The Problem at Hand
Just how far should we go to prevent extinction or bring back a lost species? Given the relevant science, what can we do versus what ought we to do? How wild a world do we want, as opposed to how wild a world will we tolerate? Of course, nature should matter to everyone for selfish reasons—for providing basic subsistence needs as well as ecosystem services like cleaning our air and water. Nonetheless, that I’m paired with philosopher Ben Minteer to address these issues by an organization that cherishes ideas underscores that answers might turn more on ethics and aesthetics—on values, as expressed through individual choices, cultural norms, economics, and politics. My short response to the primary question is “as far as we can and want to go,” while elsewhere Ben addresses what we ought to do or not. Here I’m more concerned with tolerate—with why, how, and where we might conserve animals capable of killing us. That perspective then leads me to reconsider what we mean by wildness.
Like many field biologists, for deeply personal reasons, I believe saving as much biodiversity as possible is critically important. Moreover, large, dangerous organisms deserve special consideration as dominant herbivores and predators in ecological communities. African Elephants, for example, by dint of their size and appetite, shape the plant composition of entire landscapes, thereby creating niches for geckos that inhabit cavities in trees the leviathans splinter while foraging. Large carnivores, through so-called trophic cascades, depress the abundance and behavior of smaller predators, thus increasing the diversity and numbers of the latter’s prey. And “charismatic megafauna” have widespread, often profound emotional and cultural significance, too—witness their prominence in art, from the oldest known cave paintings to contemporary children’s literature. Simply put, animals like elephants and big cats, as well as rattlesnakes and other smaller natural-born killers, inspire us.
Among the megafauna globally, however, many species are threatened with extinction, and some present particularly daunting challenges for conservation. Roughly twelve thousand years ago, several elephant relatives roamed North America, and the last known mammoth perished on an island off Siberia less than four thousand years ago, about the time Hittite king Mursuli sacked Babylon. Today, those with the long trunks and ivory tusks, the huge flapping ears, persist only in Africa and Asia. In most places, their numbers are plummeting, such that by the end of this century, given poaching and climate change, we might well be asking questions unimaginable when I was younger: Will there be no elephants left anywhere on Earth? What if instead they remained only in North America, derived from zoo-raised ancestors and spruced up with Wooly Mammoth genes for cold hardiness? Might that be a good thing, or should we allow a major group of mammals, the Proboscidea, to go extinct? Are we sure poaching and climate change will be solved in time to otherwise save elephants?
As a response to the problem at hand, I’ll first lay out some backstory to establish my nature-lover bona fides and illustrate how individual histories shape values. Then I’ll develop four arguments: (1) the meaning of “extinction” is more complicated than usually acknowledged; (2) we’ll more likely value nature because of compelling personal experiences and those shared by others than due to claims of intrinsic worth; (3) co-existence with the largest tolerable herbivores and predators better defines wildness, rather than merely lack of human control; and (4) while notions of wildness typically minimize a role for people, that word also can encompass more pragmatic, pluralistic attitudes about our relationships with other species.
Magical landscape and natural-born killer: Namib Desert (above) and one of its dune specialists, a twelve-inch-long Peringuey’s Adder (Bitis peringueyi) (Photo credits: H. Greene).
Whence Come Values?
Like many nature-lovers, I grew up offended by questions like, “What good is a rattlesnake?” I’d believed that reptiles had intrinsic (also called final) value without asking whence came their inherent worth—where or who was this cosmic value generator? As it happens, substantial doubt exists among philosophers as to whether intrinsic values are defensible, the challenge being to provide a justification that isn’t ultimately faith-based. For the moment I’ll sidestep that quandary by using Sandler’s distinction between objective and subjective final value, because the latter only implies that we assign worth to things, places, and other beings based on our inborn biases, individual experiences, and broader cultural contexts. One can doubt whether, as some claim, the mere fact of being alive conveys objective final value, yet still judge the subjective final value of ancient rock art or a Puma as incalculably large, literally priceless in each case.
How, then, have my values arisen, such that I’ve devoted more than forty years of research, teaching, and outreach—as well as money and votes—to the ideal of thwarting extinction?
I’ve had the huge good fortune to be a naturalist since childhood, thanks to subsistence farmer grandparents, an innate love for animals, and parents who early on nurtured my interests—with a primer on farm animals before I could read, my first reptile book at age seven, and countless trips to zoos and museums. Then I met an academic herpetologist when I was thirteen, and the die was set—my first publication at age fifteen, graduate school after a stint in the military, and a career as an evolutionary biologist. Among countless memories from all over the world, I’ve been enchanted by a Peringuey’s Adder hunkering down in Namib Desert sand and dazzled by Maned Wolves loping through tropical savanna. My greatest joy, however, has been getting to know these natural-born killers as individuals. During 569 encounters with one female Black-tailed Rattlesnake, over the course of twelve years and compared to forty-nine others of that species we studied, she more often had a food bulge, gave birth more frequently to larger litters of healthy young, and never rattled, let alone struck at me. Nicknamed Super Female 21, she was my all-time favorite snake.
