my first cartoon ever! and possibly my last.
I haven’t posted much this week as work and personal life have intervened. But I have been doing a lot of thinking.
I’m still struggling with the idea of Self-willed Land. I struggle to get off the mark, to be honest. The idea of self-willed land is a human notion, we impose that notion on the land. But going down this route means self-willed land automatically ceases to retain its meaning of “beyond human control”. The only way out of that conundrum is to place us in and of the land. In which case our interventions on the land are also of the land, just like any other ecosystem engineer species.
It reminds me of that scene in Life of Brian: “You’re all individuals”, shouts Brian to the crowd. “Yes, we are all individuals”, shouts back the crowd in unison. Apart from one person who says quietly “I’m not.”
Leaving that problem aside, what happens when we introduce a species as part of restoring self-willed land? Say – an elephant. I personally love the idea of introducing elephants into the British countryside. I think re-introduction is probably stretching that concept to breaking point for elephants, since both of the most recent species are extinct – woolly mammoth would not be too happy in our current climate, and Straight-tusked elephant hasn’t been here for over 100,000 years before it went extinct on mainland Europe around 40,000 years ago. George Monbiot in Feral suggests Asian elephant would be the closest fit, but I think African Forest elephant would be better – possibly the pigmy forest elephant. It might go down better with landowners.
But we can’t get away from the fact that once again we are ignoring the will of the land, by introducing a species which has not introduced itself. Introducing a species of any kind can have a profound impact on the ecology of an area. Look at the impact of signal crayfish, or grey squirrel. But attitudes to introductions change – and now we value ancient introductions like brown hare, cornflower and so on. So introductions might be good or bad (and we cannot tell until it’s too late), but whatever their impact, introduction is a human act and at odds with the notion of self-willed land.
Back to elephants.
African (and indeed Asian) forest elephants are amazing creatures, real ecosystem engineers. They create and maintain a large scale network of paths and forest clearings (known as Bai’s) in the African rainforest where they survive. Bai’s can be very large and numerous, and are thought to play a key role in elephant social behaviour.
In the 300,000ha of Nki National Park in Cameroon, 73 Bai’s have been found so far, the largest approaching 10ha. These Bai’s play an essential role in the functioning of the Forest ecosystem, especially for large mammals. They often occur where minerals are available (also known as salt licks) to aid digestion by large herbivores of toxic plant material.
African forest elephants also play a key role in dispersing the seeds of many species of trees that are found in the West African rainforest. I wonder whether some of the species only now found in British ancient woodlands with no obvious dispersal agent, such as Herb Paris, Spurge Laurel or Mezereon, were originally dispersed by elephants.
There is some evidence to suggest that Straight-tusked elephants were hunted to extinction in Europe by paleolithic hunters: others suggest climate change. Whatever the cause, Straight-tusked Elephants failed to recolonise Britain at the end of the last glaciation. This means that there was no ecosystem engineer species of large herbivore in the Mesolithic to create the patchwork of clearings and permanent large tracks that would have been there in previous interglacials. Indeed there is some evidence to suggest that in previous interglacials, Straight-tusked elephants modified forest landscapes sufficiently to transform them to savannah, in the same way that African Savannah elephants do today. The Mesolithic Wildwood, for however long it really existed before significant human modification, grew up without its main ecosystem engineer – it was a shadow of its previous incarnations.
Straight-tusked elephants were about 4m tall at the shoulder, compared with African Forest elephants that are around 2.5m tall at the shoulder. Simple scaling up would indicate that forest clearings created by these extinct behemoths would be around 2.5 times larger ie 25ha.
So on this basis, by maintaining open areas of this sort of scale, far from being ecologically illiterate, conservationists are merely acting as the lost elephant in the room.