June 15, 2016
The response to the shooting death of Harambe, a 17-year-old endangered Western lowland silverback male gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, has been highly charged and emotional. The shooting has provoked perhaps as much outrage as the killing last year of Cecil the Lion by a Minnesota dentist-cum-trophy hunter.
Thus far, it seems the online public has judged this, at its core, a parenting failure, which then led to the loss of a majestic and rare gorilla, with real questions on the use of lethal force. The killing has raised the discussion level on zoos versus sanctuaries, the right of zoos to exist at all, animal rights, wildlife extinctions, values, personal responsibility and our egocentric, anthropocentric worldview.
We continue to portray so many animals in the Wild Kingdom as powerful, frightening and invincible – the lion is the King of the Jungle; the gorilla is “an animal that with one hand can take a coconut and crush it,” said the Cincinnati Zoo director, defending the organization’s killing of Harambe. And indeed, as Amanda O’Donoughue, a former zookeeper, wrote in a post following the shooting, “a 400+ pound male in his prime is as strong as roughly 10 adult humans.”
But the reality is that every one of these wild animals – from large fur-bearing predators, gentle long-necked giants and sleek spotted speedsters to small, scaled mammals and behemoths that look prehistoric – now lives an incredibly fragile existence, even in a zoo where we assume they are protected. That’s because of one animal who has become the dominant player on Earth, Homo sapiens, population more than 7.4 billion and counting – likely headed to 9.7 billion by 2050.
As I write this and check the online world population clock for a current number, the meter for human births is clicking upwards so rapidly I can’t write the full six-digit number fast enough – it’s somewhere upwards of more than 367,000 births, and that’s just for one day. Mother Earth this year will need to accommodate another 80 million people.
Too many of us fail to comprehend numbers (math) and facts – think U.S. national debt, federal deficit and the infamous “deficits don’t matter” of Dick Cheney. So it’s probably not that surprising that the reality of too many people (an overpopulated world) and a concomitant decline in wild things continues to not register with so many. Online I was mocked for stating that worldwide there’s been a 50 percent decline in wildlife in just 40 years. Again, pesky numbers and facts, but well-documented by WWF’s Living Planet Index and in Elizabeth Kolbert’s extensively researched book, “The Sixth Extinction,” that one reviewer described as “the biggest story on Earth” – the greatest loss of biodiversity since the dinosaurs.
But numbers, facts and science are tools to help guide us to the right path, to choose wisely for a sustainable world for future generations, and the numbers are very clear about man’s impact on everything else. Environmental degradation and loss of habitat to human use (urban development, energy production and agriculture) are dominant threats to all wildlife. We’ve moved from a world filled with wild things and few people to a world dominated by Man, domesticated animals raised for food and, if you were to see this in graph format, a tiny sliver for wild animals. This dramatic shift has happened in rather short order.
If numbers still don’t resonate for people, though, a seemingly unending flow of horrifying stories and images of the barbaric treatment of our wildlife should. Sentient life is being poached for their fur and body parts to serve subscribers of magical thinking. Many animals threatened with extinction are “hunted,” so someone can mount a head to a wall for décor and claim some sort of expertise, skill or level of manliness (and, I use that term for not just men, as, increasingly, women and children join the killing ranks).
If that’s still too conceptual for anyone who doesn’t believe there’s a wildlife genocide, Google “Yulin Dog Meat Festival, China” to read how dogs (often stolen pets) end up beaten, boiled alive and eaten not only at an “annual event,” but by the tens of thousands throughout the year. Or Google “orangutan, palm oil, Borneo and Malaysia” to learn how the drive to develop more and more palm oil plantations is destroying orangutan habitat, with animals sometimes burned alive. Sheer barbarism inflicted upon living beings in the 21st century.
Which brings us back to Harambe. His story, and Cecil’s last year, are against the backdrop of all this decimation that is being inflicted upon our wild world. So their stories are flashpoints for the many who do see what is happening, are angry and want positive change – a sustainable world that provides a good quality of life for all living things. Can anger drive positive change? Of course. In the U.S., we have a long history of individuals making personal choices that collectively can impact policies, economics and belief systems.
If we want to have a world with wildlife that can thrive, we must choose to be significantly better stewards of Earth. Our species needs to choose small family size, or choose not to reproduce, and we need to instill high values for all life in teaching our children. And right now, we need to do much more to save, rebuild and connect wildlife habitat, and protect the biodiversity living there.
Maria Fotopoulos writes about the population-environment connection and is a Senior Writing Fellow with Californians for Population Stabilization.