On Nature and Wilderness

December 15, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

On Nature and Wilderness

Quite frequently, when the topics of nature and conservation come up in discussion, I am surprised to hear how many people think of and refer to nature and wilderness as some sort of a separate world to the place they live in. They see one world in which we as modern humans live, and a parallel world: A world of snow-capped peaks, green forests, vast deserts, savannahs, marshes, swamps, rivers, lakes, estuaries, lagoons, seas and oceans. The one driven by materialistic values, the other filled with natural beauty, undisturbed wildlife and peaceful rural peoples.

Some view nature as a place they visit (or consume, rather) on a recreational Saturday afternoon, on a weekend, or perhaps during a holiday and really speak of nature as a separate place. A place from where they then return home to their "actual" world, after having spent some time cycling, hiking, skiing or diving. Their actual world being the one with its malls, highways, airports, gyms, golf courses, offices and comfortable homes. - But nothing could be further from reality. Instead, as a species we have always been and will forever be a firmly integrated part of our planet's nature. Irrespective of whether one lives a hectic first world city life in relative material wealth, or whether one has to survive on subsitence farming in a remote place: All our lives and livelyhoods depend on a healthy and intact nature. In this, all our lives are inseparably connected.

Have we forgotten
that wilderness is not a place,
but a season
and that we are
in its final hour?

Ian McCallum

As humans, we now influence every aspect of life on earth like no other mammal species has ever done before us. It took all of our history to reach a population of 1 billion (in 1804). After that, it took about 123 years to reach two billion (in 1927). Just 33 years later, in 1960 there were 3 billion humans on the planet. Through the stages of demographic transition and development we have reached a global population of 7 billion in 2012. The US Census Bureau predicts 8 billion people on the planet by 2025 and more than 9 billion by 2050.

As a result of this, entire ecosystems that have been stable for tens and hundreds of thousands of years have been tipped and destroyed within a few decades. Others are under acute pressure and many more will face desctruction in years to come. Undisputed consensus among leading scientists around the world is that the effects of the changes we force on our planet's climate will further accelerate this trend.

In the wake of this development, a lot of our biodiversity has already been lost. Pushed over the edge out of ignorance or for greed-ridden, material gain. Many dozens of larger and thousands of smaller species have been driven to extinction. Some of the most prominent of these losses are described in the book "A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World's Extinct Animals", by Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten.

And the developments continue as I write these lines:

  • Large-scale hydrocarbon extraction and mining operations leave behind toxic wastelands and polluted, poisoned water bodies. While it is clear that we will still depend on fossil fuels for decades to come and that we will continue to use oil for all sorts of products that affect our daily lives, pollution caused by the extraction and consumption of coal, oil and gas has reached unimaginable levels.
  • Logging operations convert vast expanses of once untouched biodiversity hotspots into sterile monoculture plantations. Informal mining, as well as rural slash-and-burn clearing further result in the destruction and conversion of natural habitats, stirring human-wildlife conflict along the way.
  • Greedy poachers are killing off many species at absolutely alarming rates. They go after the tigers of southeast Asia, the lions, elephants and rhinos of Africa and Asia, and allover the world, they hunt down many speices of wild living cats, bears, primates, reptiles and birds. Some of these animals end up on a plate as bush meat. Some end up as a ritual decoration. Innumerable animal carcasses and body parts get smuggled to Asia, where they are sold to people who are stuck with mindless, superstitious believes, but who now happen to have the cash to buy rhino horn powder, a tiger penis, lion bone wine, bear gall-bladder, etc. Simply because they believe in the preposterous nonense that some still consider to be a valid part of Traditional East Asian Medicine.
  • Wealthy trophy hunters continue to shoot out the top of the gene pool animals in the areas they travel to for their hunts, just to show off to their friends back home the animal killed with the biggest tusks, widest horns, most impressie manes, longest canines or whatever else they consider to be of value to impress.

    (I recently visited the workshop of an outstandingly skilled taxidermist in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The number of dead buffalo, giraffe, lion, kudu, zebra, impala and many other species that were in the process of being stuffed and then sent overseas was mind-boggling. Yet this was just one single operation, during a random, off-season day. Imagine the number of stuffed animals year by year being shipped allover the world to the hunters who killed them. Then remember that per mature, male lion that gets shot in the wild by a hunter, four to five more lions get killed in the subsequent pride takeover interaction.)
  • The fishing industry continues to deplete our fish stocks allover the world. Trawlers venture ever further into previously untouched areas near Antarctica and additionally, every year this industry destroys millions of sharks, sea mammals, turtles and birds. Small scale fishing with the use of cyanide and dynamite at the same time kills off coral reefs: Some of our planet's major breeding grounds for future generations of sea life.

Today, dozens of large, charismatic species and many thousands of less prominent, less visible species that are equally important to the big picture that is nature in balance, are moving on a direct path from the IUCN Red List© of Endangered Species to becoming sad additions to "A Gap in Nature".

One of the most impressive signs of human-wildlife conflict I have ever come across: The fresh pugmark of a lion covers part of an almost equally fresh footprint of a child. Seen on the southern fringes of Matusadona National Park, Zimbabwe

And now that we know, why does this continue to happen on our watch? How do we justify the ongoing destruction of the world's natural habitats and our wildlife with it? What reasons will we give our children and grandchildren for not having stopped and reversed these developments? - We must step up our actions decidely and we must do it now, to slow down and eventually prevent further losses. For many habitats and species, there is absolutely not time left to loose.

