Conservation and a biblical approach to nature


Male gaur
Male gaur. Credit: Altaipanther, Wikipedia.org

A television nature conservation program1 in my South African homeland recently documented the mass translocation of a herd of gaur, also known as Indian bison (Bos gaurus) from one nature reserve to another in India. This large bovine, the largest of any of the wild cattle species, is native to South and Southeast Asia, and is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

A team from South Africa had been asked to go to India to attempt this translocation which had never been successfully done before. A previous attempt had resulted in 100% fatalities. The skills and experience of the South African team, assisted by Indian conservationists, were admirable. The project was led by Les Carlisle, a South African with many years and about 40,000 heads of game2 experience in the translocation of wild animals. The documentary showed one of the gaur, after having been tracked and darted by the team from the back of an elephant, falling on its side into a ravine while still semi-conscious. Les instinctively plunged into the ravine to wrestle the animal onto its stomach, knowing that lying on its side, the large animal would suffocate. The operation was a great success with no fatalities amongst the 19 gaur initially moved in the operation.

The effects of culture on conservation

The irony here is that in India, where Hinduism is the major religion, the cow (the name is probably derived similarly to ‘gaur’) is revered, if not worshipped as equal with man or even deity. Yet it required the expertise of those from a totally different cultural perspective to help conserve their wild cows.

For centuries, killing a cow was a capital offence, regarded as equivalent to killing a Brahman (Hindu high caste priest). Hinduism venerates vegetarianism and cows are not killed for their beef. It seems counter-intuitive for a country which holds the cow in such high esteem to be lacking in the ability to manage and conserve their wild cows.

As one thinks about this, though, it makes perfect sense. If cows are indeed divine, or at least equal with humanity or on their way to becoming human, what right or responsibility does a mere human have to seek to regulate these creatures? This is a conundrum faced by any pantheistic worldview that elevates (or demotes) all life to an equal level. A belief in evolution, though anti-God by nature, is embraced quite comfortably by Hinduism. This belief, too, is faced with the same philosophical hurdle. If all life is evolved from a common ancestor, all life is equally valid and no life form has the intrinsic right to impose itself on another. While not all evolutionists would agree with this, many do, and as evolution has increasingly become the dominant worldview of the west, we find the simultaneous devaluation of human life and the veneration of animal life. And so it has become philosophically permissible, even desirable, to kill millions of unborn humans every year, while being willing to spend millions of dollars on the preservation of a handful of beached whales, even when not threatened with extinction.

When man loses his sense of his place in the universe, all sorts of confusion arises. In India, while cows are elevated, widows are denigrated and neglected, having lost their identity and value within Hindu culture when their husband dies (before the British banned the practice in the 1800’s, widows were customarily burnt on their husband’s funeral pyre, a practice known as Sati or Suttee after the Hindu goddess of the same name).

By contrast, a traditional English/Dutch Protestant worldview, under which South Africans were raised in most of the 20th century, provided us with a sense of place in this creation. Man was made in the image of God as recorded in Genesis. And man was given the abilities and mandate for stewardship in Genesis 1:26–30; 2:15, and again after the Fall, and in Genesis 9 after the Flood, to ‘have dominion over’ the creation. Many in the ‘deep green’ environmentalist movement vehemently dispute this responsibility (right, privilege or stewardship). I remember being driven from the airport by a Canadian man many years ago when on business in Toronto. I told him I was a Christian (I had been saved for about 3 years) and somehow the topic of the ‘dominion mandate’ came up and it is no exaggeration to say that he was rabid in his rejection of the notion. It confused me at the time but I have come to see how the New Age, pantheistic influences that underlie much of the modern ‘deep green movement’ reject the notion that we are superior to and responsible for our environment. We are equally entitled and obliged by God to make use of, and manage, the resources around us. They believe that such a view leads to the wholesale abuse of resources and the extinction of species, not to mention a high view of man that leads to overpopulation. One of the sacred texts of ideological environmentalism and anti-humanitarianism highlights this conflict. In his book, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich recognized that ‘the attitudes of Western culture toward nature are deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition’. He went on to advocate overthrowing this worldview with one more akin to the ‘“hippie” movement—a movement that adopts most of its religious ideas from the non-Christian East.’3

Dominion not to blame for destruction

Such a view is contradicted by history and by consistent philosophical analysis. In the Christian worldview, we remain accountable to the Creator in the way in which we both utilize and manage the resources He has given us. When my son was a teenager, if I entrusted my car to him, it was not to do with as he pleased (and speed pleased him), but with the understanding that he could use it but also was expected to take care of it, in short it was a stewardship. The notion that, having been granted dominion over creation, we could do as we please with it, is nonsense. The privilege strongly implied the responsibility to properly manage and conserve the wonders of the natural world while responsibly utilizing its resources. It is no accident of history that such an institution as the RSPCA, the first animal welfare organization in the world, was founded by a group of predominantly conservative and evangelical Christians, including William Wilberforce4 and the Reverend Arthur Broome, the founder and first secretary of the society. In a meeting of the society in June 1832, the minutes record that “the proceedings of this Society are entirely based on the Christian faith, and on Christian Principles”.5

By contrast, Darwin was an avid hunter. And while the RSPCA sought to limit and control vivisection, men like Darwin and Thomas Huxley were hugely in favour. Much of the environmental and habitat degradation in the 19th and early 20th centuries resulted from a philosophical belief driven by evolution, that man was the most evolved creature in the battle for survival and it was his right to do as he pleased with those species (and also those human ‘races’) lower down the evolutionary chain. Even as the West began to curtail and control this wholesale lassez faire ravishing of the environment, and develop new technologies to lessen the environmental impact of many processes, it was in the atheistic, evolutionary-minded countries like the USSR and China where it continued unabated.

