In a cave in the Lonely Mountain there lived a dragon. Not a gnarly, goblin-stuffed, slimy cave, filled with the bowels of orcs and fishy creepers, nor yet an empty, granite, echo-less cave with nothing in it to lie down on or horde: it was a dragon-cave, and that meant gold. At least it did, until a nasty band of poachers found Lonesome Smaug, the last of his species, alone, asleep, threatening none, and smote his genus from the red ledger, stripping Middle Earth of critical biodiversity.
The ecologists of Carsondell would say, of the age of war that followed, that the men and dwarves and elves and hobbits brought the darkness upon themselves. Indeed, as the Dark Lord raised his army, denuded the forests, and belched carbon from the factories of Mordor, Gandalf the Grey, one of the more powerful, though among the least conservation-minded, of the wizards would remark: “It has been said that dragon-fire could melt and consume the Rings of Power, but there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough.”
The Grey Wizard failed to mention that, were it not for his callousness, there would be*.
A more attentive naturalist might have informed Gandalf that there were, as point of fact, four instances where rings of power were consumed and destroyed by dragon fire. They could have drawn from the long history of Middle Earth to report that that, of the rings of power, “Seven the Dwarf-kings possessed, but three he has recovered, and the others the dragons have consumed.” The “he” in that passage is the Dark Lord Sauron. Perhaps, fearing the dragon’s fire, it was the One Ring itself that guided the hapless hobbit towards Smaug’s weakness, eliminating the penultimate threat to its reunion with its true master.
Only one thing is certain. The poaching of a critically endangered species for a paltry pile of gold caused a cascading ecosystem collapse that nearly resulted in the desolation of life on Middle Earth.
This is why we have laws like the (admittedly imperfect) Endangered Species Act, to protect species threatened with extinction not based on their extrinsic social, cultural, or economic value, but because we recognize that ecosystem health is dependent on maintaining natural biodiversity.
In just about any other context, we intuitively understand that diversity is important. An investor who puts all their fortunes into sub-prime mortgages with fall faster than the Steward of Gondor from the promontory of Minas Tirith. You wouldn’t form a fellowship with nothing but axes. Every deposed dwarf king knows to have at least one burglar in his party. Yet when it comes to biodiversity, we still find ourselves in endless arguments over why this particular species of rhinoceros, why this dolphin, why this salamander, in particular, needs saving. Writing off a single species as inconsequential is trivially easy, but that path misses the forest for the trees. In the end, it’s incredibly hard to predict the long-terms effects of biodiversity loss, whether it be in the form of ecologic cascades affecting several trophic levels or the return of Sauron, the Dark Lord and a war that rages across the whole of Middle Earth.
The ecological impact of a single case of (entirely legal) poaching on Middle Earth is profound. Entire ecosystems were crushed under the Mordor War machine. Dozens of rare Oliphants were killed, many by a single elf. The Entwives vanished, marking the eventual extinction of the Ents and the forests they tend. Even the elves up and left, migrating across the sea to less hostile lands. Maybe if all the Wargs weren’t rounded up to serve as Orc steeds during the third age, there would be an eagle population sufficient to provide safe, rapid transport to Mount Doom; not that those poor hobbits would have needed it, since they could safely remain in the shire, developing vigorous and potent pipe-weed hybrids from a diverse and vibrant wild stock.
Middle Earth is not the only word struggling with the consequences of removing large predators and other foundation species that maintain and shape ecosystems. Sharks exert significant top-down control over ocean ecosystems, their removal fundamentally alters coral reefs and other ocean biomes, sea turtles and manatees once exerted huge influence over seagrass habitats, and wolves are critical to structuring terrestrial range lands.
As we close 2014, two charismatic species, and countless others, wait on the brink of extinction. Only 5 northern white rhinos remain, none of which exist in the wild; less than 100 Vaquita, the tiniest porpoise in the ocean, are left. Last month, the St. Helena earwig, a lordly and magnificent insect, was formally declared extinct.
For us, there is no solution as straightforward as casting a ring into the fires of Mount Doom. There is no singular enemy who will collapse into oblivion upon defeat. We cannot simply purge evil from the land. The battle to save biodiversity is a war of temporary victories and permanent defeats.
“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
~Thorin Oakenshield, The Hobbit
*Note: I am aware that the full text of this quote: “It has been said that dragon-fire could melt and consume the Rings of Power, but there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough; nor was there ever any dragon, not even Ancalagon the Black, who could have harmed the One Ring, the Ruling Ring, for that was made by Sauron himself.” would seem to discredit the premise of this article. However, I am of the school of thought that believes Gandalf to be an unreliable narrator, at times telling the fellowship what they need to hear or omitting salient details that might otherwise lead the Fellowship astray. Thus, while we know for certain, within Middle Earth lore, that four rings were consumed by dragon fire, we have only the word of Gandalf the Grey that no dragon fire could destroy the One Ring. Unfortunately, the only experiment which could determine once an for all the effects of fire drakes on precious rings is forever out of our reach since the extinction of the dragons.
A final thought: the total value of gold in Smaug’s horde was estimated at $133 billion. I leave it up to economists and Tolkien scholars to determine if the total cost of Ring War exceeds the economic gains made by poaching the last dragon.