I’ve been watching Sir David Attenborough’s magnificent Our Planet series on Netflix, despite the pain it exacts as I witness the devastating plight of wildlife to survive in the context of climate change, largely the result of human exploitation and ubiquitous indifference.
In the third episode exploring jungle habitat, Attenborough takes us to the Democratic Republic of Congo and its endangered Silverback gorillas, so strikingly like ourselves. Lamentably, their numbers have dropped by fifty percent, says Attenborough.
The good news is that their numbers have actually increased, according to methodical estimates by The World Life Conservation Society (May 2021). Previously around 600, they’re up to 1,000 due to concerted conservation efforts, a number still perilously low. Their principal habitat is the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park.
The bad news is that the DRC has just announced its intent to auction oil and gas permits in the park, which also features the world’s largest tropical peatlands, constituting the earth’s most extensive carbon sinks. These beautiful creatures have already endured grevious injury due to habitat loss, hunting, poaching, population encroachment, disease —and yes—human conflict, with splinter rebel groups hiding out in the park.
Virunga is a cornucopia of wildlife, both flora and fauna. Africa’s oldest reserve, its 1.2 million acres provide sanctuary for 700 types of birds and 220 species of mammals, including elephants, giraffes and chimpanzees. I shudder to think of the horrid consequences of its demise, wrought by human greed. In the last decade, more than 150 of the park’s rangers have been killed.
Were I younger and financially able, Virunga is where I’d be headed. I believe strongly in eco-tours. For the Congolese, it’s been a money maker, with $2 million in annual earnings.
Hats off to actor Leonardo DiCaprio for his 2014 Netflix documentary, Virunga, and commitment to the survival of the imperiled Silverbacks. It proved successful in halting oil exploration in the park at the time.
My hope is that we can exert pressure on oil corporations to refrain, as we successfully did in 2014. The best way is to discourage insurers and banks from financing the project. As I write, Congolese and international NGOs have submitted a petition of 100,000 signatures, requesting Congo’s President to halt new oil development
The only biodiversity we’re going to have left is Coke versus Pepsi. We’re landscaping the whole world one stupid mistake at a time. —Chuck Palahnuk, Lullaby
The year is 2060. You are gone, but your grandchild reads to her children from a book filled with drawings of creatures once abundant and a source of wonder, now the stuff of children’s story books, only not of some fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex, Megalodon, or Woolly Mammoth, but of elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, rhinos, whales and monarch butterflies, now vanquished, never to grace our earth again.
Distressingly, largely due to the exponential increase in the human footprint, this is our grandchildren’s bleak future. No more condors, manatees; no more of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, orangutans, and mountain gorillas, natural selection’s vast repertoire of unique, splendid entities reaching back several million years, thoughtlessly extinguished by Homo sapiens.
Apart from the scientific community, the public appears largely unaware, perhaps even indifferent, to this unprecedented threat to species loss and the risks it imposes for its own welfare. This extends to climate change, largely human induced. A current PEW poll reveals only 41% of Americans regard it as a priority issue.
As to how many species exist, whether flora or fauna, we don’t really know. New species are continually being discovered, while others have recently become extinct or face extinction. What we do know is that many species have gone extinct even before their discovery. An estimated million others are likely to go extinct in the next several decades.
This leaves us in a quandary: do we attempt to preserve existing species for future generations or do we simply resort to preserving those serving immediate human interests? Unfortunately, our present trending indicates the latter with species everywhere in free fall.
A useful acronym for the specifics governing this decline is HIPPO: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, over exploitation:
Habitat: Three quarters of the earth’s terrestrial environment has been altered by human activity; 66% of the marine environment.
Invasive species: Since 1970, invasive, alien species have increased 70% across 21 countries.
Pollution: 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge among other wastes from industrial facilities have been dumped into the world’s waters.
Population growth: The world’s population averaged an annual 1.7 increase between 1950 (2.5 billion) and 2010 (6.9 billion). In 2022, world population has reached 7. 6 billion. (Pew Research). While the growth rate has generally been plummeting, not so in Africa, averaging an annual 2.54 increase. By 2050, Nigeria will overtake the U.S. in population (The Economist); 800 million by 2300 (qz.com).
Over-exploitation: In 1930, an estimated 10 million elephants roamed Africa. Currently, that number has dwindled to 416,000, largely due to poaching and conflict (World Wildlife Federation). On the high seas, factory ships are removing fish faster than they can be replenished. Japan continues to hunt whales. Sharks are killed in the thousands for their fins (fin soup a Chinese delicacy), their carcasses thrown into the sea. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, hunted for meat and increasingly suffering habitat loss, are now a threatened species.
Climate change needs to be added, giving us HIPPCO. It ranks second to habitat loss in imperiling biodiversity. Largely due to climate change, we are losing our polar bears, just 31,000 remaining; coral reefs with their independent ecosystem, nourishing myriad aquatic life, are dying as the sea warms and storm intensity and frequency increase. The speed of heat increase due to reliance on fossil fuels over the last 100 years now exceeds that of the previous 10,000 years.
