If I had a Billion Pounds (Tigers, Rewilding and Stewarding the Earth)
I like to think of nature just being there. Carrying on. Doing its thing. Existing, free and wild. A fascination for nature since childhood, I've been captivated by tigers for as long as I can remember. Fur like flame, tigers set my childhood imagination alight. I was born in 1983, the year the international community finally recognised that these beautiful, giant, jungle cats were on the brink of extinction. To this day they remain in my mind’s eye one most vivid animals on earth. An unflinching expression of nature’s stunning ability to create the sublime.
In 1983, there were only 8,000 tigers left in the wild. Today there are less than 4,000. I know that if the situation doesn’t change fast, my childhood fears will become a reality and wild tigers will be extinct before I am. But at least for now, I am able still to imagine them there in the jungle, free, wild, content, in all their awesome glory. And thinking of them somehow gives me a sense of connectedness, of inspiration and of hope. When a species becomes extinct, perhaps it’s that we lose more than we are brave enough or even able yet, to comprehend. This fills me with an enormous sense of sadness and of loss. I’m not a reality-phobe, but as a species, where are we going?
Friends have watched the new Netflix "hit" production Tiger King with gross fascination. More about the life of Joe Exotic than it is about his tigers, the series still reminds us of a sobering truth. There are more captive tigers in the hands of Americans, than there are left in the wild. Joe takes new born cubs away from their mothers at birth, bottle feeding them so they become accustomed to humans. It's not in his interest to let the cubs learn a single lesson from their mother. Instead he charges locals for petting and selfie opportunities. He estimates each cub will earn him $100,000 before it reaches 12 weeks old.
On my request, friends have told me all about it, but told me not to watch it. After witnessing my reaction to Natural World’s “Hunting the Traffickers”, aired on BBC just a month before. Necessary as it is to know the truth however dark, the documentary had left me feeling deeply disturbed. It follows former Royal Marines commando Aldo Kane’s courageous journey across Southeast Asia on the trail of tiger traffickers. He uncovers a network that spans from Malaysia, across Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and on to China.
Tiger “zoos” in Thailand breeding tigers in captivity under conservation licenses now make it easier than ever for poachers to smuggle tigers out of the wild. Commanding a much higher price than those that are bred in captivity, there are now two layers to this grim industry. Aldo meets brave activists, scared for their lives most are forced to disguise their identify. They explain how tigers are sold for meat, while their bones are used to make Tiger wine. Both delicacies in China that fetch hefty price tags, tigers are now commodified to a value on a par with gold, diamonds or cocaine. In China, tiger “parks” conceal tiger wine production on an industrial scale. Wine is infused in giant clay vats. Each one contains the skeleton of a tiger. The brewery is reminiscent of a tomb. A symbol for a future without wild tigers. Perhaps even, a future without anything wild at all.
Here back in the UK, as I write bulldozers begin their destruction of ancient woodlands, to make way for the HS2 high speed rail link. Each of the 108 areas marked for demolition contain ancient trees, many with their own unique specific mycorrhizal fungal networks. Creeping for miles underground these fungal tendrils connect trees together, allowing them to communicate. Sending chemical messages back and forth they work symbiotically, through a network that scientists are now calling the “wood wide web”.
As these trees are destroyed, their DNA and unique fungal network is lost with them. Ancient biological knowledge, design developed by nature over thousands and thousands of years. Chris Packham describes the HS2 project as "the largest de-forestation program we've undertaken in the UK since the First World War... all at a time when we know we should be re-foresting". It's estimated the rail link could cost the UK tax payer as much as 100 billion pounds by the time it's completed. All the while, it's hard not to ignore how irreplaceable these woodlands actually are. We are unable to recreate them, we cannot relocate them. You simply can't off-set the loss, the consequences for our biodiversity, by planting trees elsewhere.
In her book “Wilding” Isabella Tree describes the astonishing recovery of their ancient oak trees at Knepp, after allowing their land to return to nature. Originally dairy farmers, who despite investment and modernisation had found themselves unable to make ends meet. In 2001 they took a leap of faith and embarked on an amazing experiment. To see what would happen if they let their land go fallow and put all their faith in nature. 20 years on the results are incredible. Once intensively farmed, nature has transformed this 3,500 acre estate into a thriving wildland. Biodiversity has exploded and Knepp is now a breeding ground for some of Britain’s rarest species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies.
The first White Stork chicks to be born in the UK for centuries hatched at Knepp Wildland this summer (2020). All five species of owl also reside on the land, alongside free roaming deer, long horn cattle, Exmoor ponies and pigs. The family pioneer the ability of these free roaming, native grazing animals as key drivers of habitat creation. Nowadays you can visit Knepp and stay in one of their Shepheard’s huts or on their campsite. They offer wildlife safaris and host nature conservation courses. They are apart growing industry in the UK for wildlife tourism.
The book is a sliver of hope in what can otherwise feel like an increasingly dystopian world, without space for nature. Just imagine a UK where rewilded land linked together by corridors of green space stretched across the entire country. A UK where ancient woodlands were prioritised and protected. Imagine the impact this would have on maintaining, even restoring biodiversity and protecting wildlife for future generations, let alone it’s benefits to help combat climate change.
It's very possible tigers won't exist in the wild in another 35 years and future generations of children will no longer be able to imagine them, wild, content and free. Perhaps they won’t miss what they’ve never known, or perhaps they won’t know what it is that they seem to be missing. Even if these creatures live on in tiger parks like Joe Exotic's in the name of the selfie, or in China producing tiger wine; or even in virtual reality and simulations, it won’t be the same. But this doesn’t mean that we should give up and while some remain wild there is always hope.
The Coronavirus has reminded us we are more connected than ever as we face this new global world. The complete cruelty and disregard towards nature of one or two can now butterfly across every corner of the earth and directly impact each and every one of us. Perhaps too it’s brought home how global systems and activities have become totally out of balance in their relationship with nature. Relying heavily on the planet’s natural resources to support economic growth and prosperity, is so obviously unsustainable, it not only threatens tigers, it threatens the future of our own species as well.
As the consequences of this virus resonate across governments, policy makers and corporations around the globe, I hope they are willing to stand up and listen. We ALL need to become better stewards of our planet and that includes them too. The concept of humans as stewards of earth is not new. Quite the opposite, it’s the oldest belief system on earth, known in the West today as Animism. Evidenced in ancient cultures around the globe, humans once believed the very purpose of their existence on earth was to tend the garden and live in balance and harmony with nature.
The pandemic has reminded us that we need nature more than ever in an increasingly urbanised world. There are now over 7.5 billion of us living on Earth. This makes it more essential than ever to protect space for nature and to treat it with the love, kindness, understanding and above all respect. The future right now seems very uncertain, but one thing’s for sure, when this lockdown is over I’m booking a camping trip to Knepp and if I did have that billion quid, I’d buy land around the globe, and protect and rewild it.