28 April 2012

Wildlife flourishes in human dead zones

We all know what the big problem with planet Earth is—people. Homo sapiens. The most destructive of species. Ever since we walked out of Africa 70,000 years ago, we have been an enemy of nature. Long before we invented agriculture, we were annihilating other species. The only big land animals left on Earth, live in Africa because they evolved with us and learned to survive our aggressive ways. Everywhere else, from Madagascar to Europe to the Americas to the Antipodes, we annihilated the megafauna as we encountered it. When we invented agriculture, we declared war on entire ecosystems, turning lush plains and forests into deserts wholesale.

It is no surprise then that when we are eliminated, nature flourishes. Such is the case in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. This 1,000 square kilometre area that wanders across the peninsula is a no-go zone for humans but has become a paradise for other animals.

From the Japanese occupation of 1905 to 1945, when radically increased exploitation of mineral and other resources brought dramatic environmental decline, to the Second World War to the Korean War, the natural world of the peninsula has been savaged by human violence. Continuing deforestation for fuel and clearing for agricultural land combined with unrestrained industrialization has further undermined the region's ecological health. Established in 1953, the DMZ has allowed nature to recover and the green strip now stands in stark contrast to the failing ecosystems that border it north and south.

It is home to thousands of plants and animals that are extinct or endangered elsewhere on the peninsula. One hundred species of fish, 45 types of amphibians and reptiles, over 1,000 insect species, 1,600 types of vascular plants and more than 300 species of mushrooms, fungi and lichen are believed to exist in the zone. Included are the rare Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer and even tigers, believed extinct in Korea since before the Japanese occupation, have been reported.

Similarly, wildlife in the area surrounding the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine appear to be doing very nicely despite the explosion and its aftermath, apparently surviving radiation better than they survive humanity. According to University of Portsmouth Professor Jim Smith, "The wildlife populations in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl have recovered and are actually doing well and even better than before because the human population has been removed." Local scientists have reported large increases in wildlife populations since the accident. Rare species such as lynx, Przewalski's horses and eagle owls are thriving.

The message is clear: For a healthy planet, exterminate its biggest pest. Such is the judgement on our stewardship of the Earth.

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