Saturday, July 30, 2016
Book 54: What? No. I'm not getting choked up about a RHINO. Again: just dusty in here.
The Last Unicorn tells the story of an expedition to look for one of the rarest creatures on earth, the saola, an animal that Westerners only discovered in 1992, and which might now be near extinction. But it tells, too, the story of conservation and human development, and is the kind of look into just how things actually work that ought to be taught in science classes.
The saola was first noticed by westerners in 1992; it lives mostly in wet mountain regions in Laos and Vietnam, near an area where a massive dam was built, flooding much of the territory while providing electricity and modern amenities to the region. As part of a compromise in building the dam, some of the profits were to be used to set up a protected zone in which tigers, rhinos, muntjac, and even rarer animals, like the saola, would live. The protected zone was indeed established, but the trip detailed in this book shows how ineffective it is: the team looking for a saola finds several thousand snare traps made of cheap, common bike cable, sometimes as many as 200 in a row. Villagers, who 'earn' less in a year than teens in America spend in an hour, want roads and beer and electricity, and they can trade golden turtles for several thousand dollars. Rare woods in the area go for even more. So villagers either traffic in the protected zone, or they look the other way. Even one of the government agents on this trip ignores a smuggler who walks right by them carrying protected wood out of the zone.
The problems are many: people who live in the area don't value the saola, or other species, more than they value improvement. Governments often don't have the resources or cultural background to care about extinction. Cultures are different. And the area itself is vast and hard to patrol. Motivations to protect the saola and other creatures are weak and diffuse; motivations to profit from them are strong and immediate.
The details of the trip itself are vivid, describing the guides and others they meet, detailing Laotian culture and attitudes, and giving great amounts of detail on the wildlife and background for the animals discussed in the book. It's really a phenomenal book, one that kept me gripped in a way that nonfiction usually doesn't -- not least because I was dying to find out if they ever actually saw a saola. (I won't spoil it for you, in case you want to read the book.)
It's a book that made me think, a lot, about the world we live in. We in America take for granted that everyone should preserve the rainforests and not hunt animals to death and the like; but in The Last Unicorn the author points out that Romans, seeing Great Britain, would be stunned to learn that the great forests that used to be there are gone, and the 'habitat' that is being protected there is nothing like what was there 1500 or 2500 years ago.
Modern humans aren't the only people to blame for deforestation and extinction. Clovis North Americans likely hunted mastodons and other megafauna to extinction in North America thousands of years ago. Then, as now, we barely understand how we affect nature; that same article I just linked to points out that cottonwood tree populations shrunk in Yellowstone after wolves were removed from the area in the 1920s: the problem was that elk were no longer controlled, and elk feed on cottonwood. Simple travel alone helps spread invasive species that can forever upset an ecosystem, and sometimes the invasion is deliberate: fish farmers brought in Asian carp to keep their ponds clean, and they've now worked their way up to Illinois along the Mississippi. There's now a lawsuit pending with Michigan and Canada trying to close canals in Illinois to stop the carp from spreading into the Great Lakes.
People have a right to modernize; without fish farms we'd have less fish to eat, and without asian carp presumably that fish would've been more expensive. We have to balance the price of cheap nutritious food with the fact that we don't really understand how anything works, ever. And people in what we think of as the Third World are now being asked to forego the pleasures of modern life that we enjoy -- we have highways and fast food restaurants and high-speed internet and air conditioners -- so that their habitats can remain pristine.
There's a story in the book about a rhino skeleton they found in Laos. A project had been run to try to figure out how many rhinos still were on the mainland in that area, and they found piles of dung from rhinos all over the place using specially trained rhinos. (The way they track animals now includes cameras, dogs trained to find dung, and even using DNA extracts from leeches to determine what animals the leeches have fed on). They estimated that there were 40 or so rhinos in the area.
After the rhino skeleton was found, scientists located a bullet lodged in one leg bone, and hypothesized that someone had tried to poach it, but it had only been wounded and got away, eventually falling down a hill and suffocating. Sad enough, but sadder still: when they tested the rhino DNA against the 40-ish dung samples, they learned that every sample was from that one rhino. The last rhino in that area had died a sad lonely death at the bottom of a ravine.