The relatively unknown megafauna tragedy and its relevance today

I used to always wonder as a child as well why there were no ‘impressive’ creatures in Europe and why most of the big animals were in Africa. The truth, that I only properly (re)discovered this summer, is that all sorts of magnificently large creatures termed ‘megafauna’ existed on all continents, including Europe. The straight-tusked elephant, for example, ranged across all of Eurasia from Spain to China. Now if you mention there were once elephants in Spain, some people would look at you as if you’re crazy.

It’s not that all creatures were found everywhere of course. There were many that were unique to continents, but certain continents had similar wildlife. For example, European wildlife used to be similar to North American wildlife (also dwindled in the present day) because 2 million to 10,000 years ago, sea levels were so low that animals could walk across from Europe to North America across the Bering Strait – the narrowest point of ocean between Russia and Alaska, about 80 km wide. And what was true was that each continent was rich with impressively large animals at one stage. This world today where British wildlife is mainly hedgehogs, wild rabbits, birds and deer – nothing that will blow your socks off (as much as we love them, let’s be honest) – is not a status quo we could have arrived at without human intervention. It’s also a regrettable status quo. We can only learn if we feel the loss of our mistakes before.

People think it was dinosaurs and then animals of today. No, sir. No, madam. There were many others. Let me take you on a brief safari via some drawings and computer graphics below of megafauna.

Welcome to the Pleistocene 

In the Pleistocene epoch, 10,000 years ago, there were giant sloths, mastodons (part of the elephant family but distinct from mammoths), cave lions (European cave lions were slightly bigger than lions today and American cave lions were much bigger), aurochs (large wild cattle, modern domestic cattle descended from it), giant polar bears, giant camels, giant armadillos etc. etc. etc! Perhaps the most famous that people do tend to know about are sabre tooth tigers.

Paraceratherium - from the rhinocerous family - regarded as the largest land mammal to roam the earth ever. Fossils found mainly in Southeastern Europe and Asia.
Paraceratherium – from the rhinocerous family – regarded as the largest land mammal to roam the earth ever . The largest individual known is estimated to be 4.8m just from foot to shoulder. Fossils found mainly in Southeastern Europe and Asia.
Giant Sloth - how cool would it be if these were still around
Giant Sloth, Megatherium, stood 6m tall. How cool would it be if these were still around! Megatheriums roamed in South America up to 10,000 years ago. Most scientists attribute their extinction to over-hunting by humans.
Woolly rhinocerous. Nowadays even the normal rhinocerous is struggling to survive
Woolly rhinocerous – was common in Europe and Northern Asia during the Pleistocene. Nowadays even it’s smaller cousin rhinocerous is struggling to survive because poachers think its acceptable to kill a huge animal for its horn, driven by consumer demand from Asian nutcases who think powdered horn has medicinal values. See
North American Megafauna. That at the front is our ancestor standing ready with a spear to ring down big creatures when they could survive on little ones. I'm not joking, Gibbons says hunting of big game even as their numbers were dwindling was an example of 'show off' behaviour.
North American Megafauna. That at the front is our ancestor standing ready with a spear to ring down big creatures when they could survive on little ones. I’m not joking, Gibbons says hunting of big game even as their numbers were dwindling was an example of ‘show off’ behaviour.
Megafauna in South America
Megafauna in South America

You can also watch the BBC documentary ‘Monsters we Met’ to see some really neat computer-aided recreations. I think the documentary should actually be called ‘Monsters they met’ since we’re the ones who killed these creatures so aggressively (see at 24 mins – an unsuspecting giant sloth has never seen humans before and is not scared because they’re so small and then gets speared to death).

So why did megafauna disappear?

In ‘The World without us’, Alan Weisman explains the work of Paul Martin, a prominent geoscientist whose work spanned many fields. Paul Martin is best known for his theory on the extinction of megafauna – essentially the ‘overkill’ hypothesis. Humans hunted megafauna at a rate that they weren’t able to reproduce and keep up. The only place megafauna has survived to some extent to the present day is in Africa where people traditionally have lived in harmony with nature. Megafauna in the ‘New World’ (basically not-Africa) were also easier hunting targets: indigenous species in the New World did not evolve in the presence of humans so had not developed the same natural wariness exhibited by similarly large species in the Old World (Africa).

Martin’s ‘overkill’ theory is not without its critiques of course. But it is a plausible data-grounded theory that absolutely deserves attention and is now gaining wider acceptance as more evidence surfaces. Many Clovis (an Ancient North American people – ancestors of today’s native americans) sites have been found where there are skeletons of mammoths with spear heads in them. Models developed after the theory have also found support for it. For example, Alroy (2001) independently ran simulations in a model and concluded that ‘homo sapiens growth rate and hunting ability almost always led to mass extinctions, with hunting ability being the most important of all parameters’. Big animals are particularly susceptible to extinction because gestation periods are longer and they require more resources to survive.

