Night of the Living Dead
I was greatly disturbed at the apparition. I walked to the left along the slope, turning my head about and peering this way and that among the straight stems of the trees. Why should a man go on all-fours and drink with his lips? Presently I heard an animal wailing again, and taking it to be the puma, I turned about and walked in a direction diametrically opposite to the sound.
—H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau
The tiger lay in a clearing in the twilight, on the other side of a trickling stream, perhaps ten metres from where I stood. The cries of nightjars drifted through the trees and mingled with the thrumming of frogs and the chirping of crickets in the muggy jungle air. It was long past sunset. I’d just strolled a half-kilometre down a jungle path and across a swaying footbridge over a ravine. Then I saw it. The man-eater of English schoolboy nightmares, the great Terror of Batavia.
The tiger turned its head abruptly and glared at me. Suddenly, the crickets fell silent, and the stream with its little waterfall fell silent, and it was suddenly empty of water. Maybe somebody, somewhere, had thrown a switch by mistake. Whatever had happened, a light briefly flickered, illuminating the enclosure where I stood. I noticed a plaque—Malayan Tiger Viewing Shelter, Adopted by Chemical Industries (Far East Ltd.). There was thick plate glass separating the tiger from the outside world. There was a sign that read, Please Don’t Knock, and another that pleaded, No Flash Photography, Please.
As the light flickered on and off, my view of the tiger was obscured within the image of my own face on the glass wall. At that instant, the question posed by the Romantic poet William Blake—Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?—seemed to have found something of an answer in the way the innovative modern poet E.E. Cummings described the experience of seeing such animals in captivity: It’s not animals that we see. Instead, it is “a concatenation of differently functioning and variously labelled mirrors, all of which are alive.… No mere spectacle of monsters, however extraordinary, could so move us. The truth is not that we see monsters, but that we are monsters.”
In the fearful symmetry of Singapore’s Night Safari, an auxiliary function of the Singapore Zoological Gardens, there are no cages. There are 68 lush jungle hectares, surrounded by the calm waters of the Seletar Reservoir, and the most imaginative and elaborately cunning landscape architecture is put to the work of maintaining all the illusions necessary to the suspension of disbelief. The night air is fragrant with orange blossoms and pigeon orchids. A Gir lion prowls among gaharu trees. There are banded palm civets, giant ant-eaters and babirusas—the “deer pigs” of Sulawesi’s rainforest, and lesser mouse deer—the smallest of all hoofed creatures. Among the staghorn ferns and meranti trees are rare sloth bears and Malayan tapirs, those odd little things that are distantly related to both horses and rhinos and have the same colour markings as pandas.
The place is like a seventeenth-century Wunderkammer of the rare, the peculiar, and the vanishing, built on a massive scale. There is even an electric tram that you can take for an excursion through it all. It takes about 45 minutes.
A few kilometres away, at Singapore’s famous Jurong Bird Park, you can take a monorail that will deliver you at such outlandish simulated-reality settings as the world’s biggest artificial waterfall. It tumbles down the face of a 33-metre cliff at the rate of 8300 litres of water per minute, becomes a stream meandering through the world’s largest “walk-in” aviary, and then gets pumped back up to the top, where it starts all over again. There are black-capped lories from New Guinea, African red-throated bee-eaters, hyacinth macaws from Brazil, Bali mynahs, Humboldt penguins, and 500 parrots from more than 100 species, almost one-third of all the parrot species on earth. Jurong houses the world’s largest collection of hornbills and toucans, including the southern pied hornbill, the black hornbill, and the Great Indian hornbill.
You can wander through a series of micro-habitats taken from African savannahs, semi-deserts, and rainforests. More than 10,000 specimens of plants from 125 species create these illusions, aided wherever necessary by murals. You can walk across a swaying suspension bridge through an artificial jungle while more than 1000 Australian lories flutter around you. There are ostriches, rheas, emus, and cassowaries. The naturalistic settings and stage-light manipulations even manage to fool the birds. In the World of Darkness birdhouse, the lighting system tricks the night herons and the snowy owls and other nocturnal birds into thinking day is night and night is day. You can visit during the daytime and stroll down what looks and feels just like a starlit jungle trail. A giant mango tree grows up out of the middle of everything, and you have to read the plaque at the base of it to know that it is really just a replica of an “actual tree” in Selangor, West Malaysia.
