Sunday, April 29, 2007

Dead Man's Curve

The Saiga is a kind of odd-looking Eurasian antelope that inhabits the open dry steppe grasslands and semi-arid deserts of Central Asia.

In 1993 the total population of Saiga was estimated at over one million. By 2000, however, the Saiga population had decreased to less than 200,000, and by 2003 surveys indicated that less than 30,000 remained in the wild.

This represents a population collapse of over 90% in a span of just 10 years.

Ironically, the conservation community bears some responsibilty as a causal agent in the Saiga's rapid population decline, as Saiga horn was promoted by the World Wildlife Fund as a replacement for the Rhino horn sometimes prescribed by traditional Chinese apothecary shops.

Increased pressure from apothecary suppliers in China, coupled with relaxation of hunting restrictions in the Soviet Union, resulted in rapid overhunting of the Saiga, and a population crash that appears to have pushed wild populations past the tipping point.

Right now, there is a very real possibility that the Saiga may become extinct in the wild within the next decade.

I tell this story as a cautionary tale about unintended consequences, hubris, and the speed of destruction in the modern world.

The goal of the World Wildlife Fund was not to wipe out the Saiga -- it was to offer buffering protection to critically endangered Rhino populations while giving a nod to the demands of traditional Chinese apothecary shops. With more than a million Saiga running free in large herds in Central Asia, getting traditional medicine shops to use Saiga horn instead of Rhino horn seemed a reasonably safe and culturally-sensitive idea.

The problem, of course, is that things are rarely as simple as they appear. With a population of over 1.2 billion people, the apothecary demands of China cannot be appeased by any animal in the wild -- an important point initially lost on the good people at the World Wildlife Fund.

When an insatiable demand for wild animal horn was coupled with increased access to modern rifles, Central Asia experienced its own version of The Last Buffalo Hunt.

I am reasonably certain the Saiga will eventually be brought back from the edge, just as the American Buffalo has been brought back from the abyss here in the United States.

That said, a turnaround is going to be slow and expensive.

The troubles of the Saiga are not entirely unique. In this country alone, we have stopped just short of wiping out the Condor, the Buffalo, the Black-footed Ferret, the Peregrine Falcon, the Manatee, the Red Wolf, and the American Crocodile.

The developing world is poised to follow our path in all things. What remains unknown is whether they will employ the conservation brake in time to prevent their own wildlife treasures from tumbling into the abyss.

A central problem is that in this modern world we can no longer afford to go slow. It took 2 million years to go from "Adam and Eve" in the Olduvia Gorge to a human population of one billion people, but it took only 100 years to add the second billion people, 30 years to add the third, and 15 years to add the fourth. Today, the world's population is past six billion and is sure to climb past seven billion within the decade.

Even as human population has soared, so too has technological progress. Muzzle loaders and iron sights have been replaced by spiral cut barrels and powerful optics. Hemp gill nets a hundred yards long have been replaced by nylon drift nets that can stretch for miles. The ax has given way to the chainsaw, and the chainsaw to the feller-buncher. The shovel and sledge hammer have given way to massive mechanical earthmovers and sequentially-fired dynamite relays. The backyard vegetable plot has given way to thousand-acre monoculture farms planted and and harvested by massive and complicated machines.

Along with technological changes have come cultural and social changes as well. Limited local demands filled by well-known suppliers have fallen away to unlimited international demands and a global marketplace oblivious to the cause-and-effect ramifications of satisfying global needs.

The bottom line is the bottom line, and nothing more.

Chinese demand for horn means disappearing herds of antelope in Russia and Mongolia. Japanese demand for cheap plywood means disappearing forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. The need for catalogue paper in the U.S. means huges swaths of Canada's boreal forests are being cut to the ground to supply bright white copy. What we eat in the grocery store (including what we feed our dogs) may come from China, Chile, Australia or Antarctica. The fibers we wear on our back may come from pesticide-soaked fields in Africa and may be sewn in sweat-shop factories in Asia.

Out of sight is out of mind. We have no idea where things come from, or under what conditions.

Where it will all end, no one knows, but it's clear that at the speed we are going, we are going to miss a few turns and end up in the ditch -- or worse -- a good percentage of the time.

When that happens, it will not be an "accident," but a predictable consequence of our speeding down the highway, addled by too much population growth and turbo-boosted by technology.

Yet, when the crack up occurs, it is sure to be labeled an "accident" anyway. That's what they call every wreck at Dead Man's Curve. Never mind the signs, full speed ahead.

1 comment:

Matt Mullenix said...

I feel we are all---you and others first, but the rest in fact coming along---beginning to see the problems as they are.

When do we turn the lens to the solutions?

When do we just say what we are supposed to do now?

If we are reticent, why are we?