Backing into Eden: Chapter 2 – The Beasts of the Field

Occasionally during meetings one of my staff – an avid birder – will elbow me and I’ll look up and glimpse a bald eagle.  Each time, I am in awe.  I live in Washington State, which is home to a plethora of eagles, where pods of Orca ply the waters near the San Juan Islands, and where roads are sometimes blocked by herds of elk.  A mating pair of eagles lived on the river outside the home my son grew up in, and we would see them almost every day. During salmon season he and I splashed up the Coweeman river with fish slapping our ankles and calves and the eagles flying overhead.

The last Backing into Eden chapter was about how humans have taken responsibility for most of the land on Earth.  We have asserted “ownership” and done both harm and good.  We’ve chosen to carve the land up with roads and houses and cities and to directly manage between 25 and 50% of productive land for farms and grazing.  We have also protected whole ecosystems on the land and in the water. In this entry, I’ll talk about the ways in which we have accepted responsibility for specific species.

Before we talk about specific species protection tactics, two pieces of groundwork are necessary.

First, there is a river of extinction happening now, and all positive action is swimming upstream against it.  It’s been called the Anthropocene extinction, which means it is occurring during the age of man – the time we are living in now – and that is largely caused by our choices.  In some cases (think elephants, sharks, and tuna) we appear to be trying to directly remove whole species.  In others, we are destroying habitat by choosing to use land for our own purposes, by infecting the water with prescription drugs and pesticides, or through changing the climate faster than species can move their homes.   Keep this background in mind as I go on to talk about some of the ways we are making conscious and positive choices about the life we share the Earth with.

Second, species are seldom saved in a vacuum.  They are intrinsically linked to the ecosystems they live in, and those to neighboring ecosystems, and ultimately, we are all linked.

Species are saved when we protect ecosystems, police human behavior regarding wild animals, and when we tell compelling stories about those animals.

DCIM100SPORTLet’s start with ecosystem protection, and specifically with fisheries.  Not only are more and more reefs being protected, but other ocean ecosystems as well.  The State of California has, for example, set aside numerous Marine Protection Areas near the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara.  Commercial fishermen have historically fought with conservationists who want to set aside whole areas of the ocean as preserves.  Sometimes the conservationists win, and generally, the fishermen also win when that happens. Think about it, what good is the best baitcaster with no fish?  According to Karen Garrison of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Despite sport fishing industry predictions that a network of marine reserves around the northern Channel Islands would cause $50 to $100 million dollars in economic losses, scientific monitoring has shown that sport fishing actually increased in the five years after reserves were established, as did commercial landings of squid, sea urchin, and lobster.”  In other words, creating projected areas in the oceans increases fish inside and outside of the protected areas.

What about just plain policing?  There are times it doesn’t feel effective at all.  In trying save elephants from being slaughtered for their ivory, the good guys seem to be losing.  But they keep right on fighting and building preserves and educating and trying to stop the trade from being lucrative.  In the case of elephants, it’s too early to tell if the poachers or the police will prevail in the long run, but the good news is that elephants are beloved all over the world, and their plight is well publicized.  They have a chance.   Policing has more clearly worked in other situations.  There is a fascinating woman named Suwanna Gauntlett who has almost completely stopped the wildlife trade in Cambodia, primarily through creating a network of people called the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team to enforce existing laws in the country.  I was floored by all that this one individual has done, and I recommend reading the article that I’ve linked to about her below.  Suwanna is the founder and CEO of the Wildlife Alliance.

Humans react to stories.  One example is the recent story of a dozen killer whales trapped in ice in Hudson Bay.  While they may have been trapped by climate change, they did not need our help to get free.  But people all over the world paid close attention to their story and watched Internet videos of the whales sharing a single small breathing hole. A few years ago, I was at Mark Anderson’s Future in Review Conference.  The audience was treated to an early screen of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove and a visit from its director, Louise Psihoyos.   The film illuminates the purposeful destruction of dolphins, and also points out the dangers of our increasingly-toxic seas.  Since the film, there has been much international outcry about the events it captured for us.  The problem isn’t solved yet, but the film and the activists it inspired have made it harder for the wholesale slaughter of dolphins to go on outside of the public eye. There are many other examples of powerful stories that made a difference:  Michael Fay’s megatransect journey, Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist, and from my own childhood, Marguerite Henry’s recounting of how Wild Horse Annie fought to save mustangs in the YA book Mustang:  Wild Spirit of the West.

Wild horse Annie 2We have banded together or acted as individual heroes over and over in order to save the big species we know and love.  I found many more examples, but this is enough to illustrate that we’ve taken responsibility for both the land and the animals of the Earth.  Unlike land – which we’ve chosen to own – wild animals belong to both no one and to all of us.  It will take continued work on our part to save any or all of the species I mentioned here, or to save the microscopic krill that the whales depend on, or to save the coral reefs from ocean acidification, or to really save any of it.  I think we can, and that we already have a lot of successful models to follow, some wildly successful, such as Suwanna Gauntlet’s Wildlife Alliance and the clear resolve of the California government to expand safe places along one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.

This is the week to think about protecting animals, and maybe to donate a bit to them some how.  Oh, and get your pencils out and sharp.  Next entry will be the rant blog – the one where we get to trash ourselves and point out all of the awful things we’ve done.  Because after that one allowed catharsis, everything else in this set of postings is going to be about strategies to thrive, and canted toward the future rather than laying groundwork for a common understanding of the present situation.

I have a special treat to go with this entry.  One of my favorite flash fiction pieces was inspired by a talk that Michael Fay at an international conference of geographer’s in San Diego one year.  The story first appeared in Nature Magazine.  Here’s a link:

Once more, thanks for reading.  Comments welcome!


Some of the resources I used developing this article:


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