Wildlife Game Over?

The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was adopted on 3 March 1973. The date has been designated as World Wildlife Day to raise awareness about the importance of wild fauna and flora not only for their economic value but also for their ecological, cultural and recreational qualities as well as for their intrinsic value. World Wildlife Day is celebrated in Cairo at the Greater Cairo Library in Zamalek.

CITES regulates the trade of more than 35 000 species of animals and plants, whether traded as live specimens, such as monkeys, or products such as fur coats or mahogany wood. Its role is to ensure that international trade does not threaten species’ survival. There are presently 180 member countries to the Convention, which was signed by Egypt in 1978.

As the global population has grown both in wealth and numbers, so has the demand for wildlife. The most important categories of wildlife traded both in volume and value are timber and seafood. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than $100 billion worth of fish and nearly $200 billion worth of timber were traded in 2009. Meanwhile wildlife traffic generates an estimated US $20 to US $40 billion a year ranking close to the top of the list of the most lucrative global illegal activities behind drugs and arms.  Its effects are disastrous as it wrecks conservation efforts.

Other than fish and timber, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) whose mandate is the care and protection of wildlife populations as well as individual animals gives a snapshot of wildlife trade through a six-week survey carried out in 2014 on 280 online marketplaces in 16 countries. Researchers found around 33 000 advertisements for wildlife and wildlife parts and products for species protected under CITES. The top category was ivory followed by reptiles and birds.

In the 42 years between the adoption of CITES and today, the world has witnessed a decline of 52% in wildlife. The causes are summarized by the acronym HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population increase and overharvesting by hunting and fishing, and last but not least climate change, a form of habitat destruction. Many scientists are now describing this accelerating drop in biodiversity as the sixth mass extinction.

Extinction is a natural phenomenon as life forms adapt or not to changing conditions on Earth. For instance Wadi al-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales, in the Fayoum was under the sea level 35 to 40 million years ago as the fossil remains of a now extinct whale ancestor, the basilosaurus, testify.

Palaeontologists agree that there have been five mass extinctions over the 3.6 billion year history of life on Earth. The last one put an end to the reign of the dinosaurs. Whereas a meteorite likely caused the dinosaur extinction, it is humankind’s activities that are clearly provoking the sixth great extinction.

As those who enjoy watching wildlife documentaries know, humans are not unique in destroying the lives of other beings to feed themselves and thrive. The difference lies in the speed and scale at which increasingly powerful and invasive technologies interfere with the Earth’s ecosystems. One concern today is that this may backfire on humanity.

Although the drift away from nature started with ancient civilisations, the mainstream contemporary attitude toward nature arose in 16th and 17th century Europe with the Enlightenment. This movement fostered individual freedom, scientific curiosity and technical development. Scientific discoveries opened the door to new technologies and large-scale industries.

Some 17th century thinkers like Thomas Hobbes developed a mechanistic view of nature, and René Descartes compared animals to automatons or even clocks. Their ideas have spread to the whole world and underlie today’s general lack of sympathy for wildlife and other non-human life forms.

However contemporary science is revealing how wrong Descartes and Hobbes were in reducing nature to the level of simple human artefacts. In the field of ethology, for example, research is blurring the frontier between the minds and emotions of animals and ours. This new knowledge should lead to a more reverential attitude toward all life forms, beyond humankind.

This issue was already brought up in the 10th century, in the tale The Case of the Animals against Man before the King of the Jinn, written collectively by the “Brethren of Purity” who lived in Basra, Iraq. In this story, the animals complain about the cruelty of humans and the way they misuse their superiority. Humans, they claim, are the only creatures that do not assume their proper role nor stay in their proper place.

In his introduction to a new rendering of the story, philosopher Seyyed Hussein Nasr asks us to reflect on what our role vis-à-vis the rest of creation is at a time when we have adopted lifestyles that are totally out of harmony with nature and based on a complete disregard for other life forms.

Surprisingly, reconnecting with nature is possible even without leaving Cairo whose sky, buildings and tree-lined streets have been adopted as a habitat by a number of wildlife species. Among the most familiar are the House Sparrow, the Hooded Crow and the Cattle Egret, as well as the much-maligned Gecko.

Activities out in the field are proposed by Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) and the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), the two major NGOs dealing with the preservation of nature in Egypt.

Books on Egyptian wildlife include Sherif Baha ElDin’s Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt and Common Birds of Egypt (with Bertell Bruun); Richard Hoath’s Mammals of Egypt, Francis Gilbert and Samy Zalat’s Butterflies of Egypt; and Loutfy Boulos’s Weed Flora of Egypt. Information on Egypt’s biodiversity and protected areas is also available at the EEAA.

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