3 October 2003

Goodbye cruel world

Life's richest places are also those where humans are poorest. Africans are already struggling against hunger, poverty, Aids, malaria, cattle diseases and - in many cases - civil war. Nobody knows how this one is going to end. 'It is all very well for you and me, but if I was some poor, oppressed farmer in Africa I am not so sure I would look kindly on the elephants that trample my crops,' says May. Nor have Europeans and Americans held up much of an example. When western governments began pressing African and Asian nations about the fate of the elephant, developing nations retaliated by suggesting that the Atlantic cod, too, should be protected. The point is well made. Developed nations with sophisticated fishing technology have knowingly put cod and tuna at risk, and had begun to wipe out the barn door skate and great white shark as their nets swept through the seas. 'There is a real irony,' says Mace.

The lions of Africa - and the wild creatures further down the food chain - can only be saved by money and political will from both national and international communities. The developing nations do have an incentive to protect their biodiversity. It represents potential wealth, one way or the other. Some extinctions of already rare creatures are inevitable. But spend on the lions, says Lawton, and you could save a lot more besides. Committed spending saved the black and white rhino - targets of poachers as well as victims of human pressure - but the sums of money invested were critical.

'If you create big, effective reserves for these charismatic guys at the top of the food chain, huge numbers of other creatures we don't even know exist could just slip through to the end of the century on the coat-tails of the lions,' Lawton says. 'So it is a matter of putting enough resources in. In a world which is prepared to spend an extra �55bn on a war in Iraq, we are talking about peanuts.'

If the choice is between a world without lions and tigers and bears or a world without Bechtel and Halliburton and MCI, I think I know which I'd want. In fact that is not the choice. The US is ready to spend 350 times as much on conquering Iraq as on conquering AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, so the choices are actually easier. A few things might need to be put in reverse gear, that's all.

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