The Living Wild

(This column was first published in the November 20, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    Extending across two facing pages of Art Wolfe's "The Living Wild" (Wildlands Press) is a breathtaking photograph of a mountain goat looking across a lush valley at a partly snow-covered massif in Glacier National Park. It is typical of this series of striking portraits of world animals -- unfortunately most of them seriously threatened. Wolfe photographed "from a perspective that placed as much emphasis on the environment as on the animal within it. After all, an animal without habitat is simply a curiosity biding time to its extinction. But an animal within its habitat is a vibrant representation of natural selection."

    Together with these marvelous pictures are graceful essays by five of our foremost conservationists. Some of their insights will give you the flavor of this remarkable book:

    William Conway: "In Massachusetts, animal rights advocates attacked wildlife officials trying to control abnormally large populations of gulls. The gulls are destroying colonies of threatened roseate terns. Others have lobbied to prevent conservationists from clearing introduced rabbits and goats from islands in many parts of the world, where they have eventually caused the extinction of several native species of plants as well as animals. While such actions are stimulated by good intentions, they reveal a mental separation of intentions from results, plus a failure to assume responsibility for consequences."

    Richard Dawkins: "Even the most devastating of mass extinctions can be defended as the necessary purging that makes rebirth possible. No doubt it is fascinating to wonder whether rats or starlings might provide the ancestral stock for a new radiation of giant predators, in the event that the whole order Carnivora was wiped out. But none of us would ever know for we do not live on the evolutionary time scale. It is an aesthetic argument, an argument of feeling, not reason, and I confess that my own feelings recoil. I find my aesthetics incapable of quite such a long view."

    Jane Goodall: "It was fortunate that when I began the study of the chimpanzees in 1960 I had not been to a university. I did not know that chimpanzees were supposed to be without mind and emotions. I did not realize that I should have numbered rather than named the members of my study community, that their behavior was purely innate, that they were incapable of reason, that emotions that looked like ours were simply automatic responses triggered by different environmental situations.... I went ahead and described the vivid and unique personalities whom I gradually came to know: David Greybeard and old Flo, Mike and Olly, Fifi and Gilka. Imagine my amazement when the erudite editor of Nature struck out my references to he, she, and who in an article I had submitted and substituted it and which."

    John Sawhill (unfortunately one of his last contributions): "Roughly two-thirds of the landscape in the United States is privately owned, with well over half of all imperiled species found on private land. I believe landowners have a positive responsibility to be environmental stewards.... Regrettably the controversy over laws like the Endangered Species Act has led in some cases to perverse outcomes, such as landowners deliberately destroying habitat lest a threatened or endangered species he found on their property and trigger regulatory restrictions on how they can use their land."

    George Schaller: "I can only view with irony the fact that never has the panda's destruction been as rapid as during the years we studied it, during a period when it received more attention than at any time in its long history."

    I highly recommend this admirable collation of insightful text with stunning photographs.-- Gerry Rising