Tuesday, 25 October 2011

An Uncertain End In Uncertain Times

Today, I found out that a rare Vietnamese sub-species of Javan rhino had been announced as extinct. According to reports, the International Rhino Foundation had been aware of just one individual rhinoceros living in the Cat Tien National Park, followed for over two years by genetic analysis of its dung, and that it had been found shot and killed, presumably by poachers, who had cut off its horn. The Vietnamese Javan rhino was no more.

Having never previously heard of the Vietnamese Javan rhino, I found it quite an odd sensation to learn of its demise and unnecessary plight. An animal that I never knew existed was now extinct and the first time I'd ever heard of it was to learn about it being crossed off God's big list. The tale is lonely, grim and resonating with loss; the last surviving rhino, unaware of both its importance and plight, living its life in the everyday Darwinian battle of the wild, shot dead by men for the price of its horn, for the sake of homeopathic medicine or lavish decoration.

I was surprised that, despite being completely ignorant of this rhino until that moment, I felt somehow complicit in its death, that in some way through either my actions or lack of them, I had played a minor part in this shameful story, that although I may not have pulled the trigger, I might have paid for the gun. For sure, I should feel a sense of loss in the passing of this beast, but should I feel as though I was an actor rather than the audience?

Now, clearly, if I am involved, my part is a small one. I am not, since I last checked, trafficking ivory, financing poachers or purchasing expensive homeopathy. As you would expect, my stance on all of the above rest on the right side of reason, respect and compassion, but is that enough? On the opposite side of the argument, I've never really spoken out or acted for the rights of animals. Apart from the occasional conversation in the pub or at a convenient zoo, my involvement with this sort of thing registers almost nil. I guess I sit somewhere in the middle on the animal rights scale, pro-medical but anti-cosmetic testing, pretty much anti the rest. Perhaps that's a bit more on the left, I don't know, I've never really thought about it.

So taking into account the above, is it my lack of participation in the story of the Javan rhino that grates me? I suppose the answer is a yes, but a frustrated one.

I think I find it frustrating not just because of the seeming impotence of anything that I could realistically have done to save the rhino, but mainly because I never had the chance. Ignorance isn't an excuse, don't get me wrong, but having only learned about the rhino's existence when learning about its extinction, I might have well been reading about the dodo, except it happened today, not in the late 1600's. This is something that every generation after ours will look back on with the same disbelief as we look back on those dodo hunters, drunk with greed, decimating the flightless bird, either unaware or uncaring as to the consequences.

I know I can't compare the lives of the Vietnamese poachers with my own and I think it would be wrong to expect to impose my set of values on them. They're obviously the rhino's executioners in this tale, but the far more powerful judge and jury are the system and societies in which we all live. At the risk of oversimplifying, if there was no demand, there'd be no poaching.

While it might be hard to see exactly where I fit in with the system that killed this particular rhino, it's not so hard to see it elsewhere. There are countless similar stories of endangered animals, exterminated in our drive to mine deeper, or cheaper, to trawl harder, or build further. I would guess that parts of the laptop I'm writing this on, or the phone I'll upload it with, come from such places, were assembled in others and flown here over at the cost of a whole lot more. If asked, would I trade one to bring the rhino back? Probably, who wouldn't? Sadly, that's not an option.

It would be nice to think that from now on that I'll try to be more aware of the criticality of some of the endangered animals around the world, after all they are endangered entirely by us, but it's naive to think that I'll become some kind of eco-warrior. Yesterday's sadness will become today's melancholy, will become tomorrow's memory. Hundreds more species will die at our hands and the vast majority of us will do nothing. We'll buy iPods with conflict rare Earth minerals in them, we'll mine for gold in National Parks, we'll still buy tuna sandwiches and we'll continue to pay for coal-powered electricity.

So what do we do? We live in a system where the real basic choices are taken away from us. Where the decisions that get made are too distant, bureaucratic, disempowering or alien for us to change them or know about them in the first place. We're babies in a pram, spoon fed and almost totally reliant. The Vietnamese Javan rhino is just another unfortunate victim on the way, part of this arching tale of our time, both insignificant and immensely important, and now gone.

I should tell you to be more concerned about where your products come from, to make sure they're responsibly sourced, not to buy animal tested cosmetics; you could also work and campaign to demand more transparency in business and in Government, write letters, get on Twitter, whatever you're good at or at least you could just vote with these things in mind come election time; maybe you're one of those people that can really make a difference. These are your decisions to make and hopefully you'll make them however best suits you. I would like to think that the passing of the Vietnamese Javan rhino at least made me stop and think. It made me write this. It made me want to tell you about it. One lonely rhino dies and the world moves on; let's hope too many more don't have to before it stops. Vietnamese Javan Rhino, I will miss you.