Why rewilding in the Oostvaardersplassen is unethical

Every year a thousand so called ‘large grazers’: horses, deer and cattle, suffer from food shortages and die in the Oostvaardersplassen. In this immense nature reserve of about 6,000 hectares, whose wide views and big troops of wild horses resemble the African savannah, live almost 4,000 animals. Every wintertime between 20 and 40 percent of these large grazers die of food shortages. There is no need for this suffering. The nature reserve was established in 1968 by the creation of a polder, and got official European recognition as a nature reserve in 1999. [1] This means we are responsible for all the animals in the Oostvaardersplassen and should relief their suffering. The reason the Dutch Forestry Service does not take action is because of the system which is used to maintain the Oostvaardersplassen.

The system by which the Oostvaardersplassen are being created and conserved is called ‘rewilding’. Rewilding is a form of large-scale nature conservation for the protection of core wilderness areas. According to scientists Michael Soulè and Reed Noss who are both strong supporters of rewilding: ”The principal premise is that rewilding is a critical step in restoring self-regulating land communities.” They claim the following justification for the system of rewilding: ”The ethical issue of human responsibility.”[2]

Our ethical human responsibility with the Oostvaardersplassen is not that we should leave the system of rewilding do its job. This would mean that every winter about a thousand large grazers die because of the lack of food. We should intervene in the situation we created ourselves, take responsibility, and make sure all those animals don’t have to suffer.

If we try to understand the Oostvaardersplassen in terms of value, philosopher James Garvey recognizes two kinds of value: intrinsic and instrumental.[3] We created the Oostervaardersplassen and put the large grazers there for our own benefits, like for pleasure, for the view, and maybe for our image as a nature conservatives. This makes the Oostvaardersplassen and all the animals living in the area of instrumental value. While rewilding according to Soulè and Noss should enhance the intrinsic value which recognizes the true value of nature, it actually promotes the instrumental value in the case of the Oostvaardersplassen. Even the decision to let a thousand of the large grazers die every year is instrumental, leaving them alive would mean even more animals the next year.

Intrinsically the system of rewilding, which led to the confinement of animals in the Oostvaardersplassen, is also wrong. Philosopher David DeGrazia writes: ‘’Just as pleasant mental states are intrinsically beneficial, suffering is intrinsically harmful’’[4] The way we enjoy the Oostvaarderplassen is intrinsically valuable for us. However to get this happiness about the Oostvaarderplassen we need the suffering of animals. Because lots of them have to suffer from the lack of food, we deny sentient beings the right to valuable experiences.[5]

We humans introduced the large grazers to the Oostvaarderplassen. They are valuable for us, both instrumental as intrinsically. But this doesn’t justify applying suffering to a thousand sentient animals. This is why rewilding is unethical in case of the Oostvaarderplassen.

[1]                 Staatsbosbeheer, Facts and figures. Bezocht op 05-06-2013 http://www.staatsbosbeheer.nl/English/Oostvaardersplassen/Facts%20and%20figures.aspx

[2]                 The Rewilding Institute, What is rewilding? Bezocht op 05-06-2013 http://rewilding.org/rewildit/what-is-rewilding/

[3]                 J. Garvey, The Ethics of Climate Change (London 2008) p. 51

[4]                 D. DeGrazia, Animal Rights A Very Short Introduction (New York 2002) p.56

[5]                 Idem, p. 61


Written in 2013 for Universiteit Utrecht by Mitchell van de Klundert


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