We Need Animals to Survive—But First, We Need to Include Them

Photo: IFAW

By Beth Allgood, U.S. Country Director, International Fund for Animal Welfare

It’s often said that dogs are man’s best friend. This common phrase may seem simple to most, but it holds a very important lesson: animals are important to human wellbeing. IFAW’s newest report, Animals are Key to Human Development: A Guidebook for Incorporating Conservation and Animal Welfare into Development Planning, highlights some of the important ways in which animals affect human wellbeing and why they are essential to ensuring sustainable development.

Happiness and satisfaction levels have plummeted around the world despite overall economic growth. The United Nations (UN) developed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help countries set priorities and targets to solve growing development challenges by 2030. The SDGs target many development obstacles including poverty, lack of access to clean drinking water, and gender inequity. However, the health of our biodiversity is also a pressing global issue. Over a million species are in danger of going extinct if we don’t change the ways in which we interact with nature. Income inequality, lack of potable water, and pandemics like COVID-19 have been linked to wildlife exploitation and habitat degradation. In our analysis, we determined that wildlife protection, animal welfare, and habitat conservation are crucial to achieving multiple SDGs, not just the environmental goals included in the SDGs, and to improving human wellbeing globally.

The UN has traditionally used an economic and human development lens when identifying the social metrics that underlie many of the SDGs. Yet we have found that the conservation and welfare of domestic and wild animals are key to achieving the best outcomes for the SDGs as a whole. Our report outlines the myriad ways in which animals affect sustainable development and sets forth recommendations to equip policymakers to incorporate animals into their SDG implementation plans.

Why account for animals in the SDGs?

In 2019, the global human population totaled 7.7 billion people—double what it was in 1970. During the same period, populations of wild animals have plummeted. In fact, scientists have concluded that animal populations have declined by more than half in just 50 years due to human activity. We are witnessing one of the highest rates of extinction in history.

Human activity continues to disrupt global ecosystems. To mitigate our devastating impacts on the natural world, it is essential that we integrate biodiversity conservation into national and international development policies. Indeed, the ecosystems upon which many people rely on for food, water, and livelihoods are in peril; and we continue to engage in activities that threaten wildlife and habitats, and jeopardize our own wellbeing. While the UN SDGs address important issues that can affect ecosystems, like population, consumption, and land management, it is critical that they begin accounting for interactions between humans and animals.

Why are animals important?

Animals are Key outlines five key areas in which sustainable development and human wellbeing are intertwined with animal welfare and wildlife conservation:

  • Healthy ecosystems and robust wildlife protections support secure livelihoods

Have you ever wanted to go on a safari in Africa? See the unique and legendary species of the Galapagos? Ecotourism fuels many economies around the world; a single elephant can bring in USD $1.6 million for local communities in its lifetime!

  •  Pastoralism supports sustainable development

Also known as “walking bank accounts,” domesticated animals support dryland pastoralists by providing income, products and services. Pastoralist countries host 44% of the world’s agricultural production—and that production relies on animals.

  • Animal welfare and conservation support human health

Humane treatment of animals—demonstrated through behaviors like restricting wildlife trade, avoiding direct physical contact between people and wild animals, and promoting farm animal welfare—is crucial to human health. Many emerging diseases are linked to wildlife trade and perpetuation of cramped livestock conditions.

  • Food security and livelihoods are linked to good animal welfare and conservation practices

Animal agriculture is the main source of income for 1.3 billion people around the world. Animal labor is critical and policies that protect working animals have lasting, positive impacts on human wellbeing and food security. Food security, in turn, reduces risks like land degradation and unsustainable practices that can permanently damage habitats.

  • Clean water, sustainable infrastructure, and climate resilience demand animal-conscious development

With the growing human population comes encroachment into wild habitats. By protecting wetlands, natural vegetation buffers, native plant stands, and wildlife crossings, we can help to offset the adverse impacts of development and conserve biodiversity. Maintaining natural habitats and wildlife populations, in turn, helps to mitigate the impacts of anthropogenic climate change; in the Southwest U.S., for instance, prairie dogs provide underground water flow and soil productivity through their burrowing—an invaluable service in an era of drought and irrigation challenges.

The exclusion of animals from national and international policies affects people

We are releasing Animals are Key at an unprecedented time in human history—and a time of reckoning with respect to animal exploitation. The spread of COVID-19—a zoonotic disease believed to have been transmitted from an animal to a human due to wildlife trade—is devastating communities around the world. Other zoonotic epidemics, including SARS, Ebola and HIV, have also been traced to human-wildlife contact. We must work to ensure that wildlife and humans are protected from each other in order to prevent another pandemic like this one.

What can we do about it?

Specifically, our findings suggest that lawmakers and resource managers should:

  • Adopt holistic assessment practices that value animals in ecosystems and communities;
  • Integrate animal welfare into development policies and practices;
  • Co-create community and wildlife projects with the community;
  • Protect and establish habitats and corridors;
  • Improve agriculture policies; and
  • Share best practices globally.

Animals are integral to sustainable development and, by exploiting them, we jeopardize our own wellbeing.  And the way our society treats animals says so much about our humanity, compassion, and happiness.  It has never been more evident than ensuring the humane treatment of animals is critical to protecting our own wellbeing—and public policy should evolve accordingly.

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