When man continues to destroy nature,
he saws off the very branch on which he sits
since the rational protection of nature
is at the same time the protection of mankind.
EXTINCT AND VANISHING ANIMALS
On the bookshelves that line my office there are two squat, fat, red books that glower at me continuously. They are the first things that catch my eye in the morning and the last things that catch my eye as I close the office door at night. They act as a constant reminder. These are the Red Data Books produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. One deals with mammals, the other with birds, and they list the mammals and birds in the world today that are faced with extinction – in most cases directly or indirectly through the interference of mankind. As yet there are only these two volumes, but there are more to come, and they will make a depressing line when they eventually arrive, for there is a further one on reptiles and amphibians, another on fishes, and yet another on trees and plants and shrubs.
I was once interviewed by a reporter from some newspaper or other, who said:
‘Tell me, Mr Durrell, how many species of animals are actually endangered?’
I went to the bookshelf, I took down the two fat, red volumes, and I plonked them in his lap.
‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘I haven’t had the courage to count them.’
He glanced down at the two volumes and then looked up at me with real horror on his face.
‘Good God!’ he said. ‘You don’t meant to say that all these are threatened?’
‘Oh, those are only half of them,’ I explained. ‘Those only deal with the birds and the mammals.’
He was visibly shaken by this, because even today the majority of people do not realize the extent to which we are destroying the world we live in. We are like a set of idiot children, let loose with poison, saw, sickle, shotgun and rifle, in a complex and beautiful garden that we are slowly but surely turning into a barren and infertile desert. It is quite possible that in the last few weeks or so, one mammal, one bird, one reptile, and one plant or tree, have become extinct. I hope not but I know for certain that in the same time one mammal, bird, reptile, and plant or tree, have been driven just that much nearer to oblivion.
The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider’s web, and like a spider’s web, if you touch one thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads that make up the web. But we’re not just touching the web, we’re tearing great holes in it; we’re waging a sort of biological war on the world around us. We are felling forests quite unnecessarily and creating dust bowls, and thereby even altering the climate. We are clogging our rivers with industrial filth, and we are now polluting the sea and the air.
When you start talking about conservation, people immediately leap to the conclusion that, as you are an ardent animal lover, what you mean is that you just want to protect the fluffy koala bear or something similar. But conservation doesn’t mean this at all. Conservation means preserving the life of the whole world, be it trees or plants, be it even man himself. It is to be remembered that some tribes have been exterminated very successfully in the last few hundred years and that others are being harried to extinction today – the Patagonian Indians, the Eskimoes, and so on. By our thoughtlessness, our greed and our stupidity we will have created, within the next fifty years or perhaps even less, a biological situation whereby we will find it difficult to live in the world at all. We are breeding like rats and this population explosion must be halted in some way. All religious factions, all political factions, the governments of the world, must face facts, for if we persist in ignoring them then, breeding like rats, we will have to die like them also.
Now, though my primary concern is with the conservation of animal life, I am fully aware that you must also conserve the places in which they live, for you can exterminate an animal just as successfully by destroying its environment as with gun or trap or poison. When asked, as I frequently am, why I should concern myself so deeply, I reply that I think the reason is that I have been a very lucky man and throughout my life the world has given me the most enormous pleasure. I feel indebted to it, and I would like to try and do something to repay the debt. People always look at you in a rather embarrassed sort of way when you talk like this, as though you had said something obscene, but I only wish that more people felt that they owed the world a debt and were prepared to do something about it.
Among the numerous letters I get every day there are always those from people who ask me about conservation. They ask whether it is really necessary. Well, as I have just explained, I think it is; I think it is one of the most necessary things in a world full of unnecessary activities, and conservationists are not just making a fuss about nothing. Then I get letters from people who have never, apparently, used their eyes in looking at the world around them. The only thing they understand is figures, because actual figures on paper mean something to them. To this type of person I give figures. And for this purpose the North American continent provides two very good examples of the wastefulness of man.
