Lions and Tigers and Tears
As if religious and political terrorism, this year's cadre of infectious diseases, natural disasters far more devastating than anything Hollywood could contrive, and yet another Sarah Palin show, wasn't enough to inspire us to leave this nihil fit ex nihilo plane of existence and ascend to a monadic plane of infinite cable television channels and diet-soda which actually tastes good, we are now informed more animals are currently going extinct than at any time since the age of the dinosaurs, ca. 65 million years ago. A few here or a few there, but dozens per day? In mid-March of this year, a Sumatran or Asian two-horned rhinoceros (Dicerohinus sumatrensis), last seen over 40 years ago, was found on the nearby island of Kalimantran and was a cause for celebration by the World Wildlife Federation – Indonesia and naturalists far and wide. Unfortunately, before the rhino could be transported to a sanctuary, it died after three weeks into 'protected' captivity from an infection on its leg, probably due to snares or other poaching devices. Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!
It's been referred to as the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals in the past half-billion years. Sure, everyone would prefer exactitude, yet even with the number of distinctive species we are forced to settle for approximation – 5 to 50 million animal critters and well over a billion types of viruses, bacterium, algae, and associated micro-critters. “Dozens” per day may or may not seem like much, but when one is unsure of a base-number of millions or even over a billion, those “dozens” may be be hundreds or thousands. Not only are we lacking a precise species count, but the reason for the extinctions are many and often unknown. Some clouds DO have silver linings, but most end up raining on someone's parade.
Various subspecies of Panthera leo (the 'lion' and so-called “King of the Beasts”) have at one time or another inhabited the Americas and Eurasia, though they're now limited to parts of Africa, India, and certain cereal boxes. Heraldry aside, though we've recently learned the first Homo sapiens sapiens arrived in Ireland ca. 10,000 BCE, such was around the last time a lion, P. I spelaea or the Upper Pleistocene European cave lion, strode anywhere on the British Isles and Ireland. As this coincided with the last glaciation, it would not be unreasonable to regard the extinction of all lions across northern Eurasia as part of the demise of the Pleistocene megafauna. However, these lions were present across Eurasia, as exquisitely represented by the German L÷wenmensch of the Hohlenstein Stadel (see above).
P. l. europa, the European lion, most similar to P. l. persica, were at home in southern Europe until ca. 100 CE. From Iberia through Italy, Greece, and the Balkans, the lions were eventually killed off from the challenge of the hunt, as well (we can hope) the occasional act of self defense. An aside, though I can't offer a citation at this time, the last wild lion of Jerusalem was exterminated during the first half of the first century CE. Well, so much for the European (and Jerusalem), I should most briefly discuss the rest of the world's lions, both past and present.
Around the same time as P.l. spelaea was roaring throughout Northern Europe, closely related sub-species spread threw the Holartic region of both North America, Eurasia, and even parts of North Africa. One extremely noticeable difference between the lions of the Americas (Panthera leo atrox) and those of Europe was an incredible size difference – the American lion is by far the largest of the big cats and has been estimated to have been some 25% large than today's Southwest African lion (P. l. bleyenberghi). The dates for the American lion of ca. 300,000 to 10,000 BCE coincides of both the European glaciation and the megafauna die-off.
Real skinny time: several sub-species are near extinct, hunting and a shrinkage of habitat are the prime threat. It's estimated about 20,000 lions still exist around the world. Roughly 523 Asiatic lions are moderately protected in the Gir Forest National Park in northwestern India. Regarding putting the lions behind bars – there's about 1000 African and 100 Asiatic on 'display' around the globe. Sadly, it may be their last refuge.
Leading with the Sixth Mass Extinction since the dinosaurs was meant to be shocking, but merely a single aspect of the bio-diversity of Mom Terra. The tiger (including its variants and sub-species) is classified as Panthera tigris, is closely related to the lion, but are rather larger, known to have reached 11 feet in length. Though the tigers can reach speeds of 30-40 mph, the lion clocks in at around 50 mph, and no cat can come close to the cheetah's speed of 68-75 mph. What the tiger lacks (?) in speed, by analogy to American football and a defensive outside linebacker finding an opening and going all in. The tiger slams into its victim with speed, tremendous weight, and pretty much has its way as far as killing is concerned.
Some tigers are doing relatively okay against the combined juggernaut of hunting and loss of habitat, such as the Siberian tiger (P. t. altaica), the Bengel (P. t. tigris), the Indochinese (P. t. corbetti), and the Malayan tiger (P. t. jacksoni), while the other tiger sub-species are either dangerously close to extinction or have already taken down their last prey. Strangely, despite the dismal numbers of tigers alive today, around 3890, down from around 100,000 ca. 1900, scientists regard this figure with hope and optimism, as it shows an increase from around 3200 tigers in 2010. Not to be negative, but it sure doesn't take much to get the zoologists going. Well, whatever takes down your wildebeest, as they say...
Quasi-whimsically, completing the famous line from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, “Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!,” the population problems with bears are distinct from those of the big cats. While it's true they still are hunted by man and their natural roaming habit is being infringed upon in part, the overall population seems to be preserving (except with the Polar Bear who faces different challenges), indeed, some smaller bears are now roaming into suburban areas looking for food and a good time. However, without natural enemies and hunting restrictions in place, many various species have become 'urbanized' with mixed results. I, for one, feel honored to have witnessed two different American eagles in Boston. Gosh, those are some majestic creatures! And, to see them take off to fly, as they nonchalantly lean forward and fall for a dozen or so feet before slightly extending their wings and then ... soar regally away. Now, the bull in the china-shop is still not to be encouraged, but the increasing presence of deer wandering into a store and then having a total paranoid breakdown is a sad affair. Birds, squirrels, rats and mice are to be expected, but deer and the occasional underfed coyote (at least here in the Commonwealth) are more of a nuisance than a wonder of nature. And, sadly, those wild turkeys Ben Franklin was so keen on, well today they travel in packs of a dozen or more and take FOREVER to cross the road. Many a time I've been tempted to pull the car over and go grab a free turkey meal.
The “Tears” portion of this week's column was more than just a rhyming substitution for 'bears'. Sure, the Wallace and Darwinian “survival of the fittest” and 'natural selection' is ever present, but so to is disease and the constant threat of hunting by humans. Then, we get to Blake's “dark, Satanic mills” and the pollution of the modern industrial age, followed by soil, water, and air pollution which has now passed the point of any reasonable 'rescue', as our modern plastics are now, as micro-beads, in all sea-life, and will soon contaminate sea-birds as well. Climate change? Sure, if that chews your cud, but Ice Ages come and go, water levels rise and fall, and while these and others are slowly destroying Earth's ecology, what truly brings the tears is we've already fouled our home beyond repair. Guess we better throw more money at NASA and try and get off this sick planet before it's too late.
See ya' on the other side,