A Rewilding Mandate: A Conversation with Michael Tobias

A fascinating and wide-ranging interview with a well-known global ecologist

Posted Dec 18, 2015

Michael Tobias is a prolific author and filmmaker, and after I wrote my essay called "A Rewilding Manifesto: Compassion, Biophilia, and Hope" I was fortunate enough to talk with him about some pressing issues that are facing our magnificent planet. Below is a wide-ranging and fascinating interview about some of these topics, including the unprecedented loss of species, over-population, anthrozoology (human-animal relationships), conservation psychology, compassionate conservation, the importance of youngsters and humane education, and the importance of maintaining hope. It's essential to pay close attention to these topics and adopt a global perspective if we are to move into a future in which humans and other animals peacefully coexist, diverse habitats are saved, youngsters are encouraged to pursue their dreams and become ambassadors for hope, and our planet is to survive and thrive.

MB  (Marc Bekoff): Why are you so passionate about the rewilding movements in the world?

MT (Michael Tobias): Marc, just going back to the year 1960 the list of North American known extinctions – note, “known” – is shocking, moribund and cause for serious rethinking about every turn our societies are making. Take in the entire Holocene (going back approximately 11,700 years), and the extinction list is beyond vast. Megafaunal collapses, the Younger Dryas, these are environmental anomalies that happened, were devastating to biodiversity, and characterize the earliest hypothesized Anthropocene interventionist designs of a species (us) who have shown an out-of-control predatory behavior which, since those centuries has morphed into the new norm, namely, the driving of species and populations (globally, some 44,000 genetically distinct populations every day) to extinction. The colonization by “Americans” has proved to be an ecological holocaust for indigenous vertebrates. We know little about the invertebrates, and our grasp of prairie dynamics is utterly biased by the same culture which ordained, to take two recent examples, the invention of barb-wire fencing and barbarous cattle drives. 

So, to answer your question, which you yourself have so eloquently and thoroughly addressed in a myriad of breathtaking books, essays and lectures -- a composite of comprehensive sensitivity and informed field-research -- requires a multi-tiered set of propositions -- scientific, anecdotal, emotional, psychological, expeditionary, ethological -- for which this conversation, obviously, can only intimate. But let me say this: I encourage your readers to enlist the aid of the most terse, yet comprehensive essay on the subject, namely, the excellent essay called "Re-wilding North America" published a few years ago by Josh Donian and numerous colleagues in Nature.

Might we see the re-visitation of camels, lions, and 60 million Bison bison? It’s too late for those who have gone extinct, like the Florida Cave Bear or Woolly Mammoth. But for those others, genetically similar to their North American allies thousands of years ago, there are interesting prospects. In the state of Texas alone, dominating various private refuges, Donian and his colleagues point out, there are today nearly 70,000 individuals such as African elephants roaming free. Our Pronghorn Antelope would not run so fast but for the fact there was once an American indigenous Cheetah, now extinct. Donian and colleagues examine the challenges and their conclusions about Pleistocene rewilding are very exciting.

But my primary embrace of the rewilding paradigm stems from its initial successes in Europe, especially in areas like the Danube and Oder Deltas. Remember, we’re speaking not simply of species, but also the biomes that provided for their life-cycles, their existential realities. I use the world “existential” in light of the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency suggests that as of December 15, 2015, there are some “2244” recognized endangered species in North America (with 603 recovery plans, many of which can take five, even ten years -- if ever --- to become politically codified, state by state, and then carefully activated.

With permission of Michael Tobias
Source: With permission of Michael Tobias

Rewilding/reintroduction efforts are fraught with uncertainty and vulnerability as with the Mexican wolf, the rarest sub-species of the North American gray wolf.  But I believe they are crucial to the human spirit. It is core humanity. The data seem to bear that out. With respect to all those “exotic” vertebrates on private lands in Texas, Donian and colleagues remind us that some 1.5 million people visited, for example, the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 2004 -- more than most visitations to most national parks. People are craving to be near large mammals, most of whom were lost during Pleistocene -- whether in Siberia, where a Pleistocene Park, of sorts, is being initiated to restore the so-called "mammoth-steppe ecosystem," to the Utrecht Hills of Holland, some 20,000 acres, where the animal rights group Alertis is endeavoring to eventually see European Brown bears re-introduced into the wild in Holland.

