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Pondering Megafauna From Here To Africa And Back

Greater Yellowstone conservationist Phil Knight heads to the Serengeti and returns with more concern about the plight of species in our own wild neighborhood

Large predator populations around the world are struggling to survive, with Greater Yellowstone and the Serengeti among two of the last bright spots. Photo courtesy Phil Knight
Large predator populations around the world are struggling to survive, with Greater Yellowstone and the Serengeti among two of the last bright spots. Photo courtesy Phil Knight

by Phil Knight

“They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” 

Last March I watched in awe as a mother plains giraffe and her tall, spotted calf browsed on acacia trees on the edge of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. These gorgeous wild creatures are the tallest land animals in the world. Watching them run is like peering into another, more animated world, where nature holds sway with unlikely and surprising creatures living their lives right in front of us.

This is the world we came from. We emerged from these African savannahs ages ago. Olduvai Gorge, where our ancestors Homo habilis started making stone tools 1.9 million years ago, lies right next to the Serengeti. Big animals shaped us, made us who we are and how we look, through eons of living on the plains and in the forests, as both hunter and hunted. We competed for survival with lions, hyenas, wild dogs, cheetahs, leopards and many other predators as we evolved into the naked apes that today are overwhelming the planet. Can we admit we won that competition? Can we give the losers a break?

Animals like these giraffes I gazed at in wonder are becoming ever rarer. The elephants I saw nearby are even more threatened. Large wild mammals exist on Earth solely through our forbearance, which seems to be wearing thin as we despoil and shape ever more of this tiny planet and fight over its dwindling resources.
There are only two Northern White rhinos still alive. Both are female.

We are creating a lonely, bleak world, where the only creatures that exist are the ones we allow to do so and those who manage to avoid doom despite our ever-more-obnoxious presence.

During the time I have been alive, about 82 percent of Earth’s wild mammal biomass has been lost! As much as 60 percent of all vertebrate animals have been killed off. There are people people people everywhere, a swarming sprawling fucking birthing seething mess of human flesh taking over every corner of Earth. Next time you think about having a kid, or skipping the birth control, take a look at the World Population Clock. It is terrifying to watch. Hundreds of thousands of humans are born every day.

With humans approaching the 8 billion mark on Planet Earth, anything else alive is pretty much the underdog (OK, except for viruses and other diseases). We’re overwhelming the natural carrying capacity of the planet, and sucking up all the resources needed for survival by other species. We kill wildlife for profit, for food, for trophies, for protection of crops, for just being in the way.

Fish are being strip-mined from the sea for human consumption. Insects and birds are vanishing. A future without these species is a terrifying prospect.

Sir David Attenborough warns us that our encroachment on the natural world is also unleashing deadly diseases, such as the current global Coronavirus pandemic.

Mammalian evolution may be at an end. Humans, livestock and pets make up 96% of the terrestrial animal biomass on Earth. Scientists estimate it will take five  to seven million years of mammalian evolution just to recover from the ongoing tidal wave of extinctions caused by humans. Already, all of the largest Ice Age species are gone, such as giant ground sloths, Wooly Mammoths, Dire Wolves and Saber Toothed cats.

The Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019) makes the grim prediction that as many as one million species are currently at risk of extinction. 

I am all for human rights. But what about animal rights? All of these beings we are driving to oblivion have every right to exist. We did not create any of them so we have no right to exterminate them. 

Here are just a few wild animals that have gone extinct in my lifetime, never to be seen again: Eastern Cougar; Pyrenean Ibex; Formosan Clouded Leopard; Vietnamese Rhino; Western Black Rhino; Chinese Paddlefish; Yangtse River Dolphin; Golden Toad.  

The biggest of the big, the massive “tusker” male elephants, are all nearly gone, slaughtered by poachers for their huge ivory tusks. These are the largest land animals on Earth, behemoths with great intelligence, masters of their domain, shapers of the African bush, able to communicate over great distances via ultra-sound, spectacular beasts that have survived for tens of thousands of years…til we came along.

There are maybe thirty Sumatran Rhinoceros left in the Universe. The last ones in Malaysia died last year, meaning they exist only in Indonesia. Other animals on the brink of extinction include Asian elephants, Black Rhino, and Indri (the largest living lemur).

There are estimated to be only 3,900 wild tigers left in the world. The state of Texas may have more tigers than that in captivity.

Unless we figure out how to clone extinct animals, and make the effort to do so, we will never see these species again. We are impoverishing the Earth, diminishing the tree of life, and robbing future generations of the opportunity to experience and learn from these animals.

My basic conservative nature—save what you have and what is hard to replace—tells me we are making a huge mistake, one that will echo down the ages of the Earth. WE are the cause of the Sixth Mass Extinction. Humans. This is the only one of the six extinctions that may be avoidable, since we are aware that we are causing it and know what we could do to stop it. Whether we have the willpower to stop this massive waste of evolution and biology is another question.

Yet there are signs of hope. Yesterday I watched at least 25 wolves from Yellowstone’s 35-strong Junction Butte wolf pack going about their lives, howling, playing, running, hunting, interacting. Given a chance and some real protection, not to mention plenty of habitat, wildlife can still thrive. They are resilient, they are determined. 

My home town of Simsbury, Connecticut is now the land of the bear, with black bears appearing everywhere, for the most part getting along fine with people. When I was a kid there, we never saw a bear.

Some animals are thriving in our urban environments, finding ways to reap the rewards of our cast off riches. Monkeys roam Asian cities, stealing and scavenging. Coyotes skulk through LA, devouring unattended pets. Foxes thrive in the UK where people feed them and dote on them. 

Species that can adapt have a chance. Those that cannot, may be doomed.

Here on the doorstep of Yellowstone, we still have all our native mammals— 66 in all—making this one of the few places on Earth that can make that claim. That puts the onus on us, residents of Greater Yellowstone, to do more than our part to protect biodiversity and habitat. That lynx trapped mistakenly has global significance. That grizzly bear killed in self-defense matters in the long long ages ahead. That wolverine you glimpsed is a harbinger of things to come. Either she will persist, ushering her lineage into the world of the future, or she will vanish like a phantom, becoming nothing but a fading legend of a fierce and wide-ranging creature. 

It is up to us.

Phil Knight
About Phil Knight

Phil Knight, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a conservationist for many decades. Besides being a leader in promoting protection of wilderness and old-growth forests in the U.S. and abroad, he is an avid outdoor recreationist, author of the book Into Deepest Yellowstone, and leader of popular nature tours.
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