Creation: Chapter 6

Man and Nature

There is no doubt that the human by virtue of his superior intellect is in charge of the natural order. Even the fiercest beasts that could destroy a man in a trice in physical combat have learned by bitter experience to slink away at the approach of the human. Not a few species have disappeared from the earth's face since the advent of human rule, and now the situation is so desperate that the earth could well be totally depopulated of all its natural fauna. Only those animals that the human has learned to domesticate for his own use or pleasure would stand any chance of survival were it not for wiser counsels that are realizing that man and nature are in delicate symbiosis and that the human cannot survive in a world depopulated of its natural flora and fauna. A useful account of the endangering of species and the preservation of a few of them by international agencies is contained in the fine book Back from the Brink, subtitled Success in Wildlife Preservation, written by Guy Mountford, a noted figure in this field. It was published in 1978, but its message is as relevant today as then, and the examples considered here are taken from his account of the matter.

A rare species of antelope, the Arabian oryx, a beautiful desert creature, has from time immemorial been slain by the Beduin as a source of food, but the real threat to the animal's survival followed the arrival of commercialized hunting parties from many countries. Largely through the concern of a single person, Ian Grimwood, who saw the danger in time, the remaining few oryxes were saved and re-housed elsewhere. The breeding stock thus cultivated have now been sent back to Arabia and the neighbouring countries where natural reserves have been set up by the governments concerned aided by the World Wildlife Fund and the Survival Service Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It required the solicitude of a foreigner to alert the countries themselves to the peril of wildlife extinction.

The havoc wrought by big-game hunters has been seen in the terrible slaughter of leopards and tigers in India. The near extermination of these species has been facilitated by the wholesale destruction of the tropical forests carried out by commercial interests. Both the tree wood and the land, which is available for building factories and other installations, are valuable to them. The deer living in these moist deciduous forests are destroyed, so that a source of food for these fierce carnivores is removed; in addition, some species of deer are themselves destroyed in this irresponsible exploitation of the forests. As we have already noted, "nature red in tooth and claw" may be vicious, but at least it knows its level of satiety. The human, by contrast, is obsessed with gluttony.

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

So wrote William Blake in his Songs of Experience. He was meditating on God's mysterious ways in fashioning such a destructive beast. Today this terror of the jungle has been largely wiped out by a greater terror, the human being. Guy Mountford, himself a tiger lover, was appalled to find out that the 100,000 Asian tigers of the 1920s had been reduced in number to barely 5,000 in 1967. In addition to starvation and big-game hunting there was also a flourishing trade in tiger-skin coats and rugs. The fur trade was stimulating the shooting, trapping and poisoning of existing tigers. Of course, tigers can kill village cattle and also humans, but this happens usually only when their basic prey, old and sickly deer and wild pigs, are scarce, as, for instance, when hunters have shot all the deer and pigs near villages. In fact, in natural conditions the tiger has an important ecological role in disposing of old and sickly deer and wild pigs in Asia, thus maintaining the virility of their own wild population. Man-eating tigers are usually found to have been prevented from hunting their usual prey on account of injury or old age.

In the preservation of such a creature as a tiger, zoos cannot cater for their life of swimming and hunting. Mountford makes the point that neither zoos nor "safari parks" help in wildlife preservation since they are motivated by exhibiting animals for human entertainment, though admittedly they may have an educational value. A tiger in captivity becomes lethargic and develops progressive cerebral degeneration; a tigress in captivity tends to neglect or eat her cubs, whereas in the wild she would teach them to hunt. This cannot be done in captivity. In fact, if such offspring were to be returned to the wild, they would be incapable of hunting wild prey. They would either starve, or else be killed by other tigers. Alternatively, they would be obliged to take to easy prey such as village cattle or villagers themselves.

