Alan Dean Foster: conservation may have to grow from the barrel of a gun

Paul Raven @ 18-02-2011

Predators I Have Known by Alan Dean FosterI was watching a nature documentary last night, and the cameraman made a point about conservation that I’d not heard before. To paraphrase, his point was – given we’re very aware that numerous species and habitats are on the brink of extinction, but that inaction is still commonplace – how will we answer our children’s children when they ask us why we let them go? Because they’ll know: that documentary, and many others, will b available on YouTube (or its equivalent); photos of amazing creatures and locations will persist long after the things they depict have departed.We won’t be able to feign ignorance to excuse inaction.

Perhaps being able to see these things, to have them become something more than words in a green group’s press release, is the key to getting people to care enough to act. It certainly seems that seeing nature up close and personal – even its most dangerous elements – has had that effect on Alan Dean Foster, whose memoir Predators I Have Known is launched next week, 22nd February 2011.

Take it away, Mister Foster:

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The more I travel to the few remaining comparatively untouched corners of the globe, the more I incline to despair at their prospects for survival. No matter where I go: Asia, Africa, South or Central America, the oceans of the world, I am overwhelmed by the feeling that, good intentions notwithstanding, money trumps conservation every time.

And yet…and yet….

There are places humankind has not yet destroyed. Places untouched and virgin: in New Guinea, in central Africa, in South America, in Borneo, even in the desperately overfished and overexploited oceans. Invariably, these remaining outposts of the unspoiled natural world are protected by and owe their continuing survival to two factors: isolation, and laws that are actually enforced. Ideally, the two exist in combination.

In northern Borneo, a tract of untouched rainforest has been set aside in the Danum Valley. Here uncut diterocarps tower hundreds of feet high, providing food and shelter for a vast range of rare animals that have been exterminated elsewhere on the world’s third largest island. In the central Pacific, Henderson Island boasts some of the most unspoiled and healthy coral reef societies in the entire ocean, thanks to the island’s isolation and the fact that it is regularly patrolled by the U.S. military.

Gabon’s forests still exist because the country is one of the few in Africa that is actually underpopulated. Declared national parks by the nation’s recently deceased long-time leader, it remains to be seen if in the huge areas that have been set aside for conservation, promise will be followed by enforcement. For now, Gabon offers the rare visitor the chance to see an Africa long since obliterated on the rest of the continent.

In Peru a battle brews between those who recognize the value of preserving the country’s natural wonders and those who would (as in Ecuador) exploit them for the hydrocarbons that lie below the forests. In Brazil, a slowing of deforestation holds out the promise of preserving at least some of the original Amazon basin.

Hope for such regions remains, though I fear and expect such preservation may only be accomplished at the point of a gun, as is the case with the rhino in South Africa and the tiger in India. Having let our planet’s wilderness degenerate to its present state, that may be the only viable course that remains to us if we wish to retain even a fragment of the world and the beauty that once was.


What could be worse than human extinction?

Paul Raven @ 14-12-2010

From a philosophical perspective, human extinction is just about the worst thing we can imagine… and it’s a fairly recent fear, too, with our conception of existential risk kick-started by the threat of mutually assured destruction. But what about a slow slide back into an animal state from our current civilisational peak? An evolutionary regression triggered by the impoverishment of the environment we mastered momentarily? [via BigThink]

Civilization obscures our similarity to other animals. We tend to hold ourselves to different standards because we see ourselves as above nature.  Many people find the slaughter of food animals objectionable. Yet no one is advocating intervention to save the gazelles from the lions or the rabbits from the foxes. Is the suffering of animals in the wild less important? Should we venture out in search of prey animals to rescue from their predators, and sick or injured animals in need of medical care? No, it would seem. It’s okay when nature imposes suffering on animals, but not when we do it. Similarly, it’s not okay when we are the subjects of nature’s cruelty.

Civilization has bestowed our species with a distorted self-image. Many people seem to have the impression that we operate independently of nature. We are fortunate that we’ve been able to act as though we are independent for as long as we have. If we don’t adjust our way of living so that it becomes sustainable, however, nature will eventually do this for us.

The worst case scenario is not that humans will become extinct, but that we will come to experience the cruel will of nature as other animals do. We can’t rule out the possibility that we will become more similar to our primate cousins in intelligence, behavior, and quality of life. We may be enjoying the peak of human intelligence, morality, and technological advancement.

On the face of it, this is just another finger-waggy “if we don’t sort things out soon… ” warning, but I think you can detach the results from the cause – there are any number of reasons we might find civilisation as we know it receding into the patchwork memories of the past. Indeed, given our tendency to prattle on about “the good old days”, you could probably convince a lot of people it was already happening…

But in recent years that nostalgic view of the-past-as-idyll has become more and more of an irritant to me. Despite the very real problems facing human beings as individuals and as a species, I think conditions and opportunities for the average person have been improving steadily for a long time (even though those improvements, like William Gibson’s future, are – sadly – not evenly distributed). This is perhaps the same myopia that makes us see the decline of the Western economies as a global recession: because things aren’t quite as easy for us in particular as they were a few decades back, then we’re obviously bound for hell in a handbasket, AMIRITES?

