I’ve been reading Douglas Adams’s posthumous work, The Salmon of Doubt. I like a lot of it, but these two paragraphs especially struck a chord with me:

I’d add to that a little about the situation in India, where it’s no longer Europeans but the Indian élite who are wading in and causing trouble for the local people.

The genetic diversity that really matters may not be so much in the big, charismatic mammals such as rhinos, lions and elephants anyway – but in the food crops, the pollinating insects, the insects that eat the pests, the earthworms, the bacteria and fungi that help things to rot and return the nutrients to the soil, the nitrogen fixing bacteria in the root nodules of legumes, the lichens that slowly break rocks into soil and a thousand and one other creepy crawlies and tiny things we don’t even know the vital importance of yet, all of which are under continual attack by the agricultural industry in rich countries. (That’s not to say the big charismatic animals are completely unimportant: their presence may have complex effects in an ecosystem, not always appreciated until it’s too late.)

And then there’s this little piece I wrote for the SSERC Bulletin in 1990:

Rainforests, tigers, mammoths – ramblings

Saving the rainforests of the world is a pretty good idea, certainly. But the “holier than thou” attitude of the rich world to the third world countries where the rainforests are being destroyed is pretty nauseating. Our forests were destroyed during our countries’ development, and while we can scarcely be blamed for the sins (?) of our ancestors, we don’t seem to be putting any great effort into repairing the damage.

One of our major concerns seems to be the global carbon dioxide balance. We see the great rainforests as one of the world’s great lungs, a sink for carbon dioxide. But the fact is that left alone, they wouldn’t be a sink or a source: they would be roughly in balance. Chopped down, they are certainly a source, but compared to the burning of coal and oil by the rich countries, a pretty insignificant one. If we were making more effort to reduce our own conspicuous consumption, we might be in a better position to criticize the mote in our brother’s eye.

Another more compelling concern is with species extinction. Small reserves of rainforest could not preserve every species that can survive in the enormous tracts that still exist today. Again, we cannot be blamed to the extinction of mammoths, sabre tooth tigers and 37,284 species of butterfly of which we have no surviving evidence, committed (perhaps) by our (and our brother’s) ancestors; but we in the rich world are still extinguishing species right left and centre. We don’t know how to repair the damage.

But imagine the scenario: a team of bioarchaeologists unearth a mammoth preserved in the ice. There is sufficiently well-preserved genetic material to clone a real live test-tube mammoth baby. An embryo is implanted in an elephant’s womb, and a real live mammoth is born – and another, and another. Zoos (sorry, I mean Species Preservation Establishments) the world over are ecstatic, and a mammoth breeding program is started. The People’s Republic of Siberia generously donates ten thousand square kilometres for a reserve for a “wild” herd.

A few mammoths escape, and a true wild population is established. Public pressure prevents them being rounded up.

The next find is a sabre-toothed you don’t want wild sabre toothed tigers in your back garden? That’s funny, you seem to want wild Bengal tigers in my father-in-law’s back garden.

OK, sabre-toothed tigers are extinct, and likely to remain so, so the whole question is hypothetical. But wolves aren’t extinct, yet; and they’re nothing like as dangerous as tigers, but I bet you don’t want them in your back garden, either.

Coming back to where we started, my in-laws are as concerned as you are about the destruction of the forest – not rainforest as it happens, in their part of India, but forest nonetheless. I hope that they feel less guilty about the bit of wood they burn to cook with, or to fire their roof-tiles with, than you do about the petrol you use going for a Sunday drive. They are certainly conscious that they have to go further nowadays to get wood, and that nowadays they meet people coming the other way from the next village, which thirty years ago they didn’t.

The situation in India is not deteriorating as fast as in, say, Brazil or Borneo. For all their sins, Indian governments have been fairly effective in protecting India’s forests – and forest peoples – from exploitation by international logging interests, or by farmers wanting to establish cattle ranches to satisfy the rich world’s demand for beefburgers [but see note below].

In case you think it’s of any relevance, India’s population density is about the same as the EEC’s; China’s is about half that, and Japan’s about 50% more. The USA’s is about 10% of the EEC’s, and Brazil’s, Borneo’s and the USSR’s about 5% [see note below].

Note: I wrote this in 1990. Population densities have changed since then, but the broad picture remains similar. The protection afforded by the Indian government to India’s forests and forest peoples is very much diminished, mostly in the interests of mining companies and “eco”tourism rather than cattle ranchers or logging companies. See War in the Heart of India. And of course Jurassic Park has raised public awareness of the idea of resurrecting species.

See also Tribespeople illegally evicted from ‘Jungle Book’ tiger reserve and How the tribal affairs ministry allowed tiger reserves to get away with displacing Adivasis.