Cry, Wolf, Cry! - extinct animals
THE CROW is curious: when will we hear the last call of the wild?
I will never forget the day they shot the last Scandinavian wolf. Like most people, then or now, I had never seen a wolf in the wild. One person who had was Dag Hammarskjold; on rare occasions he would glimpse one of the elusive creatures during his solitary hikes through the Arctic wilderness, `to commune with his Creator and re-charge his batteries' -- a practice which benefited him later, in his capacity as secretary-general of the UN.
A recent news item reminded me of this event that took place over half a century ago: it appears that farmers in the state of Wyoming are unhappy about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, and want permission to shoot any animal who unwittingly leaves its protective territory. Last I heard, their request had not been granted.
But in the 1940s, while most European nations were embroiled in internecine warfare -- an activity unique to the human species -- the Swedish government decided to engage in some killing on its own. The targeted victim was canis lupus, paterfamilias of man's best friend and the most maligned of the species sharing this fragile planet with homo ereetus, its prime polluter and plunderer.
Since time immemorial the grey wolf had roamed freely over the vast land under cover of the primeval forest, and as late as the middle of the 19th century an occasional stray wolf could be sighted on the outskirts of the capital, when temperatures dropped to -30 [degrees] C -- a starving animal in search of a morsel from the scrap heaps of his arch enemy, Man.
But a century later the last remnant of the country's wolf population, along with the brown bear, the wolverine and the lynx, had taken refuge in the most remote regions of Lapland, a subarctic area that transcends the national borders of Finland, Norway and Sweden. From the Interior Department in Stockholm the edict went out: `Eradicate the last of the wolves!' The rationale was to protect the reindeer of the nomadic Laplanders from the forays of hungry carnivores, who had culled the weak and infirm animals from the herds during their annual migrations from the alluvial plains to the alpine highlands. The Laps enthusiastically endorsed this `final solution' -- a result, perhaps, of their over- exposure to Western civilisation and its skewed priorities, prompted by greed and blissful ignorance of the interdependence of all living creatures. Perhaps we are wiser today, when the pressing demands for human living space has crowded a legion of cohabitants off the face of the earth -- or confined them to zoos. Be that as it may: for the Scandinavian countries it is too late. The biological clock cannot be set back to suit our fancy or new-found wisdom.
The usefulness to humans of a species should not be the test by which we judge which other animals are worthy of co-existing with us on earth. It is time that we tempered our hubris with a dose of humility, and abandon the arrogance which says that man alone is created in the image of God, and that all other living things are subservient to our whims.
The elimination from the Swedish eco-system of wolves predictably resulted in a population explosion among their erstwhile prey, notably moose, some 60,000 of which are now `harvested' annually, in order to keep their numbers in check. While this may be a boon to hunters and housewives, the genetic implications for the ultimate survival of the species are less benign. For, whereas predatory animals prey principally on the sick and weak, man seeks out the finest specimens, such as an 18-pointer bull, whose cranium- cum-antlers, mounted on the wall, bears witness to nothing more than the hunter's ability to hit a large target with a high-powered rifle.
The systematic culling of the most magnificent specimens flies in the face of everything that Charles Darwin taught us; for survival of the fittest we have substituted survival of the misfits. It is a classic example of our Icarian conceit: the belief that with our resource-depleting technology we can improve on Nature. While it may take countless generations of moose for the effects of our unwitting genetic tinkering to manifest themselves, there is no doubt as to its ultimate negative impact on the natural breeding stock.
So, until we master the art of soaring like an eagle or surviving like a wolf in a hostile environment, we would be wise to leave the selective process of eugenics to Mother Nature. Perhaps it is time that we all learn how to eat Crow, and face up to the fact that nature is not all-forgiving, but a stern taskmaster, with whose laws we tamper at our peril.
POST SCRIPTUM: In recent years Sweden's wolf population has been partially restored, several individuals of genus lupus having sneaked across the border in flagrant violation of manmade immigration laws. But this is of greater concern to the bureaucrats than to the Lapps, who have abandoned their nomadic existence in favour of full-fledged membership in the welfare state.
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