The Elephant in the Room

elephant 2

my first cartoon ever! and possibly my last.

I haven’t posted much this week as work and personal life have intervened. But I have been doing a lot of thinking.

I’m still struggling with the idea of Self-willed Land.  I struggle to get off the mark, to be honest. The idea of self-willed land is a human notion, we impose that notion on the land. But going down this route means self-willed land automatically ceases to retain its meaning of “beyond human control”. The only way out of that conundrum is to place us in and of the land. In which case our interventions on the land are also of the land, just like any other ecosystem engineer species.

It reminds me of that scene in Life of Brian: “You’re all individuals”, shouts Brian to the crowd. “Yes, we are all individuals”, shouts back the crowd in unison. Apart from one person who says quietly “I’m not.”

Leaving that problem aside, what happens when we introduce a species as part of restoring self-willed land? Say – an elephant. I personally love the idea of introducing elephants into the British countryside. I think re-introduction is probably stretching that concept to breaking point  for elephants, since both of the most recent species are extinct – woolly mammoth would not be too happy in our current climate, and Straight-tusked elephant hasn’t been here for over 100,000 years before it went extinct on mainland Europe around 40,000 years ago. George Monbiot in Feral suggests Asian elephant would be the closest fit, but I think African Forest elephant would be better – possibly the pigmy forest elephant. It might go down better with landowners.

But we can’t get away from the fact that once again we are ignoring the will of the land, by introducing a species which has not introduced itself.  Introducing a species of any kind can have a profound impact on the ecology of an area. Look at the impact of signal crayfish, or grey squirrel. But attitudes to introductions change – and now we value ancient introductions like brown hare, cornflower and so on. So introductions might be good or bad (and we cannot tell until it’s too late), but whatever their impact, introduction is a human act and at odds with the notion of self-willed land.

Back to elephants.

African (and indeed Asian) forest elephants are amazing creatures, real ecosystem engineers. They create and maintain a large scale network of paths and forest clearings (known as Bai’s) in the African rainforest where they survive. Bai’s can be very large and numerous, and are thought to play a key role in elephant social behaviour.

In the 300,000ha of Nki National Park in Cameroon, 73 Bai’s have been found so far, the largest approaching 10ha. These Bai’s play an essential role in the functioning of the Forest ecosystem, especially for large mammals. They often occur where minerals are available (also known as salt licks) to aid digestion by large herbivores of toxic plant material.

African forest elephants also play a key role in dispersing the seeds of many species of trees that are found in the West African rainforest.  I wonder whether some of the species only now found in British ancient woodlands with no obvious dispersal agent, such as Herb Paris, Spurge Laurel or Mezereon, were originally dispersed by elephants.

There is some evidence to suggest that Straight-tusked elephants were hunted to extinction in Europe by paleolithic hunters: others suggest climate change. Whatever the cause, Straight-tusked Elephants failed to recolonise Britain at the end of the last glaciation. This means that there was no ecosystem engineer species of large herbivore in the Mesolithic to create the patchwork of clearings and permanent large tracks that would have been there in previous interglacials. Indeed there is some evidence to suggest that in previous interglacials, Straight-tusked elephants modified forest landscapes sufficiently to transform them to savannah, in the same way that African Savannah elephants do today.  The Mesolithic Wildwood, for however long it really existed before significant human modification, grew up without its main ecosystem engineer – it was a shadow of its previous incarnations.

Straight-tusked elephants were about 4m tall at the shoulder, compared with African Forest elephants that are around 2.5m tall at the shoulder. Simple scaling up would indicate that forest clearings created by these extinct behemoths would be around 2.5 times larger ie 25ha.

So on this basis, by maintaining open areas of this sort of scale, far from being ecologically illiterate, conservationists are merely acting as the lost elephant in the room.


About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in anti conservation rhetoric, biodiversity, forest elephant, George Monbiot, invasive species, Life of Brian, management, Mesolithic, rewilding, self-willed land, straight tusked elephant and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Elephant in the Room

  1. David Dunlop says:

    I agree, Miles. On ‘wilderness’ the will is surely ours, not the land’s – assuming Homo sapiens truly has free will, on which I understand the jury is still out; never mind whether we also have any sort of collective will? Changing our various societies’ collective wills would likely require large and collective endeavours on ‘our’ part – either elective, or through a widespread change in will (mind-set), or ispired or coerced by authority, or an approach somewhere on those continua?

    The whole thing is necessarily bedevilled by emotional, poetic, value-laden words, which, I think (feel?) make attempts at objectivity difficult for oneself and others enaged in the discussion. But perhaps those aren’t the terms on and in which we should be having such a debate – whoever “we” are – or should be?

