‘In 50 years I don't see how any big predators will survive’
Writer David Quammen has been crystallising scientific knowledge from the front lines of research in ecology and evolution into literary wisdom. He’s best known for his book The Song of the Dodo and for his writings in National Geographic. His latest and much-awaited book Spillover: Animal Infections and The Next Human Pandemic took him six years to research and write, and will be published on 1 October 2012. Over the years he has received several awards for his exemplary efforts at advancing public understanding of evolutionary science and biology, the most recent being the Stephen Jay Gould Award, which the Society for the Study of Evolution bestowed on him in July 2012 for communicating science to the general public. Nandini Velho and Umesh Srinivasan interviewed the author at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, during his visit to deliver a series of public talks at science institutes in the city. Quammen discusses the diverse challenges that science faces today and tells us why science works.
Photo: Sandesh Kadur
Both Darwinian evolution and quantum mechanics might provide answers that could come into conflict with religion. Why is Darwinian evolution so contentious, especially from where you come (the United States)?
Quantum mechanics and Einsteinian relativity don't threaten the belief that man is special or humanity is a privilege. Darwinism, if you understand it correctly, does threaten that. Although there are a lot of theistic Darwinists who try to do some acrobatic rationalising—but it's not persuasive to me. The people who are resistant to Darwinism are threatened by the idea of human evolution. I think that they're right to be threatened. If they were even more knowledgeable they would be even more threatened. That's just my opinion. But there's something else operating in America. It seems to be ingrained in the American character (if you can talk about an American character): a stubborn disinclination to accept what the experts say. It's important to remember that 46 per cent of American people refuse to believe that humans have evolved. They're not talking about evolution of reptiles or birds.
Aren't you from the same place where the famous philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was set?
I know the book, but I don't know Robert Pirsig the author. He spent a short period of time in Bozeman, Montana, as a tourist passing through. Actually I didn't quite like the book. Around the point when Pirsig says that he had a very dangerous encounter with a moose (which isn't, as he claimed, more dangerous than a grizzly bear) and cleverly survived it, I decided that this book was not for me.
So you think the philosophical debates surrounding wildlife conservation paradigms aim for an ideal that is not realizable?
Frankly, the philosophical debates that surround conservation are less important and less valuable compared to the more concrete discussions about possibilities of conservation. These include the constraints, the costs, who cares, who does not care, and who should care about conservation. The philosophical debates are not going to have any effect on what happens on the ground. I think it's going to be history, personality, economics, land use, interests and culture.
You've travelled across all continents, and seen conservation efforts first hand. What are the major differences between the tropics and other areas?
Well, I have never been to Antarctica!
Among the most important differences is that most of the world's biological diversity is in the tropics. I live in a non-tropical, temperate place in the United States of America. It’s fairly wild, there are beautiful landscapes; large, difficult animals with few humans. It also has famous charismatic mega-fauna: the grizzly bear, the bison, mountain lion, elk and a number of other species. Some people in the United States would think that this is one of the most important conservation landscapes in the country. But there is not much biological diversity, in terms of sheer number of species—what ecologists call alpha diversity—compared to, say, India, Madagascar, Brazil or Congo.
Then, there are differences in terms of the way people think about conservation. Big predators are inconvenient to have both in the tropics and non-tropics. People who raise livestock are the first to experience this. Livestock displaces the native prey base, as a result of which big predators begin to eat livestock. The people who raise livestock in temperate zones are not as poor and are much better armed than the people who raise livestock in the tropics. To make a gross generalisation: they get hurt and killed less, and they don't lose children. They have guns and are politically more powerful (where I live) than for instance in India. So, the conservation results are that predators are less tolerated in the temperate areas. On the other hand, boundaries are quite well enforced in our parks and wildlife refuges.
You write extensively about how islands or forest fragments face ecosystem decay. Given that India’s wildlife has survived only in isolated pockets, what do you see thirty years from now?
That's just a really hard and honest question. I don't want to be a depressing voice, and here's why I want to be an optimist. Ten years ago in my book Monster of God, I said in 50 years I don't see how any big predators will survive. And I don't retract that. There are several reasons why I say that. But that's not to say we should lose hope. We need to think of new ways to refresh the gene pool, tighten protection, and stop poaching for all the medical and sexual products of tigers, elephants and rhinos. There are new scientific and technological ideas (DNA fingerprinting of elephant ivory to trace the origin, for instance) that can be used in this endeavor. Something else I'm worried about is that some of our protected areas are not only too small, but they may be de-gazetted as economic pressure increases. If we can get a handle on those things, we can still have big predators and large-bodied herbivores in these small protected areas.
What role do you see countries such as India and China playing in conserving biodiversity, given the huge socio-economic challenges they face?
India and China will lead the world in understanding how the future will work. This is where the future is. So whatever solutions that India and China come up with to deal with the problems of huge population pressures, bona fide needs of the unprivileged sections of society, and at the same time, trying to conserve biological diversity, will be blueprints for the rest of the world.
How do you balance the reality of reporting threats versus the narrative of nature as a tragedy?
Readers definitely face disaster fatigue about climate change, extinction, and all of these things. The public has an inclination to say, “Oh, no more bad news about the polar bears, whales, baby seals, and tigers, for god's sake.” So how do you deal with that, as a writer?
You deal with it with imagination. To put it in cynical terms, by sugar-coating the pill. Personally, it's what makes my own professional niche important, possible, challenging, and interesting. The fact is that you cannot just deliver bad news. You have to tell stories that engage people with surprise and wonder—that keep them turning the pages. You have to engage their emotions, intellect and conscience. This is something I believe in very strongly, with any kind of writing— people cry, but you also have to be able to make them laugh. So that's what I try and do in my books.
Nandini Velho and Umesh Srinivasan are doctoral students pursuing wildlife biology and conservation.