Through the agitation of Mountford there are now tiger reserves in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan: thus the Indian race of tigers has been protected. Similar action is being taken by Indonesia to save the Sumatran and Javan races, while Malaysia and Thailand have reserves for the Indo-Chinese race. The USSR has improved the guarding of its Siberian tigers, and even China, formerly quite aloof, has put its remaining tigers under protection. Furthermore, nearly all the countries of Asia have banned tiger hunting and the export of skins, such as were previously used for women's coats. This rather detailed discussion about a single endangered species indicates not only the main sources of danger but also practical ways of dealing with the problem. Another mammal severely endangered is the rhinoceros, the second largest surviving land mammal (the elephant, also endangered, is the largest). Its massive hide is its protection, but its weight, short legs and poor sight render it very vulnerable to predators. Nevertheless, it survived quite well until the belief arose in China and neighbouring countries that the ground-up horn of a rhinoceros was a powerful aphrodisiac. This belief and the high prices paid for the horns were driving the species to extinction. In fact, every part of the animal has commercial value: hide, hair, blood, nails, internal organs, urine, and the horns (which are composed of compacted hair). The urine is reputed to be an asthma cure, while the magical properties of the animal are still widely credited; cups carved from the horn are supposed to disintegrate if a jealous spouse is trying to administer poison in the drink. All this shows that primitive superstition can be as effective a way of exterminating a species as modern industrial development. At any rate, the rhinoceros is now protected in national parks and reserves in Uganda and Indonesia. The African rhinoceros is killed by certain tribes who are brave enough to spear it as a proof of their manhood, but the real slaughter is by wire foot-snares which are tethered to a heavy log which the animal drags through the bush until it is exhausted; elephants are also killed in this way, since the ivory of their tusks, like rhinoceros horn, are shipped to the Far East. It is poachers who carry out this gruesome trade.

The Murchison Falls National Park, now called the Kabalega Falls National Park, in Uganda, where the Albert Nile confluences with the Victoria Nile, is a sanctuary where rhinoceros and elephant continue to thrive together with the largest surviving population of crocodiles to be found anywhere in Africa. The Republic of South Africa has also played its part in ensuring the survival of the species. In the Umfolozi Game Reserve in Natal the remnant of the white rhinoceros were guarded, and when the numbers increased, some were transported to areas in southern and central Africa where they formerly existed. But they were sent only where properly protected reserves or national parks were available to receive them.

An example of a species that was nearly exterminated in the Andean area is the vicuña, a tawny-coloured, rather gazelle-like animal with tufts of fleecy white hair dropping from its long neck. Its wool was used for making clothes by the Spanish and Portuguese invaders, who, unlike their Inca predecessors, had no concern for the preservation of the environment. Once more, the crusade of a single dedicated person, Felipe Benavidas, has resulted in the development of national parks and reserves in Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, where a considerable number of these endangered animals now pro-create. Other animals whose skins have been used for human adornment are the fur seals, jaguars and ocelots, but vicuña garments have tended to be a special attraction.

An animal much closer to the human is his ape cousin, the orang-utan, a Malay name meaning "man of the jungle". From its natural habitat in Malaysia and Indonesia it has, for a long time, been captured and transported to Europe and America; the mothers are often shot and the babes secured alive, for the breeding record of these animals in captivity is poor: they become fat and lethargic, and die prematurely. The problem here was to save the orphaned young, rehabilitate them, and then return them to their natural environment. Two names are predominant in this venture, Barbara Harrisson, who specialized in rescuing and rearing baby orang-utans, and John McKinnon, who studied these apes by quite literally living among them for months at a time in their native rain-forest. Mrs Harrisson found that the growing animals were extremely destructive to her garden and that it was important to send them back to their wonted forest habitation. Rehabilitation centres were set up using the information that John McKinnon had acquired about the natural disposition of the orang-utan before the animals were returned to the wild. By nature they are solitary, moving alone or in small family groups from one fruiting tree to another and occupying a tree-top nest for so long as it takes to strip the tree of fruit. Unfortunately the destruction of the Indonesian rain-forests threatens the survival of the species.