The designers and animateurs of the Night Safari and the Jurong Bird Park have succeeded in creating a spectacularly weird simulacrum of the real world. But certain things are not so easily concealed by all those ingenious sightline considerations, psychological barriers, hidden moats, floral assemblages, and ecologically correct reproductions of landscape. There is captivity, and there is freedom. There is also what we want to believe about nature and about ourselves in that great “concatenation of differently functioning and variously labelled mirrors.”
Over the course of the twentieth century, the world’s tiger population fell from roughly 100,000 to about 7000. The Malayan tiger lying in the clearing in the Night Safari is a member of a species reduced to perhaps a few hundred animals, cowering in the ruins of their ancient haunts on the Malay Peninsula. The last Caspian tiger was shot in Turkey in 1970. The last Javan tiger was spotted during the 1970s in Java’s Meru Betiri National Park. The last sighting of a Bali tiger, and it was a questionable sighting, was in 1976.
Most of the world’s remaining tigers are Bengal tigers that survive precariously within the shallow recesses of India’s national parks and wildlife reserves. A few hundred Amur tigers remain, but most of them are in zoos. There are still several hundred Indo-Chinese tigers, and perhaps 400 Sumatran tigers, but the South Chinese tiger, widely believed to be the ancestor of all tigers, has been reduced to fewer than 50 known animals, all of them in zoos. The South Chinese tiger numbered about 5000 as recently as the 1950s, before the Chinese government embarked on a pest-eradication program. The last time one was seen in the wild was in 1979. It was killed.
The 1990s began with only 14,000 Sumatran orangutans in the world; the decade ended with about 7000. In 2004, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that the population had been halved again. This left the species officially listed as critically endangered, with populations expected to keep dropping as a consequence of forest clear-cutting and hunting. At the Singapore Zoo, you can pay to have tea with a Sumatran orangutan, all by yourself, for the equivalent of $95 U.S.
If you come to the zoo in the afternoon, you can watch pygmy hippos from behind the glass of an underwater viewing station. They loll and splash around in what for all the world appears to be a deep marsh somewhere in Sierra Leone, but nobody can say whether any pygmy hippos remain in Sierra Leone. There are only about 7000 left in all of West Africa, and most of them are confined to Liberia’s Sapo National Forest, but their numbers are declining rapidly. Logging companies are turning their swamp forests into wastelands, and the hippos are being killed for food and by trophy hunters who want their teeth. With the collapse of order in that part of the world, the civil wars and insurrections, the hippos’ prospects aren’t good. A related group of pygmy hippos was once common in Nigeria; in 1969 they were found to be a distinct subspecies, but there have been no confirmed sightings since then.
Another resident of the Singapore Zoo is the douc langur, an extravagantly coloured little monkey that suffered enormously during the American defoliant-bombing of Vietnam. Douc langurs are found only in Vietnam and neighbouring Laos. They are being hunted for food, for the pet trade, and for the folk-medicine market. Their forests are falling to chainsaws. Another zoo inmate is the endangered and increasingly rare ruffed lemur from Madagascar. Known in its home range by a name that translates as “night-wandering ghost,” the ruffed lemur is one of the world’s most unobtrusive primates, quietly going about its nocturnal rounds, barking only to warn its comrades of danger. It is a key pollinator for several plant species because it has an inordinate desire for nectar, and tends to go from flower to flower, its nose covered in pollen. There are proboscis monkeys at the zoo, too. They’re the weird-looking, big-nosed monkeys from Borneo. Their numbers are dropping sharply because of the spread of timber operations and the rise of oil-palm plantations. The lion that strolls among the gaharu trees is from a vanishing population: only 200 of those regal creatures remain in India’s Gir forests.