My values also were shaped by five years as an ambulance driver and army medic, during which I assisted hundreds of victims of accidents, violent injuries, and illness until they reached a hospital. I watched some dozen people die, including a child in my arms; some of them perished with less than ideal treatment, and I’m haunted by the possibility mistakes were made. Among the lessons I drew from that time were the finality of death and a determination to make the best of a situation, however daunting and uncertain. With such high stakes—a teenager killed in the most horrible way imaginable, his brother alive with nose sliced off—there’s powerful temptation to turn aside, so emotionally one must shut down, get the job done. And today existential threats to many species present a parallel dilemma for conservationists. We are going to fail depressingly often, we must proceed with imperfect knowledge and uncertain outcomes, and many of our fellow citizens do not love nature. We need bold new initiatives, yet the status quo is professionally less risky—but not risk-free in terms of preventing extinction.
Three experiences have further enhanced my desire to participate in nature, rather than just be a spectator, and thus also shaped my values. I’d like to give them to every young naturalist, so that they too could contemplate other realities against which to measure themselves and their beliefs. The first is to shoulder a pack and walk for days in a wild place, with everything necessary for health, welfare, and pleasure on one’s back; and to do this at least once where carrying out your own solid waste is required. Beyond intimate exposure to scenery and wildlife—apprehending a place with your hands and feet as well as eyes, ears, and nose—benefits of backpacking include learning firsthand what’s minimally required to survive and mitigate one’s presence in a landscape. What goes in must come from somewhere and it must go out too; we are ultimately accountable for both. Perhaps equally important, backpacking lends a humbling sense of frailty and the confidence to still move on down the trail.
My second gift would be to set out on foot in Africa, to spurn safari vans and mingle with the last diverse megafauna on Earth. Among the lessons I’ve taken from four trips to that enormous continent is that although today its one billion-plus people negatively impact many other species, ideas of wildness for which absence of humans is diagnostic cannot apply to the place where as Homo we’ve been doing whatever it takes to survive for more than two million years. Another lesson is that we North Americans generally recoil from excrement, but in Africa poop is pristine—from dainty antelope pellets to the cannon ball turds of elephants, it’s everywhere, even in the waterholes! Dung is so obvious that we’ve run class projects in which students assessed megafaunal presence by identifying and counting scats. Finally, in a place brimming with animals that can crush, gore, or eat you, one must be wary and occasionally fearful, alert to changes in the wind and watchful for the nearest climbable tree.
Life is messy—other organisms must perish if we are to survive, other organisms will profit when we expire—so the third gift for young naturalists would be to kill, butcher, and eat a large bird or mammal. In my early sixties I became a deer hunter to take responsibility for my own omnivory, perhaps the most respectful, mindful thing I’ve ever done as a naturalist. My top priorities are to eat healthy meat and not make bad shots, but other rewards range from the exhilaration of hiding with my rifle in an oak copse as dawn breaks and a Tufted Titmouse flits within inches of my face, to trading tales around a fire with others in our little tribe of ambush foragers. There’s a vegetarian version of this gift too, because none of us gets out of life’s bargain cost-free: remove all plants from an acre of habitat and dispatch all animals, from tiny beetles to something at least as big as a rabbit—after all, when a patch of landscape is cleared for grain fields and fruit orchards, its original inhabitants almost never have anywhere else to go.
I’m happier, healthier, more attentive, and immeasurably richer for time spent outdoors, especially so when I’ve been more participant than spectator. Wild places have humbled me in the face of grandeur and shrunk my selfish concerns to manageable size, while their inhabitants have drawn me into other worlds, thereby enlarging my own. How boring, uninspiring, and impoverished life would be without those places and creatures!
Priceless natural heritage, but are its final values objective or subjective? Fate Bell Shelter (left), a publicly accessible, four-thousand-year-old Archaic Period site in Val Verde County, Texas; nine-foot-tall image on the shelter’s back wall (right) of a Puma-like figure losing blood or perhaps its soul (Photo credits: H. Greene).
Difficult Choices, Untidy Realities
As to the particulars of extinction, a decade ago twelve of us laid out the concept of Pleistocene rewilding, a proposal that close relatives of extinct mammoths, horses, camels, and so forth serve as proxies to partially restore our lost North American megafauna. The special ecological, evolutionary, and aesthetic significance of large vertebrates motivated us, as well as concerns that those extant species are ever more threatened globally. We emphasized beginning with carefully controlled experiments, while critics focused on risks from invasive species and recent ecological changes to North America; they also revealed unexpected biases and misconceptions among fellow nature lovers. One such bias is a desire for dangerous animals to survive somewhere, just not where we first-worlders would have to pay the very human costs of co-existence. A common misconception, especially pertinent here, is that the meaning of “extinction” is straightforward.
