Posts Tagged ‘overpopulation’

Why did the turtle cross the road? Probably for the same reason as the chicken: to get to the other side. I recently came across my first road-crossing turtle, early in the season. He was just a little guy, parked in the sun, halfway across the road. It wasn’t a busy road, but when you move at the speed of a turtle, any road crossing is hazardous. I stopped my car and got out to give him a hand. It was obvious that his mother had told him “Never talk to strangers!”, because as I approached, he withdrew tightly into his shell. I picked him up and, after a couple of commemorative photos, set him down in what seemed like as safe a spot as possible on the other side of the road. Even though he was not disposed to communicate with me, I could tell what he was thinking: what the heck is a road doing in the middle of my home???

Good question. Certainly, in a sane world, it wouldn’t be there, running as it does through a wetland. The road is a sign of Canada’s overpopulation problem. We tend to think of overpopulation as a problem in China or India, but the fact is, there are way too many people right here in Ontario. Canada may be a large country, but most of its 30 million or so citizens live in a narrow band along the southern border. This fringe is the same region that is home to much of the country’s biodiversity, and too many people have stressed many regions to the limit. A good example is Carolinian southwestern Ontario. Although Carolinian Canada makes up just 1% of Canada’s land area, it has a greater number of flora and fauna species than any other ecosystem in Canada. One third of the rare, threatened and endangered species of Canada are found there. Ninety to 98% of the natural habitats in this region have been destroyed or altered by human activities. All that is left of the once-rich natural diversity is huddled in a scattering of parks and conservation areas.

In the case of turtles, the arrival of so many humans invading their habitat has been nothing less than a disaster. Most Ontario turtles live south of the Canadian shield. After 250 million years of residency here, when they survived even the cataclysmic forces that killed the dinosaurs, 6 of Ontario’s 8 hard-shelled turtle species are now threatened with extinction. The cause? Us.

The wetland homes of turtles have been drained or filled in at an incredible rate in the last century. Pollution and pesticides take a toll, but among the greatest hazards facing turtles are roads. In overpopulated Ontario, roads run everywhere and cars don’t stop for lumbering turtles. Many turtles are run over and killed on roads. A perfect example of our inability to control our excesses, our horrific impact on the domain of turtles, is ongoing right now in Ottawa. A planned extension of the Terry Fox Drive is poised to destroy the wetland home of a population of the threatened Blanding’s Turtle. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are fighting to put the development on hold, but delays are likely to be temporary.

The environmental footprint of the average Canadian is a size XL…extra large! When the number of people living in a region can not be permanently maintained without depleting resources and without degrading the environment, you have a serious overpopulation problem. And in this case, the Blanding’s Turtles are the latest victims.

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Ring-tailed Lemurs

At Saunders Country Critters, two species of lemurs are on display. Pictured above are two Ring-tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta). As their name suggests, they have distinctive tails, about 60 cm (23 inches) long, ringed in black and white. When walking on all fours on the ground, they hold their tails aloft like flags. Ring-tails are the species of lemur most commonly kept in captivity. In their native Madagascar, they are found in the dry south and south-western regions, inhabiting deciduous forest with grassy undergrowth and dense scrubland. Lemurs are diurnal, active during the day. On sunny mornings, especially after a cool night, lemurs may “sunbathe”, sitting upright in the treetops with their arms outstretched or crooked on their knees, exposing their bellies to the warm rays. In lemur society, females are dominant over males.

Also represented are Black and White Ruffed Lemurs (Varecia variegata). The white ruff that gives them their name runs under the chin and around the cheeks, ending as tufts on the ears. Ruffed Lemurs are noted for their loud, raucous calls, and the lemur pictured below was pleased to demonstrate this feature. Black and White Ruffed Lemurs live in the primary and secondary rainforest in the lowlands and mid-altitude regions of Madagascar.

Lemurs are primates, found only on Madagascar, the 4th largest island in the world. Madagascar separated from Africa more than 100 million years ago. About 80% of the plants and animals found there are endemic, found nowhere else on Earth. Madagascar is so unique it is sometimes termed “The Eighth Continent”. People reached Madagascar only about 1500 years ago, but since then about a third of lemur species, (mostly the largest, most slow-moving ones) have become extinct, and about 80% of those remaining are threatened with extinction. Black and White Ruffed Lemurs are classed as Critically Endangered, meaning that they face a very high risk of extinction in the near future. Ring-tailed Lemurs are classed as Vulnerable, meaning they face a high risk of extinction in the medium-term future. The main threat to lemurs is the overpopulation of the island by impoverished humans. Lemurs suffer from the uncontrolled destruction of their forest habitat, overgrazing and wildfires, and wood collection for charcoal production. They are also subject to poaching for food and collection as pets.

Unfortunately, far from improving, the outlook for lemurs has recently taken a turn for the worst, as political turmoil has broken out on Madagascar, threatening the $400 million eco-industry, a vital source of income, and turning loose pillaging gangs in the forests.

Black and White Ruffed Lemur

Black and White Ruffed Lemur

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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. HarperCollins, 2008.

Weisman asks “What would happen to the world if all humans suddenly disappeared?” as a platform from which to examine the state of the planet. His novel approach makes for a fascinating and frightening book. Weisman begins with a house to study the unmaking of the world. The day after humans disappear, he writes, nature would begin to clean house – or houses. Nature would clean them all right off the face of the Earth. It might begin with the roof, as the first leaks occur around the chimney flashing. Soon nails are rusting, their grip loosens, trusses pull free, mold develops, squirrels and raccoons move in. As walls deteriorate, the basement fills with soil and plants. In five hundred years, a forest will stand where a suburb once was.

I hadn’t thought about how susceptible cities are. Weisman looks at New York to envision the devastation wrought by water in subway tunnels should the 750 and more pumps currently used fail. In Van Siclen Avenue station in Brooklyn alone, 650 gallons of natural groundwater are removed every minute by four pumps that rely on electricity.

Two sections I found particularly alarming deal with plastics and the nuclear industry. I’ve heard of beaches strewn with plastic bags and bottles, but the extent to which the oceans have already been inundated with plastic garbage is jaw-dropping. You can find nurdles, little plastic cylinders about two millimeters high, on beaches just about everywhere. They are the raw materials of plastic production that are melted down to make all manner of plastic items. Plastics in water don’t disappear. They just disintegrate into smaller and smaller bits until they become part of the food chain and block the intestines of the creatures that ingest them. And what of nuclear reactors? There are currently some 440 reactors around the world that would all melt down into mega-Chernobyls without human attendants. Even if that never happens, every year we accumulate tons more nuclear waste that we have no safe disposal system for.

It’s interesting, thought-provoking reading, and Weisman tells his thoroughly-researched tale in a calm, clear-eyed manner. Ultimately, there is just one cause for pretty much all the woes of the natural world, and just one solution. There are too many people. We need to stop overpopulation. The one-child policy of China needs to apply everywhere. As Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is us. (Pogo cartoon from Wikipedia)


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