A train screams down the tracks. Dead ahead, a pile of of giant pandas frolic, inexplicably, through a bamboo stand growing through the rails. But wait! There’s a switch. Pulling it will divert the train onto another track, where a tank containing one of the last 30 vaquita will surely be crushed. Do you pull the lever, dooming the vaquita, or hold the line, flattening the frolicking pandas? Do you stammer indecisively, wondering how you ended up in this situation as you careen, inexorably, into into an increasingly unavoidable outcome?
What if, rather than the conductor’s seat, you’re at the helm of a conservation organization? What if the train wasn’t a hundred tons of steel and steam, but the relentless press of public will, funding, and focus upon which it is your duty to shape and direct into action?
The Hogwarts Sorting Hat divides students into their respective houses in their first year at the school of witchcraft and wizardry. Each house is known for having its own “personality.” In addition to potential wizards/witches, one can also sort those involved in conservation into the four Hogwarts houses.
Hufflepuff – This house stands for dedication and hard work, but also patience, tolerance, fair play and kindness. Most conservationists working in NGOs, especially those related to protection of megafauna species, are Hufflepuffs. One famous Hufflepuff was Newton Scamander, a socially awkward wizard who took it upon himself to try to save endangered magical creatures, when others just saw them as pests. Most of the herbology teachers at Hogwarts were Hufflepuffs (Neville Longbottom being a notable exception).
Adult Australian Lungfish, part of a captive breeding program in Queensland, Australia. Credit: Gordon Hides (used with permission)
On Sunday, February 5, 2017, Granddad the Australian Lungfish, the oldest fish in any aquarium or zoo, was euthanized due to health complications. Although his exact age is unknown, he arrived at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago as an adult in 1933. Australian Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) take over a decade to mature, so we can estimate he was over 90 years old when he passed.
The Australian Lungfish is a unique species, considered a “living fossil”, resembling its ancestors whose lineage dates back over 380 million years. The Australian Lungfish genus (Neoceratodus) itself has been around for about 100 million years. When first described, they were believed to be amphibians; one look at their elongate body and flipper-like fins, and you can imagine the classification conundrum. The fish even possesses a primitive lung, allowing it to breathe air in low-oxygen environments (although they usually breathe with their gills).
Learned scholars and respected leaders of society warn that a major environmental change is coming and everyone should prepare. However, heads of state, politicians and wealthy oligarchs argue and bicker, more interested in riches and power than the imminent threat. Some realize that the oncoming change will be accompanied by a host of problems, to which no one has given the necessary consideration. Those who understand the situation try to set up systems to protect against this threat but are constantly having to argue with, and even fight, their own allies. In the end, just as some progress is being made, one of the champions of these vital preparations is stabbed through the heart by his closest colleagues, who stage a coup instead of dealing with the oncoming threat.
Sound familiar? It is of course the plot of Game of Thrones, but could also be a history of most conservation issues, whether it be the threat of DDT, ozone depletion, biodiversity loss or climate change. Read More