Is life supposed to be hard? Watch any wildlife programme based in a harsh environment, and the answer is ‘yes’. Watch animals in a rich habitat and they may enjoy many a contented day, but sooner or later a predator will come. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to the inevitable hunt scene, I am shouting at the TV for the predator to get a meal to feed her young AND for the prey to escape. It seems I have a hang-up about death, despite it being the most natural progression of life.
I caught the end of a documentary yesterday morning called Snow Wolf Family and Me where wildlife photographer, Gordon Buchanan, travels to Ellesmere Island, in the remote Canadian Arctic, in search of wolves. As these wolves had not encountered humans before, they had no need to fear this small team of three. With much patience, and obvious joy, Gordon observed members of the pack before becoming trusted enough to approach the den, home to three young pups.
Gordon does a lot of sitting patiently, and marvels at the relationship the first people must have had with wolves and, I suppose, any other animals they may have encountered. It is impossible to even begin to understand an animal unless you spend time with it. Whether horse or hamster, pets give us an insight but domesticated animals are not wild animals. Wild animals are something else. As he played ‘fetch’ with a tiny stick and two young wolves, Gordon said the words that got this week’s post going: “This must have been what it was like when man and wolf first met, when there was no fear, just curiosity”.
Throughout history there have been stories of species wiped out because they did not understand how to avoid new predators, such as the humans who first colonised New Zealand. Eastern Polynesian explorers were the first to discover the landmass of New Zealand, settling there from about 1280. Their arrival gave rise to the Māori culture and language, both unique to New Zealand, although very closely related to analogues in other parts of Eastern Polynesia.
Isolated for millions of years with only other birds as predators, New Zealand’s plants and animals were very vulnerable when people and other mammals arrived. For example, many native birds cannot fly, and were easily caught on the ground as their previously-successful strategy of staying very still failed to work. The Polynesians were not the only problem. The kiore (Pacific rat) and kurī (dog) they brought with them also wreaked havoc on the local fauna. Bones found by archaeologists show that Māori first hunted the largest animals: moa, geese, takahē (a large, flightless member of the rail family), sea lions and fur seals. Most of the larger birds became extinct within a few hundred years, and Māori ate shellfish, fish, eels and plants instead.
Those first people, who lived a relatively simple life, started a wave of extinctions that continues today. Before people arrived, more than 80 per cent of New Zealand was covered in forest. Māori burnt almost half of the forest within 200 years of arriving, probably to clear space for growing food and building houses. But the real problems did not begin until the arrival of large numbers of Europeans after 1840, who scaled up the destruction as only ‘westerners’ can.
Learning to fear
But back to the days of innocence. Animals learn fear. It was fascinating to see how close Gordon could get to these wild wolves in just three weeks. Imagine how much we might know about other species if we had access to populations who had never been hunted by humans and therefore had no reason to fear humans. We could interact, we could learn so much about the other species with which we share the planet; knowledge long since forgotten. And this is one of the problems we have in communicating about nature to people who really do believe that humans are above all other species. This is a myth which must have come from somewhere – the Old Testament?
I Googled for some pointers and backed it up from my little-studied Bible. Genesis 9:3 looked promising: “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything”, my version says. But the preceding two verses are more worrying. Verse 9:1 says “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth'”. Check! Verse 9:2 goes on, “The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands.” So goes God’s covenant with Noah, he who saved the animals from ‘the flood’. Just what is this story telling us? We seem to have invented a very vengeful, getting-nature-back story after ‘the flood’.
There is now compelling evidence for many gigantic ancient floods where glacial ice dams failed time and again. These were not global deluges as described in the Genesis story of Noah, but were more focused catastrophic floods taking place throughout the world. They likely inspired stories like Noah’s in many cultures, passed down through generations.
Early humans hunted and I don’t know how many thanked their prey for giving up its life but it seems a very human thing to do. With self-awareness comes an understanding of one’s own mortality, so it makes sense for a human to respect any life lost so that we may live. Uh-oh, we’ll see where this leads next time!
Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and loves snow! (by April, she’d had enough of it though!)