…why we need wildlife

Saturday, March 3, is World Wildlife Day. Established by the United Nations in 2013, the day marks the anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It is meant to draw attention to the importance of wild creatures to human life, and to the problems that threaten to kill off a lot of them in the near future.

This year’s theme is “Big cats – predators under threat”. At first glance that doesn’t seem to have any relation to Jamaica. In fact, for most people in the world, big cats don’t have much to do with everyday life. They are lovely to look at on TV, in pictures or from a distance, but nobody wants to be up close and personal with a wild cat, and even the tame ones can’t really be trusted.

So why should we go to any trouble to keep them? First, there is the argument of unique beauty. A big cat, whether it’s lying still, running at full speed or just rolling around in the dust, is some of God’s finest-looking work and should not be lost.

Second is the moral argument of atonement — making amends. The lions, cougars, panthers, and tigers didn’t move into our neighbourhood and wreck the place. We moved into theirs. If we want to take over part of their space, we should at least try to make the rest of it livable for the survivors.

Third is the moral argument of responsibility. We can say, some more honest than others, that in the past we didn’t know how destructive our actions were. Now we know. Maybe we have brought these creatures to the edge of extinction by accident, but if we push them over, it will be on purpose. That’s not a decision that should be taken lightly.

Finally, there is the practical argument of usefulness. Big cats are usually at the top of their local food chains. When there are enough of them, they keep the local populations of plant-eaters like elk, wildebeest, and rabbits to a sustainable level. Without them, secondary predators (wild dogs, smaller cats, and members of the weasel family like the mongoose) would multiply but do a less efficient job, and people would try to do their own pest control, probably with disastrous results.

Also, big cats have a powerful attraction. People will pay a lot more to see them in the wild, even from a distance, than they will to see them up close as a zoo exhibit.

For Jamaica, the closest thing to the big cats would be the deep-sea “sport” fish – marlin, sailfish and tuna. Overfishing, bad fishing methods and plastic in the sea have greatly reduced the populations of these big fish. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which keeps the “red list” of endangered species, estimates that the Atlantic blue marlin population fell 64% between 1990 and 2008.

All four arguments – beauty, atonement, responsibility and usefulness – can be made for preserving these big fish. It appears that management of the Atlantic stock has improved in recent years and populations have stopped falling. However, there may not be enough food to support much increase. The marine food chain is so badly out of balance it will have to be rebuilt from the bottom before the top can grow.

Jamaica’s biggest wild predator – the American crocodile – is doing just fine since it moved into the shelter of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1971. Crocs don’t meet the usual standards of beauty but they’re impressive. They earn their keep as tourist attractions, and as scavengers they help to keep waterways and wetlands clean. They’ve embraced the idea of payback whole-heartedly – though much of their original habitat has been destroyed, the growing crocodile population is moving into man-made structures like irrigation dams, canals and fish ponds.

Each of Jamaica’s wild creatures serves some useful purpose, and most of them are struggling. We have chopped down, ripped up, drained and paved a lot of their living space, covered much of the rest in garbage, and polluted the air and water. On World Wildlife Day, the very least we can do is accept responsibility for that, feel a little guilty, and try to do better.