Land of Savages

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“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.” Henry David Thoreau

It seems that lately, I have been writing more about the tragedies I am witnessing than the beauties of exploring this incredible planet. Unless you find yourself secluded in the middle of nowhere – but again, our pollution and destruction has no limits – you are bound to witness and feel the “savage” nature humans possess. “Shot for a fish”  the story of a seal killed by a fisherman was written when I went to Uruguay. “Refuge”, the story of a jaguar left with no teeth, was written when I went to Misiones. “W.H. Hudson”, the story on how disconnected farm people have become, was written earlier on this trip. And now, I am left with no choice but to conclude Patagonia 2011 with another tragic story.

According to Wikipedia, the word “savage” or “barbarian is: “a term used to refer to a person who is perceived to be uncivilized. The word is a general reference to a member of a nation or ethnos, typically a tribal society as seen by an urban civilization viewed as inferior. In idiomatic or figurative usage, a “savage” may also be an individual reference to a brutal, cruel, warlike, insensitive person.

I actually believe we have gotten it totally wrong. The definition should rather be the following: “savage” or “barbarian” is known to be associated with an industrialized and modern society, also called civilized, where its inhabitants suffer from existential egoism. The unsustainable behavior is characterized by a deep lack of respect and care for the environment and a desire to radically exterminate anything that seems to be a threat to its existence. These threats are, in general, unfounded and come from a lack of inner security. The inhabitants are usually insecure with the idea of other species sharing what they believe to be their land. Extreme greed is often referred to as a form of savage nature.”

The quest to explicitly exterminate animals is a modern invention. What we – us, humans – did to the buffalo, to the wolf, and so to many others, and keep doing, like to the shark is nothing less than savage. Killing is nothing new, but the scale and purpose of eradication is. Even worse is the sense of righteousness that the perpetrators are taking.

In Argentina, and more precisely in Patagonia, sheep farming is big business. It is not what it used to be, the golden days are long gone, but it is still the biggest industry in  the area. Since 1889, almost every square meter of steppe has been turned into pasture for sheep and therefore, fenced. And worse, every single animal that is not a sheep is seen as a nuisance and consequently needs to be exterminated. Guanacos, the wild ancestor of the llama, used to roam South America in huge numbers – estimated at around 50 million in the 1500’s. But with the arrival of the Europeans and the beginning of sheep farming, their numbers were reduced to near extinction until they were put on the CITESlist. Today, although their population is bouncing back – 1 million more or less, it is a far cry from what it used to be. Still, since they eat twice as much grass than the sheep, for the estancias, Guanacos are simply “stealing” the food from their land. Even if hunting them is now prohibited, with little or no enforcement, they still kill them every week or so. And here is where the atrocity begins. Because their hunt is illegal, the dead animals are left in the field to rot. Nothing is done with their precious fur, nothing is done with their skin, nothing is done with their cholesterol free delicious meat. The only utility a shot guanaco has, is to spread death. Estancias use their carcasses to kill the others, especially the pumas and foxes. By cutting their guts open and pouring powerful poison over them, they create nothing else than a “Fountain of Death”. It is common to find around a dead guanaco: skunks, foxes, armadillos, and birds of prey,  and most likely pumas dead in their lair. Anything that eats meat or scavenges is at risk. And they themselves continue to contaminate the chain. Since the poison doesn’t disappear, it is passed over from one carcass to another. For each dead animal, dozens of others have had to die.

Pumas and foxes are the axis of evil of sheep farming. By taking out the guanacos, the farmers gave these predators no choice but to go after the woolly easy-to-catch mammal. Even though their predation is insignificant  in numbers – it is the same for the wolf and the shark, the retribution applied was and is still of catastrophic proportion. During a previous trip, I learned of one estancia that killed 140 pumas in 7 years. Today, even though it is prohibited by law since 1996, the fox and the puma continue to be hunted and trapped. The consensus is simple, no predators will be allowed to live on a sheep farm. None, whatsoever. So every time they see tracks or a kill made by one of them, they send the dogs after them and eradicate the menace.

So who is savage? The Cherokee who feared that the unjust killing of a wolf would bring about the vengeance of its pack mates, and that the weapon used for the deed would be useless in the future unless exorcized by a medicine man? The Kwakiutl, who when killing a wolf, would lay out the animal on a blanket and have portions of its flesh eaten by the perpetrators, and who would express regret at the act before burying it? The Ahtna who would take the dead wolf to a hut, where it would be propped in a sitting position with a banquet made by a shaman set before it? The Eskimos who, when killing a wolf, would walk around their houses four times, expressing repent and abstaining from sexual relations with their wives for four days. (Of Wolves and Men)

Or Us, the pinnacle of evolution, God’s creature, the center of the universe, the planet’s savior?

“We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” Albert Einstein

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