Extraordinary Animals and the People Who Love Them
In 1787, with the seemingly infinite resources of North America stretching before him, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “no instance can be produced of [nature] having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct.”
Jefferson’s words were demonstrably false—European explorers and Pacific Islanders, for example, had already exterminated entire species in Oceania—but they illustrated the widespread belief that no amount of hunting, fishing, poisoning, plowing, or felling could wipe a species clear off the Earth. This misconception persisted well into the 19th century, giving American settlers impunity to mow down bison and clear the sky of passenger pigeons. Only when these once-abundant species were nearly gone did most people grudgingly admit that humans can, in fact, drive plants and animals to extinction. That realization, just 150 years ago, marked the beginning of the conservation movement.
We live in a world shaped by the successes and failures of that movement, a world where eagles still nest along river banks and where scientists recently cloned a black-footed ferret to boost the species’ chance of survival and also where politicians argue over our right to breathe clean air. Though the path from declaring dominion over the “lesser animals” to desperately trying to save them is relatively fresh in the span of human experience, it has become overgrown—forgotten or lost or simply blurred by the lens of modern politics. And when we fail to see the way we’ve come, we often find ourselves retreading the same misguided territory as our predecessors.
That we cannot find a way forward unless we know what lies behind us is foundational to science writer Michelle Nijhuis’s new book, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction. The book is a narrative history of modern species conservation, told through the lives of the passionate, flawed people who fought (and continue to fight) against extinction. It’s a story, writes Nijhuis,
“…full of people who did the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons. It begins in wealthy countries and in colonized territory; its early chapters are shadowed by racism, and some conservationists still hold blinkered views of their fellow humans, causing them to mislay blame for the damage they seek to contain. Many conservationists are unfamiliar with their movement’s history—as geographer William Adams observes, they tend to ricochet between evolutionary time and the crisis of the moment—with the result that each generation has revived old arguments and repeated mistakes.
Yet what began as a series of running battles to protect charismatic animal species has developed, over the past century and a half and through countless twists and turns, into a global effort to defend life on a larger scale. Now, as the destruction of species continues and the effects of climate change escalate, conservationists worldwide are fighting for the future of all species, including our own.
Lew Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya—© Ami Vitale
Following the path of environmentalism from its early days through modern times, Nijhuis sometimes finds herself in uncomfortable territory—both literally, as she visits scorching deserts and windy plains, and figuratively, as she uncovers the racism that motivated early conservation efforts. Yet while some historians have glossed over or ignored the white supremacy shadowing the conservation movement, Nijhuis recognizes that the entanglement of conservation and racism is an essential part of the story. In a section about William Temple Hornaday, the hunter and taxidermist credited with saving American bison, Nijhuis writes:
Hornaday’s callousness toward his fellow humans was most appallingly displayed in 1906, when he and his Zoological Society colleagues coerced a young man from the Congo, Ota Benga, into living alongside an orangutan in the Primate House. The diminutive Benga, who had been taken from his homeland by a South Carolina missionary named Samuel Phillips Verner, was said to be twenty-three but appeared far younger to North American eyes. Tens of thousands of people came to gawk as he spent his afternoons behind iron bars, weaving twine mats and returning visitors’ curious stares. When a group of prominent African American clergymen protested Benga’s captivity, Hornaday dismissed their concerns, claiming that the “exhibition” had scientific value. But as the swelling crowds began to harass Benga, and Benga himself started to resist his captors, public criticism grew. Finally, after three weeks of controversy, minister James H. Gordon secured Benga’s release and helped him establish a life in the United States, eventually arranging for him to settle in Virginia.
In a letter to New York’s mayor, Hornaday was unrepentant. “When the history of the Zoological Park is written,” he predicted, “this incident will form its most amusing passage.” Bluster, however, could not heal the wounds inflicted. Ten years later, after concluding that a return to the Congo was impossible, Ota Benga shot himself through the heart.
Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo—© Karine Aigner
The treatment of an African man by one of America’s first and most prominent conservationists isn’t just a footnote. Hornaday’s genuine concern for biodiversity, coupled with his equally genuine disregard for human life, was far from unique. In fact, as Nijhuis describes, the ideas and strategies popularized by Hornaday trickled down through history, influencing everything from the founding of the Audubon Society to the rhetoric of John Muir. As a result, Ota Benga’s tale is just one of a litany of examples of how eugenics, racism, and colonialism poisoned the very roots of environmentalism.
Those rotten roots still snake to the surface, making a difference in whether people thrive or suffer and whether animals live or die. When a new national park was proposed in East Africa in the 1960s, for instance, Maasai people who had already been evicted from their traditional hunting and grazing lands by the creation of other parks responded by slaughtering rhinos in protest.
One could argue that the animals died in part because the people proposing the new park did so without any understanding or acknowledgement of how past conservation efforts had hurt Indigenous people. But when we’re aware of the mistakes of the past, we can work toward rectifying them. And fortunately there have been a growing number of people in recent decades doing just that; people seeking to balance the needs of wild animals with the needs of the humans who live alongside them. One was a South African environmentalist named Garth Owen-Smith, whom Nijhuis met in his adopted homeland of Namibia.
