Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Celebrating wildlife

World Wildlife Day is an opportunity to reflect on our role in creation and our responsibility for other species, writes Dominique Tawfik

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt marked World Wildlife Day, 3 March, with an event at the Greater Cairo Library in Zamalek. The event honoured the memory of Yasser Osman, a former faculty member of the Desert Research Institute, and Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) rangers who died while working in the country’s national parks and protect areas.

The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was adopted on 3 March 1973. The date was designated as World Wildlife Day to raise awareness about the importance of wild fauna and flora, not only for their economic value but also for their ecological, cultural and recreational qualities and intrinsic value.

 CITES regulates the trade of more than 35,000 species of animals and plants, whether traded as live specimens, such as monkeys, or products such as fur coats or mahogany wood. Its role is to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of species. There are 180 member countries to the Convention, which was signed by Egypt in 1978.

As the global population has grown both in wealth and numbers, so has the demand for wildlife. The most important categories of wildlife traded both in volume and value are timber and seafood. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), more than $100 billion worth of fish and nearly $200 billion worth of timber were traded in 2009.

 Meanwhile, wildlife traffic generates an estimated $20 billion to $40 billion a year, ranking close to the top of the list of the most lucrative global illegal activities behind drugs and arms. The effects are disastrous, impacting conservation efforts.

 Other than fish and timber, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), whose mandate is the care and protection of wildlife populations as well as individual animals, gives a snapshot of wildlife trade through a six-week survey carried out in 2014 on 280 online marketplaces in 16 countries.

Researchers found 33,006 advertisements for wildlife and wildlife parts and products for species protected under CITES. The top category was ivory, followed by reptiles and birds.

Egypt is also involved in the wildlife trade, as African animals and wildlife products like ivory transit through Cairo airport, or remain in the country to satisfy local demand. Dina Zulfikar is an Egyptian animal rights activist who has intervened in cases where animals, including chimpanzees and gorillas, were victims of traffic, and monitors the fate of confiscated animals.

The improvement of animal welfare is also on the agenda of the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights (SPARE), whose mission is to consolidate animal legislation in Egypt, including new articles on compassion and mercy.

In the 42 years between the adoption of CITES and today, the world has witnessed a decline of 52 per cent in wildlife. The causes are summarised by the acronym HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population increase and overharvesting by hunting and fishing and, last but not least, climate change, a form of habitat destruction.

 Some scientists are now describing this accelerating drop in biodiversity as the sixth mass extinction. Extinction is a natural phenomenon, as life forms adapt to changing conditions on Earth. For instance, Wadi Al-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales, in the Fayoum was below sea level 35 to 40 million years ago, as the fossil remains there of a now extinct whale ancestor, the basilosaurus, testify.

Palaeontologists agree that there have been five mass extinctions over the 4.3 billion year history of life on Earth. The last one put an end to the reign of the dinosaurs. Whereas the main cause of the dinosaurs’ extinction are now thought to be intense volcanism over a prolonged period, it is humankind’s activities that are clearly provoking the sixth great extinction.

As those who enjoy watching wildlife documentaries know, humans are not unique in destroying the lives of other beings to feed themselves and thrive. The difference lies in the speed and the scale at which increasingly powerful and invasive technologies interfere with the Earth’s ecosystems. One concern today is that this may backfire on humanity.

 Although the drift away from nature started with ancient civilisations, the mainstream contemporary attitude toward nature arose in 16th- and 17th-century Europe with the Enlightenment. This movement fostered individual freedom, scientific curiosity and technical development.

Scientific discoveries opened the door to new technologies and large-scale industries. Some 17th-century thinkers like Thomas Hobbes developed a mechanistic view of nature, and René Descartes compared animals to automatons or even clocks.

In contrast, contemporary science is revealing that the Earth and its life systems are more intricate, more elegant and infinitely more complex than was ever dreamed of. The findings of animal behaviour research are blurring the frontiers between the minds and emotions of animals and ours.

While vertebrates, including mammals, birds and fish, and plants which nature conservation efforts such as CITES address are quite well studied, little is known about the vast majority of bacteria and other microorganisms that are essential to the survival of the biosphere, including ourselves.

World Wildlife Day is an occasion to reflect on the issues brought up in the 10th-century tale The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn, written collectively by the “Brethren of Purity” who lived in Basra, Iraq. In this story, the animals complain about the cruelty of humans and the way they misuse their superiority. Humans, they claim, are the only creatures that do not assume their proper role or stay in their proper place.

 In his introduction to a newly released reissue of the book, philosopher Seyyed Hussein Nasr frames the questions we may well ask ourselves at a time when, as he says, we have adopted lifestyles that are totally out of harmony with nature and based on a complete disregard for other life forms: “What are our rights over other creatures and what are the limits of their rights? What is the goal of human life and what is our role vis-à-vis the rest of creation while we seek to attain that goal?”

 Surprisingly, reconnecting with nature is possible even without leaving Cairo, where the sky, buildings and tree-lined streets have been adopted as habitats by a number of wildlife species. Among the most familiar are the house sparrow, the hooded crow and the cattle egret, as well as the much-maligned gecko.

Activities in the field are proposed by Nature Conservation Egypt and the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), two major NGOs that are concerned with the preservation of nature in Egypt.

Books on Egyptian wildlife include Sherif Baha Elin’s Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt and Common Birds of Egypt (with Bertell Bruun), Richard Hoath’s Mammals of Egypt, Francis Gilbert and Samy Zalat’s Butterflies of Egypt, and Loutfy Boulos’s Weed Flora of Egypt. Information on Egypt’s biodiversity and protected areas is also available from the EEAA.

The writer is a freelance English language Instructor at AUC.

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