Wildlife conservation campaigns often focus on the needs of endangered species, asking you to donate money in order to save their habitats, fight poaching of them, stop illegal trade in them or build refuges for them.
But at a recent seminar at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, Professor Catherine Hill of the city’s Oxford Brookes University suggested that such campaigns may be doomed to fail unless an added, important issue is addressed: the attitudes and feelings of the people who live in the threatened species’ ranges.
According to the results of a recent study conducted by Dr. Hill, residents of communities in Uganda felt that they were being treated as though their lives were worth less than those of the animals that surrounded them.
Can conservation efforts, then, no matter how well intended, ever succeed if the local populace feels that their needs come second?
Last October, when CNN broadcast the documentary Blackfish, a film that tells the story of the 2010 killing of a SeaWorld trainer by an orca named Tilikum, there was a public outcry against marine parks — such as SeaWorld — that keep cetaceans in captivity. After the movie aired, several veterinarians and the director of the Dolphin Project at the Earth Island Institute in Berkeley, California, Ric O’Barry, stepped forward to state their professional opinions that confining orcas can make them psychotic.
SeaWorld, however, countered that marine parks such as theirs have done great works in conservation and that hundreds of millions of people have come to love and learn about orcas and other marine animals because of their popular shows and exhibits.
But given what we now know about how confinement can influence an animal’s behavior, should cetaceans ever be kept in a captive environment?
I have to admit it: last year, my traveling to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to see polar bears in the wild was motivated not only by a 10-year anniversary but by a fear that soon the animals could be gone. I go to see glaciers because I’m afraid we’re losing them. And this coming January, I’m returning to Yellowstone National Park to try to photograph our nation’s wolves before they almost completely disappear in the Lower 48 — again.
You could call me an “extinction tourist.”
I’m far from unique. In fact, today people are traveling in ever-greater numbers to see what they think could quickly vanish from the Earth. While just a few years ago travelers might have endeavored to tick off all seven continents or Africa’s Big Five wildlife species, today there’s a certain “cred” given to those who see the landscapes, animals and plants that are just managing to hang on. And tour providers are tapping into that desire with their marketing messages. “See [fill in your favorite endangered animals] before they’re gone!”
But should tourism companies use threatened species as marketing tools? Given our ability to tune out ads, does that minimize the dire circumstances that these animals and environments are now in and dilute the attention that conservation messages might have been able to muster?
Throughout human history, the sharing and exchange of local food between people of different cultures has cemented social bonds and sealed agreements. Feasts often brought people from far-off places and varying ways of life together.
Today, whether you’re in a friend’s home or visiting a foreign land, partaking of your host’s served meal is considered polite — or, at least, that’s what I have been taught. So, when I recently traveled to Greenland and visited an Inuit community, I happily agreed to taste the traditional foods offered, including raw whale blubber, dried cod and simmered seal stew.
Wanting to share my adventure with friends, I posted a photo of myself eating the uncooked blubber on a social media site. To my surprise, I was met with strong disapproval by an acquaintance who works at an environmental organization.
When traveling, should you indulge in the traditional foods offered, even though eating them may not be “politically correct” in your own country?
When you think of endangered species in this country, struggling to survive in their native habitats, you probably picture them on national park or U.S. Forest Service lands. But according to NatureServe, a nonprofit conservation organization that tracks wildlife, U.S. Defense Department properties have the highest density of threatened and endangered species of any federal land management agency. The Pentagon states that on average, military lands boast 15 threatened and endangered species per acre — nearly seven times more per acre than on U.S. Forest Service tracts.
Our nation’s military lands, however, are first and foremost dedicated to preparing for armed readiness, meaning that military exercises, such as target practice, are routine. Is this the kind of environment in which we want threatened species to play out their last-ditch efforts for survival?