North America, when it was first discovered by the Europeans, contained two species of creature which were the largest conglomerations of animals that man has known on earth. One of these was the North American buffalo. At first it was killed in order to provide meat. Then it was killed as a deliberate act of policy, in order to try to starve the Indian to death, for it was one of the commodities that he could not do without. The buffalo meant everything to him – even the bones and the hide were of importance to his existence. The much-lauded ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody once killed two hundred and fifty buffalo in one day. Passengers travelling in trains through buffalo country had to close the windows for the stench of rotting carcasses because by that time buffaloes were being killed merely for their tongues which were considered a delicacy, and the bodies were left where they fell. Mercifully, the buffalo was saved just in time, but even now we have only a minute remnant of the millions of animals that used to thunder magnificently over the North American prairies.
The second species was the Passenger pigeon, and it was probably the most numerous species of bird that has ever been or ever will be in existence in the world. Flocks of them estimated at two billion used to darken the skies. The weight of their numbers perching in trees could break off quite large branches. It was impossible, everyone thought, that the Passenger pigeon (so delicious to eat and so plentiful) could ever be exterminated. And so they killed and killed; they shot the parent birds, they robbed the nests of the eggs and young. In 1869, seven and a half million birds were captured in one spot. In 1879 a billion birds were captured in the state of Michigan. This was because it was ‘impossible’ to exterminate the Passenger pigeon. It was too numerous. It bred too well.
The last Passenger pigeon in the world died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 …
Man is clever enough to obliterate a species but he has not, as yet, found a way of re-creating one that he has destroyed. This fact, however, doesn’t seem to worry the majority of people. There are even some so-called zoological pundits who say that this is a natural part of evolution and that the animal would have become extinct anyway, with or without our help. I couldn’t disagree more violently. To say that it is part of natural evolution is nonsense. It is just begging the question. It is like a man owning a blood bank and saying to somebody who is bleeding to death: ‘Oh, we’ve got plenty of blood, old boy, but we can’t give you a transfusion because it’s in the scheme of things that you should die now.’
‘Ah, but,’ people say, ‘that’s what happened in the old days; it doesn’t happen now. You’ve got reserves and so forth where the animals are safe. We don’t do that sort of thing nowadays.’ To people who believe this I can only quote a few more up-to-date figures to make the picture a little clearer. Every year they ‘harvest’ -as they call it- between sixty and seventy thousand whales. Although scientists have warned that this exploitation will very shortly make several species of whale extinct and will probably put an end to the whaling industry once and for all, they still continue to do it. It seems that the motto of the whaling industry is: ‘Get rich today, and to hell with tomorrow.’
There are many different ways in which an animal can be exterminated and not all of them are simply killing for the sake of clothing or food or because they are considered to be pests. The various species of rhinoceros that were found in the east have been hunted until their numbers are at such a low level that now most of them are only represented by a couple of hundred animals at the most, and the reason for this is the quite stupid belief that the horn, powdered and taken, would act as an aphrodisiac, making the old men virile and attractive to young girls – and this in one of the many parts of the world that is so heavily over-populated that a contraceptive would be more appropriate than an aphrodisiac. Having exterminated practically all the rhinos that were found in India, Sumatra, and Java, they have now turned their attention to the African and, I presume, these will be the next on the list to go down the slippery slopes to extinction.
Let us take the case of the Pacific walrus. When the Eskimoes used them simply as a source of food they utilized the massive tusks to do the most intricate and beautiful carvings. When Eskimo art was ‘discovered’ by the intelligentsia it became all the rage, and so now the walrus is hunted for its tusks alone and, in fact, is being massacred to such an extent that it will probably shortly be extinct. It is already on the danger list.
Let us take another example of the clever thinking of sections of mankind, who have no knowledge of nature. In Africa it was decided that the wild-living animals were hosts for the organism that causes Sleeping Sickness. So a brilliant decision was taken: in order to protect man and coddle his scrawny cattle (which were -and are- rapidly eating up all the undergrowth and turning vast areas into dust bowls) it was decided to kill off all the wild animals. Half a million zebras, antelopes, gazelles, and other animals were destroyed before it was discovered that all the smaller animals could also carry the disease. The extermination of this vast quantity of beautiful wild life had therefore been utterly useless.
