(This piece was originally written for my good friend Adam, and earlier published on his blog, OccupyEssays)
“I’d like to share with you a revelation I’ve had, during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague.” Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)
This essay tells a story. It is more than a little story, it is one of the biggest stories of all — the story of how humans evolved from one of the weakest to the most dangerous animal on the planet, from hunted to hunter, from vulnerable prey to top predator. This is the amazing saga of how one species became the first and only global species and in a very short time built a vast empire that has colonized the planet for need and greed, has created a new geological epoch – the human-dominated Anthropocene Era — and is threatening to bring down the planetary house.
Like all empires, the human empire rose, had glorious triumphs, but ultimately was a decadent and unsustainable colossus; and thus it also dies, ebbs, declines, and falls like the rest. But much more is at stake in this drama than an imperialist state and its colonies, for here we are talking about the entire species of Homo sapiens and its impact on biodiversity and the ecological dynamics of the planet as a whole.
There is no scientific consensus to this story; there are, rather, a thousand narratives of the origins of Homo sapiens and the proper taxonomical tables and nomenclature. The prevailing cacophony of dispute arises partly for the empirical reasons (the science is uncertain and always changing), and also for political reasons (scientists, researchers, and historians have vested interests in challenging competing narratives and validating their own discoveries and narratives). Uncertainties aside, grasping the outlines of the human past are critical for understanding what kind of animal we are, illuminating the causes of current social and ecological crises, and creating viable future societies — if indeed such a project is still possible in a significant sense.
Out of Africa and Out of Control
Our earliest ancestors evolved from an independent branch of the primate tree some 5-7 million years ago. Pressured by climate changes, they moved out of the Eastern and Southern forests of Africa and into the savannas where for various reasons they stood up on two legs and evolved into bipedal animals. These Australopithecines were 3 feet tall, hairy, ape-men — like apes in their relatively small brain size, and like humans in walking upright. After 2-3 million years, various australopithecine types evolved into diverse variations of the Homo genus, including species such as Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens sapiens (behaviorally modern, language-speaking humans). Along this dynamic, variegated evolutionary path, hominid brains grew increasingly large; their technologies and cultures became ever more sophisticated; and their populations continuously expanded in size and geographical reach as their ecological impact became more and more severe.
There is no consensus on key questions, such as: What is the proper taxonomical language to characterize humans in relation to other primates? What alleged Homo types were true species rather than sub-species? What Homo species co-existed, and when? Did they evolve as one species in a linear fashion, as the “Out of Africa” thesis argues, or did various Homo types co-evolve and leave Africa at different times and in many migrations, as the “Multiregional” theory claims?
Whatever the diversity of human types and subsequent migration patterns, about 100,000 years ago (there is no consensus on this date either) Homo sapiens left the African continent to explore a vast, unknown world in which continents were conjoined by ice sheets. They migrated to Europe, Asia, Australia, Siberia, Indonesia, and into the Americas, establishing their empire throughout the globe. All the time multiplying, diversifying, and scattering across the continents, humans wasted no time in colonizing the world from north to south and from east to west.
Just one among tens of millions of existing animal species – many already dispatched to oblivion, thousands currently poised on the end, and thousands yet on the brink of extinction and some yet to be discovered – Homo sapiens has risen from humble mammalian and primate origins to become the most dominant, violent, predatory, and destructive animal on the planet. Nearly everywhere it journeyed and lived, Homo sapiens wrought social and ecological devastation, extinction crises, and chronic warfare. Continue reading
A disturbing update from the front lines of the war on animals, with elephants and rhinos the principle targets, certainly in Africa, and headed rapidly for extinction. A new study described below confirms one’s fears that the inexplicable fetish for ivory, its high monetary value aside, still principally driven by Chinese market demand (the same country also in midst of revolutionary change in its views toward animals reflected in scores of liberations of cats and dogs headed for slaughter and rise in animal advocacy generally).
There is no measure too costly, no action too extreme, no coordinated effort too large to stop this escalating holocaust of rhinos and elephants, It is clearly high time to defend these majestic animals by any means necessary by shutting down lines of demand and supply, through a ruthless counter-war on poachers, via draconian penalties for consumers and peddlers of ivory, through drone attacks on crime syndicates descending from helicopters for their unconscionable kill, and with crackdowns on state complacency or complicity anywhere in Africa and Asia.