Extinction isn’t new to earth’s history. Geologists have noted five principal occurrences, the most famous that of 65 million years ago, when a 12 kilometer wide asteroid crashed into the Yucatan, leaving a crater 10 kilometers deep and 180 kilometers wide, killing 70% of the earth species, including the dinosaurs, ending the Mesozoic Era, or Age of Reptiles, and ushering in the Cenozoic Era and the rise of mammals after 10 million years of evolution.
Humans came late on the scene. In the 1980s, aquatic biologist Eugene Stoermer coined the term Anthropocene to depict a new epoch, human dominated. In this epoch, the Earth faces a new menace, wrought not by an asteroid, but by Man. The massive extinction of this human-centered epoch has been popularized as the Sixth Extinction.
The fundamental source of our dilemma is our disconnect from nature. We have fostered Nature as something apart from ourselves. It exists, but it’s outside ourselves, an entity to be exploited for human needs.
The truth is we exist as constituents of a vast biosphere complex of interrelated life forms dependent on one another for well-being. Remove an element of this web and you potentially unleash a house of cards scenario of collapse.
Take, for example, the chestnut tree dominating the forests of Eastern North America before European settlement. Tall, fast growing, numbering an estimated four billion, their canopy housed millions of birds and their nuts provided food for many birds, insects and mammals. Then came the Asian pathogen fungus Cryphonectriaparasitica of the early 20th century. With the loss of these magnificent trees came the demise of caterpillars metamorphosing into moth pollinators, along with the plunge into oblivion of the once prodigious passenger pigeon.
In our earth’s nearly 4 billion year history, we estimate that of the 4 billion species evolved by nature, 99% are extinct. But such extinctions resulted from natural antecedents apart from human causation. Increasingly, Man has become the arbiter of species decline, not evolution or cyclic climate change, or asteroid collision. In the last 500 years, 900 species have gone extinct and the pace quickens.
Currently, 35,000 species face extinction risk, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species:
Among these, 1 in 7 bird species.
A quarter of the world’s mammals
40% of amphibians
34% of conifers
37% of sharks and rays
21% of reptiles
33% of reef corals
It gets worse than that. The latest UN IPBES Global Assessment report (2019) forecasts more than a million species are likely to go extinct in coming decades.
The biosphere, which includes ourselves, is Nature’s survival gift, complex and delicate, requiring balance of its constituents. Safe-guarding it is crucial and its benefits not to be taken for granted. Healthy Plants convert the sun’s energy, making it available for other life forms. Bacteria and other living organisms convert organic matter into nutrients enriching the soil. Pollinators are essential to food production. Plants and oceans act as major carbon sinks. Did you know that of the 50,000 known medicinal plants, up to a fifth face extinction from deforestation? Or that approximately 120 drugs derived from rainforest plants are used to treat cancer, leukaemia malaria, heart diseases, bronchitis, rheumatism, diabetes, arthritis or tuberculosis?
As the late eminent biologist E. O. Wilson pleads in his compelling Half Earth,
The biosphere does not belong to us; we belong to it. The organisms that surround us in such beautiful profusion are the product of 3.8 billion years of evolution by natural selection. We are one of its present-day products, having arrived as a fortunate species of Old World primates. And it happened only a geological eyeblink ago. Our physiology and our minds are adapted for life in the biosphere, which we have only begun to understand. We are now able to protect the rest of life, but instead we remain recklessly prone to destroy and replace a large part of it.
Our Earth has taken ill and we are its cause. Paradoxically, we must be its healer.
Dragonflies were as common as sunlight hovering in their own days backward forward and sideways as though they were memory now there are grown-ups hurrying who never saw one and do not know what they are not seeing the veins in a dragonfly’s wings were made of light the veins in the leaves knew them and the flowing rivers the dragonflies came out of the color of water knowing their own way when we appeared in their eyes we were strangers they took their light with them when they went there will be no one to remember us
When I lived in Kentucky and kept up a flower garden, I’d hear every now and then a whizzing sound above my head, look up, and see a dragonfly moving swiftly to snag its mid-air prey between its long legs. I never thought much about them as such. They were simply there.
I regret that now and am unlearning my indifference. Dragonflies, like many other insects, are disappearing, a reality Merwin hints at in this melancholic poem, treating mutability and, with it, loss; a nature tapestry vanishing before our very eyes.
The journal Biological Conservation informs us that 40% of insect species, and that’s in the millions, are in serious decline. “If we don’t stop it, entire ecosystems will collapse due to starvation,” says University of Sydney researcher Francisco Sánchez-Bayo. Our fate will be to perish with them.
Lamentably, dragonflies, these bejeweled aerial acrobats, are among those insects suffering decline. Fundamental inhabitants of freshwater ecosystems, their loss would have immeasurable consequence. Along with climate change, habitat encroachment and degradation have contributed to their falling numbers.
Folklore has it that dragonflies are emissaries of good fortune. And so it seemed for some 300 million years. Members of the phylum Arthropoda, they comprise some 5,000 species in varied sizes and hues.
