In order to preserve the wildlife of the wilderness at all, some middle ground must be found between brutal and senseless slaughter and … unhealthy sentimentalism. (Theodore Roosevelt 1905)
We cannot win this battle to save our species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love. (Stephen Jay Gould, from an essay titled “This View of Life: Unenchanted Evening.” 1991)
These quotes highlight our main difficulty when it comes to “saving” wildlife: our relationship with other species. On the one hand we cannot treat them as a limitless resource or commodities to be used as we see fit because that will drive even more of them to extinction. However, we also cannot treat them as cute, fluffy, incredibly fragile toys that are either smothered by love and affection or locked in a cupboard because they are far too precious to play with.
The problem with both attitudes is that they separate us from the natural world. There still seems to exist a belief that we humans live our lives in one world while nature exists in a completely separate world and ne’er the twain shall meet. Going down the senseless exploitation road ignores the fact that we are all interdependent and that by destroying the natural world we will, eventually, destroy ourselves as well. The other path, that of locking nature up in preserves, also ignores the fact that we are dependent on it for our survival and that there is nothing wrong with utilising it, as long as we do it in a sustainable manner.
In this regard there is much we can learn from some traditional cultures that, while causing their own fair share of extinctions, did manage to use the world around them in a reasonably sustainable manner. They certainly did not lock their resources away for no one to use or cover them with a cloak of mawkish sentimentality. They did, however, devise means that prevented over harvesting, possibly one of the few times where religious superstitions actually caused some good in the world.
Tim Flannery cites an example in his book, “The Future Eaters”. Many moons ago in far north Queensland the indigenous Gugu-Yalandji people hunted tree kangaroos throughout the forest, except in sacred story places. Story places were off limits to people and acted as tree kangaroo reservoirs. When the reservoirs filled up animals dispersed into the surrounding areas where they could be hunted. A similar situation existed in New Guinea. When Europeans came along they replaced these local superstitions with Christian superstitions. The story places were now no longer sacred, people were no longer forbidden entry and the tree kangaroo population crashed. The story place myth was probably started by one of the world’s first conservationists, or at least someone with enough foresight to realise that if they did not devise a method to limit tree kangaroo hunting they would very soon become extinct.
Many years on we don’t appear to have made much progress. While some of us still adhere to religious superstitions about not eating pigs and shellfish, or cows being sacred, we seem incapable of grasping the scientific fact that if we kill all the tree kangaroos (substitute any species you like here) we will also not survive. It is a pity there were no religious myths about not killing passenger pigeons, dodos, moas, or quaggas, as appeals to science and logic do not appear to work.
Dr. F. Bunny