Home » current events, nature, science

Twilight of the Giants

The Urban Whale

Scott D. Kraus, Rosalind M. Roland editors
Harvard University Press, 2007

Elephant Management: A Scientific Assessment for South Africa

RJ Scholes, KG Mennell editors
Wits University Press, 2008

Although its composer meant it in a mostly lighthearted way, Symphony No. 45, Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony,” has become a handy metaphor for the sorrow of any accumulating loss. In the final movement, one player after another performs a graceful little solo, extinguishes the candle on his music stand, and leaves the stage – the sound thins and thins until only a couple of instruments are left.

It’s a hokey but effective bit of stagecraft, which is perhaps why it’s been so readily adopted for the purposes of elegy, but at the dawn of the 21st century, we must amplify its terms to get the full effect. Imagine instead of instruments whole symphonies bidding their farewells – and not for an evening only, but for all time, never to be heard again. While the orchestra is still swelling happily, the works of Schumann, Mozart, and Haydn himself bow out; as the evening’s sounds attenuate, we begin to notice the defections – the trickling, rippling magic of Corelli’s works, and the majesty of Brahms, all going quiet. At last only a handful are left, and suddenly it dawns on the whole audience that these departures mean a permanent lessening. There’s alarm among the listeners, caught between marveling as always at Tchaikovsky’s jagged, catapulting “Pathetique” or Dvorak’s sunny, laughing “New World,” or the mindless power of the Mahler 10 and worrying about their disappearance. Finally only Beethoven’s 5th and 9th are left, and when they’re gone, there will be no more.

When it comes to very large indigenous species living on Earth, our new century is playing just such a Farewell Symphony. It’s the soft, incredibly sad background music behind every conservation movement large and small. Elephant Management from Wits University Press and The Urban Whale from Harvard University Press are two recent, painstakingly thorough, resolutely optimistic transcriptions of that background music, as alike in their spirit as they are in the inevitable conclusions they refuse to draw.

Elephant Management is a heavily technical scientific and ethnographic profile of the elephants who live in South Africa – their social structures, their interactions with humans, and the effects their interactions with humans have on their social structures. The editors, R. J. Scholes and K. G. Mennell, are both trained ecologists, and the long document they’ve created here was commissioned by South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in 2006 and is meant to be used by government agencies and private firms in South Africa (although as the report itself stresses, it “does not constitute policy at any level”) – this is not natural history so much as it is the raw documentary scaffolding on which natural history is later built, and it opens with three central observations about the once-vast populations of loxodonta africanus that used to fill Africa’s savannahs and woodlands:

The first is that elephants are the iconic and most charismatic mammals of Africa – indeed, its very symbol. In a continent renowned for its megafauna and wealth of raw materials, elephants and their ivory hold premier positions. The second observation is that elephants were once very widely distributed on the African continent, occurring wherever there was suitable habitat, while the third is that where large settled concentrations of humans occur, one will find either no elephants or very few.

The unspokens here are deafening, from the leaden allusion to ivory to the hint of the massacres in the late 18th and 19th centuries that drove the African elephant nearly to extinction to the understated but undeniable reality that ‘large settled concentrations of humans’ have been steadily growing in number and size for the past 25 years in most of Africa, most certainly including South Africa. These central observations, like the bulk of Elephant Management, put as diplomatic a face as possible on some very bad news: the press of 21st century humanity (7 billion humans and rising) is fundamentally inimical to the existence of wild African elephants (ironically, the elephants may have helped in their own demise, since their massive thicket-clearing and woodland-thinning probably helped to eliminate the sleeping sickness-bearing tse tse fly from the region).

The inevitable conflict between wide-scale human farming and wandering herbivorous megafauna is certainly mitigated here and there by what passes for good news, and Elephant Management reports every last bit of such good news it can get its hands on. Elephant populations have of course risen dramatically in protected areas; poaching has all but disappeared in South Africa’s better-managed and better-patrolled parks; and it’s been proven that because of their dramatic size, elephants are often over-blamed by farmers for crop damage that is in fact done by insects, birds, rodents, bushpigs, or the farmer’s own livestock (the government financially compensates for crop-loss, and the figure is higher for elephants). And there is mounting evidence that state-of-the-art electric fencing, while doing the elephants no lasting harm, is effective in keeping them out of farmlands.

And Elephant Management, having something of a forum, bravely offers a further element in the equation – an element that perhaps conservative African politicians don’t want to hear, but which is nevertheless common knowledge to anyone who’s ever dealt with elephants. The element is that elephants are of course sentient beings with as much right to be here as humans, although the report is as always cautious in its wording:

The level of self-awareness and empathy exhibited by elephants suggests that they might be considered to have a limited form of a ‘right to privacy,’ in other words, they should be harassed as little as possible. Knowingly causing unnecessary suffering to any sentient organism is unacceptable and forbidden by law. In elephants, there is reasonable cause to suggest that suffering includes emotional stress, for instance trough fear based on past experience, or through witnessing harm to other elephants, especially those in the same family group.

Talking about emotional stress in animals that are capable of wiping out whole acres of cultivated cropland in one afternoon – talking about it to the government representatives of the farmers who stand to lose those crops – is a whole new world from the slim and functional ‘management techniques’ that applied in South Africa even thirty years ago, when whole herds would be indiscriminately culled of their adults (and the screaming calves chased down, crated up, and sold to zoos in Europe and the United States). Here, Scholes, Mennell, and their teams are emboldened to talk about elephant rights:

A first possible right builds on the idea that humans should not lightly kill elephants: ‘No human may kill an elephant unless in self-defence, or when an independent panel of appropriate experts find compelling reasons to do so.’ The biggest harm we can do to elephants is to kill them. We thus first of all owe elephants the security of their lives that we cannot take away without good reason. Elephants … make decisions and experience a wide range of emotions. They have consciousness like us and are deeply aware of death. They thus deserve similar protection of their lives to that which humans get.

