On Oct. 17, Kenya lost what can patently be called a national treasure. His name was Suni — he probably enjoyed long walks and consuming immense portions of grass and leaves in one sitting. He was also, incidentally, one of seven northern white rhinos left on this earth, and he fathered no offspring.
The mammoth creature died at the age of 34 in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Many of you, upon hearing this news, will give a solemn shake of your head as the extinction fuse gets a little bit shorter for the northern white rhino; some of you will hardly care at all.
And, let us be honest, why on earth should you? We hear of this constantly: some esoteric subspecies is slowly succumbing to the ravages of time. Sure, the rhino, as a whole, is not doing so hot with poachers as a constant threat. But isn’t this just an object lesson in that whole hullabaloo about evolution that Darwin made back in the 19th century? They could not survive and thrive, so the cruel hand of nature is sweeping them off the game board.
There are plenty of responses to this, of course. For example, this isn’t nature killing them, but the unfettered expansion of human civilization breaking down the boundaries of ecosystems and reshuffling the whole deck. Also, biodiversity is always rather important. As invasive species have proven, messing with the delicate balance of ecosystems, without a knowledge of or care for how they function, is a precarious move to make.
But, we are the first to admit that here, for the most part, we are about as far from scientists as you can get. So let us put aside issues of biology and ecology for the true experts to speak on and give you a new reason to care:
Rhinos are simply awesome.
We do not mean that in the diluted, “this cheese sure is awesome.” We mean truly awe-inspiring. Ask yourself, have you ever actually looked at a rhino — really looked at a rhino? Let’s not even talk about the fact that they are basically leathery tanks with two horns on their head. Go to a zoo and look into a rhino’s unexpectedly intelligent eyes and tell us that they are not remarkable beasts.
You know what else is amazing? Polar bears, leopard seals, those weird carnivorous flowers in the amazon — hell, even trees are amazing.
A thousand and one politicians, activists, bloggers and others have thumped their fists and shouted at the masses the cold, hard facts of what environmental destruction could do to our future and our civilization, appealing to people’s sense of reason.
But, as has been proven again and again, humans have a somewhat wonky threat detection system in their somewhat wonky brains. We often find ourselves more concerned by the exceedingly small but immediate threat of a radical with a rocket launcher and a machete breaking down our door than a large scale threat on some indeterminable but distant date.
So these appeals have fallen on deaf ears. There is hope, though. Even the cynic should admit, albeit begrudgingly, that humans have shown an immense capability to recognize and appreciate beauty when it is brought before them.
The natural world is, if nothing else, brimming with beauty.
Even if you have never felt the palpable, gut-wrenching beauty, we would suggest — before you dismiss the environmentalists who seem admittedly radical in their defense of nature — finding a mountain and standing at its peak. Whether you see roaming herds of animals too far away to make out, an ocean of snow or a simple forest of evergreens, we can assure you that something in that tapestry is at risk or could be at risk in the near future.
Besides being a beauty to behold and a source of great entertainment for many, it also drives poets to write and painters to paint. So much of our civilization has been inspired by the magnitude of its beauty; much of humanity’s greatest works, from our epics to our cathedrals to our pyramids, could not exist without nature being readily available to cast its enchantment over great men and women’s minds. Human civilization, even if it can maintain itself perfectly under the most inhabitable circumstances, will not come out unscathed from the slow deterioration of the natural world for this reason.
“Isn’t conserving based on abstract concepts of beauty a dangerous and arbitrary way of playing God?” you may ask. Well, you are partially right, imaginary and well-spoken student, but, as those politicians, activists and bloggers from above could tell you, we are at the tipping point.
Nature, loosely defined as that term may be, is worth something with or without humans, and it should be protected at any cost. Even if it is something as intangible and elusive as beauty and art, we must find a way to care.
So if perennial droughts and hoards of mosquito — left unchecked by the destruction of ecosystems — sucking your delicious blood isn’t enough to drive action, then let the thought of the northern white rhino be. Let the thought of a less magical, interesting world be the catalyst for change. Let the image of the child who has only seen the rhino, the elephant or the bear in pictures from the past carry droves of people to the streets.