But some animals are more equal than others, according to George Orwell. I have long been an advocate of leaving nature, cruel as it can be, to get on with it. After all, it’s hard to argue with millions of years of natural selection and evolution. However, all that natural selection has also imbued the human species with qualities such as compassion, empathy and altruism. So that when my family saw a green turtle lay her eggs and then inadvertently wedge herself under a tree branch we felt compelled to drag her out and point her back in the direction of the sea. Two nights later each one of us played the role of guardian to a newly hatched sea turtle and hovered over it protectively as it made the long and arduous trek to the sea. Any marauding gulls were quickly waved away and we were not content until our little turtle had disappeared from view into the bosom of the Pacific Ocean. What made the experience even more memorable was that there were many more people on the beach doing exactly the same thing, shepherding turtles to the sea without picking them up, or taking photos or doing other untoward things one usually associates with people and animals (unfortunately two nights later there were people waving torches about, which caused mass turtle confusion). It gave me hope for our species and the world in general and it certainly gave me pause to think.
What, exactly, was going on here? We had all taken the side of the sea turtle against the gull who, after all, was only after a decent meal to feed itself and its hungry chick. But, like the people who object to kangaroo and koala culls on the basis of their cuteness (When culling was suggested as the best solution to the koala overpopulation problem on Kangaroo Island (a place koalas are not native to) the Australian Koala Foundation hit back with a campaign that featured a close up of a koala above the question, “How could you shoot this face?”) we too had based our actions on the cuteness of the turtle. This is hardly new. Many conservation programs base themselves around so called charismatic megavertebrates such as giant pandas, elephants, and tigers. Pity the Puerto Rican crested toad and western swamp tortoise. And yet emotion is an incredibly powerful force that, when used for good instead of evil, can achieve amazing things such as the global ivory ban and the cessation of commercial whaling. We are emotive creatures and to deny our connection with the other life forms that share our planet is to deny ourselves. We cannot lock environments up and we cannot exploit them without regard to consequences. Both roads are unsustainable. Our only hope lies in sharing and working together with all those who live on our beloved Earth.
Denying any emotional attachment is perhaps as unrealistic as basing our conservation decisions solely on emotion. After all we have evolved these emotions for a reason. Societies that bond and share and work together succeed where societies that lack these traits fail. We must harness these attributes but combine them with intelligent science. Sometimes culling is the easy way out and cuteness has forced us to develop alternative non-lethal methods of control. However, cuteness has also resulted in much greater destruction caused by animals eating themselves and others out of house and home eg kangaroos in Hattah-Kulkyne National Park in Victoria.
Ultimately nature cares nothing for the survival of one little turtle, no matter how cute. We are geared to survival of the individual, while nature exists to guarantee the survival of the species. Somehow we must try and combine the two, where the individual serves as the flagship for the species, without individual survival occurring at the expense of species survival. A tricky balancing act, but one we need to achieve.
Dr. F. Bunny
If you, too, want to help the incredibly cute sea turtles visit http://www.seaturtlefoundation.org/ for more information.