The idiot at the bottom of the hill below my house who poisons squirrels isn’t very sophisticated, but unfortunately, help is on the way for him. New genetic studies are unleveling the playing field and the wilderness — in Africa at least — is set to suffer.
Not everyone longs for a vacant plain on the Serengeti over which to spread their soul. There’s a lot of people who truly believe the human mind is the only center of value, and that it’s more or less self-contained, immune to its surroundings or at least protected from them, depending upon how smart it is.
So you don’t need towering mountains or raging rivers, or awesome polar bears or freakish spring hares to help you work out the meaning of life. All you need is Proust. That’s the epitome of the self-centered human.
And then there’s the Obama Mediator Ecologist (OME), trying futilely to bring diametrically opposing sides together by organizing weekend committees to pull out mustard grass from forest preserves. This is, of course, the ultimate exercise in wasted time, but it fools participants into thinking they don’t have to choose sides.
But the sides are impermeable to one another, no matter how many fools are temporarily dissuaded. It’s not possible to intervene in the wild “a little bit.” You either put a ten-foot, electrified brick wall around the forest preserve and inventory every microbe in the ground, or you let it run wild.
Since putting a ten-foot, electrified brick wall around the forest preserve and managing every microbe therein has been until now completely impractical, the wild has persisted. But scientists on the self-centered human mind team have a new strategy terrifying to the wilderness.
I wasn’t so upset with genetic engineering until the announcement last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) about the discovery of the gene in domestic African cattle which if activated will give it the same protection from the tse-tse fly that wild animals have naturally.
This will be a devastating blow to a number of wildernesses, including the Mara, the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. Let me explain.
Virtually all of Africa’s remaining great wildernesses are surrounded by farms and many of them by cattle farms. But domestic cattle (at least until now) can be killed by the tse-tse fly which carries bovine trypanosomiasis or “sleeping sickness.” Wild animals are immune.
So while visitors to the national parks will find funny shining blue or black pieces of plastic flapping off trees near their lodging killing tse-tse helter-skelter, wildlife officials actually nurture tse-tse in other areas of the park. Why nurture this gruesomely annoying little pest? Because it’s the best way to patrol the park to keep out domestic stock.
Domestic stock eat an enormously greater amount of vegetation than their wild counterparts, and if allowed run of the wild would essentially starve the naturally wild animals out of the parks.
Tse-tse are easily eradicated, and human sleeping sickness (which is different from bovine sleeping sickness) has been mostly eradicated throughout much of Africa. Despite its awesome proboscis, the tse-tse is one of the dumbest creatures on earth. Flap some brightly colored cloth in the air and it dives into it proboscis deployed.
Spray the brightly colored cloth with pesticide and it becomes the ultimate insect kamikaze. No need for mechanical spraying strategies or search-and-destroy techniques, just advertise, “Come kill yourself! Come kill yourself!” and the tse-tse dumbly complies.
But wildlife officials have carefully not eradicated all the tse-tse. And this, in part, has kept domestic stock outside wildlife parks.
But now, the PNAS scientists have identified the gene that wild animals use to become immune to tse-tse’s package of death. And they’ve identified it currently suppressed in the greater domestic cattle community throughout Africa and are engineering ways to manifest it throughout the industry as a whole.
I’m sure the intentions of the scientists were pure. They were motivated, the report says, by a $5 billion annual loss in cattle production to bovine sleeping sickness.
And as I always remind myself, why should farmers be given any less assistance than the wild? The great wildlife fence in Botswana, which decimated the wildebeest population in the 1980s, did its trick: it protected and helped increase beef farming so important to Botswana’s economy.
So I don’t really know what SHOULD be done. I only know what IS being done, and it seems a relentless effort to assist mankind necessarily at the expense of the great wild.