A good example of thoughtless human interference with the local ecology having baneful general consequences is the fate of the giant pied-billed grebe (a short-bodied, lobe-footed, almost tailless diving bird) on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Large-mouthed bass were introduced into the lake to improve sport-fishing. The consequences were disastrous, for the fish preyed on the young water-birds, including nestling giant grebes. Furthermore, the freshwater crabs were driven to deeper waters with a resulting loss of food for the Indians, who as a consequence took to more waterfowl, including grebes. The reed cutting they carried out in pursuit of their quarry diminished the breeding habitat for the grebes. Once more it was the initiative of a single person, Anne La Bastille, that checked the havoc. The whole episode stresses a fundamental principle: the thoughtless introduction of alien species of animals or plants almost invariably results in a chain-reaction of disasters such as these.

There are still in our crowded world isolated oases of tranquillity where the native fauna and flora have been left relatively undisturbed by human invaders. The most celebrated example is the Galapagos Islands under the protection of Ecuador that we have already mentioned with reference to Charles Darwin and his seminal work on the evolution of species. Galapago is Spanish for tortoise, and it was the prospect of obtaining the remarkable giant tortoises native to the islands that first attracted ships to these inhospitable regions. Darwin noted how these creatures ambled slowly on without the least sign of fear of the surrounding sailors. It is estimated that the wildlife of these islands has been evolving for at least a million years, hitherto in almost complete isolation. This isolation from the stabilizing influence of a constant genetic interchange, such as occurs in a continental landmass, has encouraged the creation of new species. The bird and reptile colonists were free to experiment and occupy ecological niches which, on the mainland, were chosen by other species. In the absence of competitors those which succeeded in adapting to the new environment were free to evolve new feeding behaviour and to develop in a direction most suited to their new existence.

The unwelcome visitation of the human has brought its tale of woe: not only do tourists have an adverse psychological effect on animal behaviour, but there has also been the introduction of animals foreign to the part that have ravaged the native species. Amongst these pests are dogs, cats, goats and rats as well as pigs, donkeys and cattle. In this connexion, goats, dogs and rats in a wild state are virtually impossible to eradicate. These, and the Wasmannia fire-ant, are scourges to the island ecosystem.

It is especially moving to read how the birds and other native animals treat the human visitor so trustingly, as though he was a passing friend. It brings one back to the prophecy of Isaiah 11:6-9, where all the animals live in harmony, led by a little child. Certainly the earth knew far greater peace before the human made his tempestuous appearance, but no doubt a higher peace will follow mankind's civilization to a maturity that surpasses the mere coming of age of an impetuous youngster. At present the policy of conservation rigorously pursued by Ecuador has been helped by the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos set up in 1959. There is also the Charles Darwin Research Station established on one of the islands for the preservation of the tortoises.

When one considers the effect of foreign animals on the native fauna, one is also reminded of the scourge of European disease bequeathed to the natives of America and Polynesia; smallpox and measles undoubtedly caused more deaths than the brutality of the foreign invaders. On the other hand, the native Indians of America may have transmitted syphilis to the sailors commanded by Columbus during his stay in the New World (the situation is complicated by the fact that a number of non-venereal diseases are caused by organisms indistinguishable from the one associated with syphilis, and it might be that one of these underwent a mutation to that causing the venereal disease).

Mountford, in the final assessment of the task ahead which concludes his excellent survey, sees the fundamental threat to all wildlife, and indeed to all life, on earth as a combination of the population explosion and the unbridled excesses of modern technology which can now destroy rain-forests on a massive scale. What is happening to wildlife and the habitats of all wild creatures is, as he says, the writing on the wall for our own survival. While hungry nomadic people, such as those living in the highlands of central Asia, must shoot or trap animals to keep alive and clothe themselves against the bitter winter climate, those living in the jungles of the tropics can live more easily in equilibrium with nature, destroying little except for their immediate frugal needs, since neither food nor clothes is a problem. In such regions conservation difficulties are almost entirely concerned with unwise government land-use policies. In order to obtain quick cash returns in foreign currencies, mineral and forest rights are leased to foreign companies. The exploitation of marine resources, such as the harvesting of whales, fur seals, turtles and fish, especially in South American waters, is also largely in foreign hands. The inequitable use of declining natural resources for the benefit of the rich nations can only make the acceptance of wise conservation measures by the developing countries more difficult to obtain. Unfortunately the funds available are small in comparison with the magnitude of the problem. However, since prevention is better than cure, education of the general public is essential, and a conservative strategy should be applied for areas containing representative samples or exceptional communities of plants or animals.

