A year ago I posted a short piece about human-elephant conflict in response to a review by Tim Flannery in the New York Review of Books. I have just been reminded of this, as I read this morning of Bob Parsons, the CEO of GoDaddy, and his obscene, pith-helmeted, pseudo-macho romp in Zimbabwe, which yielded a trophy in the form of a YouTube video showing famished natives, all wearing GoDaddy caps and feasting on the flesh of the beast that the great white savior Parsons had felled for them.
I believe as strongly as when I wrote the post last year that on the basis of solid scientific evidence it is perfectly reasonable to ascribe moral personhood to elephants. This is not to say that they are human beings, but not all persons are. One reason for withholding this status might be their apparent inability to take responsibility for their actions, to be suitable targets of reward and punishment, etc., and evidence of their inability might be the fact that they do not respect the boundaries of Zimbabwean farms. But note: we don't respect their territory either; we don't even recognize them as having any. So it is closer to the truth to say not that we are all persons in a single system of justice, but rather that we are two groups of persons at war, who do not recognize each others' claims. On this account, then, a Zimbabwean farmer who kills an elephant looks just like any other desperate warrior around the world; Parsons comes out looking like a smug Blackwater mercenary who deserves to be placed in the dock.
As the illustrations I've pulled up for this post remind us, however, in the history of human-elephant warfare, cross-species alliances are not unknown. As I go about divesting my own several domain names from GoDaddy (what a stupid name, by the way), I confess that these images suggest to me a suitable fate for Parsons as well (his crime was almost certainly far greater than whatever the poor saps in the illustrations stood guilty of).
Most shocking of all, perhaps, is Parsons' attempt to shroud his adventure in politically correct terms of sustainability, ecological balance, and so on. It is true that elephants intrude upon Zimbabwean farms, but that is only because Zimbabwean farms have intruded upon the elephants' habitat in the first place. So the thing to do now is to find the terms of a peaceful coexistence, and not to indulge primal fantasies of hunting in the false terms of eco-sensibility. (Parsons' gesture is not so different from Vladimir Putin's passion for shooting Siberian tigers with tranquilizer darts; he is doing it, technically, in the name of conservation, but what he really wants to be seen to be doing is shooting tigers. At least, however, Putin's machismo does not tear tightly knit social units apart (at least not in Siberia; Chechnya is another story).)
Some people with a reduced conception of personhood --one that indexes it rigidly to all and only post-natal homo sapiens, and utterly refuses it to every other being (the default ontology of modern liberal humanism)-- will find this comparison deeply offensive, but I note that it is almost certain that Julius Popper's hunting misions in Patagonia in the late 19th century were accompanied by the era's available rhetoric of 'natural balance' and of 'hygiene' and 'order', from which the sort of eco-apologetics conjured up by a man such as Parsons differ but little. Popper's preferred quarry was the Ona, a subvariety of human being, who once inhabited the Tierra del Fuego. Popper did not conceptualize his hunting as 'murder'. He didn't have to, because murder is by definition only that sort of killing that is perceived as deserving social sanction.
The rhetoric of human rights has brought us to the point where all killings of all post-natal homo sapiens is worthy of such sanction, is worthy of being classified as 'murder'. There is no good reason, however, to think of the boundaries of the human species as coextensive with the boundaries of the community of morally relevant beings. This is not to say that all beings belong on the same side of the boundary, and it is to allow oneself to be sucked into pointless casuistics to listen seriously to the anthropocentrist who tells you that if you care about elephants, you must care about eels, and so on.
What is certain is that elephants mourn their dead; they are traumatized by the loss of loved ones; they cannot rest until the corpse of a loved one receives its proper funereal rites. They are, in sum, the kind of being that can be murdered. Or kill or be killed in war, for that matter.