The 2030 Agenda envisages a development model “in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and … other living species are protected.” Yet while the relationship between animal welfare, environmental well-being and human development is increasingly researched and evidenced, there remains very little recognition of this relationship and the crucial role animal welfare plays in sustainable development for people and planet in UN discussions on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly for SDG 12 Sustainable Consumption and Production. Animal welfare is important for SDGs; it is high time that this was remedied, and animal welfare embraced throughout the UN system.
As an example of the public support for animal welfare to be addressed by the UN, a recent petition jointly promoted by Cruelty Free International and The Body Shop calling on the “countries of the UN to formalize an international framework to end cosmetic animal testing” generated over 8 million signatures in under 15 months. It is also an internationally-accepted policy issue; and a practical issue which can help with the achievement of most, if not all, of the SDGs.
The fact that animal welfare is important for SDGs is underlined by an increasing body of science which confirms that animals are sentient beings who share with us feelings, emotions, perceptions – and the ability to suffer and experience states of wellbeing. Animal welfare is now covered by a wide-ranging and growing body of internationally and regionally accepted science-based standards, treaties, conventions, regulations, directives and agreements.
Sixth Mass Extinction
We are witnessing the “biological annihilation” of wildlife, with the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history under way. Collectively 32% of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish are in decline. Of the 85,000 species listed by the IUCN, more than 24,000 are in danger, including lions, rhinos and giraffes, whose numbers have fallen by nearly 40% over the last 40 years. A study published in the journal Science Advances in January 2017 found that three-quarters of primate species have falling numbers, with 60% threatened with extinction, among them gorillas and chimpanzees.
However, we should not only focus on the loss of charismatic species, as biodiversity is a complex web of interactions, and the loss of smaller, seemingly less consequential species can have a vast impact on our planet and its balance of animal and plant-life. They make the soil, pollinate the flowers, spread seeds and recycle valuable nutrients back into the soil. They are also food for many well-loved birds, and keep other small animals in check by eating or parasitizing them.
For example, many pollinator species are threatened with extinction, including some 16% of vertebrates like birds and bats; and scientists have predicted that this could threaten world food supplies.
Threat to Biodiversity
Habitat loss and degradation is a great threat to wildlife and biodiversity, and is impacted by factors such as land use change and land degradation, deforestation, pollution, climate change and ocean acidification—all of which can be linked back to industrial systems of agriculture and directly threaten the well-being of human beings and sustainable development, as well as animals.
Illegal hunting, poaching and trafficking is increasingly recognized for its role in decimating wildlife, bringing many species to the verge of extinction. The global trade in illegal wildlife is a growing illicit economy, estimated to be worth billions of US dollars annually. This has led to a sea-change in the nature of poaching, with traps and rifles being exchanged for sophisticated weaponry, handled by ruthless criminals, using helicopters.
A recent UN report on World Wildlife Crime has acknowledged the links between the illegal wildlife trade and professional criminal groups involved in other transnational offences, such as drug trafficking, human trafficking and terrorism.
Further, there is a schism between the traditional conservation ethos, which promotes the “sustainable consumption” of wildlife and places “intrinsic value,” on species, rather than individual animals, and the growing scientific evidence of animal sentience and the scientific basis of animal welfare.
In reality, these new scientific understandings can and should be knit together with conservation science to bring conservation into the 21st century. While this is a slow transition in practice, there is reason to hope that these separate scientific fields can be merged.
In 2017 The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) passed a resolution on the Conservation Implications of Animal Culture and Social Complexity, and held a workshop on this in 2018. This sort of innovative approach to managing conservation at both the level of species and individual animals may be exactly what is needed to better address the continuing loss of wildlife and biodiversity.
Recognizing that animal welfare is important for SDGs and protecting individual members of species holds the potential to finally make progress in achieving conservation of species and biodiversity — and programmes like the CMS Working Group on Animal Culture and Social Complexity are paving the way forward.