Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Predators in Penang...and elsewhere

The short missive below was brought to my attention by HerpDigest, an email newsletter devoted to herpetology. Originally, the article was published in a newspaper printed in Penang, Malaysia (pictured above). I can find no link to the article, so I've pasted the text below.
“Breeding Ground For Snakes”
Monday, May 09, 2005, Penang, Malaysia

A vacant piece of land in Penang has turned into a breeding ground for pythons and cobras, endangering people's lives.

The site, at the junction of Perak Road and Macalister Road, is now covered with bushes and weeds and the residents nearby are now living in fear. Resident Teh Boon Seng, 42, said the owner who used to come yearly to clear the weeds failed to do so this time around. He said he had seen pythons and cobras in the area.

“Recently, I called the Fire and Rescue Services department to catch a huge python which crawled out from the site,” he said. “A few days ago, a cobra crawled into my house. We are now having sleepless nights,” he said at a press conference arranged by Komtar state assemblyman Lim Goon Soon recently. Lim said he had told the landowner four years ago to put up proper enclosures at the site, adding that the vacant land was once a haven for drug addicts.

“We want the landowner to clear up the mess fast before the snakes bite people,” he said.

There were at least 35 parcels of idle land in his constituency, he said. He urged the owners to rent out the land as parking lots.
Such situations are not uncommon in Southeast Asia, but the last sentence of this article set it apart. I’ve never been a big fan of Joni Mitchell’s song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” in which she suggests we will "pave over paradise to put up a parking lot," but the explicit parallel is jarring. (I prefer a more contemporary damning tribute to sprawl, Modest Mouse’s “Convenient Parking,” off their 1997 EP, Lonesome Crowded West.) What does an increasingly urban demographic mean for green space in our larger cities and towns? More to the point, what does such green space mean for the city's inhabitants, human and otherwise?

Yesterday, I received in the mail a plea for support from The Trust for Public Land. An attached questionnaire was comprised of questions designed to provoke ‘Yes’ replies, thereby encouraging you to pledge money. “Do you appreciate our national park system and wildlife refuges?” “Do you think it important to have wilderness areas in which you and your family can recreate?” “Do you feel our cities and towns should include more public parks and greenways?”

For the past three years, I have considered myself a champion of the wildlife corridor concept, a worldwide conservation measure trumpeted by the so-called “deep ecology” groups; the terrific Wildlands Project is an example. The “deep ecology” movement, and the wildlife corridor push with it, is often dismissed as a pipe dream but, as I see it, the only valid critique is one which focuses on the “inordinate” amount of time needed to construct this “network of networks.” Protecting and connecting all the ecosystems of the United States, much less the world at large, is an undertaking which promises to take years – perhaps centuries – of ugly courtroom battles and litigation. As Stephen Meyer writes in his excellent article, “The End of the Wild,”
“In theory this strategy could reduce the slide of ghosts and relics into oblivion if it could be implemented immediately and universally. It would be a form of global ecological zoning that would significantly lessen the influence of human selection in the excluded regions. Wildlands would enable species and populations to adapt to climate change. As an ecologically centered strategy it is most likely the only approach that could truly reduce the scale and scope of the biotic collapse that is already underway.

Yet the notion that upwards of seven billion people could live hobbit-like with nature is hard to accept. With the right social framework we might have been able to do it modestly in 1304, but not in 2004 and certainly not in 2104. Global society is moving rapidly and inexorably in the opposite direction.

To be fair, advocates of wildlands acknowledge that, owing to enormous social, political, and economic hurdles, their vision would be at minimum a 100-year undertaking. The problem, of course, is that the end of the wild will already be complete.”
There is a more specific and more interesting question, however. Where the towns and cities “touch” the wildlife corridors, how much connection is to be allowed? For example, if species are able to make their way from a designated wildland to a city park, we suddenly face potential threats from unknown invasive species and a surplus of prey species “hiding out” downtown.

I turn here to Reed F. Noss, a biologist closely associated with The Wildlands Project. The following excerpt is taken from his paper, “Can Urban Areas Have Ecological Integrity?” (I can no longer locate this paper online, but it was published in conjunction with the 4th International Symposium on Urban Wildlife.)
"There are 2 potential problems with this 'network of networks' design. One, corridors leading from the more developed zones of the network might funnel exotics and other opportunistic, weedy species into wildland areas. We know that roads and roadsides, for example, are frequent avenues for the invasion of these pests. I predict, however, that the wildlife corridor network is unlikely to facilitate weedy species invasion of wildlands beyond that already facilitated by roads. In fact, well-designed corridors, especially if wide, may provide habitat for predators of these weedy species. In addition, corridor bottlenecks could be used to trap weedy species and possibly reduce their spread.

A potentially more serious concern is that of corridors connected to wildlands or rural areas funneling problematic large mammals into suburban and urban areas. This is already a problem with deer....Following the deer into suburban areas, however, may be a natural predator of deer - mountain lions. Unfortunately, these predators sometimes also attack joggers and other people. Wildlife corridors have been implicated in bringing both deer and lions into Boulder, Colorado which has created some problems."
And so, at long last, I come back to the Lim Goon Soon comment about the need for more parking lots in Penang. Though Malaysian cities are not surrounded by anything resembling the wildlife corridors advocated by the deep ecology movement, the rural and the urban do butt up against one another in a more explicit fashion than they generally do in the western world. The boundaries blurred, predators passing through a town or city are that much more likely to take up residence in the vacant lots.

So what is to be done? Is their a solution that allows for all parties to be represented or must we “pave over paradise” to quell our fears? For my part, I feel that predators (whether lions, bears, or cobras), living in close proximity to humans need not be a problem. If people were more willing to live alongside other species – a tolerance developed over several generations – safety precautions and sensible behavior would result in less conflict between man and beast. If a mountain lion (Puma concolor) has been frequenting your backyard, bring your dog indoors at night rather than allowing Buster to romp unattended. If a large Great White shark (Carcharodon carcharias) has been repeatedly spotted just beyond the breakers, don’t paddle your board out. Unfortunately, less conflict doesn’t mean a cessation of mawlings or snakebites and so the primal fear of predators will remain an issue for many more generations of man. When and if it does vanish, odds are there will no longer be any predators remaining. Modern man continues to repeat the mistakes of the preceding generations: pave it, mine it, milk it, and propagate, propagate, propagate. The recent boom and bust seizures of the economy are merely a time-lapse film of human history.

Photo credit: Penang, Malaysia, Copyright Chris Rouch. 1999-2005

1 comment:

OGeorge said...

No comment HH, you've said it all well. I never could stand Joni Mitchell though.