 

“The inverse relationship between body size and population size plays a powerful role in increasing the risk of extinction faced by larger animals” – Grayson

 

For a short but comprehensive discussion on theories of extinction, I point you to the paper: Examining the Extinction of the Pleistocene Megafauna by Robin Gibbons of Stanford University: http://web.stanford.edu/group/journal/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Gibbons_NatSci_2004.pdf  (just 4 pages long!). Gibbons essentially says that a combination of climate change and hunting likely caused the extinction of megafauna. Megafauna birth rates can be lowered significantly when climate changes and the timing of seasons changes too.

 

Why it this still incredibly relevant? 

Once again, climate change and hunting are prevalent and escalating. Poaching is not a ‘solved’ problem at all. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund says that ‘rhino poaching has increased dramatically in the last few years’, and ‘large quantities of African ivory, for example, are still finding their way to illegal markets in Africa and beyond. Elephants are also killed for their meat and hides’. Never underestimate the impact hunting can have. When Christopher Columbus set foot in America, there were 60 million bison. In 70 years, after killing for horns and sport, just 500 wild buffalo remained. 60 million to 500!!! (BBC Documentary). 

Moreover, there is the very powerful force of habitat destruction in play which is a bigger destructive force than hunting in some cases. If we keep taking all the land to build our cities, our highways, our fields, our farms, what land and resources are there left over for other large creatures?  Creatures that naturally migrate hundreds of miles now have small corridors to travel in and patches of land to graze on. And there are way too many patches of land where they face risks of being shot down to feed the demand for products bought by unethical and unaware consumers (I’m sorry, I really don’t care who I offend when I say it is not cool to buy ivory products or tiger products). The Pleistocene megafauna are gone because of our ancestors. The creatures today are going because of us.

In my next blogpost, I will look at what we can do individually and collectively to prevent more extinction tragedies.

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Inspiration from two killer books on women, business and society

This year a lot of books have shaped my thinking and enlightened me. ‘Women’s issues’ are not actually just women’s issues of course, they are everybody’s issues. And I hugely respect men who take an interest and care. So here’s an interesting fact: I’d always cared about feminism but last year, a boy made me more aware of feminist issues, encouraged me to speak up more, to make my own decisions, to drive when he was in the car. And to him and other men who support women, I owe a huge thank you.

My interest caused me to have more conversations and to read more than just the occasional article in a magazine. It has been so rewarding. I share below my thoughts on and inspired by two of the best books I’ve read which are about women, business and society.  

1. ‘Business as unusual’ by Anita Roddick, Founder of The Body Shop

I love this woman so much and every time I read from this book I feel a sadness and loss at her premature death. She stands for everything I aspire to: commercial success with a strong moral conscience and an activist stance. Anita Roddick represents leadership at its best: leadership that is courageous and has the guts to speak against the status quo. 

Anita writes so honestly in this book, which is a real change to the bullshit vague ‘change’ and ‘hope’ waffles we read from too many business or political leaders so often. She describes how she set up The Body Shop, how she battled with shareholders, managers and advisers to keep human rights and environmental issues on the agenda for the Body Shop. Anita Roddick was against animal testing; for fair trade; a pacifist who campaigned against wars; and a feminist who saw talent in diversity. What I particularly love about the book is how candid she is about her industry and how she’s not trying to sell the Body Shop’s products in the book at all. In fact she says ‘I am not interested in just selling shampoo and soap. The simple fact is that I’d rather promote human rights than a bubble bath‘. 

Under Anita Roddick, The Body Shop campaigned hard on driling in the Niger Delta (they were the only company with the guts to stand up to Shell!); they helped Greenpeace and ‘Friends of the Earth’ campaigns and ran anti-war rallies, and had full-time human rights activists on their payroll. 

“I think the business community has tried to operate politics and commerce in completely separate arenas for far too long, believing that neither should interfere with the other. I disagree fundamentally – I’m for interference. As far as I’m concerned, political awareness and activism must be wove into the fabric of business. In a global world, there are no value-free or politically disentangled actions”

– Anita Roddick, p168, Business As Unusual

I could not agree more. Businesses run our world: they use most of the world’s resources in terms of water, energy, minerals, metals etc; they have huge buying power, and run huge ad campaigns to shape consumer behaviour. How any CEO can act as if only the bottom line is their business is beyond me, and yet that is still how most CEO compensation and commercial decisions work, with a few tack-ons and PR around other metrics to give the impression that something else matters. 

