Feeding People versus Saving Nature (6)

Endangered Natural values
Natural values are endangered at every scale: global, regional, and local, at levels of ecosystems, species, organisms, populations, fauna and flora, terrestrial and marine, charismatic megafauna down to mollusks and beetles. This is true in both developed and developing nations, though we have under discussion here places where poverty threatens biodiversity.
Humans now control 40 percent of the planet’s land-based primary net productivity, that is, the basic plant growth that captures the energy on which everything else depends.(11) If the human population doubles again, the capture will rise to 60 to 80 percent, and little habitat will remain for natural forms of life that cannot be accommodated after we have put people first. Humans do not use the lands they have domesticated effectively. A World Bank study found that 35 percent of the Earth’s land has now become degraded.(12) Daniel Hillel, in a soils study, concludes, “Present yields are extremely low in many of the developing countries, and as they can be boosted substantially and rapidly there should be no need to reclaim new land and to encroach further upon natural habitats.”(13)
Africa is a case in point, and Madagascar epitomizes Africa’s future. Its fauna and flora evolved independently from the mainland continent; there are 30 primates, all femurs; the reptiles and amphibians are 90 percent endemic, including two thirds of all the chameleons of the world, and 10,000 plant species, of which 80 percent are endemic, including a thousand kinds of orchids. Humans came there about 1,500 years ago and lived with the fauna and flora more or less intact unto this century. Now an escalating population of impoverished Malagasy people rely heavily on slash-and-burn agriculture, and the forest cover is one third of the original (27.6 million acres to 9.1 million acres), most of the loss occurring since 1950.(14) Madagascar is the most eroded nation on Earth, and little or none of the fauna and flora is safely conserved. Population is expanding at 3.2 percent a year; remaining forest is shrinking at 3 percent, almost all to provide for the expanding population. Are we to say that none ought to be conserved until after no person is hungry?
Tigers are sliding toward extinction. Populations have declined 95 percent in this century; the two main factors are loss of habitat and a ferocious black market in bones and other body parts used in traditional medicine and folklore in China, Taiwan, and Korea, uses that are given no medical credence. Ranthambhore National Park In Rajasthan, India, is a tiger sanctuary; there were 40 tigers during the late 1980s, reduced in a few years by human pressures – illicit cattle grazing and poaching – to 20 to 25 tigers today. There are 200,000. Indians within three miles of the core of the park – more than double the population when the park was launched, 21 years ago. Most depend on wood from the l50 square miles of park to cook their food. They graze in and around the park some 150,000 head of scrawny cattle, buffalo, goats, and camels. The cattle impoverish habitat and carry diseases to the ungulates that are the tiger's prey base. In May 1993, a young tigress gave birth to four cubs; that month 316 babies were born in the villages surrounding the park.(15)
The tigers may be doomed, but ought they to be? Consider, for instance. that there are minimal reforestation efforts, or that cattle dung can be used for fuel with much greater efficiency than is being , done, or that, in an experimental herd of jersey and holstein cattle there, the yield of milk increased ten times that of the gaunt, free ranging local cattle, and that a small group of dairy producers has increased milk production 1,000 percent in just 3 years. In some moods we may insist that people are more important than tigers. But in other moods these majestic animals seem to be casualties of human inabilities to manage themselves and their resources intelligently, a tragic story that leaves us wondering whether the tigers should always lose and the people win.

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