Humans, Wild Asses and Ecological Disasters

Are onagers (also known as the Asiatic Wild Ass – but aside from the title, I’m sticking with onager) the hope for Israel’s Negev Desert or are they an unmitigated ecological disaster? That’s the opening line of a recent Ha’aretz Magazine cover story (20.12.17) that investigates the ecological, economic and social impact of one of Israel’s longest running wildlife reintroduction programs. The article investigates claims by local farmers that not only is the growing herd of onagers damaging local farms and agricultural production, but it is causing ecological damage to the natural vegetation of the Negev highlands, especially the flower-blessed Borot Lutz Nature Reserve. The article goes on to consider the various implications of the onager reintroduction program, focusing particularly on the conflict between wildlife and human settlement. The onagers have indeed knocked over fences, trampled agricultural crops, exploited water supplies at the expense of farmers, and caused general mayhem and economic damage for the farmers. The possibility is raised of culling (i.e. killing) some the herd.

That general story line – conflict between wild animal species and humans – can be reiterated in a dozen contexts in Israel alone, and is representative of 1000s of conflicts across the globe. In Israel, migrating pelicans eat fish from kibbutz fish farms across the Galilee and coast, wolves threaten the calves of meat cattle on the Golan, foxes raid hen houses across the country, and wild boar in my Haifa neighborhood dig up gardens, knock over trashcans and scare parents, who fear for the safety of their children. These are indeed quandaries worthy of consideration and, where there is economic damage or physical threat, we need smart and effective responses. But before we jump to hasty and simplistic conclusions, let there be no doubt that in the conflict between wildlife and human society, wildlife has been the indisputable loser. This is one of the defining characteristics of our new geological age – the Anthropocene – in which the human impact on the planetary ecosystem processes has become as great or greater than natural forces.

A good way to understand the balance of power between humans and other species is through the research of Professor Vaclav Smil and others, who quantify the relative contribution of different species to the total planetary biomass of terrestrial mammals. According to Smil’s estimates, the total mass of all land mammals combined is 180 megatons (or 180 million tons).  Of that total, humans account for 30% of the mass, while domesticated animals (cows, sheep, pigs, goats, cats, dogs etc.) account for another 67%. This means that all of the other species on land – monkeys and elephants, buffalo and lions and every other mammal species – account for only 3% of the total mass.  For comparison, in 1900 wild species accounted for 10% of total global terrestrial mammal biomass.

The Anthropocene – Humans are the most dominant and influential species on the planet. Cartoon representation of the data of Prof. Vaclav Smil and others. Courtesy of XKDC (https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/land_mammals.png).

Multiple planetary assessments reconfirm the fact that wild animals are disappearing as humans appropriate more and more land for themselves and their needs. Hundreds of species have gone extinct since 1500 (true, evolutionary theory accounts for extinctions, but observed rates are much higher than the extinction rate attributed to natural, random processes). Among more common wild species, 30% exhibit rapidly declining population sizes, as their habitats are increasingly destroyed or degraded, making many, many more species candidates for extinction. Even insect populations – those creatures who, annoying as they may be, are responsible for pollinating our crops and regenerating our soil – are falling drastically.  A recent study in Germany identified a 76-82% decline of flying insect populations over a 27-year period of the study.

Israel provides a microcosm of global trends in species extinctions. Israel lost all of its large carnivores a century ago and many of its large ungulates followed suit or are currently endangered. Wildlife reintroduction programs are small, token attempts to preserve what is left of the natural world. There are 200 to 500 onagers now roaming the Negev Highlands around the Ramon Crater. That is the number of cows in a medium-sized Israeli dairy farm. There are 130,000 dairy cows in Israel (and another half million sheep and goats) that need to be fed, often with imported, energy-intensive feed. They are producing copious amounts of gaseous, liquid and solid waste. It is not the onager that is responsible for contemporary ecological catastrophes. That honor is reserved for humans and their domesticated animals.

An onager greeting the author at the conclusion of a short hike last summer in Borot Hemet.

But we should not minimize the significance of the damage caused to Negev farmers by the onager (or by pelicans, wolves, foxes or boars). On the contrary, we need to talk about the challenges at the wildlife-human interface and look for creative solutions. That discussion has to start with the assumption that there is room for wildlife and that if we are to guarantee the survival of these species, which is ineluctably tied to our own survival, we will need to bequeath more living space for them. Solutions for human-wildlife conflict can range from the radical, like preventing continued human development into open spaces or re-introducing wild predators of the onager to the conservative, like reimbursing the farmers for damage caused by wildlife. Subsidizing the construction of a stronger fence or providing additional water allotments to farmers is a small price to pay for the share the earth with wildlife and assure our mutual long-term survival.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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