In fact, the general public has of late been alerted to the pollution of the environment by disastrous industrial wastes, a matter not considered by Mountford. The terrible "smogs" that used to clog the atmosphere of Britain earlier in the century have been ended by the Smoke Abatement Act; numerous elderly people now survive the winters who would previously have succumbed to acute chest infections. The hazard of nuclear fallout, first brought to the attention of a barely credulous world in 1945 when atom bombs rained down on the intransigent Japanese at the end of the Second World War, has been highlighted more recently by disasters involving nuclear reactors; what the ultimate cancer risk for the world's population as a whole will be we all wait anxiously to know. But the more commonplace industrial wastes belched into the atmosphere are not without their problems. One is "acid rain" which follows the solution of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen peroxide in the atmospheric water that subsequently falls as rain on the parched earth. That falling on lakes may contribute an acidity sufficient to kill the fish in them.

Another current problem is the "greenhouse effect" due to waste gas, mostly carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere trapping more and more of the sun's heat. Gases released into the atmosphere as a result of human industrial and agricultural activities are called anthropogenic gases, and their effects can be of great detriment to the world's atmosphere. In respect of the greenhouse effect, not only will there be a general rise in global temperature, but there will also follow severe shortages of water in many parts of the world, especially the Middle East and California. Hurricanes will also be more frequent.

A third hazard of anthropogenic gases is the effect of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer of the atmosphere; this protects the earth from excessive exposure to ultraviolet light which causes skin cancer in those of fair complexion. Indeed, the predominance of dark-skinned people in the tropical areas is a good example of natural selection, for the melanin pigment in their skin protects it against the baneful effects of ultraviolet light. On the other hand, the black groups are at a disadvantage in cold climates, for ultraviolet light also activates a fatty substance in the skin to produce vitamin D, which is essential for the normal growth and maintenance of bones. Without it the bones soften, and in the young rickets may also occur. Therefore the fair-skinned groups thrive in the temperate and polar areas of the globe. Fortunately adequate doses of the vitamin are present in various animal products, provided, of course, the person can afford to buy them.

It is interesting that the wholesale burning of tropical rain-forests is an important contributory factor to the greenhouse effect, indicating how the predatory human may start by destroying natural flora and fauna, only in the end to endanger his own existence also. On the other hand, these forests yield essential wood and fuel resources for the local population. Likewise, the factories that belch forth their share of anthropogenic gases, including the aerosols of chlorofluorocarbons, give employment to thousands while providing essential energy for other work necessary in a civilized society. It may well, ironically, come to pass that nuclear power, which arouses such strong emotional opposition amongst conservationist groups, is potentially the safest source of energy production. Certainly both coal and oil produce pollution on a scale far greater than that associated with the smoke-filled fog of previous times.

It is not surprising that the theme of conservation is on the lips of all aware people. A line has somehow and somewhere to be drawn between the essential needs of populations faced with starvation if they do not kill the local fauna, and the greed of nations concerned with little more than the impersonal control that is the basis of power. The "Green" political parties are still not governing any particular country, but their voice has to be heard by the major parties both in power and in opposition. It is unfortunate that some conservationists are fanatical to the extent of attempting to destroy nuclear and other dangerous installations, because their very hatred produces a counter reaction among the more staid members of society, a situation seen also among "animal rights" groups whose hatred of biological experimentalists seems sometimes to be greater than their concern for the animals used in the medical research. Nevertheless, the motivation behind the activities of conservationists and those opposed to the use of animals for medical research is well grounded; without these dedicated, if irritating, people both the environment and sentient animals would be much more subject to exploitation and mutilation by obtuse, power-directed humans. When a scientific research worker is in control, he can all too easily forget the feelings of the animals he is using for his studies. He believes that the control and removal of human suffering is his goal, while in fact fame is often the spur. Yet the value of inspired experimentation has been beyond measure in understanding normal animal physiology as a preliminary to dealing with both animal and human disease. We have to live in an evolving world, choosing frequently between the lesser of two unpleasant situations, in this instance human and animal disease versus the use of animals (and sometimes humans too, provided they have given prior consent) as research tools with the inevitable suffering this may cause even after all efforts have been made to reduce pain to a minimum. When a person is in agony, his strongest convictions soon evaporate under the scorching need for immediate relief.

