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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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How We Forget the World We Have Lost

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 28, 2011

In an article earlier this year about the hidden value of species, I wrote about how much, and in how many ways, the dramatic decline in its vultures had cost India.

When we cause a species to go into decline, we almost never know — and hardly even stop to think about — what we might be losing in the process. In truth, it may be hard to think about, because the cascading effects of our actions are sometimes freakishly distant from the original cause. So in India in the early 1990s, farmers began using the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac for the apparently worthy purpose of relieving pain and fever in their livestock. Unfortunately, vultures scavenging on livestock carcasses accumulated large quantities of the drug and promptly died of renal failure. Over a 14-year period, populations of three vulture species plummeted by between 96.8 and 99.9 percent.

Losing these efficient scavengers meant livestock carcasses often got left in the open to rot. It was one of those “ecosystem services” — manufacturing oxygen, soaking up carbon dioxide, preventing floods, taking out the garbage — that species generally provide unnoticed, until they stop. But the impacts went well beyond the stench, according to a 2008 article in Ecological Economics. Moving into the niche vacated by the vultures, feral dog populations boomed by up to 9 million animals over the same period. Dog bites and the incidence of rabies in humans also increased, and the authors conservatively estimated that an additional 48,000 people died during the 14-year period as a result. Calculating the bottom-line worth of what we get from the natural world is notoriously difficult. But even pricing lives at a fraction of developed world values, the near-total loss of three insignificant vulture species has so far cost India an estimated $24 billion.

Now Meera Subramanian has a first-hand report in the Virginia Quarterly Review.  These paragraphs near the end of the article seemed particularly poignant and powerful to me:

I realized as I spoke with Rahmani that I had come to India looking for an eco-catastrophe. Though the vulture is the unloveliest of creatures, though few cared for them while they were here nor notice that they are missing, their absence has left a void. There is a physical abyss that is filling with dogs that can be ferocious, and a spiritual vacuum that is forcing questions of adaption for the most orthodox of India’s Parsis.

Yet it didn’t feel apocalyptic to me. Maybe all of us, whether guided by God or by science, secretly want to be the ones living in the end times, as though it bestows some epic importance upon our little lives. But what if there is no ultimate annihilation, but instead a million daily deaths, literal or figurative, that no one quite notices? The vultures’ disappearance is catastrophic, yes, but the ability to adapt is stunning. Or terrifying. Or both. No matter how bad things get, how many species get wiped from the earth in humanity’s steady march of population and progress, the living go on. Those species that disappear are erased from the bio-narrative of the planet and forgotten within a generation that only knows of what came before through chance encounters at museum exhibits, a grandmother’s knee, or a picture on a computer screen. Already, there are children turning into teenagers in India who have never seen a vulture, though their parents knew skies filled with swirling kettles of the scavengers for most of their lives. With the vultures becoming functionally extinct in under a decade, India’s ecology has shifted and the habits of her people, whether farmers or skinners or Parsi priests, have yielded in transition. What if we adapt too easily?

This is what Rahmani was suggesting.

“I wish we were not so flexible. We’re like pests. We can live in every type of environment, from Alaska to Namibia. We’re omnivorous. We’re like cockroaches, rats, and bandicoots,” he said.

“You have seen the slums,” the biologist continued. “Look at the horrible conditions we can live under and still have reproductive success.”

He leaned back in his chair and the continuous insistent blast of car horns drifted up from the street, filling the space between his words.

“No other species has such a huge tolerance. For the earth, that is the unfortunate part. If we had a very narrow tolerance of pollution and food and all these things, maybe we would take more care of the earth.”

Take a look at the full article here.

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