    ‘What would the world be, once bereft
    Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
    O let them be left, wildness and wet;
    Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.’

    From ‘Inversnaid’ by Gerard Manly Hopkins (b1844, Essex; died 1889, Dublin)


    There could be much to learn from an attempt at whatever geographical scale. I gather Lady Park Wood NNR in Gloucestershire, southwest England is an ongoing experiment of that nature:

    Maybe we can see the trees for the lack of aurochs?

    Or the missing wild horses would drag the infomation out?

    I’ll stop now as I feel facetiousness kicking in; and I should be working for industrial conservation to comodify nature further, and keep the UK unemployment figures down.

  2. milesking10 says:

    Thanks Dave.

    “We prefer one breed of ‘wild horse’ for whole Europe” says European Wildlife in August 2011. This phrase was removed from later articles – presumably because it sounded like the sort of thing that fans the UKIP flames and gives Europe a bad name.

  3. David Dunlop says:

    They’d sulk in Connemara, the Camargue &c too, I dare say.

  4. Mark Fisher says:

    For some months now, I have had it on my wish list to write a “What is rewilding” for my website, where I would argue that the term has been hijacked, and that a better expression would be ecological restoration. However, even that is now being put to mis-use by the rewilding-by-grazers, so that every phrase we may have used, is becoming useless to us: rewilding, wilded, natural processes, ecological restoration. The sea of mixed messages works to the advantage of naysayers, who put on their own interpretation, and constantly reinvent themselves. An example of the latter is the Megafauna Foundation, which very recently changed its name to the True Nature Foundation! An earlier example would be the Wild Europe Field program, which became the spectacularly mis-named Rewilding Europe. An example of the former was when Jonathan Spencer, Forestry Commission, at a meeting in Ennerdale, remarked that a particular landscape could not be self-willed as it had been highly modified in the past. There is no past associated with self-willed, as it is what is happening now!

    Miles – what is your definition of self-willed land, because it doesn’t seem to fit with mine. I never talk about restoring self-willed land – it is not an attribute that can actively be restored by humans. Self-willed land is a contemporaneous state of being, of self-regeneration in the absence of human intervention (I use the word unfettered, the American Wilderness Act uses untrammelled). That it may recruit species is of its own volition – in the sense that the distribution systems in wild nature meet with conditions that allow colonisation, and without active human intervention. This can be seen when livestock grazing pressure is taken away, which in wild nature would be the behavioural modification of the impact of native herbivores by native carnivores. The amount of recruitment depends on extant species sources and vectoring. In continental Europe, the wolf is steadily moving eastward. Here, I have documented some remarkable examples of recruitment, when considering the poor surrounding prospects for it to happen. There are, however, deserted areas of simplified ecology that while non-intervention gives them an opportunity for self will, they could be considered to be incomplete in that their full potential to support species is unrealised due to an absence of opportunity to recruit. I should of course qualify that, since it is based on a human life span. Wild nature works on longer timescales, as well as immediacy, whereas humans work on 5 and 10 year management plans.

    Its amazing how elephants have recently become the answer to everything, including your suggestion of being vectors for seed dispersal of native woodland plants. By the way, George Peterken (and Keith Kirby) would say that one of the distribution systems for Herb paris is by bits of the root system of this geophyte braking off and floating down stream, before lodging and growing. You can see evidence of this system along the banks of the Wharfe in the Strid area of Bolton Abbey.

    George attributed the extinction of the straight-tusked elephant to human overkill when the first modern humans entered Europe. This is a dangerous assertion in the absence of solid proof, since it encourages a view that an ecological restitution of natural processes is impossible in the absence of globally extinct animals (usually herbivores, as no one makes much of a fuss about extinct carnivores) or that it would rely on their substitution with modern-day analogues (does an analogue really exist for the straight-tusked elephant?) or through back-breeding programs like that which vainly attempts to recreate wild horses or aurochs. As it is, the reference cited by George in his book for a human cause in the extinction of the straight-tusked elephant is about radiocarbon dates of fossil remains of the elephant from the Netherlands. It does not address the causes of extinction. So, no, conservationists are not merely acting as the lost elephant in the room.

    Mola, D., de Vosb, J. & van der Plicht, J. (2007) The presence and extinction of Elephas antiquus Falconer and Cautley, 1847, in Europe. Quaternary International 169–170 (2007) 149–153

  5. Mark Fisher says:

    Sorry, should have been westward for the spread of the wolf!

  6. David Dunlop says:

    Does George Peterken’s “future natural”, equate to your conception of “self-willed land”, Mark? As referenced on your web site?

