Conflict Exploration: Culling Hyenas to Save Horses

8 min readApr 18, 2019

Welcome to our first exploration!

Here we explore ‘wicked’ conservation conflicts by inviting stakeholders and experts to share their perspective with us.

Spotted hyena © Oliver Höner

The case study:

Namibia starts controversial hyena cull to save its wild horses

“Shooting hyenas to save wild horses raises heated debate about whether conservation authorities should intervene between endemic wildlife and ‘feral’ animals.”

Please follow this link for more details on the conflict:

We asked three experts in their field about their perspective on this conflict:

(1) What approach would you recommend decision-makers to take to best address this conflict?

(2) Why this approach (e.g. which processes, perspectives or values should be prioritized in your view)?

(3) What should be the first step?

Human Dimensions: Maarten Jacobs

Experts’ knowledge might be more trustworthy than other forms of knowledge, but experts have no privilege when it comes to values and norms.

The issue of conserving the horses or the hyenas is clearly controversial as different individuals or communities have different opinions and as the different views are sometimes opposing. Perhaps the best way to move forward then is organising joint decision making with all stakeholders and shareholders. The outcome might be problematic for some, but at least everybody can then be satisfied with the way a decision is taken. Joint decision-making means that experts (scientists as well as managers and policymakers relying on scientific knowledge) are stakeholders or shareholders just like any other stakeholder or shareholder. This position does not imply a relativist view of scientific knowledge. Of course, we cannot claim that scientific knowledge is always true or objective or accurate — it is a human enterprise after all and we cannot expect perfection from humans — but the procedures for scientific knowledge production are usually more rigorous than are the procedures for other forms of knowledge. Yet, crucial here is that “ought” statements do not follow from “is” statements. Science produces “is” statements, that is, how things are (how many horses are killed by hyena’s?) and how things work (e.g. what is the hunting strategy of hyena’s?). Producing “ought” statements (how should we deal with the horses and hyenas?) is not a scientific endeavour because it is a normative position. Experts’ knowledge might be more trustworthy than other forms of knowledge, but experts have no privilege when it comes to values and norms. It is a bit odd that the needs for knowledge as indicated by some opinion makers (basically experts) refer to ecological knowledge needs. The issue is a social issue to start with. The fact that people have different views makes it an issue, otherwise, a decision could simply be made and implemented. Social science can help in understanding how different segments in society think and feel about the issue. If we do not understand the problem in the first place, it is just gambling whether proposed solutions would work in the real world that includes people.

If we do not understand the problem in the first place, it is just gambling whether proposed solutions would work in the real world that includes people.

Namib Desert horses ©SonseCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Wildlife Research: Oliver Höner

Step 1: Hold a meeting between key stakeholders: representatives of government, local community, feral horse foundation, hyena research, as well as an ecologist and an ethicist. Aim: (i) inform each other about the legal situation, ethical considerations, feral horse and hyena behaviour and ecology, and the values, costs and benefits of and for the government, local community, plants, animals and ecosystem; (ii) characterise the key elements of the conflict, (iii) identify the causes and consequences of the conflict; (iv) formulate the main goals and rate them according to importance (each stakeholder separately); (v) identify the common ground; (vi) propose measures to mitigate the conflict; (vii) assess the feasibility of the proposed mitigation measures and discuss these until the solution that does not go against the highest rated values and most important goals of any stakeholder, meets the greatest overall goal, and minimizes killing and conflict is agreed upon; (viii) define how to evaluate the success of the mitigation measures. If vital information about any of the key aspects mentioned above is lacking, collect additional information. If the causes and consequences of conflict are unknown, initiate research and data collection until sufficient information and knowledge are available to make informed decisions.

Step 2: Take mitigation measures, ensure their continued implementation, and regularly assess whether the goals are being met in stakeholder meetings using the pre-defined evaluation measures. If the goals are not met, repeat points (vi) to (viii) of Step 1. This approach ensures that all stakeholders are well informed and considered and their main goals and values respected. It builds trust between all parties, allows for adjustments, and ensures that the mitigation measures obtain the highest possible support from the key stakeholders. It thereby likely mitigates the conflict in the short and also the long term.

This approach ensures that all stakeholders are well informed and considered and their main goals and values respected.

©Oliver Höner

Moral Philosophy: Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila

Multispecies social justice should always be the approach of choice.

Multispecies social justice should always be the approach of choice. In brief, this means arriving at an equitable balance of claims to well-being within a multispecies society that explicitly incorporates individual non-human claims to autonomy, dignity, respect, care and fair terms of coexistence and cooperation. It also means recognizing that these interspecies ‘conflicts’ are not divorced from the larger historical, cultural and socio-economic structure surrounding them. Thus, truly just solutions need to be embedded within a larger, moral and unavoidably deliberative, political struggle for multispecies justice and a fair partitioning of resources, harm and risk among individuals of every species.

