What happens when all the animals are gone?


We are heading for a time when wildlife no longer exists.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you’d like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Stephen Capra is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the executive director of Bold Visions Conservation, based in New Mexico.

We live in a time where we are heading towards a world without wildlife. We have a voice and a vote, yet we elect people who support the destruction of what makes our planet livable. But perhaps our gravest sin continues to be our treatment of wildlife. How is it that, given an earth so rich in life, humanity has chosen to kill — to destroy — the oasis we have been granted?

We live in a time of great knowledge about animals, and many people have become advocates for all species. Yet prejudice, war and social unrest make even our relationships with our fellow humans complex. Governments are already slow to act to protect the natural world. Now, consider how hard we find it to deal with species that look nothing like us, that live underwater or fly through the sky, that compete with us for food or could even make us their next meal.

Add into the mix poverty, hunger, population pressure and cultural norms, then multiply all that by corporate greed, energy development, rapid deforestation and climate change, and you begin to understand the true cycle of genocide that modern civilization is waging against wildlife — and ultimately itself.

A mountain lion near Bend, Oregon.

We have a long history of destroying wildlife. The Great Plains remains for many the centerpiece of America’s shame, the site of a wanton waste of wildlife, which left species like the passenger pigeon extinct and the bison all but gone. In order to destroy the Native American cultures and take control of the land, many of us saw the killing of wildlife as almost a patriotic endeavor. The aftermath of decay and dried bones scattered across a vast expanse of America marks, without question, wildlife’s own “Trail of Tears.”

Our growing awareness of the decimation of the West’s native species eventually inspired the enactment of laws and regulations designed to prevent such a killing spree from occurring again. Conservationists began working to make people understand the value of species that do not resemble human beings.

In 2014, the World Wildlife Fund issued a report with the Zoological Society of London, which found that a number of species of wild animals had lost half their populations in 40 years. The culprits were many — humans killing wildlife for food in unsustainable numbers, the pollution and destruction of habitat. The report went on to point out that we are “cutting trees faster than we regrow them, catching fish faster than the oceans can restock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them, and emitting more climate-warming carbon dioxide than oceans and forests can absorb.” The most rapid decline of wildlife populations has occurred in freshwater ecosystems, where wildlife numbers have plummeted more than 75 percent since 1970.

Yet most of us continue to confront such situations with a shrug of recognition, a new-normal sense of futility, or maybe the vague hope that science will ultimately save us from our madness. Right now, we are witness to the last great extinction of species in our history, one that, if not stopped, will remove the final barrier to our complete isolation as humans. Think of the karma we will inherit for our refusal to share our world and to accept our responsibility to live in harmony with all species.

The shift to harmony may only be realized after the implosion of our material-based society, once we make massive shifts in our diet and break the back of the corporations that feed the sickness in our society. But most of all, it requires leadership — placing in power people who respect all species and understand the value of a shared earth. This change will only come with basic human kindness and love. If we pass laws that end cruelty and protect more lands and more waters, we can truly embrace the concept that all life matters.

Like all politics, this shift must begin locally; like all education, it requires great teachers who will provide the next generation the chance to get it right. What is different for wildlife today is that we are running out of time. We cannot look to make change in 20, 30 or 40 years. The change must happen now.

We are moving towards a world without wildlife, not because we want it, but because we have not accepted a formula that truly allows coexistence. That formula will only exist when society, nations and people understand the limitations of being human — when we accept such limits on ourselves in order to share, not control, the world we live in.

The Zen of that concept is the deeper connection and relationship with species that will enrich our lives. Only then will we have finally matured as the species we call human.


12 thoughts on “What happens when all the animals are gone?

  1. The problem is we are not going to break the back of corporations, not going to give up our material goods, and not going to make massive shifts in our diet in any meaningful time frame to save other species. The reality is wildlife is being relentlessly slaughtered for ranchers, farmers, and hunters. The oceans are over harvested because of greed and depleted because of climate change. We are incapable as a species of doing anything meaningful to rectify this…..human overpopulation insures that way too many people are incapable of making decisions based on anything other than self gratification.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Capra joins the chorus of prophets warning us of our feckless behavior and its effect on the planet and all the lives who share this earth with us.

    It’s hard to imagine, knowing our history, that the genocidal mix—bad leadership, government inaction, poverty, hunger, and population pressure–will get better.

    Capra discusses the World Wildlife Fund, which issued a report saying a “number of wild species had lost half their population” and that there were multiple culprits, including people killing wildlife for food in unsustainable numbers” and the fact that we are “cutting trees faster than we can regrow them.”

    Interesting. There are reports that the World Wildlife Fund has a dubious record when dealing with conservation in Africa. That organization apparently corroborated with logging companies to continue cutting trees under the “sustainable management” plan backed by the WWF. Logging not only destroys trees, but the very process of clearing trees and dense vegetation actually makes hunting easier. The loggers bring in workers, who bring in their families, so the population around the forests grow. Some of the logging companies encourage their workers to hunt for their own food, meaning bushmeat. Thus, “sustainable management” accounts for both continued logging and more hunting.

    Author Peterson also recounts seeing the initials “WWF” on a letter for the Cameroon “management” plan that promoted the sport hunting of elephants.

    Just the office of the WWF reveals something else. Peterson tells of the beautiful big coffee table with “WWF,” plus the organization’s iconic giant panda logos, all done in colorful and flowery artwork. On closer inspection, Peterson was horrified to discover the table was decorated with the wings of what must have been 3000 dead butterflies. Strange for a conservation group!

    (Excellent book on human ravaging of the wild lives and resources in Africa by Dale Peterson with Karl Ammann’s photography of the victims of bushmeat hunting. Title: “Eating Apes.”)

    If all that is true and the conservation groups can’t be trusted to do better than “sustainable management,” if the genocidal mix of greed and growth continue, and if people elect officials who deny climate change and look at the planet as a cornucopia of resources for human beings alone, then we will lose our wildlife.

    I’m currently reading Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us.” The book describes how soon Nature will begin to reclaim the planet when we’re no longer here to harm it and how the wild ones can safely return and take over.

    That makes me think that the train to doom humanity is on should be the express run and not stop along the journey. The sooner we’re gone, the better for everyone else.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I recently read Weisman’s the World Without Us. At the end, it brings up nuclear plants and why someone has to always be around to maintain the system that cools them down or they’ll have a meltdown. Not such an easy answer for our power needs… And Dale Peterson has written a number of important books as a co-authur with people like Jane Goodall and Richard Wrangham. including the classic “Demonic Males.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was thinking about your previous comment about nuclear power plants and how would the animals deal with them. Weisman also mentions what a hazard the waste dumps are too. So our legacy of destruction will continue after we”re gone. I like his last two paragraphs. Too bad we don’t appreciate the earth and its other lives before the train wreck

        Liked by 1 person

      • Love this site, Jim. How very timely…..I was reading Weisman’s book, & must have left it somewhere….will have to get another, so I can read it on The Last Days.
        I was thinking of heading up to Yellowstone this year, watching grizzly, wolves, coyotes and all my other relatives, and feeling the great rumbling coming from Mother, before she blows. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful last few moments–her blast would pretty much take care of things. Perhaps we should have a Gathering of Misanthropes?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, demonic males is good too. And the violence goes back a long way, and some includes our closest relative. A recent study noted that the population of red colobus monkeys is going down while the chimp population in the area has increased. It seems the chimps are eating bushmeat too!


    • Steve Capra and High Country News are advocates of hunter-conservationist organizations like WWF. Capra’s misleadingly named Bold Visions works with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who brought us Ryan Zinke as Interior Secy.

      Liked by 1 person

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