    ‘George Peterken advocates natural woodland as a reference point for the key post-glacial vegetation of Britain, the wildwood that once covered 90% of our landscape. His absolute definition of natural is anchored in the concept of wilderness, where nature is synonymous with the absence of people, believing that this clarity aids objectivity in recognising natural as the counterpoint to artificial:

    “It seems to me that my choice is endorsed by those who question and make statements about the relationship between man and nature, for, simply by contriving this antithesis, they concede the validity of a definition of nature which excludes people.”

    Absolute naturalness is an elusive state, unlikely to have survived into the present when people have been a pervasive influence ever since our adoption of agriculture led to broadscale change in the landscape. Peterken therefore presents a range of qualities for naturalness, which encapsulate where we have been – and where we can go from here:

    Original-natural – existed before people became a significant ecological factor;
    Present-natural – a state that would exist now if people had never become a significant ecological factor. It is different from original-natural as it factors in the changes in climate and soils that have happened in the last 5000 years.

    Past-natural – the quality which attaches to woods whose components have been directly inherited from the original-natural forests;
    Potential-natural – a hypothetical state that could develop instantly in the absence of influence from people, and from relict species available on site and under the prevailing climate;
    Future-natural – a state that would eventually develop if people’s influence was removed, and woodland were allowed to regenerate at its own pace.

    Peterken notes that future-natural starts from here – it is not a re-creation of the past and it is different from current potential since it is subject to development variables such as the available species may be altered by extinction and introductions, that soils may alter as succession proceeds, and that climate may continue to change.

    Natural Woodland: Ecology and Conservation in Northern Temperate Regions, George F. Peterken (1996) Cambridge Uni. Press ISBN 0-521-36792-1

  7. Mark Fisher says:

    Hi David. Peterken’s definitions of naturalness for woodland are complemented later in his book with an operational framework of objectives for restoring natural woodland. I find the framework a good test of assumptions, split as it is between two issues: composition of tree and shrub species (original, present or future natural) as well as site management options (best seen in Table 15.2 of his book).

    At its simplest, self-willed land has always been to me about non-intervention. Peterken says that the only true non-intervention option is where there is an acceptance of all native, naturalised and planted species now on site, and others that might colonise by natural regeneration in the future (future natural) coupled with acceptance of existing, artificially modified land form and soil status. In his framework, this is IIIB (see page 369 in link below).

    Acceptance is an important factor in IIIB, because future natural (III) could likely be about novel ecosystems due to the contemporary prevalence of non-native species. The B part is about acceptance of all prevailing site conditions in terms of soil status and landform artefacts. He recognises that his options for soil status are anyway unrealistic, since restoring the ecology of modified soils is often best left to wild nature rather than through active human intervention, although he did say to me a few years ago that I would have to carry a bag of mineral fertiliser around with me if I expected to see a recolonisation of uplands with trees!

    I suppose he could also have been explicit about decisions on restoration of natural hydrology as a site option, which is a bit more achievable in human time scales. More easily understandable is the decision on whether to remove human artefacts, such as banks, ditches etc. that have little archaeological significance (I think Oliver Rackham would say they all have significance!). Peterken could also have included a decision about removal of more contemporary artefacts, like obsolete fence posts, redundant concrete and brick structures, and the inevitable urban trash that ends up in woodland sites.

    It is important to recognise that Peterken’s options about composition and naturalness in the operational framework are just about restoration. Thus in original natural, there is an element of restitution of native species, but also in both original and present natural a removal of non-native species as part of the restoration. I assume that removal of non-native species would be an ongoing process in those options. What the framework doesn’t address are the alterations of structure of trees and woodland that are the fixation of contemporary woodland management, such as the creation of rides and glades, scalloping, thinning, halo-ing, veteran-ising, coppicing and pollarding, and I will chuck in grazing with livestock as well. All of the this obsessive tinkering is anathema to self-willed land, and the main focus of my ire at the conservation industry.

    In terms of the naturalness of woodland, I like to think that self-willed land equates to a synthesis of present natural and potential natural, and with a dash of past natural. I certainly walk woodlands that have that character. But then there are others that have a more future natural composition, but are still self-willed as there is no tinkering. Do I pull up balsam or sycamore seedlings? You’ll have to come walking with me to find that out!

  8. milesking10 says:

    thanks very much to you both for a stimulating discussion.

  9. Hunter1324 says:

    I know this is a very old post, but I just can’t help but chuckle:

    Turns out that the African Forest Elephant really is the BEST option to substitute the straight-tusk elephant.

    Too bad it’s nearly extinct on it’s natural range and there’s only a handfull of non reproductive population in captivity.

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