Cover pic. Apollo butterfly, European Green Belt
It cannot be denied that the human world is often a place of nightmare, rife with hatred and war: nation against nation, race against race, tribe against tribe, sect against sect, political systems pitted one against the other, hostile factions splintering their own countries to the point of destruction. In the many wars of the last century 108 million humans died at the hands of other humans.
But human conflict doesn’t just kill humans. Bombs and bullets rain down on human and nonhuman animals alike.
And wars cause famine. Animals starve, and animals are eaten by starving humans. Animals are forced to suffer everything we like to inflict on our own kind, and more.
Animals are even slaughtered simply so they don’t have to be fed. On the outbreak of World War II, the British government persuaded the population it was their patriotic duty to have their beloved pets put down. The first week of the war witnessed a mass euthanasia of three quarters of a million “non-essential animals”. Cat owners were prosecuted for giving their pet a saucer of milk.
At London Zoo, fruit bats, crocodiles, alligators, snakes, spiders, and lion cubs were also euthanised..
And then there were those animals we forced into the thick of it, conscripted into a war that wasn’t theirs: “elephants, dogs, cats and pigeons, even chickens, were all recruited to help in the war effort, and many of them died.”
Turning to a different arena of war, in the 80 years since WWII, “70 percent of Africa’s protected nature reserves have been turned into battlegrounds” taking down animal populations with them. In one decade, in Mozambique alone, 90% of hippos, zebras, elephants, antelope, and other herbivores perished. Happily, the wildlife has since bounced back, almost to its pre-conflict levels.
Ironically, this very belligerence that in our kind seems so deeply rooted, sometimes has the opposite, unexpectedly happy effect not of destroying animals and Nature, but creating space for her and respite for wildlife.
How does this happen?
Mostly, all that is needed is for us to be removed from the scene. Healing Nature does the rest. This happens by chance when we create a No Man’s Land between the territories of two hostile parties. In No Man’s Land there are no humans to hunt, trap or poison the animals (human hunters kill 4 times as many smaller carnivores as do the large wild predators). No farming to plough up and fence off potential habitat, or blitz the land with pesticides. And just as importantly, there is silence.
Because even when we are not fighting each other, or persecuting the animals, not doing anything at all directly harmful, our mere presence, the mere sound of the human voice – this may come as a surprise – terrifies the creatures and drastically inhibits the natural behaviours they need for survival such as foraging or hunting. Researchers from Western University found that we humans are far scarier to badgers, for instance, than are any of the apex predators like wolves and big cats. In fact, simply the sound of people talking filled badgers with “a paralysing terror“
They concluded that we could be messing up wild animals’ lives “even more than previously imagined” – not by doing anything in particular, just by being around.
And it gets worse. If we are doing more than just being there, there are at least four ways we could actually be causing wildlife to develop cancer. We humans are it seems “an oncogenic species“. (‘Oncogenic’: tending to cause tumours) Some accolade!
So, time to remove the humans
The No Man’s Lands
1. The Iron Curtain
The Communist Soviet Bloc’s Iron Curtain stretching from “the Barents Sea at the Russian-Norwegian border, along the Baltic Coast, through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black and the Adriatic Seas,” all 12,500 kilometres of it, holds the record as the longest ever No Man’s Land in the world. This several hundred metres-wide scar of barbed wire, land mines, watchtowers and Kalashnikov-bearing border guards, dividing the whole of Europe and splitting Germany into two opposing camps, forcibly confined its citizens, and kept them from the ‘contamination’ of Western democracy.
The Curtain remained in place for forty years until it finally came down in 1989. And in that time Nature turned what was a fearful zone of death for humans, into a line of life for wild animals, an ecological corridor for wolves, bears, lynx and eagles. Along the 1,400 km strip dividing Germany alone, more than 600 threatened animal and plant species flourished.
Fortunately, conservationists in both the East and the West of the reunited Germany, were themselves united in their desire to keep that space for Nature, to protect this wildlife paradise from the inevitable human tendency to appropriate the land for human ends.
From what had been a symbol of human hostilities was born the European Green Belt, stretching along the borders of 24 states, and proudly owning a sweeter record, the record of being the longest and largest ecological network of its kind in the world.
2. The Korean DMZ
The present day DMZ, the de-militarised zone forcibly separating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south, is pint-size in comparison. Stretching 250 kilometres from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, and 4 kilometres wide, it can be seen from space as a green ribbon dividing the Korean peninsula roughly in half.
