Sorry for the lack of posts this week – I’ve been inundated with lab work and preparing samples for stable-isotope analysis.
Last week, the BBC reported that Nepal would start culling wildlife, including endangered species, because of an increase in human-wildlife conflict. As long as there have been humans and wildlife, there’s been conflict – with responsibility on both sides. Though lately, I think the balance has shifted, and humans have become the aggressors, and it’s hard not to see why.
Last summer, hunters in New Brunswick and Newfoundland each shot and killed the first wolf in those provinces in over a century, the hunters apparently mistaking them for the smaller bobcat or coyote. And we wonder why some species never seem to recover? (note the smile on the hunter’s face in the photos that accompany these articles)
In his must-read book Sea of Slaughter, Farley Mowat* paints a picture of what North America looked like before European colonization, and the brutal accounts of extinction, exploitation, and destruction that was left in the wake of fishermen, colonists, and explorers as late as the early 20th century.
“These [Great Auks] are as big as geese … and they multiple so infinitely upon a certain flat island that men drive them from hence upon a board, into their boats by the hundreds at a time, as if God had made the innocency of so poor a creature to become such an admirable instrument for the sustenation of man” – Richard Whitbourne, c. 1600
“Never in my life did I regret the want of ammunition so much as on this day … Thus ended in disappointment, the boblest day’s sport I ever saw: for we only got one skin, although we had killed six [polar] bears” – George Cartwright, 1778
“The behaviour of Robert Peary, one of the two North American claimants to the discovery of the North Pole is typical … The treatment meted out to [polar] bears by Peary’s expeditions [alone resulted in the destruction of at least 2000 of them” – Farley Moway, “Sea of Slaughter”, 1983
A couple of years ago, Josh Donlan and Chris Wilcox, in a very controversial paper in Nature, arguing that we should reintroduce large megafauna to North America to “restore” the ecosystem. While I think their argument was not intended to be serious (sabre-toothed Smilodon cats roaming outside Toronto or Vancouver might irk some), it raises an important point for restoration ecology: restoration to what? As Mowat points out in his book, eastern North American ecosystems were pillaged starting 500 years ago (those on the Pacific coast a bit later, and in the centre of the continent later still). But is restoration to a state similar to 100 years ago actually “restoration”? And, as Donlan and Wilcox point out, why stop with Vancouver Island marmots and wood bison?
I did my PhD at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and spent 4 years on the island. It’s one of the most degraded ecosystems in Canada. Numerous endemic subspecies (e.g., wolf, pine marten) have been extirpated or endangered, and countless introduced species (from rats to moose) wreak havoc on the native ecosystem and prevent the reestablishment of native fauna. Newfoundland and Labrador has the lowest population density of any province in Canada (though this is, in large part, due to the mainland part of the province), and is home to just over 500,000 people. If ever there was a case where human-wildlife “conflict” should be reduced, it’s here.
But if we want wolves back in Newfoundland, and tigers in Nepal (and why not?), we can’t keep shooting them.
*Full disclose: he and I are actually distant cousins.