In our book Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence, as well as in our feature film “Hotspots,” Jane Gray Morrison and I, and many colleagues working with the Dancing Star Foundation, have endeavored to highlight such efforts. Whether with the Wisent in Bialowieza, in Poland and Belarus, or orangutans in Borneo. From the African wild dogs at the Harnas Wildlife Foundation in Namibia, or the Arabian Oryx in Bahrain and the U.A.E., there are countless examples of various rewilding guises, all fundamentally attempting to achieve the same kinds of goals: preserving life while there is still time to do so. At the Al Wabra Wildlife Preserve in Doha, Qatar, there are efforts in place to reintroduce into Brazil rare macaws at the very site where the last Spix macaw was observed prior to the bird's complete extinction in the wild. 

Emotionally, psychologically, and artistically, such efforts are the best of humanity, in my opinion. However you want to denominate it. We miss what we have lost.  And it’s time to revivify the 21st century. We definitely cannot justify the loss of a single other species. Time is running out. Our souls depend on the sanity of ecological continuity, upon direct contact with our primordial mentors -- "The Others" -- as I term them, generically. I take all of this to heart. It is a personal conviction that we re-seed North America with her vital signs, which happen to be the early Holocene consortium of sentience, as I think of it.

MB: What role do youngsters play in your scheme of things?

MT: All the parents I speak with believe firmly in their kids. We all know the syndrome: it starts early, when a blushing mother or father shows you photographs of the most beautiful and precocious children on earth (their children). By that gesture of ancient mammalian nurturance and faith I believe they are saying their children can make a difference in the world. But there is an underlying threat which suggests that our generation, meaning those who have children or grandchildren, did not meet the test of positive change, but that this coming generation must and will. It is an odd, indeed frightening concept: that somehow the adult world has failed and consequently must lodge its faith in the next generation. How have we failed? Of course, we can count the ways.

Conversely, I do not want to suggest that children are universal angels. I have seen three young boys torturing a dog, until I was able to intercede and rescue the animal. I did not have the time or circumstances to think about rescuing those children who obviously had come from very compromised situations, to put it politely. Parents have to take time to discuss with each other, their ethical and ecological duties to their children. They owe it to Mother Earth. And to think quietly and systematically about their opportunity, as parents, to promulgate templates of behavior, to be those changes they want for their children, to roughly paraphrase Gandhi.

If we sample some of the youth-related websites, like The Free Child Project, or UNICEF’s characterization of “adolescents and youth” a few years ago, it’s clear to me that young people are the true global ecological diplomats. So I would advise them: please go vegan, don’t walk on the grass, or pick flowers needlessly. Be kind to each other and to all living beings. 

MB: How do we get people to consider having fewer kids recognizing that it is their right to have children?

MT: If we are to stabilize the global population, which is crucial to all conservation, animal rights, environmental ethics and environmental justice movements, then we need to engender approximately three human generations of essentially zero population growth. That may sound radical, but it is ecology 101, basic demographics. Is it possible, probably not. So what is a realistic Plan B. Consider the following: if a young woman or man is craving a child -- usually, according to psychologists, for all of the right reasons: they want to shower another with love, and to feel unconditionally needed -- then the best choice that I can recommend as an ecologist is to consider seriously adopting. Right now, for example, just in the United States there are approximately 100,000 kids waiting to be adopted. 