Merwin’s poem, abjuring punctuation to simulate conversational flow, employs a temporal schema of past, present, and future to depict the incipient fate of dragonflies and, by implication, of other fated creatures, once of prodigious number, now facing not only decline, but future extinction. Contrast looms large in the poem’s time’s sequences.
The poem opens with the persona’s conjecturing past aeons before Man, when dragonflies “were as common as sunlight,”the double use of “were” in the opening lines contrasting their present decline. The simile associating their once prodigious numbers to the sun’s plentitude dazzles in its originality.
Employing kinetic imagery, the persona visualizes a former halcyon indulgence of lingering dragonflies amid time’s seeming suspension: “hovering in their own days/backward forward and sideways.”
Or like the varied probings of memory: “as though they were memory.” And, I might add, like the poem in its past, present and future interweave.
The jarring “now” in its emphatic positioning at the beginning of the fourth line transitions readers fully into the present with its glaring contrast.
Despite the miraculous artistry wrought by evolutionary mechanisms over vast stretches of time, there exist “grown-ups” who, suffering a disconnect with nature and “hurrying” to other pursuits, have never seen a dragonfly
That “they do not know what they/ are not seeing,” harbors the poem’s concluding warning. Not only does the present suffer a nature deficit, but future generations may never know dragonflies existed.
Exiled in the present, humans lack cognizance of that primordial garden, if not Edenic paradise, of teeming dragonflies, diaphanous creatures born of water, instinctual, spontaneous, integral eco entities not knowing Man:
the veins in a dragonfly’s wings were made of light the veins in the leaves knew them and the flowing rivers the dragonflies came out of the color of water knowing their own way
The alienation motif follows with Man’s trespass. In time’s vast unfolding, the dragonflies had not known us: “when we appeared in their eyes/we were strangers.”
Unable to live in a human world, it’s as though they took flight, with consequential, if not incalculable loss for mankind. This is our future and the penultimate line stuns: “they took their light with them when they went.”
Creatures of a once thriving abundance, the dragonflies are extinct! We have come full circle, the sun’s plentitude of the opening line gone dark.
On a scientific note, dragonflies are often depicted as translucent creatures associated with the sun. Merwin, a mindful observer of nature and diligent keeper of a garden, was aware of this: “the veins in a dragonfly’s wings/were made of light.”
Biologically, we know they possess a variety of opsin genes that encode light sensors (science.com
The poem’s last line serves as warning: “there will be no one to remember us,” signifying our own ultimate demise, both as individuals and as species, as our survival cannot be severed from nature’s fate.
It also returns us to the “After” of the title, perhaps initially problematic. Now we know its why. In the immediate of a world devoid of dragonflies, we will have suffered a grievous loss beyond boundary. Merwin’s gift lies in making us feel that loss.
If nature’s eclipse emerges as seemingly ineluctable in this eco-poem, its melancholy consequence lies with Man as its implied source.
Merwin wrote this poem in 2016 when in his late eighties, going blind, and just three years before his death. If you look at the poem’s dictional element closely, you’ll notice its many verbal seeing and light allusions, beginning with the sun simile of the poem’s opening. The poem’s imagery is consistently visual.
Dragonflies are often described in biology depictions as translucent, their heads virtually a gigantic eye.
I’m pleased again at another good omen for the environment in learning of China’s destruction yesterday of six tons of seized ivory ornaments and tusks. This is exciting, since China has been overwhelmingly the prime market for ivory, where it’s turned into trinkets and statuary, and it’s the first time China has done this. Hopefully, it won’t be the last. This comes on the heels of Tanzania’s recent destruction of four tons of ivory, adding up to about forty slaughtered elephants. In addition to Tanzania, Kenya and Gabon have recently destroyed large caches of ivory.
Still, China has a long ways to go. As reported in the NYT on Monday, The Wildlife Conservation Society says that there may be as much as forty-five tons in the total ivory inventory in China, not including Hong Kong. Let’s face it: ivory can be lucrative, fetching $1000 a pound. In poverty stricken Africa, poachers in the field rarely command such profit, pocketed by sophisticated black market smugglers, but minimally still incentive enough. Elephant poaching is further exacerbated as the continent’s many warring factions use ivory sales to purchase arms.
What shocks me is our own large stash of ivory, with six tons of ivory destroyed last November. I guess I shouldn’t be so naive. We have a large Chinese immigrant community, especially on the West Coast, where demand for ivory, rhino horn, tortoise and shark fin can ratchet up lucrative profits. In fact, we’re downright hypocrites. The good old USA ranks second to China in consumption of illegal animal products, including not only those I just mentioned, but even tiger bone! Nothing is sacred; nothing off limits for crime syndicates operating internationally.
Unabated, the trade will peter out in about ten years. We’ll simply have run out of elephants, rhinoceroses, sharks and tigers.
But just maybe the window’s opened a bit with China’s move, offering a new vista of hope. As China’s legacy of ancient wisdom has it, “The longest journey begins with the first step” (Lao Tzu).