This approach prioritizes non-anthropocentrism. That is, it prioritizes the well-being of humans, animals and nature alongside one another. In this case, individuals (and I will emphasize the individuals over their species or populations) of all three species are highly sentient, sapient and social, contribute to interspecies ecological and social relationships, and can claim residency in the area (this is the only home the Namib horses have ever known, despite their labelling by some as ‘introduced’ or ‘non-native’). Coexistence between them, as in any society, will require a ‘give and take’ where claims of some individuals (e.g., to complete freedom) will be limited by others’, in particular, if the others’ claim is more urgent (e.g., to life). Precaution to avoid any unnecessary or unwarranted harm is mandatory and beneficial interference (based on both justice and care) is permitted. Importantly, the relative consideration and weight given to these values are highly context-dependent and may allow for a (limited, of course) range of ethical alternatives.

Within this range, it appears a good first step would be to review and potentially preclude feeding of hyenas, which seems to have increased predation on the Namib horses, or move these sites away from Namib areas. This step may also incentivize hyenas to resume their hunt for their other prey. Simultaneously, there seems to be a need for other hyena water sources away from Garub, as they had access to previously, which may reduce encounters with horses. These seem like two solid, non-harmful or minimally-harmful alternatives. Fencing (for the Namib) may also be an option if done in a manner that preserves most of the Namib’s autonomy, keeping in mind that horses’ claim to freedom is restricted if this means that hyenas will be killed for that freedom (unrestricted claims are absurd in any society, including a multispecies one). If these interventions for reducing predation through non-harmful means prove ineffective and the Namib can be moved safely (with minimal to no harm) to a better location, then there is no reason why this should not be pursued either. I would argue the Namib have a stronger claim to well-being than humans claim to the horses’ economic value in that area. If so, this should be coupled with sustainable economic alternatives for the affected humans.

Of course, careful monitoring is critical throughout the entire process, so as to confidently estimate the effect of each policy, including if other factors may be more important for horse well-being, such as droughts or disease. If any of these latter reasons are found to be the culprit, beneficial health interventions should be carefully implemented (with special attention to any unintended or unforeseen effects) along with the options previously mentioned.

A related, not inconsequential question is if the horses will actually be able to continue thriving autonomously or if the population is doomed to follow an extinction vortex given low survival, inbreeding, disease, etc. The question then being: should hyenas be harmed for preying on an unviable population? If nature is dynamic, should we accept some changes in species and populations, including the loss of some, or is conservation somehow committed to advocating exclusively for some sort of neo-liberal, ever-increasing-biodiversity paradigm? This is not to deny the intrinsic value of each Namib or their population, but to acknowledge the dynamism of nature and with it the inevitable loss of some individuals or components as a legitimate ethical alternative in hard cases, especially when intervening may do more harm than otherwise (after all, human persons have intrinsic value and we don’t expect anyone to live forever, right?).

If nature is dynamic, should we accept some changes in species and populations, including the loss of some

Lastly, many people may raise challenges of feasibility or practicality, citing a lack of funding or resources. These are completely legitimate constraints, but it is worth highlighting that they also rest on the dismissal of nonhuman claims because ultimately the burden, risk or harm caused by these interventions usually falls on them, along with the most vulnerable and marginalized humans. That is precisely why conservationist and nonhuman advocates need to supplement their research and practice with ethical and philosophical deliberation, and political advocacy for multispecies justice and equitable partitioning of resources among all species, beginning with the most vulnerable (human and nonhuman). The alternative (limiting ourselves to our small conflict situations, divorced from broader societal concerns and social justice struggles that impact our ability to arrive at ethical solutions) will never get us where we want to go.

Namib Desert horses © Pixabay


We are very grateful to the three experts for sharing their valuable perspectives. It is clear that all experts advocate an inclusive decision-making process, without valuing any one party over another. Several interesting additional points were broad up. For example, the need to go beyond the collection of ecological knowledge and include information on, and consideration of, values and norms; to identify stakeholder priorities and focus on the common ground (rather than the differences); and to define and, after implementation, evaluate ‘success’. The third expert highlights the perspective of ‘multispecies justice’, in which the ‘needs’ of the species themselves, rather than those of the people representing the species, are ethically evaluated. In this view, there is no unrestricted entitlement of any one species (including humans), but entitlements are weighted, and interventions are chosen, according to consequences each species would face (e.g. loss of resources, loss of freedom, loss of life).

What do YOU think?
What is your perspective on this situation? Does your perspective align with any of the experts above or do you have a completely different take on it? Feel free to share your thoughts with us here, or on Twitter.




People•Animals•Nature (PAN) is a publication of PAN Works, an ethics think tank dedicated to the wellbeing of animals.