic waste, along with lost or discarded fishing gear that accounts for at least 22% of marine litter. Plastics become more damaging as they decay, producing microplastics that accumulate in animals’ cells and tissues.
There is an urgent need to control other forms of pollution as well, including pesticides. Predatory species are especially vulnerable to pesticides as they accumulate higher up the food chain. Agricultural waste, including manure from livestock and fertilizers, pollutes waterways and contributes to marine dead zones inhospitable to most life. Waste from farmed animals can transmit antibiotic-resistant microbes to wild species, endangering animal and human health alike. Pharmaceutical waste such as discarded medications can also have debilitating effects on the health of aquatic animals.
Greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as CO2 and methane are another form of pollution that threatens biodiversity, especially in the oceans. Many marine organisms are sensitive to changes in temperature as well as acidity, which rises with increased CO2 and can destroy the skeletons of coral, bivalves, and plankton. Climate pollution is related to land use change, as GHG emissions from animal agriculture rival transportation as one of the top two drivers of climate change.
Managing Invasive Species (Target 6)
Eradicating invasive species once they’ve become established is extremely difficult, and even when successful exacts a high welfare cost for introduced animals. Moreover, it may come too late to reverse damage to the ecosystem. Prevention must be the first priority, including by regulating the pet trade, a major source of invasive species and the top contributor of invasive reptiles and amphibians worldwide.
Successfully managing invasions requires quantifying their impacts, which vary widely. Occasionally, introduced organisms can benefit ecosystems by filling the roles of already extinct species. When eradication is necessary, it should strive to minimize suffering of invasive animals, harmful side-effects for native species, and psychological harm to people. Enlisting children to kill invasive animals can be traumatic and may desensitize them to violence in general – as does childhood exposure to other forms of animal killing – undermining efforts to nourish pro-nature values overall.
Non-lethal methods of population control are available for some species. With proper management and funding, trap-neuter-return programs can be effective at reducing cat populations and are less vulnerable to public backlash than culling. Species-specific edible contraceptives are now commercially available for rats and pigeons, two of the most common invasive species worldwide. Research and development should be encouraged to develop products for additional species. Such methods are especially viable for geographically isolated areas, such as islands, and are less likely to result in collateral harm to native wildlife than are poisons or lethal traps.
Finally, invasive species policy must recognize the natural occurrence of range shifts and changes in ecosystem composition, especially due to climate change. As temperatures increase over the next few decades, many species will be forced to migrate to higher latitudes or elevations to survive.
Safeguarding and restoring biodiverse areas will not be possible without simultaneously slowing and reversing land use change. Transitioning from animal agriculture to more sustainable food systems could free up to a third of ice-free land for restoration, making it an invaluable strategy for achieving the goal of “30 by 30” and the even more ambitious “Half-Earth” proposal to restore global habitat. Such a transition would not only greatly reduce total climate emissions but restore natural carbon sequestration by forests and biodiverse grasslands.
Protecting habitat does not necessitate displacing people. Rewilding organizations increasingly recognize wilderness as a spectrum rather than a binary, as many wild species can flourish even in areas with relatively high human presence. It is vital to engage local communities in efforts to preserve the ecosystems with which they coexist, including by promoting non-consumptive use such as ecotourism, offering payment for ecosystem services, and recognizing the tenure rights and traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples.
Wildlife reintroduction and translocation is an essential part of restoring ecosystems, yet such efforts can be severely stressful for animals and may result in high mortality with low rates of success. Almost a quarter of reintroduction projects see more than 50% mortality, yet only 6% specifically consider animal welfare. Better accounting for the health and wellbeing of animals, including ascertaining their chances of survival once released to their new habitats, is likely to improve the success of reintroduction efforts.
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