"... If this is not done, future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of creation which we had it in our power to preserve; and while professing to regard every living thing as the direct handywork and best evidence of a creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrevoerably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown."

Alfred Russell Wallace
(1823 - 1913)

What about the human factor?
Of course there are immeasurable challenges affecting peoples all over the world. Malnutrition and hunger, lack of access to clean water, poor sanitary conditions leading to the spread of diseases, little or no access to education (especially for girls and women), lack of basic medical treatment. People suffering badly, getting displaced by armed conflicts, as well as by natural disasters as the effects of global warming increase. People with no hope for a perspective in their home country, desperately attempting to migrate to wealthier nations. To name but a few. Over the next few decades, these problems will worsen with the continued rise in human population. Accompanied by ever intensifying conflicts for access to resources. While all this is very serious, it affects us as one species that has been doing exceptionally well, especially over the past 11'000 years. Nevertheless, it is absolutely clear that all these problems must be addressed and resolved. It is equally clear that this will take a lot of time and effort for generations to come.

However, in connection with the conservation of our nature, this is not an "either, or" question. In view of the extent of human domination of the natural environment, we carry the responsibility and obligation to all species, as well as to our own descendants to perpetuate their existence.

Human-wildlife conflict with a smile: A fisherman drifting down a protected part of Rio Tres Irmaos, in the Brazilian Pantanal

Rio Tres IrmaosRio Tres Irmaos

Our growing pains:
There is an immense amount of plain common-sense and scientifically established information about the limitations of growth and consumption of finite resources in a closed system (i. e., our planet), with a multitude of sources documenting various aspects of this logic. Some of my personal favourites touching on the topic include:

A perfect starting point for anyone interested in finding out more about what we will have to deal with in the not too far future.

But what hope can there be for natural habitats that have been expolited and damaged?
Imagine for a moment a country – at times under rule by foreign armies – in which most fertile farm land belongs to a privileged few and in which over many decades, each and every stretch of forest and wild habitat has been cut down, the wood to be used as building material and fuel. A place in which social privilege on the one hand and poverty on the other drive people to hunt, poach, trap and kill every single wild animal of a certain size for food: deer, wild boar, chamois, ibex, hare, etc. Where limited access to education and deeply anchored superstitious believes result in other animals like birds of prey and wild living cat species being killed whenever the chance arises. What reads like the harsh reality in many developing nations today would have been Switzerland, in the mid 19th century.
Visit Switzerland today and you will find densely populated areas, well developed infrastructure and the picturesque alpine “Heidi” landscapes. You will also find intact and healthy forests that are used commercially as well as for recreational activities. These forests are once again home to a wide variety of wild animals. Most species had to be reintroduced from other European countries, starting in the late nineteenth century. Made possible by a change of paradigm which led people to understand that nature is a valuable resource for everyone and thus worthy of conservation. Finally, about fourty years ago, the controlled reintroduction of Eurasian lynx meant that for the first time in almost 100 years large carnivores would roam free in Switzerland. Today, a closely monitored population of Eurasian lynx and wolves live in relatively remote mountain areas. Conflicts with farming communities and the hunting fraternity occur from time to time, but they are addressed and dealt with in a professional manner; made possible by an excellent understanding of wildlife ecology based on extensive scientific field studies. The comeback of indigenous fauna and flora Switzerland has seen in the past 100 years is truly noteworthy. It can provide nature conservation experts around the world with an idea of what may lie ahead for some of the world’s most threatened eco-systems, and how problems can be addressed in decades to come, once the general perception people have towards nature shifts for the better.

View from a hot air balloon over the Swiss alps: A landscape dominated by human activity, yet still providing some space for wildlife:

This means there is hope for some cases. Of course, preventing degradation and destruction of natural habitats needs to be our top priority. Ending degradation and rebuilding destroyed natural habitats in combination with sensible economic and demographic development is possible. If you are looking for proof, then read up on the downfall and renaissance of nature and wildlife in Central Europe. It is a proven and well documented fact that by the mid 19th century, there was not a patch of forest, not a deer, ibex or chamois, no lynx, wolf or bear, not a beaver, no otter and hardly a heron or a kite left in Switzerland. All the wood had been cut down, used as building material and fuel locally, as well as to build the large cities downstream, all the way to Germany. All the animals had been extirpated. Hunted and poached for food, hunted for sport, hunted for superstitious beliefs, driven from destroyed habitats. Everything was lost. And only once the wealth of nature was gone, did people realise what had happened. It started with natural desasters; flooding in summer, avalanches in winter. This was the first time society actually realised that nature, that an intact forest, a clean lake, a river full of fish has a value if it was there, intact and stable in the long term.

Just like it started here in Switzerland an in other central European places a 150 years ago, this change of attitude may be achieved elsewhere now and in years to come. The base of successful conservation and restoration lies in scientific proof of all relevant facts and in people who carry the message.

Patrick Meier


What makes a forest beautiful
is that somewhere
it hides animals.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
(1900 - 1944)



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