People get worked up when a couple of thousand human beings per annum are killed on the roads of Great Britain. That is a tragedy of course – but few people know that two million wild birds are killed per annum on the roads, or that in a small area studied by a Danish scientist the number of road deaths were: hares 3,014; hedge-hogs 5,377; rats 11,557; various small mammals 27,834; birds 111,728; amphibians 32,820. These, of course, are only figures for the main roads; if you included the figures for the side roads they would probably be trebled. Now, if human beings were knocked down to that extent in any country in the world there would be such a shriek of protest, such an outcry, such a lamentation, that any government in power would be forced to make us give up the motor car as a means of locomotion and go back to the horse and cart. Not that I’m against the motor car per se, but you do see my point?
What is not generally realized is that if you look at a map of the world and see the areas that have been set aside for reserves for wild life, it makes an infinitesimal pinprick on the map; the rest is all a gigantic reserve for mankind. And even if you have reserves, you have to have adequate resources to run them properly. Most governments are reluctant to pay out money for the preservation of habitat or fauna (unless there is some great public outcry and the animal in question happens to be particularly attractive), and many others do not have the necessary resources.
Do not think, for one moment, that I am painting too gloomy a picture. I could go on reeling out these breath-taking statistics for the whole length of this book, and it would only go to prove that, of all the creatures that have ever lived on earth -whether the giant carnivorous reptiles of past ages or the creatures of today- the most rapacious, thoughtless, and blood-thirsty predator is man. And, moreover, he is doing himself irreparable harm by behaving like this. It is suicide; an extraordinary form of Roman death whereby, in bleeding the world white, you kill yourself.
Now, as I said earlier, there are parks and game reserves and so on, but if I may quote from the very excellent book, a quotation from which appears as a heading for this chapter: ‘Government protective regulations are meaningful only when resources for their effective execution are provided.’ We can, perhaps, forgive our ancestors their sins, saying ‘They knew not what they did’, but can we -in this technological age that we are so proud of- forgive ourselves for the things we are doing now, and continue to do in the face of opposition from all thinking people whether they be professional zoologists, ecologists, conservationists, or merely thoughtful and perceptive human beings? We have now landed on the moon and that is a remarkable achievement. But have we gone there just for a few extra minerals, or is the moon to be a great white stepping-stone to other planets, some of which may well harbour their own forms of life? If we are going to go from planet to planet creating the same mess that we have made on our own, then I think it would be a happier thing if the vast sums of money that were spent on space projects were used to try and cure some of the ills that we have inflicted on earth.
The problem of trying to preserve wild life and habitat (both for their own sakes and for the sake of those who will follow us) is a gigantic one, and complicated indeed. There are great number of countries in the world which, as I have said, give ‘paper protection’ only to an animal, because the government concerned will pass a law to protect a certain creature but will not allow sufficient funds for reserves to be made; nor do they make funds available so that the reserves -even when they are created- are properly controlled and adequately run. In one country I visited I asked what reserves they had, and the man in charge of fauna conservation unrolled an enormous wall map which was covered with green blotches. These, he explained to me proudly, were all reserves. Had they, I inquired in a casual sort of way, been investigated by zoologists or ecologists or biologists, who could tell whether they were, in fact, the most important areas that could be turned into reserves? Oh no, he said, they couldn’t afford to do that. Then had investigations been done on these areas, these great green blobs, to find out whether there were, in fact, any animals in them and whether they were suitable as reserves? No, he said, that hadn’t been done either, because they lacked the resources to employ the proper people … Were they, I asked, patrolled in any way? No, he said, they hadn’t got the money to have guards or wardens … So there was this very fine map, covered in green blotches, which meant nothing at all.
This, as I say, is a common complaint in nearly every country in the world that has any sort of regulations for the preservation of habitat and fauna, and, of course, there are many other countries which have no legislation at all. This is widely recognized by conservationists, and they are doing their best to put the matter right, but it is a slow process. Before we reach the day when the conservation and protection laws are implemented I’m afraid many species will have vanished for ever from the face of the earth.
