There’s a lot in the media at the moment about Cecil – Zimbabwe’s most famous lion – who was killed in a “trophy hunt” this month. (If you tell me you haven’t heard the name Walter Palmer or seen that nausea-inducing white grin I’m going to assume you’re a hermit). But if we think about it, as tragic as it may be, the barbaric act of one rich American tourist is shining the spotlight on animal conservation issues across the globe… maybe we can use it to change things for the better?
Humans have always hunted animals. Initially out of necessity, (I’m thinking a caveman and the odd woolly mammoth here) but then mankind got cocky: hunting became industrial and nature was knocked out of balance.
The Whaling Industry like trophy hunts, made big money: it’s been said that during the 18th century whale oil was equivalent to petrol, and baleen to plastic – that’s how dependent we were on Whale Hunting.
Whales and the oil-rich Sperm whale in particular, lit up streets and clothed women – and Whalers were heroes. Young men were drawn in by tales of sailing to exotic corners of the earth and battling gigantic beasts.
But when they finally bore witness to the gruesome process of slaughtering and processing these beautiful creatures, they were often appalled. There are heart-breaking records of orphaned calves nudging the sides of a whaling ships while the crew was carving up its mother’s body on board – many whalers actually gave up their careers after witnessing such cruelty (the calf would almost certainly die shortly afterwards without its mothers milk to sustain it). Once on dry land sailors suffered nightmares – reliving the horror of having to deal repeated jabs to a whales side, until the animal sustained so many internal punctures that it drowned in its own blood.
In the absence of Sperm Whales hunters would happily take a harvest of Right Whales – so called as it was considered the “right” whale to catch due to its high blubber content and its tendency to spend a lot of time at the surface close to land, therefore they were easy to reach and would float once killed. Too easy.
So in my opinion the hunters of yesterday could be forgiven for their part in this grizzly industry. After all, when it all began whales were relatively plentiful and the human race was dependent on the products they provided (an entirely different scenario to the needlessly bloodthirsty Dr Palmer). But the Whaler’s mixture of greed and ignorance took its toll – Whale numbers dwindled and the 1930’s they were noticeably absent from oceans that were once hugely profitable. Thankfully, protection was put in place as we began to recognise the consequences of our actions, and the Industry gave way to newer, man-made materials. Despite this, countries such as Japan and the Faeroe Islands continue to hunt and kill whales to this day.
But as much as I am up for forgiving yesterday’s Whalers, I am wholly against forgetting their destructive legacy. This is a prime opportunity for mankind to learn from past mistakes! The damage caused is still tangible today; North Atlantic Right Whales were the first to be afforded protection from hunting, yet their numbers have never recovered. The characteristics that made them prime targets for Whalers are the same ones hindering their recovery – Right Whales like to ‘hug’ the coast and tend to frequent the shallows in areas which have now become busy shipping routes, consequently 60% of Right Whales monitored have been struck by vessels or tangled in fishing lines at some point.
The worry is that the amount of animals left provide such a restricted breeding pool that the future of the entire species is under threat – only eight distinct genetic lines remain, so every breeding female killed by vessel strikes or entanglement is a huge loss.
So while the world is off vilifying Dr Palmer, why not do something positive and set yourself apart from him? One way is to try and reverse the damage to Right Whales; Dr Charles ‘Stormy’ Mayo (what a name…) is a world-renowned Right Whale researcher at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies – their response team has rescued hundreds of whales from entanglement while teaching others to do the same all over the world, and is constantly in need of donations and volunteers. And there’s an eerie similarity between today’s conservationists and yesterday’s hunters: just as sailors were tethered to their prey by harpoons, the researchers of Cape Cod are often dragged along by an entangled whale in their bid to free it.
N.B. Controversial Captain Paul Watson of Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd fame wrote an article last week expressing a similar view… but was (typically) much less diplomatic 😛