Review by Justin Goodman
A single graph in NOVA’s newest special, Wild Ways, outlines why we deserve our own epoch, what scientists have called the Anthropocene. Since the beginning of the 20th century, most of the earth’s largest land mammals have been driven to nigh-extinction (Tigers, Lions, Bears—oh my—not to mention, famously, buffalo) by overhunting and civilizations’ encroach upon the refuge of wild animals. The titular wild ways, unfortunately, doesn’t refer to exciting new ways of conservation. It instead refers to what conservationists explain are the “ancient routes” of different species and the international efforts to create “trans-frontiers” for these widely roaming animals via these routes. NOVA doesn’t disengage from the typical way of presenting ecology, although it does so in a more engaging way than Love Thy Nature (which I recently reviewed for RCC).
Of note for Wild Ways are the vestiges of bears and lions, whose “viable” populations exist in only 2 and 4 locations, respectively. Viable, as explained by several ecologists, refers to a group of over 1,000 of a species necessary to prevent inbreeding. Why save the bears? Beyond sentimentality, the loss of the top of a food chain ruins the delicate balance of an ecosystem; they focus on Yellowstone, where the loss of wolves led to an overabundance of deer whose overeating poisoned rivers and drove away life. It’s also emphasized that these apex predators, as they’re known, are endangered by human settlement: these animals are either killed in car accidents on roads, or, as in Yellowstone, nearby farmers, defending their livestock, shoot and kill wolves.
Other than a few Weegee-style corpse shots, this is a major issue that NOVA’s special addresses only in passing. In Canada, they note, there are overpasses and underpasses created that replicate natural trails so that the animals can safely travel. What about the wolves who attack farmer’s livelihood? The issue is brushed aside—despite talk of the need for “real mechanisms”—and the serious, immediate issue of politics and economics which factors into this conflict is replaced with the passé statement that saving these species is “our last chance to protect the diversity of life on earth.” As I suggested in my review of Love Thy Nature, read Jonathan Franzen’s “Carbon Capture” for a summation of this perspective. And I emphasize the political/economic because of what conservationists point to as a notable discovery, and the reason we need the under and overpasses.
It was discovered that males of these predatory species tend to move far from their home, establishing new territories for themselves and their progeny. The definitive examples happen to be bears and elephants that cross man-made boundaries. Bears cross into southern Canada creating the need for American and Canadian environmental agencies to co-ordinate the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, intended to link national parks for these animals (whether this will cause serious problems for humans is yet to be seen). Meanwhile, Angola, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe have had to work towards the Kavango Zambizi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) to protect elephants. The conservational problem for elephants, poaching, highlighted by their near-extinction in Angola during the civil war in the ‘90s. Because of the need for cash to supply opposing armies, elephants died for their tusks.
Animals, that is to say, suffer the consequences of human ambitions. As George Monbiot noted in The Guardian, “consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction” in our present society. Classic approaches to conservation will not be enough. Loving nature walks is not enough. What can we do? How do we convince farmers that their livestock are not as important as the ecosystem? NOVA doesn’t really say. But NOVA does fine in noting the build-up to today’s world, even if it remains two decades behinds. The reassuring news is that, once Angola settled down, so too did more elephants. But once the mammals are saved, will we be there in time to save the reefs that are bleaching to extinction? There’s a healthy population of elephants in Angola again, so perhaps that should give us hope. Everything can happen, though, in the Anthropocene.