Do animals have souls? If the word is used in the context of a centre of unique identity, I believe the answer must lie in the affirmative. Any sentient creature, one having the power of sense-perception, has the rudiment of a soul, and the more developed the intelligence of that creature, the more emphatic is its individuality. It feels terror when threatened, and dreads extinction. But the human soul is something more than this: it embraces an appreciation of higher values (truth, beauty and love) and is in conscious contact with a transcendent source which we call God (or the eternal ground of being for those of non-theistic belief like the Buddhist - in this context the difference does not matter very much). Whether this soul is brought in at the time of conception, as we have already considered, or whether it is "made" (as Keats put it) in the course of incarnate life, as would be the usual view of the matter, it seems to have shown itself categorically at the time of the evolution of the earliest of the human sub-species, Homo habilis, who not only fashioned tools creatively but also had an impressively developed brain structure sufficient for language and reflective thought. His successor, Homo erectus, seems to have had an awareness of the Numinous, if the suggestions of a ritual associated with the death of a member of the group are valid. The human soul points beyond itself, and this is the source of religion, an attitude of mind that stubbornly resists all the attempts of the rationalist to dislodge (indeed, the negative enthusiasm of the rationalist is itself a response to the numinous dimension, which his pride will not allow him to acknowledge, since, like Adam and Eve, he wants undisputed power over the whole world, an approach strengthened by the human perversions so often fostered by immature religious traditions). The debate between the rationalist and the believer is essential for the growth of the soul; the impact of evolutionary theory on religious belief is a fine example of this painful, but essential, trend, this vital synthesis of reason and belief.

It seems probable that closely domesticated animals, especially beloved pets, acquire something of the soul quality of their owners. The work of guide dogs shepherding the blind is an especially moving testimonial of the responsible care an animal can have for a human. It is probable that animals have powers of extrasensory perception, though admittedly some of the tales told are embellished by the enthusiasm of people with psychic interests. At any rate, this all emphasizes the important role the human has to play in both the preservation and elevation of his animal brethren. The record has so far been chequered, but a better dispensation may be on the way.

Should we eat animal flesh? It would indeed be good if we could return to the state of our allegorical ancestors Adam and Eve, who, like the animals, fed exclusively on plants, but this is not possible for everybody. It seems that the evolving human added meat to his diet as a ready source of protein for his existence of hunting and gathering, thereby diverging from his vegetarian ape cousins. Today there are, apart from those religious groups (notably Hindu and Buddhist) who eschew meat, many people of the West who are moving towards a plant diet. Provided this is done with a careful concern for nutritional values, this is all to the good, but cranky diets can cause much harm. A vegetarian dietary regime should not be undertaken lightly, nor should the concept of vegetarianism fill its practitioners with an attitude of spiritual superiority over the masses who thoughtlessly continue with their meat diet. In fact, some very evil people have been vegetarians; Adolf Hitler is a prime example.

Nevertheless, the gross exploitation of animals for the gluttonous feeding of humans is unpleasant to consider; these humans inhabit the developed countries and are too materialistically inclined already. The starving millions elsewhere in the world would, like the Prodigal Son, be glad to fill their bellies with the pods that the pigs were eating. Albert Schweitzer's dictum of "reverence for life" seems the noblest compromise. "Nature red in tooth and claw" does not exclude the human, who also has to live out his allotted span in order to do the work appointed for him. But what he is obliged to kill, whether for food or scientific research, should be treated with deep concern and caused as little distress as possible. No creature can escape death, but its life should be as fulfilled as is commensurate with its biological status. The prodigality of nature is itself phenomenal, presumably an attempt to ensure the survival of at least some members of the group in the face of the hazards facing all of them. I like Albert Schweitzer's prayer, "O heavenly father, protect and bless all things that have breath, guard them from all evil and let them sleep in peace."

Chapter 7
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