As encouraging as such sentiments are (even so carefully phrased – meant to shock no one, to astound no one, and so to offend no one), however, they are dutifully concerned only with first principles. If we don’t safeguard the elephants’ actual lives first, such reasoning goes, all other worries become meaningless. It remains for those who’ve known wild elephants for many years to say whether there is, in fact, a bigger harm humans can do to elephants than killing them. As farming becomes more wide-scale and more industrialized in Africa, as elephants become increasingly penned in to parks and game preserves (even now, life expectancy drops precipitously for animals that leave such preserves), will they cease to be elephants in the sense the millennia have known? Are we ready for the sight of elephant herds standing around waiting for a grain-truck to show up, as American caribou do today?

Elephant Management faces the central problem of an essentially intractable conflict between wide-roaming elephants and wide-settling humans, and it marshals numbers and plans for an elephant population that has shown vitality and resilience when protected. How much worse the situation faced by Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland in their comprehensive and quietly compelling 2007 study The Urban Whale! There, the subject – the North Atlantic right whale (eubalaena glacialis) is eight or nine times the size of an African elephant and covers a home-territory that stretches from Florida to Norway, along some of the most heavily-trafficked sea-lanes in the world, and in the open ocean where there’s no possibility of parks or preserves.

Worse the situation, and far, far worse the numbers. There are perhaps 200 North Atlantic right whales left in the world – perhaps as few as two or three distinct matrilineal lines, and despite the fact that relative to their body weight and length, males are the best-endowed whales in the world and among the best-endowed mammals (and despite the incredible all-day bacchanals that happen during the females’ mating window – bacchanals that have to be seen to be believed and are exhausting even for human spectators), there is evidence to suggest this has never been a reproductively robust species. The young gestate for 12 months and are totally dependent on their mothers for years (as in the case of elephants – and humans).

Female right whales give birth to a single calf, sometime between December and March, off the coast of the southeastern United States. Mothers and calves migrate north in the spring to Great South Channel and Cape Cod Bay, then move on to Roseway Basin and the Bay of Fundy. They feed on zooplankton at the surface, where they’re easily identified (they’re a very broad whale, and one of the few without dorsal fins) – indeed, that ease of identification almost led to their complete eradication. Humans have been hunting North Atlantic right whales since at least the 16th century, and the animals were given their designation of ‘right’ by 19th century whalers who noticed that a) the animals give large yields of baleen and oil, b) they’re slow swimmers, and c) they float after death. By the beginning of the 20th century, there may have been as few as fifty animals left.

Bans on commercial whaling in the last 80 years have helped the species to inch back from the brink, but in inching them back any further, scientists like Kraus and Rolland face both a discouragingly large number of environmental threats to the whales and a weirdly sketchy amount of information about the animals themselves.

We don’t know how many North Atlantic right whales there are; we don’t know what they do all day and all night; we don’t know where the males spend 90 percent of their time, nor do we know any of the species’ mating areas; we don’t even know how long they might live if humans weren’t constantly killing them early – a hundred years? Two hundred? We know what they look like – not only as a species but as individuals, thanks to the highly-visible callosities that form around their heads in individually unique patterns (these are not barnacles, though they resemble them – no barnacles have ever been found on a North Atlantic right whale). And we know that whatever collective memory of trauma they might retain from whaling days, many individual right whales are openly curious about the humans studying them, often approaching research vessels and staying for a while to watch what they do.

As mysterious as many of the details of right whale lives may be, the details of their deaths are all too well known: environmental pollution (the North Atlantic is one of the world’s most urbanized oceans, with some of the largest amounts of agricultural and industrial runoff in the world), ship collisions, and most harrowing of all, line entanglements:

50 percent of all confirmed right whale deaths are due to clearly identifiable anthropogenic sources. In the case of shipping collisions, most right whale habitats are also home to major shipping lanes serving ports of eastern North Amercia. In the case of fishing, 75 percent of all right whales display scars indicative of entanglements at some time in their lives.

The authors put forward some whale-friendly alternatives to the kind of indiscriminate line-netting that results in such horrific damage and lingering death, but again, two intractable obstacles get in the way: fences will not work on whales, and the human world hungers for undiminished amounts of cheap seafood. Industries along the eastern seacoast of the North American continent are better-regulated than they were thirty years ago, but the implementations of those regulations changes with every White House administration, and shipping and line-netting continue unabated, with scientists in boats racing to cut entangled animals free while the footage plays out in television.

“Human decisions over the next few decades,” Kraus and Rolland write, “will determine the survival or extinction of this species.” Human inertia too, will play a large part, and even the most optimistic observer, watching the desperate measures being taken to save a few thousand South African elephants or a few hundred North Atlantic right whales (and trying not to think about the hosts of smaller, less charismatic species that are being driven to extinction by human expansion everywhere else in the world), can’t help but wonder if these efforts aren’t coming too late, in the face of a mounting human tide that’s simply too great to accommodate any animals that are not hidden niche-exploiters, or parasites of mankind. All praise to the players for the dogged optimism with which they guard their individual candle-flames, but those of us in the audience are forced to wonder if we aren’t seated for a century of farewell symphonies.

____
Tucker “Tuc” MacFarland is an avid whale enthusiast and retired tour boat captain in the Florida Keys. He currently lives north of Seattle.