Well, I’m not so sure; I think we have it in us a species to survive, prosper and spread beyond the gravity well. But to achieve that, I suspect we’ll need to start thinking of ourselves as a species rather than as individual nations… which may turn out to be the greatest challenge we’ve ever come up against, rooted as it is in the very evolutionary processes that made us what we are.

Still – it’s worth a shot, wouldn’t you say? 🙂


The auroch revival: bringing back the big beef

Paul Raven @ 22-01-2010

It’s not often that we get to hear about people working on a scientific project previously instigated by Hitler and the Nazi Party of Germany… though this is thankfully a far more benign application of eugenic theory than the atrocities of the Second World War. Italian scientists are trying to recreate the auroch, an extinct breed of European mega-cattle, by selective “back breeding” and genetic analysis [via SlashDot; image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]:

“We were able to analyse auroch DNA from preserved bone material and create a rough map of its genome that should allow us to breed animals nearly identical to aurochs,” said team leader Donato Matassino, head of the Consortium for Experimental Biotechnology in Benevento, in the southern Campania region.

“We’ve already made our first round of crosses between three breeds native to Britain, Spain and Italy. Now we just have to wait and see how the calves turn out.”

The last animal disappeared from the British Isles in the Iron Age and the breed was declared extinct in 1627 after a female died in the forests of Poland.

Aurochs are depicted in ochre and charcoal in paintings found on the walls of cave galleries such as those at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. Caesar described them in The Gallic Wars as being “a little below the elephant in size” and a favourite hunting prey for wild Germanic tribesmen.

Their abiding mystique means they remain as the symbol of several states and cities in Europe, having figured prominently in Teutonic folklore. In ancient times, killing an auroch was seen as a great demonstration of courage, with the horns turned into silver-clad drinking cups.

Exactly why we need to recreate a breed of cows with the size and temperament of a rhinocerous isn’t abundantly clear, and some researchers suggest that the back-breeding process will produce animals that, while they may look the part, are inevitably very different from the original aurochs at a genetic level. But then it probably won’t be more than a decade or so before we can reliably clone animals from archived DNA samples, Jurassic Park style.

Perhaps retro-engineered auroch hunting will become the European equivalent of the rich man’s African safari holiday? I’d be right behind that idea, on the proviso that the would-be hunters were obliged to use the weapons of the Middle Ages in their attempts to bag a trophy… 😉


The Google PageRank algorithm and extinction analysis

Paul Raven @ 07-09-2009

cod fishMost of us are familiar with the concept of the ecosystem – the idea that all living things are interconnected with (and interdependent on) one another and the environment they live in. Can you think of something beyond nature that behaves like an ecosystem?

If you answered “the internet”, then give yourself a cookie –  you had the same thought as a gang of biologists and ecologists who’ve just published a paper examining ways to use a computational algorithm – much like the one used by Google for calculating the search engine ranking of webpages – to determine which endangered species are most at risk, and which are most crucial to the survival of others.

In simple terms, PageRank rates the importance of websites and ranks them in a list compared to other websites. Sites with a higher ranking are those that are linked to more often by other sites and therefore have a greater number of connections.

Adapting this approach to ordering the web of connections within an ecosystem allows species to be ranked in importance by virtue of how many other species are linked to them.

One example of species that depend on each other are the overfished Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and other smaller animals that descend from it in the North Atlantic food chain. Because the predator has been depleted, species including smaller pelagic fish and northern snow crabs have boomed and are themselves depleting populations of phytoplankton and zooplankton.

It’s an innovative and useful tool, though other researchers are keen to underline its shortcomings:

Fraser Torpy, microbial ecologist and statistician from the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, said the study is “very useful adjunct to our ability to determine what makes a species important in terms of its position in its ecological community”.

However, he cautions that the method may only work for simple food webs. “Whilst [this is] an innovative and genuinely useful novel technique for endangered species assessment, it must be remembered that the true complexity of real ecosystems cannot be overestimated.”

With the caveat that I’m no ecologist (nor, for that matter, a search algorithm expert), it occurs to me that as limited a method of modelling ecosystems this algorithm may be, its demonstrated ability to scale to the vast numbers of the web’s uncounted pages means it probably has the potential to outperform any other analytical method currently available. And as extinction rates increase in response to climate change and human intervention, maintaining the ecosystem that supports our own civilisation demands every tool we can get our hands on, regardless of how far short from perfect they might fall. [image by Hello, I am Bruce]

To what degree will computational algorithms be able to assist our understanding of natural systems? Where will their usefulness end… or will we eventually be able to reduce every system to equations, no matter how complex, once we have the necessary processing and memory resources available?


First clone of an extinct animal created

Paul Raven @ 19-02-2009

While plenty of endangered species have had the honour, the Pyrenean ibex has become the first completely extinct species to be cloned from banked genetic material. It didn’t last long, though:

“We are not especially disappointed for the death of the cloned newborn,” Folch explained in an email, because such deaths in cloning experiments are common.

“We will try to improve the technology in order to increase the efficiency of the cloning process.”

Inevitably, the hand of Michael Crichton reaches out beyond the grave and forces the biologists to reassure us that this isn’t the first step on the road to Jurassic Park. More pertinently, the cloned critter’s death (of respiratory failure) demonstrates that the technology for banging out copies of extinct species is far from perfected.

But it begs the question of which species we should attempt to bring back once we’re able – if any. What should the selection criteria be?


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