“So, what did you think of your safari?”, our guide casually asked me at the end of the trip. Over the 6 days prior to the question, he had taken my now-wife and I around Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. After a moment of consideration, I launched into a 30-minute monologue sharing all my feelings and thoughts with him. Now, I doubt he expected to spend the next half an hour listening to his client’s epiphanies but, nonetheless, I thought it might be interesting for him to hear what I had to say beyond “Oh it was great! Animals are cool! Lions are just big house cats!”
So, what have I learned from going on safari?
Wildlife is in the palm of our hand
Witnessing a pride of lions hunting buffalo, or a mother elephant teaching her baby how to use its trunk to wash its back with sand, or a pack of baboons returning to their home in the rocks after a day of socializing, was something straight out of the nature channel. However, seeing the contrast between Tanzania outside Serengeti National Park and inside the park, it suddenly hit me: pretty much everything outside national parks and other conservation areas is fully developed – it’s farms, roads, and towns. Everywhere. These animals exist, and indeed survive, in the small pocket of the earth we have carved out for them – and the power to protect this pocket, or destroy it, lies with the human species alone. For all their ferocity, in this, these creatures are at our complete mercy.
This realization, however obvious it may seem to some, came as quite a shock to me. Living in Toronto, I keep thinking that outside the big city is wilderness – lavish forests, countless animals, and plenty of raw and undiscovered natural mystery.
I’ve visited a zoo before and I have seen wildlife in captivity. However, the impact of witnessing African animals in their natural habitat went far beyond what I experienced when seeing them in a zoo. Perhaps this is because in a zoo, I have already accepted that they are not free. Being on a safari, on the other hand, you expect to see free animals. But they aren’t really. Where they live is beautiful, a huge upgrade over a zoo, but they can’t really wander outside these set park boundaries. There are too many dangers. They are trapped in the little that is left of their habitat. The Serengeti is around 30,000 square kilometers, and although this might sound massive when you compare it to a zoo, it is pretty small compared to even the size of Tanzania (which is almost a million square kilometers).
On this trip, it became obvious to me that we have submitted our planet to the point that we have countless people, groups, parties, pleading to stop wiping out wildlife and destroying natural habitats. We started killing to survive, but now we are erasing everything in the world due to the runaway freight trains of capitalism, greed, and indifference.
We aren’t all that
Human’s consciousness, arguably what propelled us to the top of the food chain, is still a mystery – we don’t yet know when was the moment we “woke up” and became self-aware. The truth is (and Stephen Hawking has elaborated on this topic in his book “Brief Answers to the Big Questions”) that we don’t know whether having consciousness long term is beneficial from an evolutionary perspective. If evolution’s ultimate goal is ensuring species’ longevity, then having the organism invent things that can wipe it (for example, nuclear weapons) may run contrary to this objective. One could argue that we are all an evolutionary experiment that backfired, and soon enough we will self-correct by doing something very stupid like polluting the air to the point of not being able to breathe it, poisoning our water sources such that they become undrinkable, or waging wars that will polish us all from the face of the Earth. Life on the planet will continue like it did before us, and we’ll just not be a part of the party.
In the infinitely complex universe as we know it, it is safe to say that we are undeniably not the peak of evolution. If we were, I’d like to think that human life would be a tad less fragile than it currently is. But humans walk on the edge of a knife – we exist on one planet only, we all susceptible to many fatal diseases, we have enough weapons for our species’ “suicide”, and we are actively destroying most necessary elements for our life.
Seeing the biodiversity on a safari, I thought about what the world could look like in a one, ten, hundred million years from now. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we are here only temporarily just like many species that have gone extinct. There is really no way to know what the future holds for our planet, but one thing is certain: our presence on it is not guaranteed.
We must be the solution, now.
While we admire the complexity of, for example, a human eye, we might overlook the fact that that human eye has been evolving for hundreds of millions of years, and has belonged to many species before we inherited it.
Just like with the eye example, it is conceivable that we could adapt to radically different environments over time. For example, we may develop natural mutations that enable us to handle highly polluted air, breakdown plastic in our stomach, or somehow ingest salt water. The key question is: how long will it take us to get there? One, ten, hundred million years? Evolution is slow!
Then there is always a bet that technology can help supplement our biological “deficiencies”. This approach is essentially banking on the fact that our self-awareness, and associated “intelligence” and ability to innovate, will help us skip the lengthy evolutionary process required to adapt to new environments, through the invention of technology. Our eyes are not perfect – we can’t really see in the dark or we can’t see as well as hawks do. But thanks to technology we don’t need to rely only on the biology – we have flashlights and binoculars, we invented a digital zoom, we can see infrared with special goggles. However, this bet on technology is highly speculative. Technology predictions are frequently optimistic and their potential is closely correlated with their failure. The further back we go the crazier the predictions of the future are, and the more wildly off they are (i.e. no, we will not domesticate whales for purposes of transportation). All predictions about future technologies even 20 years (let alone 1,000 years) from now are likely going to be very wrong.
The bottom line is that we simply can’t pay the price of waiting it out. We also can’t hope some magical technological solution will be invented by some 16-year-old prodigy – there is never a “silver bullet” especially with such complex issues as sustainability of our planet, home to 7.7 billion individuals. We must be the solution now.
Thank you for reading,