In most literate countries there are a vast number of clubs, study groups and societies, be they for the ornithologist or for the general naturalist, all trying desperately to do what they can to save their local fauna. On a wider scale you have organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, The World Wildlife Fund, and so on. In many instances, I’m delighted to say, they have been successful. They have saved, for example, an enormous area of Spain, the Guadalquivir of 625,000 acres. In Australia they rediscovered the Noisy Scrub Bird which had been thought to be extinct. Unfortunately its nesting ground happened to be on a site which had been scheduled for a large new township. Fifteen years ago this would have been considered a most inconsiderate thing for the bird to do and no doubt the township would have been built there, but today the whole thing was replanned in order that the Noisy Scrub Bird should be left in peace and have its own reserve. These are the bright spots; but there are too few bright spots and too many dark ones.
Now, while pressing for conservation of animals in the wild state, there is something else we can do, and that is precisely why I formed my Trust. Many species have been saved from extinction by being taken into zoological gardens or parks and bred under controlled conditions. This, of course, is a last ditch stand, but at least it prevents the species from being completely wiped out and one hopes that, at some future date, the conservation rules and regulations will be enforced in their country of origin so that, having saved a nucleus breeding stock, it will be possible to release them once again in their native area. The list of animals that have been saved in this way is a long and impressive one. There is, for example, the Père David deer which became extinct in China during the Boxer rebellion. Fortunately, the then Duke of Bedford collected together all the Père David deer he could find in the zoological gardens of Europe and released them on his estate at Woburn where they flourished and bred. Now the herd has reached large enough proportions for pairs of this rare deer to be sent to zoos all round the world, and recently they have even been sent back to their place of origin in China. If the Chinese succeed in breeding them -and there is no reason why they shouldn’t- they could set aside an area, a reserve, properly patrolled and run, and once more there would be Père David deer in their natural habitat. The Hawaiian goose is another example. This beautiful bird was almost extinct but, due to the sensible attitude of the Hawaiian authorities and the far-sightedness of Peter Scott, it has been saved from certain extinction. There is quite a list of creatures that have been helped in this way, such as the European bison, the North American buffalo, the Saiga antelope, Przewalski’s wild horse, and so on, but there are many more that desperately need such help.
The Trust I have created is trying to fulfill exactly this function. I realize that it is merely a cog in the complicated picture of protection today, but we hope that it is an important cog in its own way. It has not been created just to keep the animals in captivity. I look upon it as a reservoir – a kind of stationary ark – in which I hope that we can continue to keep and breed some of the species most urgently in need of protection. Then. at some future date, we can re-introduce them into their original homes. I would gladly see the Trust dissolved tomorrow were there no more need for it. But at present I’m afraid there is a very great need and I wish I could see similar Trusts springing up all over the world.
As I have explained in this book, I have devoted my life to this work and I have spent a considerable amount of my own money on it, so therefore I do not feel embarrassed at asking you, the reader, if you will help. If you have read this book and enjoyed it; if any of my books have given you pleasure; may I point out that they could never have been written if it had not been for the wild life of the world? Yet all over the world many of these same animals are in a desperate plight and unless they are helped they will vanish. I am trying to do what I can, but I cannot do it without your assistance, so would you please join the Trust, and try and get as many as possible of your friends -or, for that matter, enemies- to join as well? The subscription is low and you can get full information by writing to me at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, Les Augrès Manor, Trinity, Jersey, Channel Islands.
Finally, may I just say that if you don’t want to join my Trust, then I beg of you to join some sort of organization that is doing something to try and halt the rape of the world. Do anything you can: worry your local M.P. -or whatever the equivalent is in your country- into a nervous decline should you think there is going to be some unnecessary, ill-planned encroachment on a valuable piece of habitat, or that some plant or bird or animal is in danger and not receiving sufficient protection. Write indignant letters. It is only by lifting up your voices that the powers that be will be forced to listen. It is worked on the principle that if you shout loud enough and long enough, somebody is bound to hear. Remember that the animals and plants have no M.P. they can write to; they can’t perform sit-down strikes or, indeed, strikes of any sort; they have nobody to speak for them except us, the human beings who share the world with them but do not own it.