Below, my article, as it appears in this weekend’s Irish Times.
WITH modern technology and firepower, it takes little courage and even less skill to kill wild animals. This week US dentist and recreational ‘big game hunter’ Walter James Palmer found himself squarely in the crosshairs as an international controversy exploded over his casual slaughter of an iconic Zimbabwean lion known as Cecil.
Palmer had paid $50,000 for the privilege of killing a lion for ‘sport’, an activity that is technically legal in Zimbabwe. Cecil was, however, based in the protected Hwange National Park, but was lured out using bait and inexpertly shot by Palmer with a crossbow.
The semi-tame lion, which had been fitted with a GPS tracking device as part of a long-term Oxford University study, fled, wounded, and survived for 40 agonising hours as the weekend warrior and his guides stalked it across the savannah.
Dr Palmer’s online profile boasts at least 43 other ‘kills’ of wild and endangered animals, from polar bears to leopards and buffalo. However you may feel about the Minnesota-based dentist’s idea of fun, what makes his case unusual is that, for once, the world actually took notice.
Cecil’s fate has been similar to that of countless billions of other living creatures in recent decades. The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) 2014 ‘Living Planet Index’ confirmed the depth and severity of the global biodiversity crux: habitat loss and degradation, pollution and climate change have led to a precipitous decline of 52 per cent in the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Put another way, for every two wild creatures alive on Earth in 1970, today only one remains.
“This global trend suggests we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history”, according to the WWF. While species extinctions are difficult to quantify, scientists now estimate that some 50,000 species are disappearing every year – that’s around 135 species a day, every day. This is at least 1,000 times higher than the natural or ‘background’ extinction rate.
It is no coincidence that in just the last four decades, human numbers have doubled, to over seven billion, while the global economy has more than quadupled in precisely the same time frame that the natural world has undergone unprecedented decline.
The global economy is, in a very real sense, eating the foundations of life on Earth by consuming its natural capital at a rate far in excess of the planet’s ability to regenerate, and by accumulating the toxic by-products of global scale industrial and agricultural activity so rapidly it is overwhelming the capacity of the biosphere to absorb and render harmless.
In just the last 15 years, the global hunger for resources has seen the world’s rainforests being felled at the astonishing rate of the equivalent of 50 football pitches – every minute. On an annual basis, that’s an area of rich biodiversity twice the size of Ireland lost forever. Our own record isn’t much better. Ireland’s ecologically rich peatlands are being progressively destroyed by a combination of Bord na Mona and private contractors using heavy industrial equipment.
Given our careless collective evisceration of the natural world, why then have millions of people been so moved by the fate of a single lion?
Biodiversity specialist Dr Ernest Small has published research on why humans seem to favour some animals over others (the WWF, for example, has the cuddly Panda as its logo). Dr Small wrote that: “most humans are not just ignorant of but indifferent to almost all of the species on the planet… and are slightly to extremely negative towards the majority of species they encounter.”
The exception to this rule is our collective attitude towards what are known as charismatic megafauna – in other words, large, photogenic animals, notably elephants, giraffe, big cats and bears. “You can’t get much more charismatic than a lion. Here we are as humans getting very excited about charismatic animals. We never think about all the pain we cause to billions of sentient creatures”, Dr Small told ThinkProgress.org.
Apex predators such as big cats, wolves or sharks play pivotal roles within their ecosystems. The term ‘trophic cascade’ is used to describe the top-down regulation of ecosystems by predators, and is an essential element of an intact ecosystem. Targeting top predators has negative consequences far beyond just one species.
Fifty years ago, there were half a million lions in the wild in Africa. Today, that number is down by over 95 per cent to barely 20,000. There are more tigers kept as ‘pets’ in the US today than now remain in the wild worldwide. Meanwhile, in Africa this week, president Obama promised a crackdown on the ivory trade that is leading to the grisly slaughter of 25,000 elephants a year.
Barring a profound change of attitude, we are on track to be the last generation to share the Earth with these magnificent wild animals. Their destruction at our hands would be an indelible stain on our species – and a spectacular evolutionary own-goal for homo sapiens.
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and tweets @think_or_swim