For the record, my wife of nearly 30 years and I chose -- on ecological and moral grounds -- not to have children. Instead, we look after scores of other individuals of other species.
The origins of the population/environmental impact equation do not merely date to the I = PAT (the impact of human activity on the environment) formulation of Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren back in the mid-1970s. They go much further back in time to revelations, for example, by Aristotle who suggested that it would be unwise for the city of Athens to ever exceed about 5,000 people -- individuals he knew by name throughout his neighborhoods and could relate to as neighbors. This kind of neighborhood environmentalism is also a calculation at the heart of all primate evolution. Very few of the some 650 primate species ever assemble in communities larger than about 150 individuals (baboons and humans being among the rare exceptions, largely a function of the estrus cycles). The biological rationale for restraint in those primates who are born without sexual constraints most likely centers around the fundaments of sustainability. There are endlessly relevant statistics attending the ecological impact of every human newborn. But if you really want your child’s carbon and cruelty-free impact to be in the 90th+ percentile, then, to reiterate, adopt, rather than bring into this world yet another child who will eat her/his way through at least $33,000 worth of food annually, 40% or more of which will be wasted in the refrigerator, or on the dinner table. Orphans are waiting for this generation to embrace them as human beings who happen to be ecological refugees, that’s a certainty. Worldwide, the numbers are estimated at 153 million.

I encourage young people entering their sexually active years to consider behaving safely and responsibly -- and that entails considering adopting an orphan rather than bringing another “number” into the cold calculus of the world who -- yes will be loved and loving but, alas, will inevitably add to what is an inexorable demographic trend moving our domineering species rapidly towards 9.5, 10, 11, even 12 billion high-end western-style consumers by the end of this century, with China, India, and the United States leading the way. It is untenable, and immoral, when needy orphans are there waiting to be embraced. This is both an ecological and a moral dilemma for young people to deliberate upon. Contraception can combat greenhouse gas emissions and meat consumption, that’s a certainty.

MB: What role does humane education play in your visions for the future?

MT: I am very impressed with Jane Goodall’s global Roots & Shoots program. I am also encouraged by the increasing number of young advocates within the Club of Budapest. Additionally, I would pay tribute to Zoe Weil’s Institute for Humane Education based in Maine, and currently involved in opening a center in New York City. 

At the University level, we have seen an absolute revolution in curricula, perhaps best exemplified by the graduate program in Anthrozoology at Canisius College in Buffalo, now overseen by Dr. Paul Waldau, an animal ethicist, legally-trained animal rights philosopher, and activist. Canisius is one of the best programs of its type in the United States (I’m biased because I am newly an adjunct educator there).

MB: What are your dreams for the future?

MT: I want to see Green Party, and Democratic or Independent Party candidates lead with initiatives worldwide that embrace veganism and the components that make it an economically sensible scenario for moral governance and voter excitement. I see vast portions of the earth becoming wild again, as 70 to 80 percent of the human population move to urban environments that must be re-engineered for native and migratory wildlife resiliency. I would like to see us go from the current (approximately) 208,000 global refuges to doubling that number by 2030. This is another form of rewilding. I'd also like to see the end of all factory farming and slaughterhouses. 

I have faith in a generation of young Jains who will truly put forth the heart of their convictions - parasparopagraho jivanam (the interdependency of all living beings) -- and make them real, in the 21st century geopolitical, philanthropic, scientific, engineering, money management and technological sectors. The fact that anyone, starting tomorrow can become a Jain -- which is say, to begin the long and arduous journey of introspection, non-violence and non-violent intentions, truth in all dealings, an informed contract with oneself that abides by a minimalist approach to the accumulation of possessions, and the tolerance of other viewpoints – gives me great confidence that this generation has what it needs to get it right. 

MB: Any last words? And many thanks for taking the time to talk with me and to spread your ideas and visions for the future. There is plenty of work to be done by academics in numerous disciplines and people doing hands on work both locally and globally.

MT: You're most welcome. And, Marc, there is little time left. The world is betting on us, but she has bet on other species, and they have lost. Wallace and Darwin clearly elucidated the basics. The world moves on. If we intend to move on with her, we better listen up to what she’s telling us. One of the most recent comprehensive overviews of her “message,” if you will, a telegram we all must read carefully, comes from a recently published book The Annihilation Of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals, by Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Paul R. Ehrlich. I urge readers to study it carefully.
Dr. Michael Charles Tobias is an ecologist, author, filmmaker, and President of the Dancing Star Foundation (please also see). The teaser image and image above, provided by Dr. Tobias, is of orphan orangutans being readied for reintroduction into the wild in Borneo.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate ConservationWhy Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and ConservationRewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)

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