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The World’s First Habitat and Species Protection Laws

Bruce Rich is an attorney who has served as senior counsel for major environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is the author of Mortgaging the Earth. This piece is adapted from his new book, To Uphold the World, with a foreword by Nobel Economics Laureate Amartya Sen and an afterword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. You can watch a video of Bruce Rich discussing universal health care in Ancient India here.

This April marks the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, and indeed we like to think that environmental protection is a relatively recent invention, and that in particular the United States has been a pioneer in this area. We often think that the U.S. established the first national forests and parks well over a century ago and promulgated the world's first endangered species protection act in 1973, three years after the first Earth Day.

To Uphold the World book cover In reality this is an extraordinarily provincial view; in ancient India in the 4th and 3rd Century B.C. there were arguably more advanced provisions for habitat and species protection than anything in the U.S. until the 20th Century. The great Indian Emperor Ashoka (his reign was from 268—239 B.C.) commanded a huge empire that included most of today's India, Pakistan, and half of Afghanistan. Following a particularly bloody war in 261 B.C. Ashoka converted to Buddhism and promulgated a series of edicts based on non-violence, religious toleration, and protection of animals and habitat. These edicts were inscribed on rock faces and high stone pillars from Southern India to Afghanistan, and many can still be seen today.

Ashoka's Fifth Pillar Edict, erected around 242—241 B.C., is nothing less than a species and forest protection law. It lists all of the kinds of animals declared as protected and exempt from slaughter—including tortoises, bats, ants, ducks, geese, swans, doves, porcupines, squirrels, deer, lizards, rhinoceroses and pigeons. In fact, all four-footed animals "which are not eaten and of no utility" especially are to be protected. He promulgates what we would call measures for habitat protection, declaring that "forests must not be set on fire either wantonly or for the destruction of life," and that the chaff in fields "must not be set on fire along with the living things in it." On numerous fixed days other kinds of animals may not be destroyed and elephant forests and fish ponds are not to be harvested.

Many of Ashoka's species and forest protection measures were actually first enacted by Kautilya (circa 350—283 B.C.), the Chief Minister of Ashoka's Grandfather, the Emperor Chandragupta. Kautilya wrote a great treatise on statecraft and economics (the Arthasastra, literally the "science (sastra) of wealth (artha )" or "political economy") in which he advocates the establishment of various kinds of protected forests, "one for each kind of forest produce." The kinds of forest produce include besides hardwoods: reeds and bamboo; creepers and cane; fibres, such as hemp; materials for ropes; leaves for writing such as palm leaves; flowers used in dyes; medicinal plants and herbs; and plants used for poisons.

Kautilya also advocates the creation of protected reserves "where all animals are welcomed as guests and given full protection." Of great importance too is the setting aside of special reserve forests for elephants, with the death penalty for poaching. Having a sustained supply of elephants was a matter of state security, for military victory "depends principally on elephants."

Kautilya enumerates a list of species "which should be protected from all dangers of injury." These include, besides cattle, various kinds of birds and deer. Beyond the protection of specific species, Kautilya prohibits cruelty to animals. Causing hurt to animals is punished by lesser fines, a higher fine if blood is drawn; moreover, the offender has to pay for the treatment and recovery of the injured beast. Even individual plants and trees enjoy protection, and if the scale of fines is indicative, in urban areas they rank higher than animals. All of this is to be overseen by several special departments of government, including a Chief Superintendent of Forest Produce, a Chief Elephant Forester, and a Chief Protector of Animals and Controller of Animal Slaughter.

Kautilya's approach might be compared to that of the utilitarian conservationists of the Gifford Pinchot school. Pinchot (1865—1946), the founder of the U.S. Forest Service and of America's first Graduate School of forest management at Yale, was a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt. He is widely viewed as the founder and most eloquent spokesperson of his time for multiple use management of natural resources in the United States. Pinchot literally coined the term "conservation," defining it as "the use of the earth for the good of man," a definition which almost paraphrases the title—and underlying principle—of Kautilya's great treatise, which views the management of material wealth as the underlying priority of society and the state. Kautilya defines wealth as "the earth inhabited by men," so from a purely utilitarian standpoint the earth must be sustained.

The essence of Pinchot's approach was rational, multiple use of resources for economic and other ends, with careful attention to their stewardship. His former friend, John Muir, later became his greatest opponent, for Muir was one of the first of whom we would call today deep ecologists, advocating the protection of nature and species as a value in itself, not as something that should be justified on any economic or utilitarian grounds. Ashoka's approach to conservation builds on that of Kautilya, but also transcends it in a higher ethos of respect and care for all life, regardless of practical economic utility, an ethos with which John Muir would have agreed. Interestingly, in practice, the species and forest protection measures advocated by both Kautilya and Ashoka are mostly identical—showing that at least in ancient India, utilitarian economic management and an ethical commitment to protect animal life and habitat largely coincided.