Cute Critters

Donald R. Morris

January 07, 1991|By Donald R. Morris

HOUSTON — Houston. NOBEL LAUREATE Konrad Lorenz once suggested certain animal characteristics produced a ''nurturing response'' in others -- specifically in Homo sapiens. They included a large head size relative to body size, rounded, shortened forehead, large eyes below the midline, short thick extremities, rounded body with soft, elastic surfaces, round protruding cheeks and clumsy movements.

People identify with such creatures; when they are threatened, there tends to be a public uproar. South Africa, which has quite enough other problems, thank you, recently ran into this phenomenon.

There are 17 ''sea islands'' off the western Cape Province and Namibia, home to the Cape seal. This isn't a threatened species; the seals' numbers were stable for centuries. Their major predators are sharks -- whose numbers have sharply diminished. Sharks are harmful to fisheries and swimmers, and are hunted not only for food but on general principles. They don't fit Mr. Lorenz' hypothesis -- vide ''Jaws'' -- and have few friends.

As sharks dwindled, Cape seals burgeoned; there are now about 1.3 million, and the islands are seriously overcrowded. They threaten vital fisheries and their overcrowding itself is a threat to the seals. Worse, they now threaten several already-endangered bird species, including the jackass penguin, unique to Southern Africa; seals are gobbling up its rookeries. The seals, moreover, now consume 1.5 million tons of fish annually, considerably more than the combined take of South African and Namibian fisheries.

The seals were culled, at the rate of 80,000 annually, even before the shark numbers dwindled, providing meat and skins, as well as jobs in a poverty-stricken area where jobs are scarce and fishery jobs shrinking. Those numbers are now insufficient; the South African Department of Environment Affairs, with the approval of marine biologists, contracted with a Taiwanese firm to take 30,500 Cape seals. It was a minor contract; South Africa stood to make about 8 cents a seal -- perhaps $2,500 on the deal.

Then the roof blew off. Slaughtered seals are clubbed, as are most domestic animals. Canada was severely roughed up in a 1969 seal-harvesting operation; world attention at once focused on South Africa -- a nation not exactly noted for the tender loving care it expends on Homo sapiens itself. Nor is the South African bureaucracy noted for highly developed PR skills.

The department was first attacked for ''selling'' the seals for 8 cents each; it wasted valuable time before explaining this was simply a per-capita levy on each seal taken by the Taiwanese. It then claimed the seals were not being ''culled,'' but ''harvested'' -- like sardines. This produced fresh storms, and the department hastily reversed itself; the motivation was culling, after all.

More difficulties arose; a major by-product in the Far East comes from bull seal testicles -- dried, powdered and sold as an aphrodisiac. While the use of poached rhino horns for the same purpose has drastically reduced rhino numbers, seals, to date, have not suffered from poaching.

Culling is mandatory in game management. Since the bulk of threatened African species are now limited to finite game reserves, numbers must be kept compatible. If poachers are firmly suppressed -- and they are only in Botswana and South Africa -- most species must be culled.

Elephants survive, not ''in the wild,'' but only artificially, in reserves, and in too many African nations, reserves are poorly guarded. Elephants are widely loathed -- neighboring tuskers make agricultural operations impossible, and their devastation of forest areas, rarely shown in the wildlife pictures, is frightening. At the moment, trees are more endangered than elephants.

Homo sapiens does have a responsibility for species whose niches he has appropriated. Proper conservation practice is to reserve an adequate range for threatened species; then to cull as required, with due regard for the optimum bull-cow ratio. Attacking culling does no service to any species, endangered or not.

In ecology, as in everything else, you pays your money and you takes your choice. It's Homo sapiens or the endangered species -- and it's Homo sapiens which requires culling most.

Mr. Morris is a retired naval officer who syndicates a column.

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