What extinction signifies depends on definition and scale. There are, first, blurry distinctions between what constitutes a species versus more and less inclusive lineages. Just what, in other words, has gone extinct? Today Black-footed Ferrets extend south into Chihuahua, all derived from a tiny remnant Wyoming population discovered in 1981, so to whatever extent the extirpated nineteenth century Mexican animals were different from those in the northern Great Plains, that “kind” of ferret is still extinct. Likewise, extant African and Indian Lions stem from a cosmopolitan Pleistocene lineage (of one or two species, including extant Panthera leo) that once ranged to Peru—our New World Lions vanished thousands of years ago but not the lineage globally (yet!), so while putting African cats back in North America couldn’t precisely replace those we lost, they wouldn’t be as biologically inappropriate as Tigers. In fact, the widely heralded restoration of North American Peregrines was accomplished with an amalgam of seven subspecies, four of them Eurasian—we regained an iconic falcon, just not exactly the one we were losing.
Even granting subtleties of definition, species can be extinct locally but abundant elsewhere, so that, for example, citizens might answer yes or no about de-extincting Bison in their state. Species also might be extinct in the wild and thrive in a zoo, or persist in nature under manifestly unnatural conditions. Finally and most controversially, as with Wooly Mammoths, a species can be extinct in the narrow sense of no more living organisms, yet eventually be brought back through developmental genetic technologies.
Now let’s explore values, extinction, and rewilding a bit further, through first-hand encounters of three rather different sorts.
In 1987 the last twenty-two California Condors were removed from the wild for captive breeding following a bitter controversy about whether to take such drastic measures or, as some preferred, to let the species “go extinct with dignity.” Within a decade tens of millions of dollars were spent, mistakes were made and problems solved, such that now more than four hundred of these giant vultures again fly over western North America. They wear number tags and locator transmitters, feed on slaughtered livestock, and routinely are treated for lead poisoning—all for about five million dollars annually. Arguably they’re still extinct as “wild” birds, although someday, thanks to science and public support, they might again be truly “self-willed.” Prior to 2010, I’d never seen one in twenty years of living out West, nor during three backpacking trips on the Colorado Plateau. Then late one afternoon I was the oldest among seventeen raft tourists hiking Bright Angel Trail out of the Grand Canyon, and just as I rounded the penultimate switchback, tuckered out and daydreaming about a Native American platform burial, two enormous black birds with slotted primaries and white underwings circled overhead—my first California Condors. With a raised fist I blurted out “I’m not ready for you yet,” then, with an unexpected upwelling of hope, “Worth every penny!”
Some critics of Pleistocene rewilding contended that we’d proposed nothing more than a fancy zoo, because a reconstituted North American megafauna of necessity would be fenced and heavily managed. Imagine my perverse satisfaction, then, while visiting Kruger National Park in 2011, to learn that spectacular 7,500-square-mile preserve is fenced. Moreover, although it now boasts Lion, Cheetah, Leopard, African Elephant, both species of rhinos, and Cape Buffalo, at the end of the nineteenth century the region’s megafauna had been essentially extirpated—yet the most moving encounter I’ve ever had with another species occurred many miles off-road in this restored ecosystem, when, accompanied by two armed rangers and five other visitors, we approached to within a couple of dozen yards of a White Rhino. All that separated us from the huge male was a mud wallow out of which he then stepped and stared our way. At that moment, before he trotted off, his colossal, vibrant otherness was stunning beyond words—I could scarcely think, let alone speak—and what most struck me as we walked on was how diminished humanity would be, emotionally and aesthetically, without him and his kin. Later that day we discovered the remains of another rhino, slaughtered for its horn by poachers.
It’s my good fortune to have spent many hours observing Longhorn cattle on a Texas ranch that’s also home to sixty-five species of amphibians and reptiles, thirty-five species of mammals, and upwards of one hundred species of birds. Columbus first brought cattle to a Caribbean island in 1493, and within a few years some of the Iberian stock, themselves descended from wild Aurochs, were shipped to Florida and Mexico. Now, following more than five hundred years of natural selection, the former, called Cracker Cattle, thrive on moist substrates and are resistant to tropical diseases; the latter gave rise to semi-arid-adapted Longhorns. Because they’ve evolutionarily diverged these truly are New World lineages, and they behave more like wild animals than other cattle I’ve watched. Longhorn cows spar with their namesake weaponry to maintain a pecking order and require no help calving; predators don’t take their offspring, unlike those of European breeds on neighboring ranches. The bull attends to herd dynamics, breaking up squabbles among the cows and chasing male calves that approach estrous females. During Texas’s worst drought in recent history, they ate cactus fruit and marched calves two miles uphill for scummy pond water—no wonder nineteenth century Kiowa viewed Longhorns as power symbols analogous to Bison—all of which bolsters my sense that the ranch’s aesthetic values are enhanced by these cattle’s wildness.
