Editorial: Flight from our origins

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1999:

Crossing Kenya in a low-flying Twin Otter, we recently felt transported in time as
well as space. Behind was the Eden-like Masai Mara National Park, spreading into the
Serengeti Plain of Tanzania with only an occasional cement obelisk to mark the boundary.
Hunting has been banned in the Mara, as in all of Kenya, since 1967. Though
there is some poaching, mostly by non-Kenyan marauders, most of the wildlife has little
fear of human observation. Within just 48 hours we watched a mother cheetah chirping
occasional admonitions about rough play and wandering out of sight to her five cubs, who
treated a parked cluster of tourist vehicles as if they were a playground; saw lions mating
almost as if in performance for us; stopped for a hyena who seemed as complacent in his
mud puddle as any person in a bathtub; gaped at nonchallant herds of elephants, hippos,
and Cape buffalo; and exchanged curious stares with any number of zebras, wildebeests,
Thomson’s gazelles, giraffes, vervet monkeys, baboons, etc.

At the Mara boundary, where the thorn thicket-surrounded Masai villages begin,
one seems to leave prehistory and enter Biblical times. More African than Semitic in
appearance, the Masai are nonetheless culturally descended, scholars believe, from the
same nexus as the Egyptian civilization, Judeo-Christianity, and Islam. Escaping warfare,
slave traders, and desertification of north Africa, the Masai migrated from Ethiopia and
parts of modern-day Somalia about 600 years ago. They are believed to have been the
southernmost people mentioned in the Old Testament; Mombasa, the major Kenyan seaport,
is believed to be the southernmost city mentioned. Traditional Masai still herd goats,
sheep, and cattle much as did Abraham, Isaac, and the other Biblical prophets.
Overgrazing and the cumulative effects of hoof damage are clear enough on the
dusty ground, and even more evident from the air, as half-overgrown circles of thornhedge
show how villages have often relocated closer to diminishing green grass and water. Yet the
Masai relationship with animals and the land is not easily categorized as all negative. They
eat a meat-centered diet; they are part of the habitat destruction caused by meat production;
yet they do not eat wildlife; they seem to have a generally low regard for hunting and trapping;
and educated Masai are the backbone of the Kenyan conservation movement, including
dynamic homegrown nongovernmental organizations (to be profiled in future editions of
ANIMAL PEOPLE) as well as the world-renowned Kenya Wildlife Service.
The Masai are, in short, much like Americans, as we make our own difficult
transition from cowboy values to ecological and humane awareness. Americans have
greater wealth; beyond that, the Mara might be Yellowstone National Park, and the adjacent
region might be the western badlands. The resident species are not all as different as
one might imagine, when one compares elk to waterbuck, jackal to coyote, and lion to
puma. The land use conflicts and attitudinal paradoxes are also similar.
That includes trouble involving outlaw militias. On the day of our arrival, a suspected
Somali militia massacred 12 members of one family in a Masai village to the north,
including seven small children, apparently to facilitate stealing cattle.
Members of a handful of the many other Kenyan tribes are notorious for illegally
snaring small wildlife, mostly for the table. Somali militias, however, are believed to be
responsible for most of the elephant and rhino poaching. Few Kenyans have guns, which
are tightly controlled in Kenya, but the Somali intruders have all the weapons needed to
shoot elephants, rhinos, and park rangers. They also sometimes appear to have wellplaced
confederates; seem to have electronic surveillance gear adequate to intercepting
KWS communications; may be able to find via telemetry any rhinos or elephants who have
been radio-collared for study; and kill people who get in their way.
We were in Tsavo East National Park a few days after leaving the Mara when
word came that the same 15-member Somali militia who killed a KWS warden in July had
twice been seen to the north, carrying semi-automatic rifles and a grenade launcher.
Learning that the mostly unarmed KWS personnel who protect Tsavo were desperately
short of almost everything needed to do the job, we were privileged to relay a
nightscope donated by New York animal rescuer Phil Caidin to Tsavo East warden Naphtali
Kio and chief ranger Robert Obrien. The Tsavo East staff may have received enough century-old
Enfield single-shot rifles to outfit their sentries a few days later; at any rate, we
were told the rifles were requested, and then saw some being loaded into a truck at KWS
headquarters in Nairobi, six hours away. We hoped they would arrive in time.

