I like to think of myself as an optimist – one who sees the glass half full. I am happy with where I am and what I have (although I wish I could do more for my children and grandchildren). But as a conservationist, I can’t help but feel a little gloomy.
Human populations in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to double in the next forty years while the killing of African wildlife for ivory, horns, bush meat, and as a result of warfare continues to escalate in spite of worldwide outrage. A fifth of the vast Amazon rainforest has been destroyed in the last thirty years despite government crackdowns and in 2013 deforestation actually increased by almost one-third.
In Indonesia, nearly nine million acres of forest have been lost to oil palm plantations in the last twenty years. The Orangutan Land Trust’s scientific advisory board estimates that some three thousand orangutans are lost each year to habitat conversion and hunting. And if all that is not bad enough, there is global climate change to worry about. Polar bear habitat is literally melting before our eyes.
People who lobby for “animal rights” are also lobbying for the repatriation of captive animals back to the wild. Repatriation is a term that was bandied about in the first half of 2014 with regard to children who were illegally pouring across the U. S. – Mexican border. The term literally means to return someone to his or her own country. But repatriation, in this case, was not a straightforward issue because these children were not from our neighboring Mexico. They were from hundreds of miles away in Central America, fleeing crime, gang violence, and grinding poverty in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They had no homes to which they could be humanely returned.
If we are going to repatriate wild animals and move them out of zoos, aquariums, and marine parks, to what wild will they be humanely returned? Does anybody really think we can stem the tide of human population growth and the resulting destruction of animal habitats in wild areas? We may need to accept the fact that the people of Africa, Asia, and South America have a right to expand just as we did in North America and Europe, and that global climate change is going to continue into the foreseeable future. Tying the fate of wild animals to the future of their natural habitat might be ensuring their extinction rather than preventing it.
So here is a glass-half-full thought. Perhaps it is time we recognized that zoos, marine parks, and yes even circuses may hold the answer. It is these institutions that have developed the ability to live with animals and it is to these environments that most wild animals have been able to adapt. Facilities are getting better and more humane while enlightened and loving caretakers learn new techniques to ensure that animal welfare is a top priority. A large, diverse zoo habitat might be a perfectly good, permanent home for some wild animals.
Instead of trying to repatriate all wild animals, we need to find ways to allow some of them to live in our midst – a kind of Amnesty for Animals Program. If we really want to stir up an interesting partisan debate, maybe we could expand our already controversial immigration reform policies to include wild animals from around the world. It puts a whole new spin on the concept of illegal aliens!