Why am I writing about this? What could one middle class Brit living in relative comfort in cosy suburbia have to say that could add to the debate, or even stimulate action that might change things? Maybe Joe Public has more influence these days than we imagine, with the power of social media. Perhaps I can spark an interest in you, and you might decide you want to play a role too.
I’ve always been passionate about wildlife, right from being a small boy, entranced by grainy monochrome TV documentaries by Armand and Michaela Denis, filming in the Serengeti. I devoured every wildlife book, film, National Geographic magazine, and TV programme I could find. As I grew up, my passion didn’t wane, but it grew into a more rounded appreciation, with understanding about habitat, ecological systems, and interaction with humans. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, that was all a bit nerdy, perhaps – certainly a minority interest. But look what’s happened since: a wonderful burgeoning of nature documentaries. I can now switch on my TV and have a choice of nature channels, with brilliant colour filming, in terrific detail. One man, and a personal hero of mine, probably did more than anyone to bring this about: David Attenborough. It is hard to believe that his seminal “Life on Earth” series was first broadcast over 35 years ago, in 1979. The impact has been to bring wildlife and ecosystems, and a better appreciation of our place on this fragile planet, into the consciousness of millions of ordinary people.
A consequence of this is that we care, and want to know more – not all of us, of course, but enough of us to make a difference. Recently I watched half an hour of discussion on TV between David Attenborough and Barack Obama. Who’d have thought such a thing would happen? And Obama was the one displaying the greater deference; without question, he was sincere. There are grounds for optimism, amid the plethora of bad news we see every day on our News bulletins.
I have had, and still enjoy, the huge privilege of being able to travel the world, camera in hand, watching and photographing wildlife in its natural habitat. I know I live in charmed times, when worldwide travel is feasible and the wildlife is still there to see. I want it to be there, and thriving, for countless generations to come. But it’s not just the iconic animals we need to preserve and protect, it is the whole ecosystems of which they form a part. We lose those at our peril; but perhaps if we start with a focus on the animals, the need to care for the ecosystems will become an obvious and essential approach.
When Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer recently paid $50,000 to engage in his hobby of trophy hunting (killing animals for fun, to you and me), and shot a lion in Zimbabwe, he faced furious criticism on social media. At first he didn’t seem to get why people were outraged, saying he didn’t know it was a “special lion”, and the whole thing was properly permitted and paid for. There is no doubt that public opinion has moved, and such activities are seen by many people, even in the USA – the No1 gun nation of the world – as deplorable. Personally I have no animosity towards Mr Palmer – I don’t know the man, and have no concept of how he came to see trophy hunting as a fun hobby- and would take no schadenfreude in seeing him lose his business and livelihood. I would, however, be delighted if this sad episode moved opinion further towards practical protection of endangered species.
While trophy hunting grabs the headlines, it is a flea bite compared to the major threats faced by wildlife. Habitat loss is a huge issue, as human settlements and agriculture expand inexorably, with ever more mouths to feed. According to a recent UN report, the current world population of 7.3 billion is projected to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years and reach 9.6 billion by 2050, with the growth mainly in developing countries, more than half of it in Africa. You can see the count in real time on http://www.worldometers.info/. Addressing that issue is beyond the scope of this post, but there are related matters which we can and should address. Overfishing of our seas and oceans is a key example. Another is rainforest destruction, especially in Indonesia, for palm oil plantations. The following link is a good introduction: https://www.rainforest-rescue.org/topics/palm-oil If we ever needed an iconic species to highlight an issue, here it is the Orangutan: http://www.orangutan.org.uk/
Whaling, too, is an issue which rightly raises strong feelings. Insanely, and despite the 1986 IWC ban on commercial whaling, there are nations still doing it , even if they might try to disguise it as something else. The main offenders are Japan, Norway, and Iceland. http://www.ifaw.org/ The outrage sparked on Twitter, about the whale massacre in the Faroes in late July, will likely lead to cruise lines boycotting the Faroes, by public demand, and a change of policy. We can add our voices, and live in hope.
I now turn to the main thrust of this post, stimulated by the realisation this week that 12th August was WORLD ELEPHANT DAY. In addition to pressure from habitat loss, certain species suffer additional pressure because of human trade in body parts: for example, rhino horn and tiger penis attract enormous prices because they are thought in some cultures to have medicinal properties. In the case of elephants, ivory is the prize. The common thread is poaching.
Poachers pursue a dangerous occupation, ever at risk of being imprisoned or killed. Without the incentive of large financial reward, poaching would die away, and with it the threat of extinction of tigers, rhinos, and – albeit on a longer timescale – elephants. But with high prices available to otherwise very poor people, the protection of wildlife at the sharp end is a perpetually expensive, dangerous, and uphill struggle. The solution therefore has to be to kill the trade: governments of “consumer” countries must be encouraged to take a firm legal stand: specify animal parts which may not be imported, transported, traded, or possessed, and enact legislation which is an effective deterrent.
There is a young but increasingly influential website called www.change.org. It operates petitions worldwide on all manner of topics, and depends for its power on ordinary citizens putting their names to causes they believe in. Here is the text about the current petition on saving elephants and rhinos from extinction:
There has been an unprecedented increase in the illegal poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa and parts of Indonesia. The elephant death rate from poaching throughout Africa is higher than the rate that led to the international ivory trade ban. Rhinos are being driven to extinction in large part by the demand for the unsubstantiated medical claims of rhino horn. If trends continue, there won’t be any elephants or rhinos left in the wild.
We implore the United States government to provide aid and legal and technical assistance to African and Southeast Asian governments to pursue illegal poachers. We also call on the Obama administration to demand that our trade partners in China, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere vigorously and unambiguously enforce the ban on ivory, enforce all laws protecting rhinos, as well as step up enforcement in the U.S.
Please add your voice to this campaign; you can sign at
There’s a lot of further reading there too, if you want to go deeper into the subject.
Put pressure on your elected representatives – Governments can influence other Governments. Use social media to encourage others to sign up. Without our voices, issues like this will languish near the foot of the priority list.