Crows in American cities drop tough nuts onto heavily trafficked streets and then wait for cars to crush them open so that they can get the food inside. Prairie dogs use a sophisticated, complex language; and coyotes and badgers work together to catch prey. It seems as though every day we learn more and more about the high intelligence of nonhuman animals.
Of course, when it comes to mental agility, most of us would list primates, elephants and cetaceans (such as dolphins and whales) at the top of the list. If we are finally starting to recognize the intellect of nonhuman animals, is it time that we extend to them some of the rights that we humans enjoy?
Despite efforts such as anti-poaching patrols, increased arrests, relocation and unmanned security drones, it seems we’re losing the battle against wildlife poachers. Already in the first six months of 2013, for example, in South Africa alone, more than 200 rhinos have died at the hands of poachers.
Rhino horns are in demand because the desire for traditional “medicines” in Asia is growing. Products that contain rhino horn are touted as successful cancer treatments, and rhino horn is being marketed even in hospitals to the families of critically ill patients. It’s also being pitched as a trendy hangover remedy. In Vietnam, the country that has recently emerged as the single largest market for rhino horn, the item is considered a very high-value gift. That’s why some innovative wildlife conservationists have come up with a plan to make the horns of living rhinoceroses toxic.
But should we alter the makeup and appearance of wildlife, even if it is in an effort to save animals from poaching and extinction?
Recently, my husband Andy and I were jolted out of deep sleep at 5 am by a huge CRASH. We jumped out of bed to investigate (with me grabbing slippers and a flashlight). I assumed a bear had climbed onto the front porch table to get at the bird suet (not the first time).
As the only humans living on a two-thousand-acre estate, we are surrounded by wildlife and are accustomed to myriad nature sounds. Many nights we listen to the primal howls of coyotes, which I love. (Sometimes I even howl along with them!) We know our seasonal birds by their calls and occasionally hear an owl in the night whoo-whoo-whooing.
As an auditory person and lifelong environmentalist, this is heaven for me. It was just a short time ago I needed a sound machine (of nature!) to help me sleep in New York City, with all of its jarring, man-made sounds. (I swear the garbage trucks have amplifier speakers.)
It’s no wonder the number-one complaint of city dwellers is noise. Chronic, debilitating noise is more than just an annoyance — it plays a huge factor in our quality of life. Studies confirm that noise and stress are closely related to our health, and I am always surprised that more people don’t plug their ears (like I do) when a subway car rambles by.
What we hear transforms our brains and our lives. That’s why it’s critical to take control over your ‘personal soundscape.’ Customize your home environment as you would a beautiful soundtrack to create a haven of soothing sounds (and sights and smells). Here are a few tips to do that:
Despite your stance on the ethics of radio-collaring wild animals, it can’t be denied that such endeavors provide scientists with reams of valuable data, such as information on where and how animals move and migrate, the nuisance activity they engage in, their reproduction and mortality rates, and how to establish wise management practices regarding them.
That’s why when a collared research animal is lost, it’s not just a detriment to that animal’s social group or species but to our understanding of nature, as well.
Usually, the death of a collared animal goes unnoticed, except within a few scientific circles. But when Wolf No. 754, a popular Yellowstone National Park research animal, was recently shot by a hunter in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, a few miles outside the national park boundary, reverberations and outrage were felt around the world.
It’s causing some to ask: Should research animals be given full, legal protection?
In the hot, desert climate of Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula, 20 penguins are living in comfort, say the managers of Ski Dubai, the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East. The birds reside in a climate-controlled environment, receive the best veterinary care, and never have to worry about lurking predators.
When you visit Ski Dubai, you can pay to have a “penguin encounter,” where you’ll be able to play with and touch the penguins. Representatives of the resort say that these animals are “ambassadors,” teaching patrons about their wild counterparts and the need to conserve their threatened natural habitat, Antarctica.
But can animals that have been born and raised in captivity and habituated to humans in unnatural ways ever be true ambassadors for the natural world? Can they teach us anything about the wild or move us to care for the environments from which they are so distantly removed?