In all other respects though, with all its layers of razor wire, thousands of land mines and military guards, it bears a grisly resemblance to the former Iron Curtain. And yet, in spite of the DMZ being “steeped in violence” and “one of the most dangerous places on earth”, Nature has reclaimed this symbol of enmity too, and transformed its 1000 sq kilometres into a haven buzzing with biodiversity, with thousands of species, many of which are either already extinct or endangered in both countries.
There are “Manchurian or red crowned cranes and white naped cranes, nearly 100 species of fish, perhaps 45 types of amphibians and reptiles and over 1,000 different insect species. Scientists estimate that over 1,600 types of vascular plants, and more than 300 species of mushroom, fungi and lichen are thriving in the DMZ. Mammals such as the rare Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer and spotted seal inhabit the DMZ’s land and marine ecosystems. There are even reports of tigers, believed extinct on the peninsula since before Japanese occupation, roaming the DMZ’s mountains.
Right now, North and South are making reconciliatory noises. If the two Koreas decide to reunify, there would be no more need for the deadly DMZ. But the DMZ has become the “ecological treasury” of the two Koreas. And even more completely priceless, since over the last 100 years of almost ceaseless conflict, industrial scale mining, deforestation, and soil pollution, ecosystems are in dire straits on both sides of the divide.
Luckily, as with the former Iron Curtain, scientists and citizens in both the ROK and the DPRK, and elsewhere in the world, recognise the richness of Nature in the DMZ, and have been for some time working hard to safeguard the future of its unique ecology. Moves are afoot to get the DMZ recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Various NGOs are involved, foremost the DMZ Forum whose mission is “To support conservation of the unique biological and cultural resources of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone,
“Transforming it from a symbol of war and separation to a place of peace among humans and between humans and nature.”
What better mission could there be.
No Man’s Lands aren’t always borders
1. Take the compound of brutal dictator Idi Amin
The “Butcher of Uganda” was responsible for murdering some 300,000 of his own people. His failed invasion of Tanzania proved to be the last throw of the dice for this unspeakable man, and in 1979 he was forced to flee the country. In the video below we can see for the first time how 40 years of Nature’s handiwork has turned the place where this monster plotted his atrocities into a peaceful wildlife paradise.
And this is not the only place once scarred by his dreadful presence. The beautiful island of Mukusu, a spectacular 23-acre paradise in Lake Victoria was the despot’s combined holiday home and torture camp.
“Henry Kabwgo, a fisherman living in a wooden shack on the island’s main beach, recalled how during fishing trips he would often see bodies bobbing in the lake, dumped from the shore by Amin’s henchmen. Then the crocodiles would eat them.” Unsurprisingly he described Amin as “a terrible man, a savage”.
I have not been able to discover how the island looks in 2019, but photos dated 2005 show Nature’s living cloak of greenery softening the ruins that were once the site of bloody horror.
2. No solid borders divide the ocean
While humans are busy killing each other at sea, they can’t be troubling the fish. Back to WWII once again. Fishing boats were requisitioned and fishermen drafted. And any that were not, would have been foolhardy in the extreme to risk venturing out on to the menacing waters of war. The fish got left in peace. Nature is never slow to seize an opportunity, and fish populations burgeoned.
Not only that, but when warships sank, as many did, they made perfect artificial reefs, rapidly colonised by an abundance of marine life. 52 German warships abandoned on the seabed off the north coast of Scotland for example, “are now thriving marine habitats”. Nature once again creating life from the detritus human hostilities leave behind them.
But to every rule, there has to be an exception. Sometimes Nature can prevail even when there are too many humans
In 1945, a certain school of hungry oceanic whitetips, known to be the most aggressive of all sharks, found themselves a new and plentiful supply of food. No encounter with these animals could be worse surely, than the feeding frenzy that followed the Japanese sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the Philippines. In the 12 minutes it took the warship to founder, 900 sailors made it into the Pacific ocean, but the blood from injured men and the thrashing in the water soon attracted the whitetips.
To begin with they satisfied their hunger only with the dead. But when rescue finally arrived, the survivors had been in the water four whole days, and only 317 remained alive. No-one knows exactly how many men the whitetips devoured, but estimates reckon at least 150. If you have an appetite for reading the gruesome story in full, you can do so here.
The event, though undeniably horrific for those seamen, was spawned by humans’ own enmities, one people against another. But Nature finds a way to transcend the deadly worst we can do to each other, and to her.
“Even out of the trail of destruction we leave behind, Nature – which is so much bigger than the human race – takes over, nurturing life.”
She always does.