Thursday 22 July 2010

Unnatural selection

I see there's another proposal being made to reintroduce thousands of wolves to places like New England, California, the Great Plains and the desert West. Having walked through the woods in the first two places, it was enough for me to cope with the possibility of bears, without having to listen out for a pack of wolves creeping up on me. Biologists, though, march to the beat of a different drum - and you mess with them at your peril:


Have you heard Darwin’s joke about evolution? No, me neither. Outside the border of a Gary Larson cartoon, scientists are not much associated with humour, which is why my name has become a dirty word among conservationists.

It’s rather surprising, that I, who keep chickens and a worm farm and whose compost heap is a miracle of organic recycling should find myself pilloried by such an august institution as the NZ National Parks and Conservation Foundation; and all because I once frivolously suggested that as our native birds are as a rule both tone-deaf and drab, it would make the dawn chorus a much jollier affair if we allowed English robins to join in. Hooray for the tuneful songs of the blackbirds and thrushes, I cheered, and boo to the boring tui and grey warbler. Let’s have gaudy flights of multi-coloured budgies, I fantasised, and jewelled hummingbirds hovering in the kowhai.
Unfortunately for me, there was a brace of humourless British biological scientists visiting at the time, who took great exception to my admiration for blackbirds and other jack-booting exotics, and denounced as silly and irresponsible my proposal for free entry to New Zealand for all colourful birds who can hold a tune. Their intelligent, informed and, ultimately, dull and predictable argument with what was simply a flight of fancy is just what you would expect from such earnest, blinkered types. In their ideal world, there would be no give-and-take between countries of either flora or fauna, and each would remain biologically pure, distinct and unique.

This is dangerous ground, I think, trodden most notoriously by Adolf Hitler – and the fact that my computer’s spell-check has just refused to recognise his first name is a fair indication of the regard in which he is held these days. Because if immigration and miscegenation in the plant and animal worlds are rigorously banned, wouldn’t that encourage the view that human populations should be equally pure?
It’s a matter of where you draw the line – and, equally importantly, when. The scientists trotted out the argument that tourists come here to enjoy New Zealand’s beautiful and uncontaminated environment. Tourists come also, however, to experience and appreciate the Maori culture. Maori got here about 850 years before the blackbird: so, if you’ll pardon the pun, is it simply a race, to qualify as a native? Or do the scientists think New Zealand would be richer, if the people had stayed away and left the moa, huia and other now-extinct species to thrive unmolested?

And what if they allowed people to come in, but not sheep and cattle, which are responsible for the loss of vast tracts of native habitat: where would our economy be then? Or are farm animals okay, but not the cats and dogs which enhance and aid the lives of their owners? There are certainly some hard-line biologists who raise their heads above the parapet with that argument from time to time, but the fact that they have got no further shows how out-of-touch they are with the real world.

We all know about scientists and their jars of formaldehyde and trays of pinioned insects: but you can’t enclose an entire country in a glass case. Change will occur, both naturally and through outside agents, some of it good and some of it regrettable. That’s life, by definition. There are good reasons for arguing that trying to preserve creatures like the kakapo, whose finickingly fussy way of life seems designed to bring about its own extinction, is flying in the face of nature. Some of these animals – and no-one is sorrier about this than I am – are just born losers. Natural selection is, after all, a continuing process.
Unnatural selection, on the other hand, is apparently all right if it is scientists, rather than mere columnists, doing the selecting. Americans, as we know, think big; and a report in the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature dwarfs my modest robin joke. Some biologists from Cornell University are seriously proposing the introduction of elephants and lions into the Great Plains of the United States in an attempt both to give these animals a better shot at survival than they currently have in their native African habitats, and to restore to America modern descendants of animals that were wiped out there more than 10,000 years ago. Someone in Britain is also lobbying to reintroduce bears and wolves into the Scottish Highlands.

Well, pardon me for not grasping the big picture here, but if I were a cattle rancher in Montana, or a Scottish crofter with a valued flock of sheep, I don’t think I would welcome a whole new level of predators in my environment. And I would worry that there could be a trend developing. What’s next: Jurassic Park?

[Pub. Waikato Times 27/8/05]
Not the face of a hard-hearted survival-of-the-fittest zealot, honest - no-one would be happier than me to get to Mauritius next week and find the place still swarming with dim-but-friendly dodos.

1 comment:

Daybeat said...

Australia is even worse for bird song than NZ. Sure the birds look great and are often magnificent but the sounds are mostly squawks and screeches (have you heard a bunch of cockatoos, for example). It is a relief to go somewhere where the are a variety of song birds.


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