This is a dramatic window into the sixth extinction crisis in the history of the planet unfolding before our eyes; may we do more than watch this continuing saga of rhinos and elephants dropped by guns and machetes until all are wiped off the continent, with nothing remaining of their millions of years of evolution but macabre carvings and statues and graveyards.
The articles linked below are well worth reading, and anyone who doubts the vicious and implacable greed and violence driving the war on elephants and rhinos should read through the valuable New York Times archives.
Jaymi Heimbuch, Tree Hugger, January 17, 2013
If you’ve been following ivory poaching in the news lately, you may be wondering if there is any hope at all for elephants.
Just yesterday, the Washington Post reported, “Custom officials seized 638 pieces of illegal elephant ivory estimated to be worth $1.2 million at Kenya’s main port, evidence of what wildlife officials described Wednesday as a growing threat to East Africa’s elephants.”
And just two weeks ago, on January 5, eleven elephants were killed in one massacre by a gang of poachers at Bisadi area of Tsavo East National Park.
The problem is vast and complex, but part of the reason for the growing crisis is the booming economy in China. As the BBC reports:
“China is the main buyer of ivory in the world,” said Dr Esmond Martin, a conservationist and researcher who has spent decades tracking the movement of illegal ivory around the world. He has recently returned from Nigeria, where he conducted a visual survey of ivory on sale in the city of Lagos. His findings are startling.Dr Martin and his colleagues counted more than 14,000 items of worked and raw ivory in one location, the Lekki Market in Lagos.
The last survey, conducted at the same market in 2002, counted about 4,000 items, representing a three-fold increase in a decade.
It is enough to make us wonder if there is any possibility of saving elephants as a species in the face of such rampant killing and rising demand for ivory. Save the Elephants, a prominent nonprofit working to bring attention to poaching issues and Africa’s elephants, just released a 14-year study of elephants in northern Kenya, concluding that adult elephants are more likely to be killed by humans than to die from natural causes.
“Clearly it is the most detailed and comprehensive demographic analysis undertaken for any elephant population, and perhaps any wildlife population, at least in Africa,” says Norman Owen-Smith, an ecologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. It provides a base “for modeling the potential impacts of increased poaching” on other African elephant populations, which are also suffering from illegal killing.
The study notes that in 2000, there were 38 males over 30 years old in the study population, but by 2011 there were just 12, with seven males maturing into that age group. That means only five of the original 38 males over 30 years old were still alive 11 years after the study began. And by the same year, 56% of the elephants found dead (and few elephant carcasses are actually found) had been poached.
The rise in poaching is not only a concern of conservationists, but also tour operators. The loss of elephants in Kenya means a loss of revenue for people running sight-seeing and safari tours. And the businesses are responding to events like the massacre in Tsavo East National Park. AllAfrica reported this week, “The umbrella body Kenya Association of Tour Operators wants a new wildlife bill to be drafted and the government to take major steps to address the poaching menace.”
After National Geographic’s impressive expose, Blood Ivory, a renewed attention has been brought to the serious issue of poaching, a problem on the rise and reaching a disturbing level of intensity as Save the Elephants has proven with their study.
But there is a glimmer of hope. Elephants have proven that they can recover their numbers if given a chance. The elephants studied by Save the Elephants experienced a small baby boom after the intense poaching of the 70s and 80s lessened.
However, the renewed pressure of poaching has stopped that rebuilding of numbers, and could have a long-term impact on the species, with the loss of important information passed down from older generations of elephants to younger generations, including where to find water, food, and other vital resources in a harsh landscape.
In a recent conversation with National Geographic, Iain Douglas-Hamilton notes that losing older elephants means the loss of the “memory bank” and a lower potential for survival for younger elephants:
Studies elsewhere in Africa show that families which lose large numbers of matriarchs do much less successfully in later life. They have a low survival rate. In the time of drought, for example, the really smart and experienced matriarchs may take their families to a completely different place, only because they’re experienced. Maybe they remember their mothers took them to a place like that when they were young. That means sometimes that they have to take a counterintuitive decision. Like maybe in a really drought-stricken area you’d have to go deeper into the worst area to get through to the other side. That’s actually happened in Tarangire, as reported in a study which showed that the really old matriarchs knew what to do. Young elephants tend to have a higher rate of survival if they have good leadership.
So, are elephants doomed? The fact is, there is hope. There is always hope. But unless something changes, and fast, to protect elephants from poaching, that hope is dying with the older generations of elephants.