The hyacinth macaws at Jurong are critically endangered, numbering fewer than 300 in their home forests in Brazil. The Bali mynahs at the bird park are among the rarest of the world’s birds; only a few dozen persist on their home island, outnumbered more than ten to one by the Bali mynahs in the zoos and aviaries of the world. Humboldt penguins too are undergoing a precipitous decline in their home waters, in the Pacific, partly because the fish they eat are being depleted by fishermen, in whose nets the penguins also often perish, and partly because their nesting sites are being mined for guano. Great Indian hornbills are disappearing, too, because the forests of India are disappearing, but also partly because the birds have long been a favourite of bird collectors. They’re the largest of the world’s hornbills, standing well more than a metre in height, and they’re possessed of such endearing habits as offering their captors morsels of food. For decades, one of the London Zoo’s most popular animals was Josephine, a Great Indian hornbill. She died in 1998, at the age of 52.
About 2000 animals from 250 species are held at the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari, 9000 birds from about 600 species at the Jurong Bird Park. These institutions are routinely and deservedly praised by the appropriate international bodies as well-managed and progressive places, but there are other words that might be used to describe them. Here are three: Hospice. Necropolis. Tomb.
The Great Indian hornbill, the Bali mynah, the hyacinth macaw, the proboscis monkey, the ruffed lemur, the douc langur, the pygmy hippo, the Sumatran orangutan, and the Malayan tiger belong to a special class of rare and vanishing creatures of the wild world known as the “living dead.” It’s a term biologists have begun to use to describe those species that are not expected to escape extinction without significant human intervention, such as captive breeding. Among the world’s endangered mammals, birds, and reptiles, already 1500 species are expected to be wholly dependent upon captive breeding by 2050.
Specifically, the term “living dead” is used to describe species that have been rendered incapable of independent survival because other species upon which they depend are disappearing or are already gone. The living dead include species that exist mainly in zoos, such as the Amur tiger, and those suffering “latent extinction,” which appears to be the douc langur’s condition, as it slowly withers away as a result of habitat loss. Not all the critically endangered species on earth are necessarily counted among the living dead. It’s hard to say whether a species has crossed into that netherworld unless you have a pretty clear idea about its long-term prospects. A key factor to consider is the extinction debt racked up from habitat loss that has already occurred.
One grim example of the way extinction debt works its misery comes from a study published in the journal Conservation Biology in 1999. Its author, Guy Cowlishaw, of the London Zoological Society, looked at the extinction debt incurred from forest clearing in Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Nigeria. Cowlishaw determined that the impact of logging would likely result in the extinction of one-third of those forests’ primate species. That was the outstanding debt, even if all logging and poaching stopped the moment that Cowlishaw published his findings. It might take a century for those primate species to limp along, slowly paying off the debt until reaching equilibrium with their very extinction. But the debt will be called, and it will be paid. The trees keep falling. West Africa is expected to lose 70 percent of its already diminished forests by 2040. East Africa’s forest losses are projected to be as high as 95 percent.
Singapore itself provides a vivid example of the way extinction debt works, as well as a rare glimpse into the way the world’s current extinction crisis might be expected to unfold in the coming years.
The island nation of Singapore is situated in the humid tropics, which is the epicentre of the planet’s current crisis in the extinction of wild things. The tropics are playing a central role in the ongoing story of extinctions because tropical forests contain the world’s deepest reservoirs of terrestrial species diversity, and it is in the tropics that forests and other “old-growth” ecosystems are disappearing the fastest.
It’s mainly this vanishing of tropical habitat that results in estimates putting the current global extinction rate as high as a thousand times the “normal” background rate. Those estimates are extrapolated from the relationship between habitat size and species diversity and a calculation of what habitat loss will mean for species loss. Another method involves tracking the progression of species through their trajectories on the status lists maintained by the IUCN, the main international body that monitors the collapse of biological diversity. These methods may seem a bit speculative around the edges, but they tend to be confirmed by the hard data produced by specific analyses of trends in well-known families of birds, plants, and animals in well-defined locales. Singapore is precisely one such well-defined locale. And unlike much of the tropical world, Singapore is positively robust in empirical data related to biological diversity and its withering.
Avocational naturalists and birdwatchers have been going about their business in Singapore since the earliest times, compiling meticulous records of the local flora and fauna. The island already had its own formal naturalists’ society in the 1950s. It has been a tireless little group, providing at least a marginally effective voice for conservation despite being often only barely tolerated by the authoritarian regime that has controlled the country since the 1960s. But Singapore’s naturalist traditions reach all the way back to the founder of the former British colony, Sir Stamford Raffles. Although Raffles earned his reputation as a vigorous but fair colonial administrator and an able challenger of Dutch commercial interests in the East Indies, he was also an avid collector of animal and plant specimens. That is what they will tell you at Singapore’s Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, where the Old Man’s tradition has been kept alive in collections, which include 18,000 plant specimens (2000 strains of fungi, even) and the carefully preserved bits of 300,000 dead animals from more than 10,000 species. The place is a marvel.
