It’s not just Cecil: Say goodbye to ALL the wild animals

August 24, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Here’s a question: Can you name a single species of wild creature that’s flourishing on earth right now? Doing better than ever? In balance, in harmony with its ecosystem and therefore not being hunted, fished, poached or climate changed to extinction?

Maybe some bats. Certain desert iguanas. Wolf spiders. Argentinian wild turkeys. Certainly a few healthy animals exist here and there, mostly species we haven’t yet figured out how to eat, wear or turn into handbags and mostly existing in places as yet unaffected by our rapacious addiction to growth and profit.

You could argue that some species are, in fact, exploding in population, even in the extreme – though that’s largely due to climate change killing off their natural predators, or ocean waters warming just enough to induce mega-hatches, or some kind of bizarre weather pattern triggering a temporary surge here or a strange outbreak there.

But the success stories are, as you might expect, increasingly rare. The trend is very much in the other direction: By every measure we have, the planet’s overall stock of wildlife is down.

Poaching, hunting, habitat destruction, climate change. That's what's wiped out the animals. And we're not, apparently, done yet.

Poaching, hunting, habitat destruction, climate change. That’s what’s wiped out the animals. And we’re not, apparently, done yet.

Way down. Shockingly down.

How far down? According to the WWF, it turns out we’ve successfully wiped out half the planet’s wildlife, most of it in just the last four decades.

This is – do I even need to say it? – a simply astonishing number. Incomprehensible. Unconscionable. Fact is, there are so many species being hunted, fished or environmentally destabilized into nonexistence, and so quickly, science can barely keep track. If it wasn’t for the occasional new species being discovered in the deepest ocean trench or most remote corner of the rainforest, we’d have no signs of hope at all.

While the numb-hearted slaughter of Cecil the lion by yet another wealthy, entitled white male triggered a flood of intense reactions, from smartly intriguing to dumbly thuggish, regarding our treatment of the animal kingdom, this one rings harshest of all: we’re quickly killing off all the wild animals in the world, and there’s no end in sight.

That means exotic lions and wild elephants, but also sharks and salmon, salamander and sandpiper, tuna and gorillas, snakes and frogs, tigers and panda, rodents and butterflies, fauna with names you can barely pronounce and birds of a thousand varieties. The list is staggering and getting longer by the day.

Have you noticed the vast decrease in wild birdsong your neighborhood trees in the morning lo these past decades? Fewer and fewer songbirds chirping away? You might not: the roar of modern life easily drowns out the rhythms of nature. But it’s happening, on a vast and terrible scale. Birds are vanishing by the tens, if not hundreds of millions, and the culprits are everywhere: Habitat loss. Climate change. Thoughtless slaughter. Wind turbines. Too many cats.

It’s difficult to comprehend that, if you were alive in 1975 – or even 1995 – the world was teeming with billions more wild creatures – songbirds very much included – as there are now. It was, in every way, a far more wild and diverse place.

But that statistic feels too broad: it’s more accurate to say, for example, that there were 90% more wild tuna. That the oceans were (relatively) teeming with cod, toothfish (AKA Chilean sea bass), orange roughy, stocks that have now almost completely collapsed. It’s more devastating to zero in on a specific creature and note how numbly, and how efficiently, we’ve wiped it out. Problem is, there are just so many.

Soon, this will be the only way to experience wild animals.

Soon, this will be the only way to experience wild animals.

Humans have become supreme – and supremely apathetic – hunters. We now have the technology to catch every last fish in the sea. It would take but a handful of years to slaughter every last lion, elephant, dolphin, gorilla in existence. Stocks of nearly all the oceans’ large fish have collapsed. A few are starting to recover, thanks to the effort of a handful of nations – but overall, bleakness reigns.

One of our favorite creatures to push to the brink of extinction, then pull back. Then push again.

How to hold it all? Is there any way to spin a positive view out of our relentless takedown of the animal kingdom – not to mention the billions of creatures raised and slaughtered via the horrors of industrial farming? More importantly: Is it possible to see this vast destruction as somehow not directly tied to our own, or to a sixth mass extinction? After all, to wipe out the wild animals is, quite simply, to annihilate ourselves.

If there is a way, I haven’t found it yet. All we have are glimmers of hope, a handful of creatures recued from the brink of extinction; a grey wolf here, a big cat or two there, an eagle, a songbird. It might make more sense to do what Jonathan Franzen suggests in his heartbreaking 2013 NatGeo piece on global songbird slaughter, and zero in on a broad species with which you have a real relationship, and make incremental improvements whenever and wherever you can.

Could help. Unless the world’s governments take far more dramatic action, it might be the only real option. Otherwise, all that outrage over Cecil the lion feels like nothing so much as the outrage over yet another gun massacre in America – full of horror and sadness, instantly swallowed up/shouted down by various groups and corporations far too entrenched in their own gruesome, profitable ideology to care.

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Mark Morford

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