The other issue covered in this book is women’s self-esteem which is more closely related to The Body Shop’s products of course.   I first got interested in The Body Shop when I heard about it from my dad when he did his MBA several years ago. The Body Shop was one of his marketing class case studies. Most beauty businesses’ underlying marketing message to women is: ‘You’re ugly, you need all these products to make yourself look good, you better cover up your reality with all these make-ups and lotions’. The Body Shop’s message is ‘You’re beautiful, here’s some products that will help keep your skin and hair healthy, and well, everyone needs to wash’. Diving into the campaigns run by the Body Shop,  I’m so glad Anita Roddick walked the planet.  One of my favourite campaigns she mentions in her book is that of the Ruby doll – a woman that represents the way women’s bodies are meant to be.

The Body Shop's campaign to challenge beauty stereotypes through Ruby
The Body Shop’s campaign to challenge beauty stereotypes through Ruby

Here’s one thing you’ll be surprised to know: the makers of Barbie actually threatened to sue the Body Shop for the Ruby doll!! 

2. ‘Unspeakable things: sex, lies and revolution’ by Laurie Penny, journalist, feminist, activist and self-described ‘troublemaker’

Here’s a book as bold as its title. Laurie Penny is a legend, and I was so happy to find out recently that she’s moving to Harvard for a year too! (I am moving for 2 years for my MBA). She’s 27 and since a young age has been a loud voice for the subjugated in society. I read her column in the New Statesman and I always nod reading it. It’s like reading something you know to be true that is unsaid. Her book is exactly that – a brilliant polemic that you can read cover to cover in one sitting because it’s so absorbing.

You will not agree with all the things in her book. Or you will not agree with most of them at first – which was my reaction. I’m lucky enough to have worked in a white-collar job in a top-tier firm where women do have opportunities, and I do have women role models, and I have met amazing guys who really mentor and coach and care for your professional development. My life and opportunities are nowhere near perfect, but better than average. But Penny’s book is not just about London professionals. It’s about all women, and what she says rings true when you think about it deeper. And there have been plenty of incidents in my time too where I’ve felt less than equal. Reflect and you will unravel yourself and your social conditioning as you read this book. 

What I admire about Laurie is her guts – if you’ve watched an interview with Laurie you’ll know she’s not one to stay quiet or sugarcoat things. This type of person is so rare. She is one of the few women who I really look up to because she isn’t pursuing male approval or societal approval or constrained by vanity – and it’s really hard to overcome one’s subconscious desires and conditioning to pursue those things, to fit in, to be liked. She talks and writes real, unafraid and unwilling to please. 

In her book, she was brave enough to write publicly about her battle with anorexia; her rape and the backlash against her from threatened men who have nothing better to do but to hate feminists. Incidentally, many men who complain about feminists don’t even know what the word feminism means. ‘Feminist’ does NOT mean aggressive woman who is angry at men! As I mentioned in a previous blogpost (on the co-ownership mindset), feminism refers to the belief in equal rights and opportunities for men and women. So why men would respect women who believe women should have anything less than 100% rights is really odd to me. Do these men just like women with low self-esteem?! And what about those dumb women who claim to be ‘feminine’ rather than ‘feminist’ as if those are mutually exclusive (I’ve heard this statement said with pride so many times). Next time someone says it, I’ll be like ‘Please specify exactly which rights you believe men should have but women should not’.

My favourite chapter in Laurie’s book is about love in the neoliberal world. She describes what she terms LoveTM. LoveTM is the product we are sold every day in countless movies, books, advertisements. It is the fairytale romance ideal that all little girls are told to aspire to. LoveTM happens between rich heterosexual white couples in a monogamous relationship. This utopic ideal has no room for poor women, coloured women, fat women, ugly women, old women, single mothers, homosexuals, transsexuals, and anyone who deviates from this strict norm in other ways. The rest of us are all irrelevant side-stories according to LoveTM and our lives are regarded either sinful or worthless because we don’t look like Barbie dolls and aren’t in Barbie-Ken couples. The other interesting concept that Laurie Penny introduces is that of the ‘love object’ – love objectification is almost as bad as sex objectification for women. It reduces us to the supporting role for the hero. When what so many of us really want and should have every right to, no matter what we look like or what our sexuality is, is to be the hero, the main character, in our own stories. 