The Rift
From the frontier beyond Mara, we overflew the southern end of the Rift Valley.
The Masai villages thinned and all but vanished. The land was higher and more rugged.
One tectonic plate sliding over another long ago gradually drained a great inland sea.
Fossils found mostly in the Himalayan foothills, on the far side of the present Indian Ocean,
combine with recent genetic discovery to suggest that as this ancient sea fell, hippos split
into two ancestral species. Those who migrated into salt water became whales. Those who
found freshwater habitat in lakes and rivers became the modern-day hippos.
The Kenyan sea ebbed and reappeared many times. During another reappearance,
between three and four million years ago, a sort of proto-Eve called Lucy by her finders
and A. Afrensis by science died at water’s edge. Her fossils, found in 1967, show she was
apparently a bonobo-like creature who was a common ancestor of all modern bonobos,
chimpanzees, and humans.
Many more fossils of A. Afrensis and her early decendants have now been dug up
in the Rift Valley and elsewhere in Africa. Paleontological as well as genetic discoveries
about our origins today come so fast that experts are almost continuously revising reconstructions
of who begat whom. The only clear point is that we humans are almost as closely
related to both bonobos and chimps as many of us are to each other; yet there seems to be
greater genetic variation within human families than collectively from race to race.
Bonobos, chimpanzees, and humans began to differentiate, science increasingly
indicates, when as the Kenyan sea vanished, for perhaps the last time, we lost the home we
may remember in myth as Eden, and made fundamentally different choices about how to
survive in a very different world. Whether or not there is any literal truth in the Biblical
Book of Genesis, there were family splits, centering on choice of diet, resembling those
described in the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and his sons.
The first such split was between chiefly vegetarian gatherer/scavengers and meateaters.
The vegetarian bonobos were pushed to the edges of viable habitat by the more
aggressive chimps and humans, who learned to hunt. Mitochondrial DNA analysis indicates
that the much stronger chimps predominated, until humans developed language, animal
husbandry and agriculture. Taking relative control of our food supply, we gained an
insurmountable evolutionary edge, rapidly widened by our development of civilization,
technology, and the ability to store and transmit information beyond the limits of a single
voice and lifespan.
We are at the close of a century in which human population abruptly tripled, and
at a balance point when half the humans who ever lived are alive right now. Of necessity,
most humans remain preoccupied with finding food for their families and a safe place to
sleep. Yet these concerns, shared with almost every sentient being, increasingly include an
overview apparently unique to our species, produced by our ability to cumulatively assemble
knowledge, which tends to bring expanded concern for others. Other humans are less
menacing if they too have food and safety; other species contribute more to the health of
our planet and our own sense of well-being if they also appear happy and healthy.
Assessing the inescapable impact of our burgeoning numbers, it is easy to overlook
that our cumulative knowledge has increased even more rapidly. Humanity knows
incalculably more than 100 years ago, and seems poised both to learn and to share knowledge
ever more broadly and rapidly. The paradoxes of Masai ways and of the American
west are metaphors for the paradox of being a self-determining species which is at once both
peaceable bonobo and warlike chimp. We shall either evolve the wisdom to recover Eden,
despite our capacity to create hell, or struggle on toward extinction through self-destructive
historical choices that nonetheless may have seemed appropriate at the time.
Our publication of ANIMAL PEOPLE is our statement of optimism. On page 22
we describe how psychologist Jeffrey Masson has observed that we humans have rather
uniquely neotenized our physical appearance over the millennia, to become progressively
less menacing to each other. The direction of civilization, toward ever-larger entities at relative
peace, shows a similar trend.
Our changing relationship with animals is yet another part of the process.
Confronting seemingly endless cruelty and exploitation, as people who help animals do,
we may forget at times that though enlightened attitudes toward animals may be traced as
far back as the epoch of Mahavira and the Buddha, or beyond, in a practical sense even the
concepts of humane education, veterinary care, animal rescue, and reserving habitat were
barely developed as recently as 1900.
Our progress is not fast enough. But as the Twin Otter approached Nairobi, we
flew back into modern times, over first a few scattered mud huts, then villages, farms,
medieval-looking shanty towns, and finally skyscrapers, with lights just appearing in the
windows. Crossing the Rift Valley took an hour. Our passage over the panorama of written
history to a gentle landing took just a few minutes.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.