On What is Lost

The beauty and genius of a work of art may yet be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer, but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again. C. William Beebee

William Beebee was the David Attenborough of the early twentieth century. Ornithologist, explorer and trail-blazing conservationist, he led dozens of expeditions for the New York Zoological Society and the American Museum of Natural History and, in the early 1930s, spellbound wireless listeners with his bathysphere broadcast from half a mile down in the ocean, describing never-before-seen fish and other marine life beyond most people’s craziest sci-fi dreams.

I came across Beebee through the quotation at the top of this blog, which Gerald Durrell used at the front of one of his books. Durrell’s ashes now rest at Jersey Zoo beneath a stone inscribed with the same quotation. They are words that, from my first reading of them, have resounded with each beat of my heart. They are words that I cannot believe do not inspire a sad sort of panic in anyone who hears them. I thought of them last week when I read about the disappearance of Tanzania’s elephants. Aerial surveys in 2013 and 2014 confirmed that Tanzania has lost two-thirds of its elephant population in only four years. First the Selous, then the Ruaha and soon, perhaps, the Serengeti. These aren’t subsistence poachers – impoverished farmers or disgruntled locals pushed out to make a “better” national park experience for dollar-rich tourists – or even haphazardly-organised gangs. No, these are criminal syndicates based in faraway Dar-es-Salaam and divided into “teams”, responsible respectively for scouting the animals, killing them, butchering their remains and, finally, transporting what they came for: ivory.

Immense amounts of money still resides in ivory (just as with rhino horn, tiger bone, turtle shells and shahtoosh among others). We can blame China and the childlike belief of many of its residents of the cancer-curing, penis-stiffening, blood-warming properties of ivory et al all we like – and maybe we should do so. However, we must not forget also to look much closer to our comfortable Western homes to find the cavalier lack of respect that characterises so many of our dealings with all those millions and millions of creatures with whom we share our earth.

Take “Cecil”, the Zimbabwean lion, reportedly illegally lured from his reserve, shot with a bow and arrow and then pursued for the 40 hours it took him to die before he was finished off by a gun. And the killer? A dentist from Minnesota already so in love with hunting for hunting’s sake that he’s under a probation order for his inexactitude over precisely where a black bear was killed in Wisconsin in 2006. But it’s not only him; it’s every bystander too: the applauding ones, the silent ones, even the ones who turn their back in a show of caring. After all, this is a man whose online presence showing him posing with a slaughtered rhino and a slain leopard apparently caused no more disquiet among his friends and associates than, say, a change to his golf handicap or a significant birthday. If such activities are deemed normal – whether grudgingly or not – then where is the impetus for change?

I’ve read things today suggesting that neither Cecil nor this gun-loving dentist deserve the publicity they’ve received. Apparently I should be more concerned with the nameless, numberless dead in the DRC and Syria or with the hundreds of thousands of children being lowered further into Dickensian life by our Dear Leaders and their “we’re all in this together” philosophy. And I am concerned. Of course I am. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t also care about the fate of Tanzania’s elephants and “Cecil” the lion. To me, each feeds into the other. To be properly human is to care about anything that once gone is forever lost, whether that’s a population of elephants, an individual lion, the childhood and improved life-chances of a country’s children or civilians wiped out in conflicts they didn’t start and can’t finish. William Beebee spoke sense. There’s no rewind button. What a pity we can’t see it.