Our friends the large herbivores…plant-eating creatures such as the hippopotamuses and the rhinoceroses and elephants and so on…are facing extinction on a massive scale. And soon:
Large herbivores, and their associated ecological functions and services, have already largely been lost from much of the developed world. The scale and rate of large herbivore decline suggest that without radical intervention, large herbivores (and many smaller ones) will continue to disappear from numerous regions with enormous ecological, social, and economic costs. We have progressed well beyond the empty forest to early views of the “empty landscape” in desert, grassland, savanna, and forest ecosystems across much of planet Earth.
To be fair, hippos are apparently very efficient as human-killing organisms. But perhaps not efficient enough to stem the tide of poaching, game-hunting, and destruction of their grazing fields. According to the study “Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores,” about 60 percent of these large herbivore species are slated for immanent extinction—mostly in developing countries such as Africa and Southeast Asia.
Us in the so-called “First World” nations shouldn’t hurt our hands too much by patting ourselves in the back, as we’ve already either killed off or placed into hamburger-making factories most of our large herbivores already.
As the study points out, all sorts of meat-eating large animals like tigers and wolves and whatnot depend on these herbivores for food…so they will most likely die out next, but not before increasingly attempting to eat humans out of hunger.
An estimated 1 billion people worldwide also depend on wild meat as a source of food—so there’s that.
Lastly, the departure of the large herbivores will leave a huge mark on the land itself, as they were a vital link in the ecological chain, doing everything from spreading plant seeds to controlling fire outbreaks to helping maintain the ecosystems of smaller creatures.
If we add in climate change and projected population increases, this is going to be a huge problem, one that can only be addressed at this point with aggressive environmental protection measures. And yet, I believe that thinking we can, even with the high level of technology available to us, “reverse” this trend is just hubris and folly.
What will most likely happen is the following:
1) Most of the large herbivores are going to go extinct in the wild. Truly “turning back the clock” on this would take the sort of massive global cooperative effort, driven by altruism and forward-thinking, that frankly I don’t think we are collectively capable of at this point.
2) There will be more “protected” patches of land with the creatures on them. But they will in no way resemble a natural ecosystem or have the widespread beneficial impact on the greater landscape they once did.
3) There will also be more of a movement to clone these animals, as a way to keep their species “going.” The idea will be that we will “cheat” extinction through genetic engineering.
Yes, it is exactly what I’m insinuating. There will be a “Jurassic Park” for large herbivores (and probably carnivores).
Elephants, hippos, lions and so forth will be our new dinosaurs.
It means that to future generations, these large animals will be the stuff of legend and themeparks.
Art note: the image from the beginning of this post is by Roger Dean for the band Osibisa, circa 1971. There is a number of pieces of record art from that time period that feature these almost post-apocalyptic wild landscapes and cybernetic/hybrid animals (the most immediate that comes to mind is Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Tarkus,” with the literally armored armadillo upon the wasteland). The art seems to suggest a world that is possibly post-human…with the animals having utilized our technology and gene splicing to their advantage.