It was Paul Kruger, a Christian and the president of the South African Republic (1883–1902), whose efforts, in spite of strong opposition, led to the founding in South Africa of what later became the Kruger National Park. His stated goal was “for setting aside certain areas where game could be protected and where nature could remain unspoiled as the Creator made it.”6 The Kruger National Park, today measuring about 20,000 km2, was a ground-breaking and visionary initiative in its day.

The biblical balance

While not assuming the particular worldview of those involved in the gaur project, and appreciating the conservation efforts of all involved regardless of their beliefs, it is undeniable that these extraordinary conservation skills were germinated, developed and honed in an atmosphere of Protestant Christian belief toward nature.7 Conserving wildlife is as natural to this culture as eating it. Braai8 and visiting national parks are probably amongst the top two pastimes of South Africans from this cultural background, with the two activities often combined; a day walking or driving in a national park, admiring the scenery and wildlife followed by delicious venison over the coals in one of the park camps. There is no conflict between people conserving and managing creation and valuing wildlife, while at the same time enjoying its bounty. This culture was established and absorbed within a Protestant, Christian environment.

Recognized or not, it is from this background that South African conservationists have become internationally respected and appreciated. The pantheistic and evolutionary influences that hold all life as equal are becoming increasingly evident however. Due to the success of initiatives similar to that of the gaur, elephant herds were saved from extinction in South African parks and populations expanded. This placed great strain on the habitats in the limited boundaries of the parks. For decades, conservationists used culling as a means of managing expanding herds. While not relished by conservationists, humane culling was seen as a necessary evil to properly manage the size of herds so that they could still be supported within their habitat.

A looming change—with consequences

Over the past couple of decades, however, culling has been fiercely denounced and resisted by ‘deep green’ lobbyists. Much hand wringing goes on in the belief that man has no right to kill elephants or any other creature and alternatives such as contraception were investigated. While this went on, elephant populations continued to grow and habitats were severely harmed as the elephants stripped vast areas of all trees in their desperation to find food. This in turn led to a deleterious effect on other species as ecosystems were destroyed. In some Southern African parks where culling had been stopped due to this opposition, elephants began to starve as their populations grew beyond the ability of the area to support them, quite analogous to the seemingly miserable conditions of domesticated (sacred) cows in India.

Mankind today is confronted with many challenges from nature, from threatened gaurs to elephant overpopulation, from malaria to monsoons and from water conservation to tsunamis. There is one cohesive, comprehensive philosophical basis on which to make practical, sometimes hard decisions in order to manage our resources and to enjoy the fruits of those decisions or the consequences of bad ones—and to learn from them. That is, the biblical Christian worldview of a once-perfect creation, marred by the Fall, coupled with man’s unique role in it, and God’s mandate to us to be good stewards of the resources He created. In an article, A Strategy for the War with Nature,9 the blue-collar philosopher Eric Hoffer warns of the dangers of romanticizing nature, of believing ourselves to be inextricably and instinctively linked to nature—a new age, pantheistic view becoming increasingly mainstream today. If man cannot transcend nature, how can we possibly manage it responsibly? The biblical worldview enables us to transcend nature, as creatures made in God’s image—and thereby more readily strategize to practically manage it, conserve it and reap its rewards. By contrast, a belief system that makes us one with nature, unremarkable products of a process that lead to all life, provides no absolute foundation upon which to claim the right and responsibility to manage the other products of the same process. While pragmatism may lead to action to avoid natural disaster, Christianity alone provides a moral imperative to responsibly conserve and consume our natural, God-given resources.

Published: 11 October 2012


  1. 50/50, a long running program dealing with man and the environment on SABC 2. Return to text.
  2. http://www.andbeyond.com/carlisle_on_conservation/about/ Return to text.
  3. Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (Ballantine Books, 1968 and 1975, New York), pp 155–156. Return to text.
  4. Wilberforce was also the primary individual responsible for the abolition of the slave trade and later, slavery altogether in the British Empire and throughout the civilized world. See the book Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas. Return to text.
  5. (RSPCA Minute Book No. 1, pp. 38, 40–41) http://animalsmattertogod.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/reverend-arthur-broome-founder-of-rspca-part-one/ The Christian base upon which the RSPCA was founded seems to be conveniently glossed over in much modern commentary on the society. Return to text.
  6. Labuschagne R.J, 1958, 60 years of Kruger Park, Pretoria: National Parks Board of Trustees as quoted on the Wikipedia site for the Kruger National Park. Return to text.
  7. Les Carlisle is a family friend of the writer’s wife, who grew up within short driving distance of the Kruger National Park. Return to text.
  8. A traditional South African barbecue over coals. Return to text.
  9. Saturday Review, 5 February 1966. This point and reference is referred to by Francis Schaeffer in his book Pollution and the Death of Man. Pg. 72, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, volume 5, A Christian View of the West. Return to text.

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