Call of the wild

editorial notebook

August 30, 2008|By Glenn McNatt

How far should humans go to accommodate the wildlife in their midst? That depends on what kind of wildlife you're talking about: There's a big difference, for example, between animals that are cute and cuddly and those that would gladly eat you for lunch.

Take the Komodo dragon, a 10-foot reptile with powerful jaws and razor-sharp teeth found only on a couple of tiny islands in the Indonesian archipelago. For centuries, villagers there worshiped the dragons as sacred incarnations of ancestral spirits. And for centuries, the dragons were, if not exactly cute and cuddly, at least tame enough to co-exist with people. About 2,500 dragons inhabit the islands, along with 4,000 humans. The villagers, whose traditions strictly forbid harming the beasts, cultivated cordial relations by regularly tendering sacrifices of tethered goats and fresh deer meat.

But this delicate ecological balance has been upset ever since the government in 1995 forbade the villagers from hunting deer and feeding the dragons because it wanted the oversized reptiles to return to the wild. It's been a them vs. us contest, complicated by the presence of an affiliate of the Nature Conservancy, a Virginia-based environmental protection group that is operating a park and tour service on the islands. The dragons, whose numbers had swelled through regular feedings, have not been pleased. Accustomed to three squares, they've attacked people and livestock in the years since the government banned villagers from offering them sacrifices. Last year, a 12-year-old boy was killed by a dragon. In June, another dragon cornered five European divers on an isolated beach; they managed to fend it off only after pelting it with lead diving weights.

The villagers complain that the nature preserve has disrupted their traditional religion, thus angering the dragon-spirits. The government calls that "superstition." But consider: Would you rather be in thrall to beliefs that facilitate peaceable living amid thousands of tame giant lizards - or watch your kids be eaten by wild ones? The islanders are negotiating with the Nature Conservancy affiliate to build a fence around their villages.

Americans rarely face such dilemmas. The cute, year-old black bear found in a Frederick yard this week aroused lots of curiosity but almost no alarm. Bystanders seemed to regard it as a distant cousin of Tai Shan, the Washington National Zoo's celebrity panda cub. They were delighted when officers carted it back to the forest. Similarly, many people adore deer in the wild - at least until one pops up suddenly in their headlights on a dark road.

Our relationship to wildlife is complex and perhaps not always entirely rational. But as wise stewards of nature, we should at minimum try to keep in mind the welfare of the planet's many wild species as well as our own. Here's a rule of thumb: Take baby bears back to mama, occasionally let hunters cull the deer and by all means have a goat on hand for dragons that show up hungry - or at least build a fence.

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