[Owen-Smith] often emphasized that everything rested on genuine relationships between people—which, he made clear, should not be confused with alliances between conservation groups and local officials, or with the fleeting connections formed by conservationists who stop by to “train” those with whom they should be collaborating. “You can talk all you want, but if you’re not listening, you’re not going to get anything done,” he told me one afternoon, as we sat drinking strong tea in the narrow shade of his Land Rover. “You have to care about them and their problems.”
There are, to be sure, cases where resentments toward wildlife—or, more frequently, resentments between people about wildlife—are so chronic, or so amplified by social media, that they are extremely difficult to resolve. But most people, regardless of their means and location, do not want their local species to disappear forever. Given the tools to deal with pressing wildlife conflicts, they often come to appreciate once-hated species—elephants, wolves, bison—and will make considerable sacrifices for their sake. While conservationists everywhere may struggle to excite public concern about small, faraway species like the snail darter, love of other species—and pride in their protection—is more widespread than they often assume. What [Aldo] Leopold called the land ethic is often just under the surface, and rises in the right circumstances.
The Reteti Sanctuary, Kenya—© Ami Vitale
This love for non-human life became especially evident in Namibia after Owen-Smith helped convince the government to let local people manage local wildlife: Since 1998, Namibians have created more than 80 community nature conservancies. Namibian people earn money from lodges, campgrounds, and guiding services in the conservancies, and set quotas for subsistence and commercial hunting based on their observations about species health, habitat health, and the community’s needs.
Given such autonomy, Namibians are voluntarily protecting species with whom they were once at odds, like elephants. And the result have been remarkable. Attending one conservancy’s annual meeting at a dusty pavilion in the middle of the desert, Nijhuis witnessed how community-driven conservation can succeed even where top-down strategies have failed.
Even during an exceptionally difficult year, [Namibian] conservancy members had taken the trouble to travel to their meeting, consider the long-term future of other species, and recommit themselves to ensuring it. The process might be messy, but it was clearly working in important ways; though the people under the pavilion had lost dozens of domestic animals to drought-starved predators, they had not only stuck to the agreed-upon hunting quotas but chosen to leave them unfilled. I’d attended many meetings with similar goals—and far more material resources—and few could point to such meaningful outcomes. And none could equal the conservancies’ decades-long record of successes.
Northern Namibia—© Sergey Gorshkov
The history of species conservation isn’t a neat arc from colonialism to equality. Nijhuis shares plenty of examples that disrupt such delusions, from early conservationists who rejected racism to modern-day wildlife supporters who continue to undermine Indigenous rights. Yet for all our missteps—for all the creatures that disappeared under our watch and for the multitudes that still may—Beloved Beasts shows that in our bumbling, imperfect way, we’re gradually getting better at sharing this planet with non-human life. Our myopic perspective might make that trajectory hard to see at times, but if we zoom out, it’s as clear as an alpine lake.
To consumers of modern media, the story of species conservation doesn’t look much like a story. It looks like a jumble of tragedies and emergencies: the last Yangtze river dolphin, the last two northern white rhinos (both female), the soon-to-be-last vaquita—obituaries and near-obituaries relieved only by sporadic heroics and temporary successes. It takes place in a bleak present and a much bleaker future. It tempts us with the fantastical (resurrected herds of woolly mammoths) and the exceptional (extinction averted one costly, awkward artificial insemination at a time). Perhaps most dangerously, it tempts us with despair.
It’s easy to forget that the world we live in is far richer thanks to those who found convincing reasons, and the required means, to provide sanctuary to other species. Without their work, there would likely be no bison, no tigers, and no elephants; there would be few if any whales, wolves, or egrets. And there would likely be no international tradition of conservation. Over decades of alliances and arguments, conservation has expanded beyond its privileged beginnings, establishing a movement that is shaped by many people, many places, and many species.
We can learn from this tradition.
Until now, there have been few, if any, attempts to capture 150 years of species conservation into a paperback someone might pick up at an airport book store. Certainly, there aren’t any such books that both zoom far enough out to show the full arc of that history while also zooming in so closely that we recognize the motivations, shortcomings, and triumphs of the figures pivotal to it. Yet people learn best through stories, and Nijhuis hopes that by telling the stories of our planet’s extraordinary animals and the people who love them, we can move toward a future where the sixth extinction is not a foregone conclusion but one of many possibilities that may unfold. Fantasy and despair, as she writes, are tempting, but history can help us resist them.
All excerpts from Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, by Michelle Nijhuis. Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Nijhuis. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Grand Tetons, Wyoming, USA—© Doug Gimesy
Love what we do? You can help.
We’re a free multimedia magazine without a paywall or intrusive ads—and we’d like to keep it that way. We believe these stories need to be told; that inspiring both a deep appreciation for life on Earth and hope for its future is a critical step toward a thriving planet. If you agree, please consider making a donation to help secure the future of bioGraphic. Every little bit helps.