The age of man and its impact on wildlife

The age of man and its impact on wildlife

I saw the warthog collapse through the scope of my rifle, and did not quite know what to feel. Later, when we found the hirsute hulk in the grass, I could not deny a sense of achievement at my well-placed shots, amid relief that it did not suffer much.

I began my safari in South Africa's Eastern Cape thinking that I would shoot animals with a camera, not a gun. But I was travelling with hunters, who willingly coached me in the basics of stalking an animal and target shooting. That was how I somehow ended up wedging a handful of grass in the mouth of a still warthog - to symbolise his last meal - and thanking him for giving his life for us.

For a while now, I've hesitated to share how exhilarating that taste of hunting was, because even when I was creeping forward softly in the bush, there was a niggling voice at the back of my head asking if it was right.

Only at the split second when the muzzle was aligned with the alleged position of the warthog's heart did I know I was going to pull the trigger.

I have been accused of animal cruelty once or twice, but here's the irony: Just by living our lives the way we do, by driving our cars, shampooing our hair and lugging plastic bags of groceries from the supermarket, human beings have killed more animals than we would like to believe.

To be precise, that's 52 per cent of 10,380 wildlife populations that have been assessed since 1970, according to a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) index published last month.

This report raised no outcry that I know of, unlike a story last month of a man in Hong Kong who gave his puppy a bath by churning it in a washing machine.

Besides the fact that abstract figures don't grab our attention, I suppose it is not surprising news that our planet is groaning under the weight of 7.1 billion people. And I think many people, like me, often avoid thinking about this. It's not just an inconvenient truth, but also an extremely uncomfortable one.

According to the WWF's Living Planet Report this year, out of nine processes that regulate the stability of our planet, we have zoomed past the danger zone in three: climate change, nitrogen pollution and biodiversity loss.

We are near the tipping point in ocean acidification, with seawater about 30 per cent more acidic than it was in the pre-industrial age. Our ecological footprint is such that it would take 1.5 earths to support our current lifestyles.

But once in a while, there are stories that help us link our everyday actions to the natural environment.

A stunning image of walruses marooned on land made the news recently. These tusked pinnipeds (fin-footed mammals) have been gathering in larger numbers on Alaskan beaches because climate change has melted the Arctic ice many of them rest on.

They are protected from hunting, except by Native Americans, but they are not safe from our car emissions.

Since the late 1970s, the ice has retreated by 12 per cent a decade, and it got worse after 2007, according to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This is bad not only for walruses, but also for us.

Melting ice amplifies the effect of global warming, because sea ice helps to reflect the sun's rays and cool the planet. Also, much carbon dioxide is trapped in permafrost in the Arctic, which will add fuel to the fire, so to speak, when released.

Meanwhile, for reasons unknown, Antarctic ice is expanding, but the overall trend is of sea ice loss.

Here's another story, closer to home. Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered because their habitats are rapidly being converted into oil palm plantations.

Why do we need so much palm oil? Because it is cheap and durable and therefore in almost everything we use, from shampoo to lipstick to packaged food.

Animals in the forests are sometimes burned to death in the same fires that are used to clear the land and which contribute to the haze we are breathing in now.

The fires are hard to put out because many of them are set on peat bogs, which are natural fuel, and carbon sinks. And guess what, the burning peat releases even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The warthog, meanwhile, would most likely have been leading a life much like its father, grazing for grass and digging for roots, until it met its end at my hands. The only difference is that he might have encountered a fence once in a while.

Hunters and tourists pay to make sure that hectares and hectares of land that might otherwise be given to plantations or factories are profitable hunting lodges or safari resorts. There are rules about which animals can be hunted, and each has to be accounted for.

But I'm not here to defend hunting. I would never hunt something I cannot eat, and hunting a rhino or a lion just feels wrong, but there are people who do (and you can still do so legally).

Meanwhile, poaching is now the largest threat facing some species. Animal activists like to conveniently lump different types of hunting and poaching together, but they do not have the same impact on the environment.

Conversely, there are products out there made with sustainable palm oil, with no orangutans or rainforests harmed in the process.

The problem is that there is no black and white - only a long chain of grey that obfuscates the impact of our actions, especially as we retreat ever deeper into our man- made environments. After all, there is only so much time one can spare to pore over labels at the supermarket.

Another story that went viral this year, but a more benign one, is that of wolves at Yellowstone. Humans re-introduced the predators into the park and saved some beavers.

The online video How Wolves Change Rivers, which has almost 11 million views by now, details the long chain of reactions that ensued when the wolves returned.

In short, by changing the behaviour of the elk in the park and killing some of them, the wolves allowed vegetation and trees to regenerate, and gave other species, including beavers, bears and birds, breathing space. They even modified the paths of rivers by curbing erosion.

After the video became popular, some scientists pointed out that it has oversimplified and overstated the effects of the wolves, but the trophic cascade that was described is an indisputable phenomenon. Predators play an important part in regulating their environment, and have outsized effects.

It's clear that we, as the uber- predator, have enormous impact on our environment. Most other species, their habitats and their survival are shaped by us, which is why geologists are dubbing our era the Anthropocene, or the age of man. We need to know how our actions cascade, because whether we like it or not, our fingers are on the trigger.

This article was first published on Oct 19, 2014.
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