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Elephants as refugees

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journal contribution
posted on 2021-02-08, 03:17 authored by Tristan Derham, Freya MathewsFreya Mathews
  1. Habitat loss and climate change are displacing animals at alarming rates. In response, authors in the humanities and the sciences have described animals rhetorically as ‘refugees’. Such a description implies a strong call to action.
  2. However, the term ‘refugee’ may serve as more than mere rhetoric, indicating in a more literal way the response most proper to some persecuted, traumatized and displaced animals, and prioritizing those animals.
  3. We test the claim that animals can be refugees using widely accepted criteria in the Refugee Convention. If refugees are those who, due to a well‐founded fear of persecution for reasons of their group identity, are unwilling or unable to avail themselves of the protection of their country, then some animals may be refugees. Recent behavioural research on African elephants Loxodonta africana demonstrates that many elephants meet the criteria, even without recourse to the claim that they are persons.
  4. We outline the essential requirements of an animal refugee policy. We find that current biodiversity conservation policy is likely inadequate to provide for animal refugees, although important lessons can be taken from the collective experience of conservation scientists and managers.
  5. An obligation to animal refugees poses new challenges, both theoretical and practical, for ecological restoration, conservation and human–animal relations.


T.D. is funded by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), by Australian Laureate Fellowship FL160100101 (Prof. Barry Brook) and by an Australian Postgraduate Award Research Training Scholarship.



  • School of Humanities and Social Sciences

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People and Nature






8p. (p. 103-110)





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