A running theme through Laurie Penny’s book is women’s self-esteem. One can argue that things are improving by pointing to a few examples like the ‘Like a Girl’ campaign by Always, or the Dove campaign featuring old women. But I believe Penny is still right in most of her bold assertions. True equality is still pretty rare and as a culture, we’re still geared to making most women feel inadequate. If we were to do an analysis of advertisements, what we’d see is women who do not represent real women in our diversity. Even the coloured women that have finally started featuring in some adverts as the token diversity model are not really representative of coloured women on the street. This is a worldwide problem: the women we see on screen and in ads look different from most of us consistently. 

My own view is making women feel inadequate is a way of selling products and that happy women buy less. I’ve been reflecting on this more and more as I pack up my life here in London to move to Boston and go through all the clutter I’ve accumulated over years. As women, some of us are constantly chasing that gap in our wardrobe, when what we should really be chasing is that gap in our self-esteem which can only come through meaningful actions, not meaningless purchases. 

The self-created shortage of nature

This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of reading ‘The world without us’ by Alan Weisman. As the title says, Weisman looks at a world where humans have gone but plants and other animals have survived. This book is so good it makes me want to kill myself! (this is a dark joke, no need to report me to the Samaritans/start celebrating). I discuss a few themes it inspired me to think about.


Our impact: no less impact than a mega-volcano or major ice age The scale of impact we’ve had on the planet is immense. I realise that most people who do not read about environmental issues are not aware of this. When you walk by a huge lake, or look out into the expansive countryside, you think ‘The world is so big and I’m so small. Even if I throw this sweet wrapper, what difference does it make?’ (I never think like that, but I bet some people do). The answer is of course that we have a huge impact – gyres trap rubbish patches bigger than Texas in every ocean in the world. That would be a place to see expansive rubbish as far as the eye can see. I’m convinced plastic is a crime and happy that some Chinese cities are banning plastic bags altogether and hope others will follow – you have to take your own bag when you go shopping. That might be a small inconvenience, but given that plastics do not biodegrade in any sensible time frame (100, 000 years + for some plastics), we can surely do that much for our precious environment.
The Great Pacific Garbage patch
The Great Pacific Garbage patch
Here’s another obvious point for starters: the massive countryside is fields of wheat, barley, maize (corn) or some other foodcrops. That, of course, is human impact. The ironic thing is that people often talk about the countryside as if it’s an epitome of nature. Natural land is wild forest, not neat fields of monoculture. Agriculture has conquered the vast majority of land in the world: ~37% according to FAO in 2011: 25% is pastures and meadows, 12% is cultivated crops. Note how much more is pastures and meadows! And when you exclude deserts, ice, and inland water bodies, nearly 50% of land is used to grow food (FAO 2011).


Deprived of nature

What we don’t realise is that most of us have had such little contact with unadulterated nature that we don’t even know what it looks like. We live in a concrete world, or a world of manicured grass with those dumb signs ‘Do not walk on the grass’ or managed forests. When it comes to nature, we are deprived and starved. We want it so bad: we pay for zoos, for animal experiences like Seaworld and safaris; we watch documentaries; we go to natural history museums; we create places like Kew Gardens and the London wetlands centre. But these are poor and packaged substitutes for the real deal.

 Weisman describes the Bialowieza Forest in Poland, one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. Trees grow to staggering heights, some rot on the forest floor. Vegetation is dense and disorderly, and the forest has European bison, which most of us have never seen (I’ve never seen one).
I compare these now to the forests in Scotland where I was this summer: trees are all of the same species in many patches and grow in neat rows, and you barely see any animals. Every so often,  “forest maintenance” is carried out in forests all over Europe (and the rest of the world I’m sure but Weisman focuses on Europe), often a euphemism for logging giant patches for timber. Of course, true nature doesn’t need managing or maintaining. It’s been around for millions of years before us.
 “Europeans have hardly any memory of forested wilderness” – Weisman
Number of times we have thought this is beautiful. It's fake, guys. When will we learn to demand real nature and accept her as the wild unstructured ways?
Number of times we have thought this is beautiful. It’s fake, guys. When will we learn to demand real nature and accept her as the wild unstructured ways?

Forest maintenance in action (Scotland)
“Forest maintenance” in action (Aberfoyle, Scotland)
                                                                     *****
When I observe how we deal with nature, I remember Joni Mitchell’s song lyrics: “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone….They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”.
Awareness is the first step to solving any problem. So that’s my goal in these blogposts. In my forthcoming blogpost, I look more at animals and human intervention in animal lives, and what is happening to animal numbers around the world. I will say, that I do firmly believe, that the root that needs to be addressed, when the world can stop being so scared of the truth, is human population growth, and then secondly human greed. More untempered forests, less golf courses please.