Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

21 Jan 2013


Meghalaya living root brige, India.

Human intelligence and ingenuity has meant that today we are capable of engineering ecology. Committed to the pathway towards sustainable development, numerous countries have adopted environmental mitigation policies, whereby the degradation of an ecosystem by large-scale infrastructure implementation must be compensated for. By using a reference system, or details of the pre-disturbance event site, ecologists are able to modify the physical properties of the site, before reintroducing displaced species to restore a site to its former state. Such a balance between man’s use of natural resources and natures provision rings true the goals set for a sustainable future. In theory.

Sadly, this statement of hope is itself engineered, foundations laid, supports rigged, and brass polished. But the standing of a structure does not equate to its success. Reintroduction and restoration projects are now the norm in civic development and environmental conservation, with thousands of initiatives launched to restore a marshland following industrial pollution, degraded soils or populations of locally extinct cranes. But the idea that man can recreate the work of thousands of years of natural selection in the space of a couple of months is a fallacy. 

This is not to say that such projects are a waste of our resources. We are facing a steep decline in the world’s natural resources, both biotic and physical, which demands that we address our current methods, and aim for alternatives.  And yet the success rates of such projects at recreating what was lost is low, with Moreno-Mateos et al (2012) reporting an average of a 25% reduction in biological structure and biogeochemical functioning in restored sites compared to their original or reference state. Projects of animal reintroduction, such as the Arabian Orxy, largely trumpeted as successes have more recently revealed renewed declines in population numbers.

What is most worrying is the potential that such a practice will give licence to developers to slosh down concrete and bolt on girders at an ever increasing rate, able to claim ecological neutrality when in fact it is far from the case. Mitigation banking systems recently unveiled detach constructers further, whereby a lump sum is deposited following site conversion, hands washed of responsibility whilst others implement restoration programmes. 

The practice of ecological engineering is still in its infancy, and obvious teething pains are bound to occur. A greater understanding of ecological process is required before such a huge step can be taken to remedy our destruction, an otherwise admirable aim. But we must remain wary of any sensation of complete comprehension of the cogs that twist, link and turn our natural systems.

17 Jan 2013

Questioning Zootopia

A natural history museum can educate with taxidermy, whilst an art gallery can shock with images of blood and bone, an environmental charity can publicise a plight, whilst governments can draft legislation. But what of the 1200 zoos across the globe, whose visitors number 600,000,000 annually ? What do wide-eyed infants gain from a precious link with nature in the heart of urban environments ? What good can it do to gawk at a Gnu ?

The concept of a menagerie is not a new one, although such institutions have undergone numerous inceptions. The zoo begins as the royal coffers, of lions gifted from Abyssinia, or Rhinos plundered from Java. In the case of France, it took a revolution to sweep the animals out of the gardens of Versailles and into the hands of the people. As the scientific cataloguing of Lineus and Lamarck became more in vogue, so too did the idea of zoological gardens as repositories of expeditions. Cages were replaced by dioramas in attempt to recreate the natural habitat of the birds and the beasts, and in doing so began to instill an ecological sensibility in the observer.

Gerald Durrell, a one time animal trapper, and famed director of Jersey Zoo during the 1970s was the first to promote the idea of zoos as a tool for conservation of animals, not only by educating the public but by stocking and propagating animals endangered in the wild. Today, the organisation and investment in exchanges in animal insemination is astounding, with Studbooks maintained for each animal, documenting everything from date of birth to dietary requirements. Captive breeding and reintroduction programmes whilst not always successful, stem from collections in zoos, bringing back the few remaining individuals from the perpetual abyss of extinction.

Animal welfare too has greatly progressed, with daily observation by keepers, and enrichment of enclosures (hiding food, adding swings) all enhancing the mental well being of the residents. But when can a concrete pit compensate for a unwalled habitat ? Nenette, a 43 year old great-grandmother, is a wild-born Malaysian orangutan, resident at Menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. At first, observing her in her enclosure was a thrill, to see her reluctantly playing with faster-paced juveniles, before hunkering down on a plastic barrel and fixing her gaze directly at me. It was in her eyes that I began to project my human emotion, trying to fathom her thoughts, to think of all she had seen (more than I). How did she feel about being observed day in day out? Was she content or do orangutans strive for more than food, sleep and sex ? Wouldn't she be better in the wild ? But then given the terrifying rates of deforestation, how long will it be before there remains no more wild for her to go back to ?

But to ask these questions, as I am sure many visitors do, is already a step in the right direction. The act of projecting our emotion allows us to associate ethics at our own level. We know animals are not natural to zoos, whether or not we disagree with zoos as a place of entertainment & conservation. We also know that an animal is not a hollow object, but is what it is as a result of its environs of origin. To understand an animal is to understand it's context, which requires no mental projection.

The Zoo de Vincennes, which shut its doors in 2008, is currently undergoing invigoration before its inauguration in 2014, when it will reopen its doors as a collection of 5 biozones (Savannah-Sahel, Europe, Patagonia, Guyana, Madagascar), connected by a 5km pathway. Thus the visitor will traverse continents, encountering animals in an ecosystem context, as opposed to monoliths in a concrete cage. Associating an endangered primate with it's exotic habitat, thus promoting the complex ecology asssociated with every living creatyre. A new vision then, but will this closer encounter result in a clearer connection with our own uncaged habitat?

8 Jan 2013

Mountains of the Mind

My roots lie deep in the soil, whether the brown loams of the Aberdeenshire coast of Scotland, or the granite rich gravels of the Vosges region of France. For my family is bound to the fields as cattle farmers and to the woods as forestry guards. To visit is to return to the land, to the frosty pastures bordered with yellow broom, and to the humid forests of snow encrusted pine. Moving away from the crowds, returning to my people, and to a comforting sense of familiarity in the furrows and dappled shades.

Beyond the hedgerows bordering the farm, at the end of the valley above the pine plantations, the sense of comfort is increasingly replaced by trepidation, a growing sense of wonder. Rising away from the slow and steady lowlands, are pinnacles of rock and snow. These mountains draw up from the human spirit, inspiring religious awe in some and an unerring desire to scale their heights for others. As an icon of outdoor Americana, Ansel Adams reflected on this drive to be outside amongst "the silence of the towering mountains, the mass of granite, the forest primeval and the light eternal."

Facing a mountain, a desert dune, or a roaring ocean shore can be a terrifying experience, calling for a questioning of place, space and time. Any self assured attachment to the land seems brushed away by their impersonal and ancient aura. The security of well worn surroundings is whipped from under your feet when confronted with monumental elements of nature, so assured in power but overwhelming in scale. But what is also felt is a sense of permanence, righteous and reward. These rocks have fought tooth and nail, pinnacle and scree, and deserve to dominate not only the horizon, but the shadows of our mind.

The Tetons & The Snake River. Ansel Adams. 1942