Another unanswered question

January 5, 2011

It was twenty years ago, when I had a completely unremarkable experience that for one or the other reason I did never forget. At this time I lived in a house with a small place on the roof where one could step out from the attic and sit down and watch the afternoon sun. I did that many times and one hot and dry summer day I was on the roof and a moth came and took its place right before me. I was looking at the little insect as it was sitting there motionless and after some seconds the moth fell into pieces before my very eyes. It disintegrated into dust. It had flown through the air with the last energy that was left in its organism just to sit down and die.

I have seen many death animals in my life and I watched some of them dying. The last one was a tiny little hedgehog girl. I would have called her Maggie if she would have survived, but she didn’t — she died in my hand. She was very sick and there was no chance to save her. Before that I accompanied my cat Lizzy in her final hours and before that my cat Harry.

I know that in the same moment, as I write this words, thousand of animals, maybe millions are dying. They are starving to death, they are dying from sicknesses, they are eaten alive by predators. The life before their death is in most cases a life of suffering and pain, with only a few moments of relieve and peace.

The creatures on this planet are not doing well. They never did well, but it got worse in the last ten thousand years. We are watching the greatest mass extinction of species since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. The present rate of extinction is estimated to be 140,000 species per year. 40 percent of amphibians are threatened and bird populations are in free fall.

Two days ago I read about a small town in Arkansas, where on New Year’s Eve at 11 pm suddenly thousands of birds fell from the sky and the pavement was covered with dead birds. It is thought that the birds were confused and traumatized by fireworks and they lost their orientation and were flying into chimneys, houses and trees or crashing onto the ground. More than 5000 dead birds were collected.

A few days before Arkansas experienced another mass dying when between 80,000 and 100,000 fish died in the Arkansas River. This catastrophe is thought to have been caused by an epidemic disease.

Animals die not only from habitat destruction, hunting and fishing or from man made poisons. They also die in great numbers from epidemic diseases. The animals are weakened by pollutants, for instance ozone (O3) which builds up at ground on sunny days or particle pollutants (PM10 / PM2.5). The animals are also effected by pesticides, toxic heavy metals (mercury, arsenic, lead), PCBs, DDT, dioxins and other POPs (persistent organic pollutants). The pollutants accumulate in body fat tissue and make the animals vulnerable against diseases and parasites.

The colony collapse disorder of honey bees all over the world is not caused by pesticides or electromagnetic radiation or Varroa mites or an invertebrate iridescent virus or the fungus Nosema ceranea but by a combination of diseases and environmental stressors.

I lived for seven years in an old farmhouse surrounded by meadows and trees and in the night there were lots of bats flying around. There was one wooden wall of a barn where the bats obviously didn’t get their echolocation right because they were regularly crashing into the wall. They most times fell to the ground laying there dazed or even unconscious but recovered usually and flew away.

One day a bat was crashing into the wall while I was sitting in the garden with my cats around me and Harry (the head of the cat family) became interested and went up to look what was going on. I ran to the scene to save the bat from the cat and picked it up. I never had a bat in my hand and I looked at it for some moments. It was cute! Suddenly the bat woke up and it turned in my hand and bit me in my finger. It then flew into a bush two meters away where it was hanging on a branch head downwards. It was obviously still too groggy to fly further away. I watched it for a few moments but then I had to go because the cats again became interested. When I returned to the bush some minutes later the bat was gone. BTW: It was not a severe bite and it didn’t get infected but I had to put a plaster on my finger.

The year after that incident, it was 2006, there were no bats anymore. They had disappeared and they never came back. I have not seen a bat since then, not in this particular place and not anywhere else. In the USA the bat population is wiped out by a fungal infection known as “white nose syndrome”. This fungus originated in Europe, so it is probably also killing bats there. The Russian bat population was also hard hit by the catastrophic wildfires in 2010.

I wonder how all this will work out in the end and I wonder why nobody does anything against the rapid accelerating environmental destruction.

A few days ago I read a report in the New York Times about Charles David Keeling, who in the 1950s developed the first reliable method for measuring CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. His first measurements showed 310 parts per million. The concentrations have gone up steadily since then to above 390 parts per million and sometime in 2014 the measurements are expected to exceed 400 parts per million. The report explains why CO2, even in tiny concentrations, can have a dramatic impact on our climate and also shows how much growth in China and other developing countries is going to impact overall global emissions “barring some big breakthrough in clean energy technology”. At the end of the report Keeling’s son Ralph is quoted: “When I go see things with my children, I let them know these things might not be around when they’re older. Go enjoy these beautiful forests before they disappear. Go enjoy the glaciers in these parks because they won’t be around. It’s basically taking note of what we have, and appreciating it, and saying goodbye to it.”

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