Biologists Barry Brook, Navjot Sodhi, and Peter Ng, an Australian and two Singaporeans, reckoned that by looking at what had happened to biological diversity in Singapore, they might get a better grasp of the real impact of habitat loss elsewhere in the tropics. Mindful that the island is especially bollixed from an ecological point of view, Brook, Sodhi, and Ng reckoned they might draw from Singapore’s experience some well-informed projections about the fate of biological diversity in the years to come and test those global trends in extinction that are otherwise unavoidably inferred from statistical models or by extrapolation. The Singapore study was published in the journal Nature in 2003.
The study revealed that fully half of the island’s species existed only as relics within the mere one-quarter of 1 percent of the land mass that had been protected as forest reserve. Many of those species carried on in the weird half-life of the extinction debt arising from past habitat loss, a debt conventionally paid with the eventual oblivion of species. Three such Singaporean animals found to be among the living dead were the white-bellied woodpecker, the banded leaf monkey, and the cream-coloured giant squirrel. There were only four of the woodpeckers left, fewer than 15 of the monkeys, and fewer than 10 giant squirrels. Singapore had lost at least 95 percent of its forest cover since Raffles’s time. Documented and conservatively inferred extinctions had occurred among 80 percent of the island’s fish species, almost 80 percent of its mammal species, more than 70 percent of its plant species, about 60 percent of its bird species, 70 percent of its once-abundant butterfly species, and 70 percent of its amphibians.
Brook, Sodhi, and Ng calibrated these rates of local-population losses against the patterns of deforestation throughout Southeast Asia, which are projected to result in the disappearance of 74 percent of the region’s forests. They concluded that somewhere between 13 and 42 percent of all Southeast Asian species—mammals, birds, plants, amphibians, decapods, phasmids, butterflies, reptiles, the lot—were more or less done for. Furthermore, half of the region-wide extirpations that would follow from forest loss could be expected to result in global extinction. That’s because so many of Southeast Asia’s life forms are endemic, which is to say they occur only locally.
At the Singapore Zoo, oblivious to the world outside, the living dead carry on. The proboscis monkeys are producing offspring. The zoo boasts the highest numbers of orangutans bred in captivity at any one institution—21. Twenty-two Malayan tigers have been born at the Singapore Zoo since 1973, along with 28 chimpanzees and 3 douc langurs, those exceedingly rare monkeys from the defoliated mountains of Vietnam and Laos. Other captive-bred members of living-dead species at the zoo are golden lion tamarins and white rhinos. Fourteen pygmy hippos have been born there. Around the world, 178 pygmy hippos live in 74 collections, and most of those hippos were born in zoos, to zoo-born parents. At the Jurong Bird Park, meanwhile, captive-born offspring have been hatched among more than 100 bird species, including many endangered species. Jurong is the only institution in the world to have successfully hatched fledglings from the southern pied hornbill, the black hornbill, and the Great Indian hornbill.
Among the growing ranks of the living dead, the ancient paradigm of evolution, as Darwin described it, is over. If their kind are among us at all a century from now, they will be wholly different from the creatures humans first encountered. They will not be “wild” animals at all. They will be functions of artificial selection. They will live on in zoos, and perhaps some large parks. They will live in a world populated by animals we have chosen, with traits we have chosen, and in numbers we have chosen. If they live on in wilderness at all, it will be a wilderness of our own making. They will live in a simulacrum of the real world, in places like the Jurong Bird Park or the Singapore Zoo and its adjacent Night Safari grounds.
Every year, the Singapore Zoo attracts 1.5 million visitors. Ah Meng, the Sumatran orangutan with whom you can pay to take tea, received a special award from the Singapore Tourism Board in 1992. She had raised five of her own babies at the Singapore Zoo.
She became a grandmother there.
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Glavin. All rights reserved.