Is nature just for us?

The other day I found an old atlas at my parents’. I read it as a child, and it is some years older than I am. I remember pouring over the strange places and the economic and population maps, wishing I could some day visit all those strange places.

A school atlas.

An atlas from the Seventies.


Now I have visited some of those places and realized there are also places I do not want to visit, but also that there are a lot of things I would like to see before they are gone. Some of the places which have disappeared probably made the world a better place by doing that (I’m looking at you, Soviet Union and DDR!), but some of the other changes in the 40 years since the printing of the book make me sad.

That is the change that made me really realize that things have changed. The population of the world was quite lot less in the Seventies – Wikipedia’s numbers for 1970 are less than four billion. The current estimate is almost seven million. I don’t think we will have a real crisis with the population because it’s already showing signs of stabilizing in a few decades.

The populations of the world, 1972

The populations of the largest countries in the world in 1972

However, while I don’t think we as a human population will not suffer a particularily large crisis, there will be a lot of small ones. During my life the growing human population has been claiming more and more arable land for living, and this has had a great effect on nature and wild life, especially for large land animals. The numbers of large animals seem to be decreasing everywhere and I think a large reason is because the wilderness they could thrive in is taken into use by humans.

This is not only detrimental for the animals. Also humans and their things get into problems when wild animals start looking for food where there are more humans. Tigers attack people and livestock, elephants and monkeys raid fields, and then the humans get angry and want them eradicated. More humans also mean more market for items made out of the wild animals, which leads to poaching and smuggling.

Also I think the bushmeat is a large problem in some areas. Large creatures, and not even so large, like monkeys and apes, get killed for food, with no concern on how they could survive. This is for the large part because the people need food and it’s one of the few ways they can get it, so I can’t go blaming them wholly.

All this still makes me sad. I wouldn’t like all the wilderness to become sort of theme parks which exist only for the amusement of humans. I am of course a product of my culture, but I think there is intrisical value in wilderness which exists with no human intervention and no human permission. There is a lot to study in the wild animals and plants, for example I’m very interested in the communication and possible culture of wild elephants. If the wild populations die out, there is nothing to study anymore.

I think this is somehow a part of the debt to future generations. I feel very sad thinking about when I have to tell my children or possible grandchildren about the wondrous creatures that lived in the wild when I was young but which are gone when they realize that such things once existed. I have no real words to tell them this. Of course I still have years to practice for some animals, but for example the Sumatran rhinos are almost gone, and the tigers don’t have much left, either.

I have no good solutions for this. Few people go and kill rare species just for the thrill of it (anymore), but the growing human populations need some way to get food. Urbanization and the slowing (and possible end) of human population growth will help, but I think for many species it is too little, too late.

The wilderness existing only with human permission is also a problem at least in some places where the human population is not increasing very much. The population of Finland grows only slowly, like most countries in the Western world, but we still have a problem with the wilderness. There is a great movement to the largest cities in Finland, and much of the countryside is emptying, but still the animals can’t exist in peace in the wilderness. Especially the large carnivores are often seen as threathening. There’s lot of hatred against wolves and wolverines, and even bears are first disturbed and then shot when they get angry.

Especially the wolves have gotten the short end of the stick in Finland. The packs have been thinned enough that they can’t reliably hunt their large prey animals, like the elk, and they have to come closer to human habitation and get the easy small prey. This makes humans angry and some of us want to hunt the wolves to extinction. There’s of course a lot of politics involved, especially in the reindeer areas, where some people’s income depends on the reindeer.  To me it seems that wolves eating the semi-domesticated reindeer is just how things are, and the reindeer owners are probably overestimating the effect of wild animals on their herds. This is of course a touchy subject, and my view is from the very South of Finland.

In my opinion we could have more wolves, and other large animals. They have not been a threat to humans for a long, long time, except for some incidents involving bears, and I think those could have been prevented. The amount of wild animals is of course hard to estimate, and some of the local people in more rural areas don’t trust the official counts at all. They then go hunting for wolves, which is of course illegal and probably gives just more reason for the remaining wolves to come near human habitation and for example eat the dogs (which are of course released in the forest by themselves). This is all sad – having a stable wolf population would be more comfortable far away from the humans and could eat elk and other wild prey, instead of having to resort to destroying human property.

I would like to leave some wilderness just by itself to the future generations, both locally and globally. I have no real solutions for this and even if I had, implementing those would be very hard: I am a good example of a privileged white person with no real touch with agriculture or different cultures and  making other people understand what I’m talking about here would probably not be easy. Locally I can have better chances to protect for example the Saimaa ringed seal or the wolves, but I am somewhat at a loss here, too.

I hope my descendants can enjoy wilderness, too, and the wondrous things one can find there. The plan is to take the children to the forest for one night in a tent this summer – let’s see if I can give more sparks to care for nature by itself for them.