Longhorns (Bos taurus) on the Double Helix Ranch are descended from domesticated Iberian stock and thus from extinct wild Aurochs (B. primigenius). These magnificent mega-herbivores have been shaped by more than five hundred years of natural selection in a semi-arid North American landscape (Photo credits: H. Greene).
Re-conceptualizing the Wild, Rewilding Our Lives
I need to be emphatically clear on this point: to whatever extent biodiversity matters, especially with regard to large vertebrates, we should keep as much of nature as possible free from exploitation by super-consumptive modern humans. Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson has called for setting aside half of the Earth for this purpose, a laudable goal that we cannot possibly reach fast enough to get the job done, given the pace of population growth, over-consumption, and, most disturbingly, climate change. Related challenges include that any restoration benchmark—end-Pleistocene, 1492, or 2015—is increasingly irrelevant in a rapidly changing world, that many people are far too poor to regard conservation as a priority, and that even in prosperous cultures ever more folks have minimal outdoor experience, thus little firsthand basis for caring. For all of these reasons, I advocate diverse approaches to conservation, including re-conceptualizing a key set of words.
Countless pages have been written parsing the meaning of wilderness and wildness, encompassing postmodernist claims of Western cultural conceit to legal definitions of the Wilderness Act and eloquent declarations of inherent values. For brevity’s sake, I’ll assert that first-world nature-lovers typically emphasize two points: Wilderness is a landscape untrammeled by people, as expressed in “leave only footprints, take only pictures and memories,” and wild organisms are “self-willed,” rather than controlled by us. A couple of things bother me about this formulation, the less troublesome of which is that some of its associated literature carries a smug, elitist edge and risks veering into nonsense and hypocrisy. More important is the irony that even as we bemoan disjunction from nature—during the condor controversy, Friends of the Earth’s motto was “not man apart”—our reigning notions of wildness minimize human presence.
By situating us as spectators rather than participants, the untrammeled criterion for wilderness ignores that “ecology,” rather than synonymous with “loving nature,” signifies the influential, often multi-directional relationships among organisms, including us. By precluding a significant role for humans in the lives of other organisms, the no-control criterion for wild also plays into cultural denial that we are part of nature—packaging hides the reality that meat comes from animals, bears still shit in the woods but we shouldn’t, and so forth. Large and otherwise dangerous organisms, however, remind us that wild also might mean knowingly, even if only vicariously, participating in predator-prey relationships, nutrient cycling, and other ecosystem processes. Wild thus could imply being responsibly more part of nature rather than less, engaged in ecological relationships instead of just pondering them—seeing where food comes from and where waste goes, acknowledging, at least from the sidelines, a risk of our own demise from predation. In thereby inspiring us, the megafauna likewise point to tamer but still useful notions of wildness, applicable to places people use heavily. Surely a university campus on which Cottontails nest in the flowerbeds and Redtails pick off bunnies in front of students is wilder than one without those species.
Years ago tropical conservation ecologist Dan Janzen rightly characterized humans as “wildland gardeners” who henceforth, for better or worse, will manage the Earth. As a nature-lover I want to save as much classical wilderness as possible, but outward from those enclaves of minimal impact will be reduced wildness, including the organisms that enliven our backyards and urban centers—a blessing we also should celebrate. Between those two extremes, as a new study from Europe demonstrates, we might again co-exist with a partially restored megafauna.
How then, in that overall framework, can we rewild our individual lives? I believe we should do a lot less telling others what to value, a lot more showing them how and why nature matters to us, so in that spirit here are some examples from an admittedly privileged North American perspective. Take up hunting and fishing, buy Longhorn, Bison, or free-range beef—it’ll cost more, but eating less meat is good for nature. Grow fruits and vegetables, butcher your own holiday turkey. Do what it takes to accommodate a nearby Timber Rattlesnake den, savor that Cooper’s Hawk lurking by your birdfeeder. With money, votes, and tolerance, promote re-colonization by Pumas, Jaguars, Black Bears, and Grizzlies to regions where they’ve been extirpated. Plan for a green burial. In a global context these are small steps, but they might help push us toward a wilder Earth.
Most of all, contemplate life and mortality in the wildest places possible—opportunities for backpacking abound and encountering elephants at a low water crossing in Kruger, even from a rental car, might well change your outlook. Whenever and wherever you can, get out there with the mega-herbivores and natural born killers, then show friends and loved ones why you care about those animals. We’ve got a lot of tough decisions ahead of us.
African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) and a White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) in Kruger National Park, South Africa (Photo credits: H. Greene).